Toswell: Senate right to strip teaching integrity from policy

By M.J. Toswell
October 02, 2013

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Universities began in Western Europe in the late 12th or early 13th century when it became clear a more formal kind of establishment for learning would be necessary: the first medical school at Salerno, the first law school in Bologna and the liberal arts in Oxford and Paris. From this tradition, the modern university, itself largely an occidental phenomenon, developed.

Students arrived, obtained books and went to lectures. The lecturer’s notes would go at the foot of the page, below the large and elegant hand of the main text. Here, encapsulated, remains the modern lecture, the focus of the modern university classroom: a collection of received knowledge, and criticism or commentary upon it. When a student paid a tutor for a course of lectures or tutorials, the expectation was by the end of the term a set quantity of knowledge and an approach to that knowledge would have been imparted.

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Some years later, the enterprising student would sit an examination and become a master of the material. The examinations were set and marked by a group of these masters, and any disputes among them were settled amongst themselves: sometimes they debated, sometimes they or their students fought, sometimes they appealed to a bishop or a magnate for a ruling. The pattern of university life set and hardened, and remained largely the same for eight hundred years.

Today, that pattern is changing.

The classroom is no longer wholly a place where a member of the faculty instructs her students in received knowledge and ways to question and advance it. There is intervention, much of it useful.

The new Sakai works too much like the old WebCT for my taste, but it works. Heavy weather warnings are handy. Accommodations for students who need help to learn make sense. I would not want to return to the earliest days of the universities, when a student desiring to learn my subject would negotiate with me personally to establish the time and payment for classes (some tutors had a lean time of it).

So, largely, I appreciate the growth of a cadre of people in the university who make my work in the classroom more organized. But some initiatives I greet with regret.

At Senate recently, the docket included the relatively routine business of approving a policy on academic integrity in research, a policy many of whose details are dictated by the Tri-Councils – Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering (NSERC) and The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The Tri-Councils are quite fierce about these policies, and Canadian research universities work hard to make sure they are in compliance, since Tri-Council research grants form a very significant part of the research landscape.

In this case, however, during the redrafting of the policy, a ‘policy gap’ in the area of teaching integrity was identified and filled.

Teaching integrity is an important issue. A lot of research applies to it, if not as much as goes to the academic integrity of students. This teaching integrity policy, welded into the 2013 revisions of the 2008 Research Ethics policy as was, only discussed misconduct and its punishment.

And the range of possible misconducts was terrifying.

The line between plagiarism and proper use of sources is, as students well know, difficult to draw. The fellow I replaced in my first teaching gig in Oxford in 1984 gave me the run of her office, including all her teaching notes. I still have photocopies from her files that I use to teach particular features of Old English grammar.

And, on several occasions in my career, I’ve given my own teaching notes and materials to others. It makes me feel, pleasingly, that I am part of a long line of scholars.

But it’s not at all clear, from the policy presented at Senate, that I, or the colleagues I encourage to use my materials, would be cleared of plagiarism charges by an unidentified ‘Investigating Committee’ which, as best I can tell, would not be made up of my peers or of students who know what goes on in the modern classroom.

This is not to say there is no teaching misconduct today. But mostly it involves issues which can be addressed under the collective agreement that governs my employment at Western. It’s not wholly clear to me that teaching integrity requires a separate policy, though it might.

Luckily, Senate did its job. It stripped out the pieces of teaching integrity policy from the document before it. This means the policy on research integrity, which had a Tri-Council deadline of Sept. 30, went through the Board of Governors in plenty of time for Western to be in compliance.

And I hope it means a committee of teachers and students, with serious help from the Teaching Support Centre, will address the question of what kinds of teaching policies this university needs – if it needs any. I also hope those policies will start from the positive position noting what constitutes good teaching, rather than listing misconducts and investigative procedures – things which belong in collective agreements.

That seems like a no-brainer to me; I don’t feel any need to pay anyone to teach me that.

M.J. Toswell is a professor in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. She is a member of the university Senate.























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