In
the Ultimate Dog Tease, one of You Tube’s most popular videos of 2011 (now
almost 94 million views), a man’s voice teases a dog with descriptions of
maple-flavoured bacon and other tasty morsels, and the talking dog responds
with increasing emotion as each treat goes elsewhere. I chuckle every time I
watch, but the clip also reminds me of the importance of teaching because this
entertaining conversation is, of course, not
conversation at all
; it’s an amusing illusion created by brilliant editing.

UNB professor Diana Austin's Globe and Mail ad thanking one of the teachers who inspired her.

In
contrast, teaching, in my view, is about developing a genuine conversation with
students so that nobody will ever be able to put words in their mouths. Teaching is about helping students acquire the
tools—the knowledge, the confidence, and the communication skills– crucial to
individual intellectual and emotional growth as well as to society’s
development.

Without such tools, we all run the risk of ending up like the You
Tube dog, as manipulated performers in the social, political, cultural, and
personal constructions edited by others. But can universities today still
provide the circumstances in which genuine conversations can flourish? I worry
that the various pressures facing today’s universities are leading many of us
to lose belief in the meaning and value of higher education altogether. 

Why
waste four years at the Provincial University of the Masses?
” asked one
columnist recently in a national newspaper (Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, 4 February 2012).  Mocking the university classroom as both
inadequate (a “medieval model”) and no longer “affordable in an age when public
money is increasingly scarce,” Wente proposed a cheaper, more modern
alternative: an online model where students sitting at home earn
“career-oriented degrees” by logging screen time by themselves instead of seat
time with classmates and professors.

Her model university “certifies students
by competency,” which apparently means mastery of facts is proved through
“assessments along the way–and a tough exam at the end.” 

Although
digital resources can enhance many aspects of higher education, it seems to me
that this model university advocated by Wente and others is, ironically, more outmoded
than what they think they are attacking.

Their model university appears to be merely a digital
conduit for what might be called knowledge transfer, similar to the type of
education propounded nearly 200 years ago by teachers like Mr. Gradgrind and Mr.
M’Choakumchild in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard
Times
: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but
Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” In this knowledge-transfer model of
education, students are empty “vessels . . . ready to have . .  .facts poured into them until . . . full to
the brim.”

But
this model turns education into a replication of the talking-dog video, with words
and ideas imposed upon passive students. Genuine education, however, is like
genuine conversation: it’s a dialogue in which professors and students collaborate
as partners in intellectual discussion so that students acquire not just
specific, testable knowledge about specific course facts but also an analytical
ability to assess the many facts and situations they will certainly encounter
after their degree programs are long over.

Students write back long after graduation
to discuss continuing “to learn for myself,” or to ask about a long-ago text because since “the
message has remained strong in my mind,” the book might be enjoyed by Medical
School colleagues, or, after visiting Thailand and Cambodia, to mention “I
thought a lot about your class … seeing the real Killing Fields” because of a related
novel studied years before.

For me these notes offer
ample proof of university’s enormous personal and societal value because they
show former students experiencing education as a life-long process, not merely as material
to be prepared for an exam.  

This
concept of education is what motivated the ad accompanying this commentary,
taken from the February 14th Globe
and Mail
newspaper. It is part of a series by ten 3M National Teaching
Fellows who want to offer a public demonstration that today’s university
professors do still care about education.

We value the complexity of the
many intangibles in the teaching that inspired us, and we want to repay our debt
to those who taught us by honouring the obligation to “pay it forward” and teaching
our own students today to the best of our abilities. Good teaching has always
mattered–and it still does.

To care about teaching is to recognize that
genuine education creates a conversational legacy that will contribute to the
lives of both individuals and society in a multitude of ways. Education, in the
broadest understanding of the term, is about all of us, professors and students
alike, “paying it forward” in whatever we do.

So
if there is any teacher or mentor in your past that you have never let know
just how much what they did meant to you, please join the discussion by going
to this higher education website and clicking on the yellow sticky “thank you” note. Let’s all help generate
more discussion about education by telling how good teaching mattered to each
of us as individuals.

Let
your own story be heard!    

Dr. Diana L. Austin
Department of English
Faculty of Arts
University of New Brunswick Fredericton
3M National Teaching Fellow 2011

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