When Liberal Party heavyweight Allan Rock took over as president at the University of Ottawa this September, many wondered what would be in store for Denis Rancourt.
Rancourt, a physics professor in his 22nd year at the school, had been at loggerheads with the previous administration since 2005 when he began applying a form of critical pedagogy not traditionally practiced in North American institutions.
Critical pedagogy, for Rancourt, is all about democratizing the classroom. Students are given input over the curriculum, they are encouraged to take classroom discussion wherever it may lead, and there are no grades. Rancourt’s preference is a pass/fail system, but when the university refused to allow this he announced on the first day of classes in 2007 that all students would be receiving an A+.
Under the previous president, Gilles Patry, Rancourt was consistently targeted for discipline. Among other things, he had his popular activism course shut down twice and his well-attended weekly documentary series repeatedly threatened with closure.
To Rancourt’s dismay, the punishment has only increased under the Rock administration. Since September Rancourt has been removed from all teaching, he has been barred from reserving university rooms for public events (including the documentary series), and his entire research group was expelled and locked out of their lab. Finally, in December, he was informed that he had been banned from campus and that he would be fired as soon as it could be arranged. He was then escorted off campus by university police.
The University of Ottawa has yet to make a public announcement regarding Rancourt, and refused to make a statement to rabble.ca on the grounds that providing details of the university’s relationship with its professors would violate Canadian privacy law.
Jesse Freeston: What reason did the university administration give you as to why they are seeking to dismiss you?
Denis Rancourt: They are claiming that I have graded in an arbitrary fashion. That I have simply awarded A+’s completely arbitrarily without any reference to any pedagogical method or teaching process. If the dismissal goes through they will dismantle my lab, so even if I win the court case it will be very difficult to continue my research career. Not to mention that an arbitrator already ruled in my favour earlier this year, affirming that it is a professor’s right under academic freedom to use non-conventional grading systems as part of a pedagogical method. Yet, they are still going at me with this same accusation.
JF: Why is it important to you to not grade your students?
DR: With grades students learn to guess the professor’s mind and to obey. It is a very sophisticated machinery, whereby the natural desire to learn, the intrinsic motivation to want to learn something because you are interested in the thing itself, is destroyed. Grades are the carrot and stick that shape obedient employees and that prepare students for the higher level indoctrinations of graduate and professional schools. The only way to develop independent thinking in the classroom is to give freedom, to break the power relationship by removing the instrument of power.
JF: In the classes where students were not graded, how would you describe the work that they accomplished?
DR: The variety of projects, the breadth of topics that were explored by the students is an order of magnitude or more (a lot) greater than what you would normally see in a standard class, because they were the ones that came up with it, they were intrigued by it, they were following their own curiosities, their own self-directed research. Because they were able to find their own intrinsic motivation within the subject itself, I believe their learning was deeper.
Even in fourth year physics, I was able to demonstrate to the class the extent to which they hadn’t really understood many things. We sat there sometimes and reviewed things from first year physics, and I was able to find things that are very fundamental to Newton’s laws that the majority of the class had not understood.
It was to some extent humiliating for students to realize that they had bought into a system which doesn’t work. In which they can be convinced that they’ve learned something even though they haven’t understood it. It was a bit of a shock to them, but that shock is essential. You have to be willing to accept that you don’t really understand something if you’re going to be a researcher who makes great discoveries of how nature functions and so on.
JF: Do you see a role for grading anywhere in the educational system?
DR: The big distinction we have to make is between learning skills, and education. When it comes to learning skills, well, you have to learn the skill. If you’re a surgeon, you have to learn how to operate, and in fact, a lot of medical schools have done away with grades completely as they’re able to teach very specific skills without using grades.
For the other part of education, the creative thinking side, all the research shows that grades are anti-educational. As soon as you make a student into a machine that is looking for higher grades, they are trying to guess what the professor wants rather than looking at the phenomenon, looking at the material in order to understand it themselves. That’s a very clearly demonstrated fact, it’s well known, in fact what I’m doing is nothing new, with regards to grading. All the cognitive psychologists know this, that grading is a tool of coercion in order to make obedient people, it is a carrot and stick mechanism. It’s not about personal development, learning, creativity or understanding complicated concepts.
JF: Wouldn’t not grading damage the credibility of the university? Particularly in its position vis-a-vis employers who want to know that they are getting an employee who has demonstrated their knowledge of a given subject.
DR: 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.
JF: What is meant by the term academic freedom?
DR: Academic freedom is the ideal under which professors and students are autonomous and design their own development and interactions. In practice, it is the legal precedent that gives university professors some professional independence in their teaching and research. The institutions, however, define academic freedom to mean that the universities are not accountable to elected governments.
JF: Why should those outside of universities care about academic freedom?
DR: They shouldn’t. Such caring would imply the elitist notion that only university professors should have freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry and job security. Citizens should instead fight for these principles in their own lives, in their work and at school. All such fights create and strengthen political freedom for all.
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.
Jesse Freeston is a Toronto-based independent journalist.