Reflexions on the Arts Faculty Council discussion of the MLCS BA proposal (Guest Post by Marisa Bortolussi)

In response to the request for a summary of what happened at the Thursday May 25 meeting of the Arts Faculty Council regarding the BA proposal for Modern Languages and Cultural Studies (MLCS), here is a summary, with a few post-meeting reflexions.

First of all, the proposal passed: the result of the vote was: 37 against, 49 for, with 7 abstentions. 

AFC Council members were placed in a very difficult situation at that meeting. It was pointed out to them that the department of MLCS was divided over the new MLCS BA proposal, with half of the faculty members in favour of it, and the other half against. This meant, effectively, that Council members were being asked to choose between siding with one half of the department against the other. How does one go about making such a decision? Was a thorough knowledge and understanding of the proposal required to decide which half was right and which half was wrong? No. Because understanding the proposal would have required being walked through every detail of the document, hearing all the pros and cons, and reflecting on all that information. But that is not the role of Arts Faculty Council. That is the role of the Arts Academic Affairs Committee, a duly elected committee, whose job it is to vet proposals before they reach Arts Faculty Council. And the AAC members had indeed devoted much time and effort to scrutinizing the proposal; after much discussion, they arrived at the conclusion that the proposal did not cut it. Under normal circumstances, the proposal would then not have been forwarded to Arts Faculty Council. Dean Cormack admitted at the meeting that she had overruled the AAC’s decision. This complicated the Council members’ decision making process, as they now had to decide between, on the one hand, choosing to honour the judgement of the AAC, whose members they elected, or, on the other hand, siding with the Dean. Without even knowing what the concerns of the AAC were, the majority of AFC members chose to side with the Dean and advocates of the proposal. 

This decision is very troubling for several reasons. The first is that it deals a blow to a fundamental principle that I thought we all endorsed—collegial governance. We have these committees in place to ensure the right of academics to participate in the decision-making process. They serve in part as a system of checks and balances to limit the powers of administrators. When we side with administrators, rejecting the hard work and professional decisions of our own elected colleagues, do we not undermine the legitimacy of the decision-making process? Do we not open up the door for administrative micromanaging of our programs, and potential abuses of power? 

Now some may argue that, although they didn’t know the reasons the proposal had not been approved by the AAC, they believed the arguments raised by the supporters. This too, is problematic, because for every argument made by the supporters, the opponents countered with facts that negated those claims. Here are some examples:

  1. A necessary step in this process was the surveying of students. The ‘yea’ side maintained that students were enthusiastic about the proposal. The ‘nay’ side claimed that there is no reliable evidence to support that claim. As proof, it was explained that the method used to survey students was not objective, the satisfaction rate low, and that the comments made by students actually showed they did not understand the proposal. It was explained that the method used consisted of a few advocates of the proposal visiting a few undergraduate classes, giving a rah-rah pep-talk, and then asking students some questions such as “what do you like about this proposal?” Some students heard the talk more than once, and it is possible that they answered the questions more than once, so we don’t know how many different students were surveyed. Of those students, only 62 (again, we don’t know the exact number) were registered in a Minor, Major, or Honors program in MLCS. The satisfaction rate was 3.5/5. Not overwhelmingly positive. More telling are the comments that were made. The two main aspects of the proposal students liked were “access to study abroad”, and the flexibility to study more than one language. Since MLCS students have always studied abroad, and have always had the option of studying more than one language, the responses indicate that students did not understand the proposal. This is not surprising given that they had not been asked to read and study it carefully. It is important to point out here that there are objective methods of surveying groups of people. If MLCS does not have questionnaire-design specialists among its faculty, there are resources on campus to help with that task. (We availed ourselves of those resources for our last unit review.) Conclusion: these facts prove the “student satisfaction” narrative wrong. 
  2. Advocates of the proposal argued that for 4 years there had been ample consultation and discussion. Opponents countered with several facts: i) that in 2015 members of the Curriculum Committee were not permitted to discuss the proposal because it had allegedly been discussed enough the previous year; ii) members of the department were denied the right to submit alternate proposals. One person pointed out that she had sent the Curriculum Committee a proposal; it was never acknowledged. Others received e-mails from the Chair clearly stating that no other proposals would be discussed; iii) the proposal was never discussed at the level of our areas (e.g. Spanish, French, etc.), where much of our business is conducted; iv) discussions at departmental council were short, given the time constraints; v) committee membership was cherry-picked. The Chair of the Curriculum Committee stated that members of the hardest-hit program under this proposal, Comparative Literature, had been invited to serve on the committee, but declined. Members of the Comparative Literature program gave testimony that they had never been invited. Conclusion: these facts seriously undermine the “ample discussion and consultation” narrative. 

One of the most important issues: the potential consequences of this proposal received only minor attention (more on that in a separate blog thread to come). A member of the French area explained how the proposal weakens the French program to the point where it will no longer be competitive with other strong French programs in the country because it lowers the standards and requires students to take more courses in English. Some perceptive students had mentioned in their student survey answers that the new program would entail decreased language proficiency. They are absolutely right. One does not have to be a linguist to know that one does not gain proficiency in a foreign language by taking courses in English. 

It was also pointed out that the proposal pits some areas of the department against others; it saves Scandinavian by weakening the academic integrity of French, virtually destroying Comparative Literature. Someone obviously decided that Scandinavian is more important than Comparative Literature. But members of the opposing side pointed out that it was not necessary to save some programs at the expense of others, that it was entirely possible to craft a proposal that saved endangered programs while maintaining the strength of the stronger programs like French and Spanish. The opponents of the program asked for the opportunity to produce such a proposal, an opportunity they had always been denied. The majority voted not to give the department that chance. Conclusion: the vote of the majority displays a lack of concern for the very negative consequences of this proposal.

On Thursday, Council members who were not in a position to judge for themselves the merits or flaws of the proposal, decided to disregard the decision of the Arts Academic Affairs Committee, and side with one half of the department of MLCS. What a truly sad sign of our times that facts do not guide decision-making.  The vote suggests that the ‘yeas’ won and the ‘nays’ lost. But it’s not that simple. The ‘yea’ vote condemns a department to continued internal conflict, paves the way for the implementation of a very flawed program that will have very dire consequences, and deals a slap in the face to the commitment to facts as well as to collegial governance. We have heard so many complaints about the erosion of collegial governance and the rise of a corporate culture in universities. But we can hardly complain when through our actions we become complicit. The ‘nays,’ armed with facts, argued with courage and integrity; the courage and integrity to stand up to the administration and denounce a flawed process and product. 

I am truly proud of being part of the “losing” side.


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Responses to the Proposal for a New Modern Languages and Cultural Studies BA (Guest Post by Marisa Bortolussi)

On May 25 faculty members attending Arts Faculty Council (AFC) will be presented with a proposal coming from the department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies (MLCS). It is a highly contentious and divisive proposal, rejected by half of MLCS faculty and twice by the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC). In order to reach an informed decision members of AFC would need to hear a complete analysis of the problematic aspects of the proposal, but it’s unlikely that there will be enough time for that. Therefore we hope through this blog to provide important details that will help others across the Faculty understand the issues.

First, a few words about the context of the proposal. It was devised not as an academic plan with pedagogical value, but as a perceived solution to an accounting problem. The proposed plan is to subsume all individual programs (German, Russian, etc.) under the heading “MLCS” (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies), so that administrators see one larger number for the counting of majors rather than several smaller numbers, even though it’s the same distribution of students across programs. This approach would allegedly save the smaller programs of the department. However, half of the MLCS faculty fear that as it is currently formulated, the proposal saves the endangered programs at the expense of the larger ones (French, Spanish, CLit), weakening the latter and resulting in a department of all weak programs. By forcing us to choose between saving endangered programs or weakening stronger ones (and wiping out Comp. Lit) the proposal set some of us against the others instead of seeking consensus. Such a choice is simply unacceptable. We believe it is possible to save the endangered programs without weakening the stronger ones.

Some particularly problematic aspects of the proposal are the following: 

1) The new requirements reduce the number of language credits required for a Major, which will result in decreased language proficiency. As it stands the proposal requires students to take 24 credits (including 6 credits at the 400 level) in the target language. In the case of French, the overall number of credits is significantly lower than in other French programs throughout Canada (the standard being 30 credits at the senior level) and increases the number of courses in English (which will be one of the highest in Canada for a “French program”). The French major will be replaced by a generic MLCS major, which will penalize students in the Canadian job market competing with peers holding a BA in French (better known to employers). Overall the proposal — mostly inspired by Modern languages programs in a few universities in GB and the US models —disregards our Canadian bilingual environment.

2) It requires students to take 6 credits in Community Service Learning or CSL or study abroad. We know of no other program in Canada that makes CSL a requirement, and only a very small number require study abroad. There are problems with this requirement:

i) It puts at the same level two very different pedagogical experiences (i.e., is 20 hours of community service in Edmonton and a fully immersive study abroad the same “experience”? Making CSL an alternative for those students who can afford studying abroad is not a pedagogically sound alternative. It is also providing students with an excellent reason not to bother investing in studying abroad. Why make studying abroad a requirement in the first place? 

ii) Based on several MLCS instructors’ experience, roughly 20% (this number can vary depending on departments) of students choose CSL in optional courses. We feel it is not fair to force 80% of students to do CSL knowing that some of them work part-time or full-time, have a family, have no means of transportation, etc, and simply do not want to do CSL.

3) The new proposal will wipe out Comparative Literature (which accounts for 10 Majoring students), weaken French & Spanish (which together account for more than half of all Majors in MLCS), force students to do CSL and study abroad whether they like it or not, and make students transfers likely more difficult (because of idiosyncratic program requirements like CSL).  The Faculty of Arts expects us to grow our enrolments; for the reasons stated above, we believe the new proposal will have the opposite effect. 

Marisa Bortolussi, on behalf of concerned members of MLCS

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Fruit of the Poisonous Tree (Guest Post by Dougal MacDonald, Elementary Education)

In this guest post, Dougal MacDonald, who is contract academic staff at both the University of Alberta and Athabasca University, offers his views on student opinion surveys. This is a reprinting, with Dougal’s permission, of an article that appeared in a recent newsletter from CUPE 3911 (Athabasca). 

“In teaching, you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.”  Jacques Barzun

Athabasca University, like a number of other universities, uses student opinion surveys to evaluate teaching competence. All academics are vulnerable to these kinds of evaluations but those who are part-time and/or on contract are especially vulnerable as their livelihood basically depends on getting good results on these instruments.  Those on contract usually do not have the luxury of also being evaluated based on their research or community service.

But, considering that student opinion surveys are being widely used in various academic institutions which are supposedly bastions of academic research, it is noteworthy that there is a distinct lack of research supporting the validity of their use.   Thus, rather than advancing research-based argument to support their use, their proponents tend to put forward mere assertions or else simply appeal to naked pragmatism, e.g., “they keep the students happy”, “it’s easy to crunch the results”.

In fact, the vast majority of the research that has been done on student opinion surveys opposes rather than supports their use.  See, for example, Braga et al’s article in Economics of Education Review, August 2014 ( Based on the findings of such studies, numerous articles have been written critiquing their use. Some of the main arguments raised against using student opinion surveys to evaluate teaching include:

  • the surveys focus on student emotional disposition toward the teaching in the short term, long before the full impact of the teaching is actually known
  • using a single method to evaluate teaching, directly contradicting the well-established principle that good evaluation requires a number of methods
  • teaching effectiveness cannot be atomized into a checklist of specific behaviours
  • the response rate is low and even lower with online evaluations, skewing the validity of the results
  • in general, only very happy or very unhappy students are motivated to fill out the surveys
  • certain items that are commonly evaluated simply cannot be evaluated by students, e.g., the instructor’s course content knowledge
  • “averaging” the results is statistical nonsense because the choices (1, 2, 3, 4; not satisfied, somewhat satisfied, satisfied, fully satisfied ) are ordinal (counting) in nature rather than interval in nature (an equal distance apart)
  • results are influenced by variations in the mere quantity of student-instructor interaction
  • the very desirable teaching practice of challenging students may lead to lower evaluations
  • gender bias exists against female instructors
  • pressure is placed on instructors to do what is required to get a “good rating”
  • the surveys provide few useful insights to experienced instructors
  • there is no accountability for personal or even slanderous remarks
  • in the end, the opinion surveys are nothing more than a popularity contest

The above criticisms (and others) also highlight the gross unfairness of using the evaluations for what might be called disciplinary purposes.  If the opinion surveys themselves are flawed, then they cannot be validly used to assess teaching competence.  Further, how can that flawed assessment of competence be then validly used to “inform” such matters as which contract academic gets a letter of reprimand or is assigned to teach or reteach a particular course?  There is a saying in law about the “fruit of the poisoned tree”.  It refers to the fact that if the evidence is tainted, then anything gained from it is tainted also.  The same principle should apply in regard to any use of the results of student opinion surveys.

(Recommended Further Reading:  “Do student evaluations measure teaching effectiveness?”  Philip Stark, University of California Berkeley Professor of Statistics, October 2013.


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GSEC: Open Letter to ab-GPAC, GSAs, and Minister of Advanced Education (27 February 2017)

27 February 2017

An open letter to:

GSEC Addressees 5.png

Dear fellow stakeholders:

This open letter was written on behalf of the Graduate Students of English Collective (GSEC) at the University of Alberta (U of A). It is our formal statement of objection regarding the U of A Graduate Student Association’s (GSA) stance on the continued infringement upon our constitutional and human rights to legal organization by the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA). The purpose of this letter is twofold: to inform stakeholders across the province that the pro-PSLA position taken by the lobby group ab-GPAC, which was also echoed in a letter from University Presidents to the Minister of Advanced Education, cannot be representative of graduate students; and to call for the GSA at the U of A to conduct transparent and robust consultation regarding the pursuit of union representation.

As it currently stands, the January 30, 2015 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan sets a clear precedent for the GSA and other graduate students’ collectives or associations to pursue union representation. Yet, the President of the GSA at the U of A co-authored an official statement with ab-GPAC, claiming that graduate students across the province would prefer to remain under the PSLA and thereby forfeit their constitutional right to freedom of association. While we are aware that the GSA initiated a consultation with graduate students in its Special Bulletin of September 28, 2016, this email allowed less than a week for responses. This was insufficient consultation with the GSA membership at large. Moreover, the pursuit of union representation was discussed only once amongst GSA councillors in their September meeting. There was no clear consensus on that matter, and the GSA’s position regarding unionization was never put to a formal vote. Instead, ab-GPAC and the GSA Board expressed to the Minister of Advanced Education that maintaining the PSLA in its current form “is the only option that can allow graduate students to function in all of their roles without harsh and undue consequences”[1] because of their precarious relationship to the University as their employer. This position was taken after receiving only 62 responses from graduate students across the province. Ab-GPAC represents at least 15,000 graduate students in Alberta, 7,000 of whom are enrolled at the U of A. Therefore, the GSA Board members who sit on ab-GPAC should not have considered 62 respondents a representative sample of either the province or the U of A when it comes to the important decision of whether or not graduate students should be able to form or join unions.

GSEC is dismayed by the GSA Board’s unwillingness to inform the GSA Council or membership of its position on unionization. In not taking a position independent of ab-GPAC, the GSA has failed in its mandate to represent its constituents. Furthermore, neither of these groups has made any effort to be transparent. It took ab-GPAC three months to respond to GSEC’s requests for its official statement and the GSA has not disclosed to GSEC any documentation related to their decision-making process. The PSLA infringes upon the Canadian constitutional right to freedom of association and discriminates against all academic workers based on source of income — a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act. The most direct consequence of this infringement for graduate students is that they remain under the false impression that they cannot pursue union representation. This is a critical issue that necessitates fair and accurate consideration of graduate students’ views and adequate discussion regarding unionization options. While the official consultation deadline on the issue of unionization passed on October 17, 2016, we believe there is no official end date for democratic engagement.

The GSA Board has acted undemocratically when constitutional and human rights are at stake. Whether for or against unionization, graduate students should have been given a fair chance to weigh in on this debate, which is changing the landscape of labour relations in Alberta. GSEC acknowledges that unionization is a complex issue. To understand the costs, benefits, risks, and rewards of unionization requires time and effort on individual and institutional levels. GSEC members, and all GSA members, deserve to enjoy the full range of constitutional and human rights. These rights should not have been surrendered.

In accordance with this position, we call on the GSA to:

  • Conduct transparent representation through fair and democratic consultation. Such consultation would include a town hall and also adequate time for conducting surveys, interviews, meetings, or any other means of allowing graduate students at this institution the opportunity to voice their opinions on the issue at hand.
  • Make publicly available any letters, minutes, or documentation between the GSA and ab-GPAC pertaining to the GSA’s position on unionization.

We trust that proper consultation and representation are the goals of the U of A GSA and other stakeholders. We look forward to working with the GSA to initiate and to facilitate a more formal and transparent consultation process because all 7,000 graduate students at the University of Alberta deserve full expression of their constitutional and human rights.

We, the undersigned,

Graduate Students of English Collective (GSEC)
Department of English & Film Studies

3-5 Humanities Centre

University of Alberta

Edmonton, AB   T6G 2E5


[1]Sarah Ficko et al. “ab-GPAC Labour Relations Response —Graduate Students.” Oct. 17, 2016.

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Open Letter from Professor Katherine Binhammer (EFS): Reject BA Core Proposal at Arts Faculty Council on Nov. 24th

Dear Colleagues,

I write to you today as an Arts colleague to strongly encourage you to attend Arts Faculty Council on November 24th, 2 pm (in Council Chambers, University Hall) and exercise your right to vote. As you know, on that day Council will be voting on the proposed new B.A. Core requirements and I am extremely concerned for the future of the Faculty and of our students if the proposal is passed. Thus, this email’s purpose is to rally the troops to show up and not allow a flawed proposal to pass.  Below I outline a few reasons why I will be voting against the proposal. Whether or not you agree with me on what the new B.A. core should look like does not matter; what matters is that we collectively reject the proposed model which would be a disservice to our students.

Here are my Concerns with the Current Proposal

1. What is the intellectual or pedagogical reasoning for the proposed new core requirements? Continue reading

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Brad Bucknell (English & Film Studies) on the arguments at Arts Faculty Council on the transformation of the Centre for Writers

This is the fifth post on ArtsSquared by members of the Faculty of Arts on the Provost’s planned transformation of the Centre for Writers into an administrative unit run by Student Services. Further to a motion passed by Arts Faculty Council at its meeting of 25 May 2016 advising him to reconsider his decision, the Provost has agreed to delay any change to the Centre for Writers for one year, to allow for further review of the issue. Here Brad Bucknell (English & Film Studies) comments on the arguments of the Acting Vice-Dean of Arts, Stuart Landon, at the Arts Faculty Council meeting of 25 May 2016 as he spoke of his role in this decision.

It was, to say the very least, a curious and disheartening AFC meeting this past Wednesday. Near the end of the meeting, we began discussing the recent changes to the Centre for Writers. Specifically, we took up the removal of Professor Lucie Moussu as the Centre’s director. Many people there wanted to hear a more complete explanation of the replacement (indeed, the displacement) of Professor Moussu who is both a trusted colleague and a widely known and well-respected scholar. Nothing about her replacement made much sense, so we came seeking enlightenment. We left without it.

The explanation contained these “points.” We were told that there had been a year’s consultation on the matter, including conversations with Prof. Moussu. This may be true in some way; however, it is hard to know what the word “consultation” means here, since Prof. Moussu would hardly have agreed to her own removal from the directorship. Perhaps there was less consultation than plain old telling: this is how it will be. Continue reading

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Professor Moussu Speaks Out on Centre for Writers Changes Sought by Faculty of Arts (Open Letter)

Dear colleagues,

I would like to address two important points about the announced changes regarding the C4W: first, how it affects my career, and second, how it affects tutors in the C4W.

First, my career: I would like you to imagine a UofA Biologist, who works in her lab and conducts research projects with her research assistants and her participants. She teaches courses related to her research, gets grants for her research, mentors her graduate students through their studies, hires and train the best research assistants, recruits participants according to best practices and research ethics, presents and discusses her results at national and international conferences (often with her students), and publishes her results in peer reviewed journals (sometimes as co-author with her students). Every year, she writes an annual report about her work, gets evaluated by her peers at the UofA, and gets excellent feedback—one year, she even got tenure!

And then one day, she is told that she can no longer work in her lab. She can go inside her lab and watch what happens, but she can’t be the Principal Investigator anymore, can’t work with her research assistants, can’t recruit or interact with participants, and can’t decide what is or isn’t being done in the lab.

This is exactly what has happened to me and to my “lab.” Continue reading

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