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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2009

True Scholars Change Lives

By Vern Paetkau
Universities are inefficient — inefficient like symphony orchestras are inefficient. Consider the anecdote of the expert brought in to analyze the efficiency of an orchestra. He writes in his report that orchestra management should cut the number of cellos to one, amplify the lone cello electronically and outsource the complicated stuff.

Applied to the university, such high-productivity thinking would suggest that we have one professor write the lectures, for the whole country, and hire actors to read them. The actors would probably provide better “edutainment.”

Early in its reign, the Alberta government of Ralph Klein actually floated the actor-as-lecturer idea. That was by way of a friendly suggestion to help the University of Alberta achieve the 15 per cent cut in its operating grant the government was imposing. I have to admit I’ve been in university classrooms where a more dramatic performance would have been welcome.

The counter-argument to actors-as-lecturers (or, less risibly, having all courses taught by teachers who do nothing but teach) is not based on efficiency, of course, but values. If you see the university primarily as a “credentialing” institution, and a trainer of fungible, high-end assembly line wrench-turners, then it isn’t so obvious that it needs scholars as teachers. But there’s no question that scholarly academics can teach in unique ways.

There’s everyday, run-of-the-mill teaching — and, realistically, large chunks of the undergraduate life are mundane — and then there’s the mental equivalent of the Mentos and Diet Coke eruption a student will sometimes experience. As a student, you occasionally encounter a professor whose presentation and take on a subject resonates with you and the experience may change you for life. That professor may never be a nominee for teacher of the year; he or she may even be guilty of being “difficult,” or might have high expectations of students.

I had one of those experiences as a chemistry student at the University of Alberta. By fourth year I had largely exhausted my choices of undergraduate chemistry offerings. Looking at the available graduate courses, I noticed one in carbohydrate chemistry taught by Raymond “Sugar Ray” Lemieux. I asked around and got two stories about him. The first (and pretty much everyone agreed on this), was that Ray was probably the greatest living carbohydrate chemist. But from some I also got the message that he didn’t much like teaching undergraduates. He wasn’t a great success at entry-level organic chemistry, apparently.

Intrigued, I looked into registering. Yes, I could, if I really wanted to, be the first undergraduate to take Ray’s course. So I did, and thereby exposed myself to a mental workout that offered a clear, rational and exciting view into the way one brilliant scientific mind analyzed and organized his discipline, and created new domains of understanding in it.

Ray had achieved international star status by synthesizing sucrose, a feat at least one textbook referred to as “the Mount Everest of organic chemistry.” However, that achievement didn’t even come up in the course, which focused on more recent developments. Some of the most stimulating lectures described the use of proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy — this was in the early 1960s — to analyze the three-dimensional structures of sugars. No one else could have talked about the subject with Ray’s insight and authority, because he had invented it and he had intellectual ownership of it.

At that point, had he never produced another research paper in his life, we would still consider him one of the greatest chemists of his time. He died in 2000. But in 1962, at the age of 42, Ray was about to use all the tools he had mastered in carbohydrate chemistry, many of his own invention, to begin his most important and productive period, which led to the synthesis of complex carbohydrates such as blood group substances. The subtleties of carbohydrate structure and chemistry had been thought to preclude such difficult syntheses, but he was about to prove the world wrong. And we were being taught how it was going to happen by a genius who was on the cusp between his developmental phase and his most productive one. This really was “higher education.”

A second adventure in undergraduate studies was somewhat orthogonal in character to the Ray Lemieux experience. It began after an evening of beer and friendly argument about the significance of 20th century non-novelistic literature with a fellow student, the late Jim Richardson, who later taught as a professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick. It was a subject in which my ignorance was pretty much perfect, and my opinions were, as sometimes happens, correspondingly resounding.

However, by the end of the evening Jim had convinced me to go to a class with him the next morning — a class in 20th century poetry and drama taught by Henry Kreisel, a professor who had something of a reputation as a teacher. Kreisel was a novelist, scholar, survivor of “alien internment” during World War II and incandescent teacher. He was that most formidable of professors: a profound scholar and an actor.

After a lengthy explication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Kreisel proceeded to perform, and I use that word intentionally, Part I: “The Burial of the Dead.” When he finished there was an eerie silence in the room, his audience afraid to breathe and break the spell. An actor would have read it well, but Kreisel had prepared us with his scholar­ship, and the combination of that prep­aration with his masterful performance could not have been reproduced by anyone less intellectually complete, or for that matter almost anyone at all. As for 20th century non-novelistic literature, wow, who knew?

One more. The Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman describes, in one of his unique, humorous little books about his interactions with the world, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, how important teaching was to him when he began his academic career after the Manhattan Project. “The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on … It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again … The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.”

These are just anecdotes. But they illustrate the counter-argument to the high-efficiency model of university teaching and indicate that a university experience cannot be reproduced with video images and voice-overs. There’s a place for the exceptional teacher, one who illuminates the subject with depth and passion as only a true scholar can. Not every professor can do this in every instance. And I don’t buy the notion that there’s a direct linkage between good teaching and good scholarship. If you made a 2 by 2 grid of good/ mediocre teaching and good/mediocre scholarship, all of us could immediately think of names to put into each of the four squares. But there have been, and will continue to be as long as real scholars endeavor to do real teaching, instances when teaching and learning go way beyond what Degrees-R-Us dotcom can deliver.

That result, of course, comes with a price. There’s a price for the government that provides the budget to hire the academic equivalent of several cellists for the orchestra, and there’s a more personal price for the academic scholar. We all know there are times when the demands of desperate or entitlement-deluded students seriously compromise our ability to pursue scholarship. But aside from the important consideration that teaching is a major reason to keep paying for our way of life here at the university, there’s the consideration I was reminded of by my recently-retired colleague Tom Buckley: if I can significantly influence the life of a student for the better by my teaching, is that less important than producing another chunk of research?

Just like the various kinds of scholarship that can be pursued in our faculties and schools, our most creative teaching can have an impact in ways that won’t happen anywhere else. That’s why we call it a university. You may agree or disagree. That’s also something we do here.

Vern Paetkau is a University of Victoria professor emeritus of biochemistry and microbiology.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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