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President’s message / The strange case of the disappearing academic staff?

President’s message / The strange case of the disappearing academic staff?

By Peter McInnis

Visitors who scan most university and college websites are immediately presented with bright graphics and florid text touting the range of available programs. It’s all about programs — and how an interdisciplinary nexus results in synergies that will propel would-be graduates to the next level of personal achievement.

As a marketing and recruitment angle, this “come study with us” enticement has proven attractive. Certainly, student enrollment and retention are crucial to the health of post-secondary education. Yet, should there be more to this story?

Less present are academic staff, whether individuals or their corresponding departments, once so prominently displayed as foundational to the curriculum. These may still be located, but usually clicking down to the third or fourth level of institutional websites.

If, as the oft-repeated slogan states, academic staff working conditions are student learning conditions, what does this diminishment of institutional presence signal in terms of professional status?

The idea of academic staff as fungible components, easily inserted to programs, aligns with external demands that prospective graduates be fully “job-ready” and fit for immediate deployment in the workspace. Interdisciplinarity is not new; academic staff have been exploring these permutations for many years with successful results. We should continue to embrace such innovation — if it is advanced by academic staff and not imposed by external pressures, often provincial government monetary incentives geared toward economic quick fixes and political polling.

What are the implications of the subordination of departments to the amorphous program entities? Is there an erosion of intellectual rigour with the redeployment of courses to merely focus on job training?

The past progression of subject majors from introductory courses or labs to senior seminars, and the necessary scaffolding these provide to construct cumulative knowledge, has given way to discrete learning modules that may be “stacked” to “rapidly upskill” students and insert “quality markers” for highly defined employment placements.

The unintended image of boy scout or girl guide proficiency badges affixed to a sash comes to mind. The notion that critical thinking may be secured as a one-time badge rather than something carefully developed from the multiple perspectives of undergraduate courses, with the layered and repetitive nuances of disciplinary approaches, is questionable.

Who has not witnessed the progression of students from first-year introductory courses to senior projects or seminars and noted that true learning takes time? It cannot be reduced to an instant pot pressure-cooker of knowledge.

There is a practical utility for what is obscured. How do you find academics you don’t yet know? If one searches for colleagues as potential external examiners, thesis advisors or research collaborators, it can be frustrating to locate these individuals amongst the surfeit of institutional bumf.

Academic staff often have good ideas that are then captured by administrative structures or others outside the academy. Transferrable skills, yes absolutely, but let’s not forgo the deeper learning and self-confidence to prepare our graduates for lifelong civic engagement. Will the challenges of accessibility and affordability in post-secondary education be effectively addressed by ever more programs, micro-credentials, and related attempts to disaggregate what is a time-tested, rounded progression to degrees, diplomas and certificates?

Shall the “quick pathways to employment” and “short learning opportunities” presented by vending machine knowledge of some hastily conceived programs be offered in place of genuine accessibility for equity-deserving groups? Access to a simulacrum of learning is hardly the inclusion that is sought and demanded for post-secondary education.

Will such dubious innovation accelerate the ongoing withdrawal of government funding as traditional studies are apportioned into bite-sized morsels of learning? If so, the promise of micro-credentials will be nothing but a deflection of societal obligations to our citizenry.

There is a need to place academic staff in the forefront of disciplinary innovation and maintain our rights of collegial governance. At a time when the stability that comes with tenure is increasingly under pressure, the lack of permanency often bars the growing ranks of contract academic staff from benefiting from the range of professional advantages to advance their careers.

Historically, so-called “skilled” workers claimed that the intricate knowledge to perform their tasks was held “under their caps,” that is in their minds, not just their hands. Early 20th-century efforts to break down this control into discrete units and speed up production was known as Taylorism, or “scientific management” — and it was vigorously resisted.

There undoubtably will be place for carefully constructed “pathways to employment” that adopt unorthodox pedagogy, but to do so with rigour and fairness, we must re-centre disappeared academic staff.

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