University of Ottawa vs. activist prof Denis Rancourt

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derrick derrick's picture
University of Ottawa vs. activist prof Denis Rancourt

The Globe & Mail has the story today:

On the first day of his fourth-year physics class, University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt announced to his students that he had already decided their marks: Everybody was getting an A+.

It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons,” he reasoned.

But by abandoning traditional marks, Prof. Rancourt apparently sealed his own failing grade: In December, the senior physicist was suspended from teaching, locked out of his laboratory and told that the university administration was recommending his dismissal and banning him from campus.

Firing a tenured professor is rare in itself, but two weeks ago the university took an even more extreme step: When Prof. Rancourt went on campus to host a regular meeting of his documentary film society, he was led away in handcuffs by police and charged with trespassing.

rabble ran an interview with Rancourt a few weeks, in which he explains his struggle with the University.

 

martin dufresne

There are informative articles and comments about this case on the website of U of O's French student paper "La Rotonde", that are squarely supporting Rancourt. Also here.

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

Denis Rancourt is a right-wing crank and a [url=climate-change">http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/1110][u]climate-c... denier.[/url]

Shame on Rabble for giving this lunatic credibility! 

martin dufresne

From M. Spector's hyperlinked article:

"(...)I argue that the real threat (the most destructive force on the planet) is power-driven financiers and profit-driven corporations and their cartels backed by military might and that you cannot control a monster by asking it not to shit as much. I argue that non-democratic control of the economy and institutionalized exploitation of the Third World (and all workers) must be confronted directly if we are to install sanity.(...)"

I sure wish all "right-wing cranks" put out similar opinions.

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

Nice cherry-picking, there, Martin. 

OK, maybe he's not deliberately right-wing, but his writings certainly give great aid and comfort to the right-wing opponents of the environmental movement.

See, for example, [url=Rancourt">http://climateguy.blogspot.com/2007/10/scientists-blog-cited-in-us-senat...'s crowing[/url] about how a Republican senator quoted from Rancourt's writing to prove that climate change was a myth. And Rancourt makes no attempt whatsoever to distance himself politically from one of the most right-wing senators in the US.

  

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

Quote:
Making an even more serious error than [David] Noble's inaccurate portrayal of the timeframe of the global warming discussion, Denis Rancourt completely inverts the geography of concern and activism, baldly stating, "Global warming is strictly an imaginary problem of the First World middleclass. Nobody else cares about global warming."

He further asserts:

Quote:
The global warming myth isolates us from the people of the Third World and from all exploited people outside of our class, rather than creating meaningful occasions for empathy and solidarity...

Why have scientists and First World environmentalists bought into it with such conviction and dedication?

The idea that concern over global warming is the exclusive purview of Al Gore or First World environmental groups is analogous to the wrong-headed belief that the global justice movement began with the 1999 protests in Seattle against the WTO. Both ignore the reality that the most consistent leadership on both these fronts has come from the neo-colonial world and specifically from anti-imperialists in the so-called Global South. The countries of the South have been calling for action on climate change for decades, rightly contextualizing the issue as part of the massive ecological debt that Europe, Japan and North America owe the rest of the world....

Many of the poor island nations of the South, including many politically conservative regimes, also long ago united to press for their very survival against rising sea levels and the indifference of the big polluters. While Rancourt would have us believe that global warming is a figment of the imagination of the West's middle class, the more than 10 000 residents of the island state of Tuvalu have been facing the nightmare possibility of forced emigration and the real prospect of the end of their society (5). The reality of rising tides may chase the poor from their homes, but sadly the rising tide of reality seems to have left at least a couple of Canadian academics unfazed....

It's time to leave infantile contrarianism and rejection of scientific consensus behind, and get on with the task at hand.


[url=-">http://www.sevenoaksmag.com/features/globalwarmingdebate.html][=med... Derrick O'Keefe, who started this thread, in a June, 2007 article.[/][/url]

Sineed

But you need to include the whole quote:

Quote:
I argue that there is no reliable evidence that the global average Earth surface temperature has increased in recent decades. I argue this by making a critique of how such trends are extracted, inferred and extrapolated from incomplete and artifact-laden data. I explain melting glaciers and receding permafrost as more probably arising from radiative mechanisms, linked to particulate pollution, land use/cover changes, and solar variations, rather than global warming. And I argue that atmospheric CO2 does not control climate, but is at best a witness of global changes. These arguments are technical but I have tried to present them as simply and clearly as possible in the article.

More importantly, I argue that the real threat (the most destructive force on the planet) is power-driven financiers and profit-driven corporations and their cartels backed by military might and that you cannot control a monster by asking it not to shit as much. I argue that non-democratic control of the economy and institutionalized exploitation of the Third World (and all workers) must be confronted directly if we are to install sanity.

So he's not a right-wing crank.  He's a crackpot, a knee-jerk devil's advocate, who says climate change isn't real because credible scientists say it is.

martin dufresne

Ah, insult... where would we be without this shortcut to examining the issues... meanwhile how do we feel about tenured teachers being handcuffed and forced off campuses apparently because of their anti-imperialist positions?

derrick derrick's picture

M. Spector: What do Denis Rancourt's writings on climate change -- which, yes, I along with others have critiqued -- have to do with his current treatment by the University of Ottawa?

 

Unionist

M. Spector, do you oppose the academic persecution of this professor or not? What can it possibly have to do with his views on climate change? And if he said the special theory of relativity was full of crap, should we cheer even more loudly?

 

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

I support Denis Rancourt's right to keep his job at the University of Ottawa.

I also support J. Philippe Rushton's right to keep his job at UWO.

I also support holocaust-denier Arthur Butz's right to keep his job at Northwestern U. in Chicago.

I also support "intelligent design" advocate Michael Behe's right to keep his job at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

But I do not make them into martyrs or poster-boys for academic freedom. Nor do I keep silent about my distaste for their views or their actions, insofar as they promote repugnant right-wing causes.

Unionist

Those are stunning comparisons. But thanks for answering my question.

Hoodeet

The news story seemed to leave out any account of  the due process that was surely followed in his case, or of any investigation by the appropriate committee of the charges brought against Prof. Rancourt.  It seems highly unlikely, indeed impossible, that the university should bar him from teaching and from his lab based only on his assertion about grades, without further investigation.  Was he involved in a contentious fight with the administration? with his department and/or dept. head? with the union?  Was insubordination or a threat involved?  What process had been followed?

Where is all this documented? Can someone refer us?

Sites like this one should present more than a newspaper report in the case of a cause célèbre.

 

 

Unionist

Hoodeet wrote:

Where is all this documented? Can someone refer us?

Sites like this one should present more than a newspaper report in the case of a cause célèbre.

 

Let me know when you've finished reading all the material [url=here[/url]">http://academicfreedom.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4... and if you have any further questions.

Ze

It appears that Dr Rancourt was barred for defying an order from his dean to give grades, which would perhaps be a contract violation. Can't imagine why the UofO has a problem with pas/fail as a grading method. 

U of Guelph's student paper tells more: http://theontarion.ca/viewarticle.php?id_pag=2209 

just one of the...

So the man is factually wrong about climate change...
That's not the issue he's being persecuted over, unlike Michael Behe, etc.I've been wrong about many things in my life, therebut for the grace of Pete go I.
For his refreshing presence on teaching methods and obvious interest in his students he deserves my solidarity and has it.

Unionist

M. Spector wrote:

Nor do I keep silent about my distaste for their views or their actions, insofar as they promote repugnant right-wing causes.

"Right-wing causes" like [url=the">http://activistteacher.blogspot.com/2007/02/global-warming-truth-or-dare... following, I suppose[/url]:

Quote:
Global warming is strictly an imaginary problem of the First World middleclass. Nobody else cares about global warming. Exploited factory workers in the Third World don't care about global warming. Depleted uranium genetically mutilated children in Iraq don't care about global warming. Devastated aboriginal populations the world over also can't relate to global warming, except maybe as representing the only solidarity that we might volunteer.

If we want to help island dwellers threatened by a predicted sea level rise then let's help those island dwellers. If we are worried about victims of weather events then let us help those victims. The poorest Hurricane Katrina victims are still waiting.

It's not about limited resources. ["The amount of money spent on pet food in the US and Europe each year equals the additional amount needed to provide basic food and health care for all the people in poor countries, with a sizeable amount left over." (UN Human Development Report, 1999)] It's about exploitation, oppression, racism, power, and greed. Economic, human, and animal justice brings economic sustainability which in turn is always based on renewable practices. Recognizing the basic rights of native people automatically moderates resource extraction and preserves natural habitats. Not permitting imperialist wars and interventions automatically quenches nation-scale exploitation. True democratic control over monetary policy goes a long way in removing debt-based extortion.

Frustrated Mess Frustrated Mess's picture

It is a right-wing cause. By failing to recognize that addressing climate change, and all environmental degradation in the service of so-called First World economies, is not just a social justice issue but a critical social justice issue plays into the hands of the coprorate and crack-pot lobbies that argue we can continue on as we have for as long as we please because .... Crisis? What crisis?

It is not much different than a Hitchens arguing in favour of the war in Iraq and the massive destruction inherent in that war to liberate Iraq from Islam. 

With that said, I agree he ought not to be fired. 

 

Unionist

Frustrated Mess wrote:

By failing to recognize that addressing climate change, and all environmental degradation in the service of so-called First World economies,...

FM, did you read his article? Just wondering.

Frustrated Mess Frustrated Mess's picture

The first three paragraphs and that was sufficient. He is a denier and I thought M. dealt with his arguments quite adequately when he cited the following:

Quote:

The idea that concern over global warming is the exclusive purview of Al Gore or First World environmental groups is analogous to the wrong-headed belief that the global justice movement began with the 1999 protests in Seattle against the WTO. Both ignore the reality that the most consistent leadership on both these fronts has come from the neo-colonial world and specifically from anti-imperialists in the so-called Global South. The countries of the South have been calling for action on climate change for decades, rightly contextualizing the issue as part of the massive ecological debt that Europe, Japan and North America owe the rest of the world....

Many of the poor island nations of the South, including many politically conservative regimes, also long ago united to press for their very survival against rising sea levels and the indifference of the big polluters. While Rancourt would have us believe that global warming is a figment of the imagination of the West's middle class, the more than 10 000 residents of the island state of Tuvalu have been facing the nightmare possibility of forced emigration and the real prospect of the end of their society (5). The reality of rising tides may chase the poor from their homes, but sadly the rising tide of reality seems to have left at least a couple of Canadian academics unfazed....

It's time to leave infantile contrarianism and rejection of scientific consensus behind, and get on with the task at hand.

I will acknowledge, however, that Rancourt is correct to an extent in that clomate change is primarily a concern of the First World middle-class, but then so is academia, acedemic freedom, and tenure among professors. 

 

Snert Snert's picture

Quote:

It appears that Dr Rancourt was barred for defying an order from his dean to give grades, which would perhaps be a contract violation. Can't imagine why the UofO has a problem with pas/fail as a grading method. 

I can't tell if you're being dry or being serious, but for what it's worth, pass/fail as a policy wouldn't really leave a whole lot of, say, criteria for entering grad school ("We have 900 applicants, all tied for first choice with "pass" and 300 tied for second with "fail").

Anyway, there's only so far you can go in trying to burn down your employer's organization and building a new one on the ashes.  Rancourt tilted one windmill too many. 

And contrary to popular belief, academic freedom doesn't really mean that a university professor can do anything and everything their little heart desires and it's fine.  Universities still retain the right to mandate certain course management policies, and how (or if) a course is graded is definitely among those.  

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I can tell, Snert, that you haven't a) read any of the interview in which Rabcourt defends his pedagogical methods or b) ever applied to grad school.

For the first, I offer this tonic:

Quote:
First off, some of the Ivy League schools now offer more courses under the pass-fail system than under the grading system. So credibility has very little to do with grading. The credibility argument is exactly the argument that my dean has put forward.

There is nothing in my job description, or in the documents that define what the university is about, that says that we have a responsibility to rank students for employers. In fact, all of the documents say the opposite; that it's about education, that it's about learning, that it's about development. If you decide that it's about education, then you have to optimize education, and grading doesn't do that. Certification and ranking of students can be handled by employers. They can interview students, they can have entrance tests, that's not my concern. Education is my job and I have a professional responsibility to educate. I'm not going to compromise education because some employer on the outside wants me to rank students for them.

And for the second, I would point out that reference letters and interviews are the primary materials on which graduate admissions base their decisions. With standardized tests like America's GREs, Britain's A-levels  and other metrics like number of published papers, conference presentations and panel discussions, the available materials increase. Not to mention the fact that most graduate courses are graded virtually pass/fail anyway, with the standard being an 'A'. If you get less, you better pull up your socks; if you get much less, you better pick a different discipline.

 

Snert Snert's picture

All of that may be valid support for the idea of pass/fail as a grading scheme, however Rancourt seems to miss the point that it's not necessarily his call to make.

Quote:
First off, some of the Ivy League schools now offer more courses under the pass-fail system than under the grading system.

He says "Ivy League schools", not "Ivy League professors".

If I were in management at some company, I may be able to assert that my workplace would be happier and more efficient working a four day week, and I may be able to point to many organizations in Europe who work a four day week as support for this, but ultimately, it's my employer's call, not mine. 

Your assumptions are correct, though.  No grad school for me (yet?), and no, I didn't read his interview, because my guess is that his justifications don't address the fact that he's still expected to comply with certain policies and standards at his school.  Perhaps over lunch I'll read about why he thinks his way is better, but I'm liable to stop at the first sign of bloated entitlement.

Unionist

Snert, are you sure Rancourt was suspended, expelled, etc. just because of his pass/fail marking approach? Have you read all the material I linked to above (under http://academicfreedom.ca)?

ETA: Here is an excerpt from a letter posted there yesterday by John McMurtry, the well-known [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McMurtry]anti-globalization advocate[/url]:

Quote:
Coincidentally, I long ago almost got fired for challenging the grading system at my university 35 years ago. The V-P Academic, the Dean and the Chair all went on the record as deciding to dismiss me, but many faculty and students successfully defended me. It was a harrowing witch-hunt I experienced, but in the longer run the university got clear and good criteria for each grade category where before there were none, and pass-fail became an option in some courses. The eminent Professor David Noble at York University has long since fought for and won this form of evaluation in his courses.

There are more letters and testimonials on that page.

 

Fidel

From unionist's article:

Quote:
It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons,” he reasoned.

That's what universities are for, to be incubators for independent thought and creativity and influenced by neither governments nor private enterprise. I suspect this is what put him in the dog house at a time when corporate influence in North American universities is on the rise.

 

 

 

 

Snert Snert's picture

Quote:
Snert, are you sure Rancourt was suspended, expelled, etc. just because of his pass/fail marking approach?

From what I can see, he's got a mix of both reasonable and actionable concerns (eg: not following policy with regard to grading, not following established curriculum for courses) and non-actionable concerns (eg: his ongoing mission of being contrarian and obstructive at every turn).

It seems to me a bit like going 165kph in a 100kph zone, with "Screw the Cops" on the side of my car.  If I get pulled over, is it for my bad attitude?  How could we be certain it had nothing to do with disobeying the speed limit?   

Quote:

There are more letters and testimonials on that page.

Any counterpoints on that site, or is it 100% support for Rancourt?  I took a look, but once it started to look like his personal blog, I mostly stopped.

Also, with the support of his faculty union or faculty association, I'm betting he could have fought back.  Do they support him?  Er, I mean, do they support "academic freedom"?

You'd think they would, wouldn't they?  And yet I get the distinct sense that they don't, and that they (with more to gain from this than almost anyone) don't regard academic freedom as implying that anything they do is de facto perfect. 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Snert wrote:
From what I can see, he's got a mix of both reasonable and actionable concerns (eg: not following policy with regard to grading, not following established curriculum for courses) and non-actionable concerns (eg: his ongoing mission of being contrarian and obstructive at every turn).

There is no 'established curriculum' in most degrees I'm aware of at the university level except on core degree courses (neither of the classes Prof Rancourt taught were core courses) and even then there is a lot of leeway in what kinds of content are included in the courseand how that content is taught. From what I've read about the case so far, the only thing worth a disciplinary action is the "A+s all around" caper, and as an activist, I can see no better way for a University prfessor to effect change. Even then, it is unlikely that a grievance would stand up to an appeal, and it is certainly no grounds for firing a tenured professor, especially one who enjoys such student, colleague and industry support.

Unionist

Snert wrote:

Also, with the support of his faculty union or faculty association, I'm betting he could have fought back.  Do they support him?  Er, I mean, do they support "academic freedom"?

Well, I couldn't really say, but the Canadian Association of University Teachers has taken the extraordinary step of striking an [url=http://www.caut.ca/pages.asp?page=747]independent committe of inquiry[/url]:

Quote:
CAUT has appointed an independent committee of inquiry to investigate a series of disputes between the University of Ottawa and physicist Denis Rancourt that initially resulted in grievances, human rights complaints and legal actions and subsequently led to Rancourt being relieved of teaching duties, locked out of his laboratory, barred from campus and most recently suspended pending the university’s governing board approval of his dismissal. In the meantime, Rancourt’s graduate students have been assigned to other faculty members.

Rancourt has taught at the university for more than 20 years and is a full professor in the department of physics. He has published nearly 200 articles and essays on subjects ranging from marine geochemistry, condensed matter physics, planetary science, and spectroscopic measurement theory to the physics profession, climate change, critical pedagogy and activism.

The independent committee is chaired by Joyce Lorimer, professor and department chair of history at Wilfrid Laurier University, and includes Walter Whiteley, professor of mathematics and statistics at York University, and Jeffrey Halpern, associate professor of anthropology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and a member of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

So it sounds as if the academic community as a whole is concerned - as well they should be.

Snert Snert's picture

Quote:
There is no 'established curriculum' in most degrees I'm aware of at the university level except on core degree courses

In my experience, there's at the very least an assumption that a course about Physics will actually be a course about Physics.

Can we agree on that?

Or is it your experience that sometimes students show up for a Physics course to discover that it's actually a course in Conversational Spanish?

We're not really talking about someone exceeding their "leeway".  We're talking about someone who chose to not even teach what was in the course calendar. 

Quote:
it is certainly no grounds for firing a tenured professor, especially one who enjoys such student, colleague and industry support.

If all you're reading is "academicfreedom.ca" it would be easy to believe that everyone thinks he's awesome.

My understanding is that some of the disciplinary action came about as a result of a petition of complaint signed by a full third of his colleagues.  That doesn't sound like a great deal of support, to me.  I'm guessing "cult" following:  few in number, but loud.

Quote:
So it sounds as if the academic community as a whole is concerned - as well they should be.

Indeed!  If professors aren't free to unilaterally decide that Physics courses shouldn't teach physics, the terrorists have won!

Unionist

Snert, I take it you think the CAUT independent inquiry is a waste of time?

 

Snert Snert's picture

Not necessarily.  As a committee of academics, I won't be surprised if they come to the conclusion that academics need more freedom, but it's possible that the inquiry might help to clarify the boundaries of academic freedom and institutional control.

I'll be very surprised if they end up asserting that a professor hired to teach a Physics class should have the right to decide that it's going to be a Conversational Spanish class instead, however.  Not and still keep their paycheque.

Ze

I'm not at all sure that Dr Rancourt was attempting to teach conversational Spanish. In fact, it appears that he was not.

And I'd say the point about marks being for the consumption of grad schools is essentially what he was saying. If marks determine your future eligibility and employability, there's a problem with the pursuit of knowledge idea, it's at least compromised. Believe me, this is a real debate in the academic world. (As is the fact that science majors can finish courses with 100% and so almost invariably have higher grades than arts majors -- it's not because they're smarter, that's for sure.)

Possibly the blanket A+ violates his contract and gives the university grounds for dismissal. I haven't read his contract, so I don't know. I'd imagine the CAUT panel will be looking into precisely that. It would definitely get non-tenured professors (an increasingly large group) the boot. 

It got some good US profs the boot when they gave an A+ to all men in their classes of draft age during Vietnam. Not that I'm saying the need is the same in this case, since looking for work sure ain't the same as being conscripted.

I agree with pass/fail grading for some courses, sure. No good reason against it. Ironically, it's often students who dislike that system, losing the chance to be ranked against each other and show their future employers their high grades.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Snert, I should mention that I have a pretty good idea how university works, having worked at many different levels in a couple of institutions, academic and administrative. If you teach a course in a university, you write the course calendar. There is no schematic in place that you have to follow, there is no auditor that makes sure you are teaching it properly. Grading usually follows a guide, but it certainly is not consistent even with instructors who claim to follow department recommendations. While this is more true in the humanities, it is also true in sciences--consider lab reports and the subjectivity required in actually authoring exams  and assignments.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Stanley Fish weighs in on Denis Rancourt's case

Quote:
Clearly squatting itself is just such a "defiant or non-subordinate assertion." Rancourt does not merely preach his philosophy. He practices it.

This sounds vaguely admirable until you remember what Rancourt is, in effect, saying to those who employ him: I refuse to do what I have contracted to do, but I will do everything in my power to subvert the enterprise you administer. Besides, you're just dictators, and it is my obligation to undermine you even as I demand that you pay me and confer on me the honorific title of professor. And, by the way, I am entitled to do so by the doctrine of academic freedom, which I define as "the ideal under which professors and students are autonomous and design their own development and interactions."

Quote:
The Arizona court thinks of academic freedom as a doctrine whose scope is defined by the purposes and protocols of the institution and its limited purposes. Rancourt thinks of academic freedom as a local instance of a global project whose goal is nothing less than the freeing of revolutionary energies, not only in the schools but everywhere.

It is the difference between being concerned with the establishing and implementing of workplace-specific procedures and being concerned with the wholesale transformation of society. It is the difference between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world. Given such divergent views, not only is reconciliation between the parties impossible; conversation itself is impossible. The dispute can only be resolved by an essentially political decision, and in this case the narrower concept of academic freedom has won. But only till next time.

 

 

 

Unionist

Regardless of one's opinion of Rancourt, Fish's article is frightening. He could be speaking of a factory assembly line - management is in charge, and any dissent is equivalent to insubordination. Human rights (in this case academic freedom) must be read down to conform with the corporate goals as defined by the administrators. Failure to accept this fundamental truth makes dialogue pointless - fire him.

Not a very nuanced contribution to the debate. And no wonder, when he cites as his source for the definition of "academic freedom" some nameless court decision from Arizona. 

Snert Snert's picture

Quote:
Possibly the blanket A+ violates his contract and gives the university grounds for dismissal.

I should think that it could.  Strictly speaking, it's not much different than if he handed out F's across the board.  Students have a right to believe that the grading scheme of a course will be respected.  And of course the University probably doesn't want word getting out that "everybody gets an A+ just for showing up", as that clearly devalues those A+s that students actually earned.

Quote:
I agree with pass/fail grading for some courses, sure. No good reason against it.

There's nothing in and of itself wrong with pass/fail.  It simply takes a scale with roughly 13 gradations and crunches it down to two.

It's my understanding, however, that Rancourt says "pass/fail" when he really means "pass/pass".  In other words, it's my understanding that, just like "everyone gets an A+", in his class, everyone passes as well.

A class that one cannot fail by one's own merits is also known as "a free credit".  If Rancourt really wants to convince the University that he's not just thumbing his nose at the Establishment then he might want to consider using the pass/fail as intended.  Or just come right out with it and concede that he's giving a University level credit for attendance.

Quote:
Grading usually follows a guide, but it certainly is not consistent even with instructors who claim to follow department recommendations.

Certainly inter-rater validity could be higher, especially in Arts and Humanities, I think it's reasonable for a University to expect its faculty to at least try, in good faith, to grade according to the school's policy.  Rancourt goes out of his way to show that he's not.

As you noted above, professors get a lot of leeway, in many things.  In fact, short of perhaps a private business owner, rock star or sports idol, I can think of few jobs with more of this "leeway".

So unless there's some dark and sinister vendetta in play here, it sure seems to me that when the University gave (many) inches, Rancourt wants to take his mile.  Clearly he's exceeded even the very, very generous leeway he was given.

Quote:
If you teach a course in a university, you write the course calendar.

So if a University needs someone to teach, say, an intro study of Jane Austen, and I get hired, it's perfectly fine (and you believe this is a good thing) for me to unilaterally declare that in lieu of actually reading and discussing Jane Austen, we're instead going to spend our academic year discussing how the book was printed and marketed?

Even if you tell me "Yes!  That's exactly how it works!", I still retain the right to say that that's an incredibly stupid arrangement that, to me, raises the vague notion of "academic freedom" to an absolute and sacred status that's good for noone but the professors it favours.

Seriously... are we supposed to defend that??  Or the terrorists have won?

Quote:
He could be speaking of a factory assembly line - management is in charge, and any dissent is equivalent to insubordination.

You ordinarily seem a relatively balanced and honest contributor, but if you think that this is a case of "one slip up and you're out" then you're being shamefully disingenuous. 

 Rancourt is serially insubordinate.  He's insubordinate at every turn.  And as only the truly pampered and self-important can do, he demands a full paycheque and the blessing of his University for it.

How much of his insubordination do you want to defend?  It's a cliche of the Left that they favour Unions who fight for an employee's right to not have to do their work.  Wanna breathe new life into that cliche by supporting Rancourt's "human right" to not do anything his whims don't lead him to do?

 

  

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Well, to be fair to Fish (with whom, in this instance, I emphatically disagree ) he writes often on the topic of Academic Freedom. He offers this gloss of his views on the subject here:

Quote:
In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

Of course, Fish doesn't discriminate between a job at the University and a job at a law firm--as evidenced by his thoughtless analogy that opens his piece. The fact is that there is a reason why higher education is an inalienable and universal human right and working at a law firm is not. And to explain why, I can find no better proof than the Catholic Victorian philosopher John Henry Newman. In his discourses on The Idea of a University (1852), Newman argues:

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Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation. We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight. We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them without setting about it; we cannot gain them in our sleep, or by haphazard. The best telescope does not dispense with eyes; the printing press or the lecture room will assist us greatly, but we must be true to ourselves, we must be parties in the work. A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill....

[The University] will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow.

ETA:

Snert wrote:
So if a University needs someone to teach, say, an intro study of Jane Austen, and I get hired, it's perfectly fine (and you believe this is a good thing) for me to unilaterally declare that in lieu of actually reading and discussing Jane Austen, we're instead going to spend our academic year discussing how the book was printed and marketed?

Firstly, as a point of information, usually the outline for courses provided by the department is far more general. So they would never  ask for a 'Jane Austen' course. They would ask for a course on 'The Romantic Novel' or perhaps even 'The 19th Century Novel' or even 'c-19 Literature' and it would be up to the person writing the course to choose Jane Austen or one of her novels.

Secondly, and this is more important, I have a very difficult time understanding why you would have a problem with the scenario you cited. This is actually how many courses are taught, and such a historical materialist approach is quite common. Of course you would have to address the text itself, but you could find the scenario you came up with on any English department syllabus in any University in the English-speaking world.

Finally, you are of course quite right about Rancourt's insubordination. That's kind of the point. How much insubordination ishe allowed? You seem to think not much, others think quite a bit. I suppose that's the point of this discussion, to find out where that line is. Do you think, for the purposes of clarity, you could be more specific as to where, precisely, Rancourt goes over the line you've drawn for him?

 

Sineed

I'm currently enrolled in graduate studies at U of T that grade on a "pass-fail-honours" basis, and it's a more honest way of grading, emphasizing your knowledge of the material as a whole rather than just adding up the total score of one test after another.  Undergrads might find it more stressful, being used to dualistic marking in high school, but they could be eased into it as a part of their intellectual growth.

My question would be, how good an academic is this guy, really?  He is a climate change denier after all.  And it would be a shame if the university's draconian crackdown only served to make a martyr out of a crackpot, giving him credibility he doesn't warrant.

I see he's popular with some students.  But seriously, the average 20 year old, even a very bright one, doesn't know shit about shit.  I remember some wacky profs from my undergrad days who would manage to gather a small, loyal following of students/acolytes who would get all excited about this whole alternate way of teaching or thinking or being.  But you don't tend to see that with the truly gifted academics.  I mean, everybody admired Northrup Frye, but he didn't have a cult following and he didn't need to grandstand in order to draw attention to himself.

Rancourt makes some valid points.  My own faculty has relied on corporate sponsorship to try and keep tuitions down in an age when government funding has been cut.   

But this is a guy with a PhD in physics, who is so desperate to be on the cutting edge of contrary, he denies climate change.

What is this really?  Supporting academic freedom, or a cult of personality? 

Unionist

Snert wrote:

Unionist wrote:
He could be speaking of a factory assembly line - management is in charge, and any dissent is equivalent to insubordination.

You ordinarily seem a relatively balanced and honest contributor,

You obviously don't know me very well. Smile

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... but if you think that this is a case of "one slip up and you're out" then you're being shamefully disingenuous.

I didn't say that. I questioned whether it was fair to compare insubordination in a factory with insubordination in a university.

Put differently, is it fair to compare a factory with a university?

In a factory, the chain of command is exceedingly clear. Someone owns the place, hires workers, and hires managers/supervisors to convey directives and organize the work.

In a university, tell me (because I don't know):

1. What is the chain of command? E.g., who would be Prof. Rancourt's immediate superior, whose orders he must follow on pain of being insubordinate?

2. Who determines and enforces the marking system?

I'm very troubled by the notion of a university where some faceless bureaucrat determines whether there should be 13 gradations of ranking of students (in all courses? in some courses?), rather than two, or five, or one, or none.

Give that bureaucrat a face for me, please, and let me know how they decide and how they direct.

martin dufresne

I hope people have read the interview hyperlinked to in the opening post. Rancourt explains his pedagogy rather well. It is only because he is kept from using the Pass/Fail rating system that he is passing everyone as a protest tactic.

Here are the last two paragraphs:

"JF: You have a long history of conflict with the university administration, do you believe that there is more to this than your choice of evaluation method?

DR: They are trying to neutralize me as a dissident who is critical of the university's role as an institution that does society's dirty work of creating and forming obedient employees instead of free thinkers.

The universities are being taken over. In the United States there have been various famous firings related to politics, people like Norman Finkelstein and Ward Churchill. Our campus is no different. Allan Rock recently announced publicly that he was looking into ways to cut funding to the Ontario Public Interest Research Group on campus because it refused to provide funding to an arm of the Israel lobby group called Hillel for an activity it was running on campus. I have been very vocal in my opposition to Israeli military aggression, to what I believe are some of the most clear and obvious war crimes and crimes against humanity, crimes which our country is directly complicit in. It is just as much about my politics as it is about my grading.

JF: If readers want to understand you and your ideas on pedagogy, what or who have been your inspirations?

DR: Paolo Freire is the first major influence that has helped me understand what my pedagogy needs to be about. The book that he is most known for, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is an incredible masterpiece. It's academic, it's intellectual, but it's deep and based in experience. You can read it over and over again and get more out of it each time. Jeff Schmidt wrote a very important book that is not well known called Disciplined Minds, which talks about how professional employees are formed. Lastly, as an anarchist, I have found a great deal of inspiration for my education from Mikhail Bakunin. "

 

'Right-wing crank'?

 

 

Unionist

I don't care if he's right wing, left wing, or cranky. Personally, I draw the line at openly racist, fascist, homophobic, misogynistic. But apart from that, academic freedom has to mean something. And I don't particularly recall this syllogistic form when I studied logic:

1. Most right-wing cranks have tended to dismiss climate change theories.

2. D. Rancourt criticizes climate change theories.

3. Therefore, D. Rancourt is a right-wing crank.

4. And what's more, we should support his cause less on that account.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Unionist wrote:
In a university, tell me (because I don't know):

1. What is the chain of command? E.g., who would be Prof. Rancourt's immediate superior, whose orders he must follow on pain of being insubordinate?

I can only speak from my experience in working at one Canadian university (not Ottawa) and I don't know if their system is similar to otehr institutions, although I  suspect that it is. This question is difficult because the process of firing a tenured professor is complicated. In terms of hierarchy, the ladder is short: professor--department head--faculty dean--vp academic or provost. But greivances, which can be filed by students or fellow professors or even the department head, would go straigh to the indpendent disciplinary body, a panel comprised of students, peers (both departmental and otherwise) and administrators, the whole process usually overseen by a secretariat. Furthermore, the highest governing body is the Board of Governors, followed by the Senate.

 I actually read a great deal of staff grievance reports at the institution I worked for, and none of them, as you would expect, came from other staff members or higher-ups against a tenured professor. Most grievances also do not end in termination--I can't think of one offhand that did.

So it has to be said that Rancourt's case is particular. But you knew that already.

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2. Who determines and enforces the marking system?

I'm not sure about this, but marking is a university-wide standard. That is, the scale used: either a 4-point scale, a 12-point scale, a 5-point, etc. Departments and individual programs would decide which requirements use the pass/fail scale or the university standard. I expect the standard would come under the jurisdiction of the VP Academic's office, or equivalent. But it would definitely be ratified by the School Senate. I remember this because the Senate of my institution ruled a few years back against adding an 'A+' grade to their scale. Currently, it stops at 4.00, or an A (85 or above).

 

The Senate, incidentally, is made up of a few student reps, many academic reps, a few administrative staff, a few Governors, and a few alumni. The BoG is made up of a very small amount of students (usually one or two) a few academics, the VPs, Provost and Principal, and eminent public figures (read: successful and rich business people)

Snert Snert's picture

Quote:
What is the chain of command? E.g., who would be Prof. Rancourt's immediate superior, whose orders he must follow on pain of being insubordinate?

In most Universities that would be his Departmental Chair, typically a rotating post held for a few years at a time by tenured faculty.  Above that would be the Dean.

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Who determines and enforces the marking system?

At the UofO, that would be the Senate, an elected body made up of faculty, staff and students.

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Give that bureaucrat a face for me, please, and let me know how they decide and how they direct.

I'm afraid it's [url=http://web5.uottawa.ca/admingov/senate-members.html]many faces.[/url]

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It is only because he is kept from using the Pass/Fail rating system that he is passing everyone as a protest tactic.

Uh, if he's such a fan of pass/fail, why not use pass/fail as his protest, rather than pass/pass?  At least he could make the case that he's following what he believes to be right, and not just acting out.

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They are trying to neutralize me as a dissident who is critical of the university's role as an institution that does society's dirty work of creating and forming obedient employees instead of free thinkers.

LOL!  Testify!

I had no idea that by assessing my learning as something other than "pass" or "pass", I was being groomed for my inevitable position as an obedient lapdog of The Man!

Say... is there any possibility that this "defiant" attitude is a factor in his support from the Left?  Or, in other words, if he were a "defiant" and "revolutionary" professor who wanted to "academically squat" a Women's Studies course into a Home Ec course, would everyone support him, on the principle of supporting his academic freedom?

Or would the more likely reaction be "throw him out"? 

 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

You have disingenuously simplified Rancourt's position. If you can't do better than that, why would anyone waste their time further discussing with you?

Snert Snert's picture

I don't think a great deal of the criticism of the public school system and the post-secondary system as "tiny jails where students go to learn to be obedient to the Corporate Master".  Frankly, I think that position, not mine, is the disingenuous simplification.

But other than that, obviously I can't force you to participate.  You'll need to decide for yourself whether there's enough wheat in with the chaff to be of interest to you.

Just out of curiousity, though (and assuming you continue) do you feel that the Universities at which you've worked have been nothing more than preparation for a life of obeying and consuming?  Was your school so corrupt, so empty of value, that you agree it needs to be burned to the ground and a new system built on its ashes?

I suppose it's fairly evident, but I don't think that our educational system needs to dispense with grades, for example, or some kind of reasonable expectation (beyond showing up) for receiving a University-blessed credit or degree.  Sure, there's lots that could be improved, but I, personally, disagree with Rancourt's premise that academia "needs" to be destroyed.

Unionist

I don't think much of climate-change denial - to say the least. But that doesn't stop me looking sympathetically and openmindedly at this case. What I hear you saying is that because his ideas are (in your view) so wacky, or so contrary to your own opinions, we shouldn't take his demand for academic freedom seriously. That's a perilous road that I never want to go down.

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Actually, I'm not asking you to agree with Rancourt, or even sympathize with his views. I'm asking you to question or apparent position that dissent=insubordination and therefore deserves termination. Or am I misrepresenting your position (it's difficult to tell amid all the 'lols')? Do you distinguish between dissent and insubordination? Is Rancourt's behaviour one, or the other, or a little of both? Should dissent not be tolerated by an institution whose entire genesis is founded on sceptisism, critical thought and the idea of improving society?

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

Unionist wrote:

I don't care if he's right wing, left wing, or cranky. Personally, I draw the line at openly racist, fascist, homophobic, misogynistic.

Unionist wrote:

I don't think much of climate-change denial - to say the least. But that doesn't stop me looking sympathetically and openmindedly at this case. What I hear you saying is that because his ideas are (in your view) so wacky, or so contrary to your own opinions, we shouldn't take his demand for academic freedom seriously. That's a perilous road that I never want to go down.

You've already been down that road many times, friend.

Snert Snert's picture

Quote:
What I hear you saying is that because his ideas are (in your view) so wacky, or so contrary to your own opinions, we shouldn't take his demand for academic freedom seriously.

Well, not quite.  First and foremost, I don't believe that what he's demanding constitutes "academic freedom".  If it does, it effectively puts control of nearly everything a University does in the hands of unaccountable individuals.  Or, to put it another way, I don't believe that deciding to give an A+ to every student = "academic freedom"

But it strikes me as well that Rancourt is a bit of a zealot.  He's not looking for some incremental changes for the better, he's looking to destroy it all, and I don't get the sense he's interested in compromise on that.  So I don't think it's out of line to question his premise for his belief that he needs to do as he's been doing.

If, for example, he demanded the right to discuss offshore oil drilling in the negative, I'd support that (assuming that such a discussion was reasonably salient in a Physics curriculum).  That, as I understand it, is where academic freedom originated.  A need to ensure that the topics or opinions expressed by professors would not be subject to the political whims of the day.

And before anyone starts, I don't believe that not following his University's grading scheme is the kind of "political" opinions that academic freedom was intended to protect.  As Universities are academic organizations, it's easy to get lazy and assume that, therefore, anything and everything at a University is therefore "academic" and therefore anything and everything is subject to "academic freedom".

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I'm asking you to question or apparent position that dissent=insubordination

You seem to believe the opposite:  that insubordination = dissent.

I may disagree with my employer's lunch room policies, or our list of approved Dental providers.  I'm not aware that I can refuse my duties in protest. 

I would say that insubordination = dissent only in clear issues of safety (eg: being asked to do unsafe work) or legality (being asked to do illegal work).  I'm really not ready to say that if you think the University you work at shouldn't grade students, you don't have to, and that will be regarded as "dissent" rather than a simple refusal to do your job.

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Should dissent not be tolerated by an institution whose entire genesis is founded on sceptisism, critical thought and the idea of improving society?

Again, as you noted, Professors receive a level of "leeway" that neither you nor I could reasonably expect from our employer.  But no matter how generous this leeway, someone could, I suppose, always demand more.  I don't believe that this leeway should be infinite, nor the concept of "academic freedom" an absolute. 

But let's see if we can find some kind of boundary that you'd agree to.  I'll start a bit "way out there", but I'm sure we'll converge quickly enough.

Do you believe that if a Professor believes that the most effective learning happens in a lecture that's 5 minutes long, once a month, they should be empowered by the grace of Academic Freedom to teach that way, while still receiving full pay?  Yes or no?

What if a professor believes that students, upon completing a first year introductory course, should receive a PhD.  Should Universities respect and bless this?  Yes or no?

What if a professor believes that students need to understand how little they really know, and thus wishes to grade on a scale of perfect/fail, such that nearly all students will not receive a credit, and will have an "F" on their transcript.  Would you support that, under the rubric of academic freedom?

I know these questions are a bit out there, but then so is unilaterally deciding to give everyone an A+.  Each question involves a component of policy or course management that is typically the purview of the institution, not individuals.  Do you believe that "academic freedom" should transfer decisions of this nature to individuals?? 

 

 

Unionist

M. Spector wrote:

You've already been down that road many times, friend.

And you are bad at sports and wear ill-fitting cheap clothes.

Whoops, the discussion is degenerating...

 

Unionist

Snert, kindly provide a real or hypothetical example of a directive (if any) that a professor would be entitled to defy on grounds of academic freedom. Otherwise, it's difficult for me to know what you mean by the term.

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