Up for Debate: The Future of Undergraduate Education

Up for Debate: The Future of Undergraduate Education

Hi Gaiters!

My name is Dr. Riddell and I am a professor in the English Department at Bishop’s. This is my fourth year as a purple-wearing, Gaiter-cheering, ardent fan of BU. Every year I become more and more enamored with Bishop’s, and the model of education we provide to our students. I went to large, research-intensive universities (McGill, Saint Mary’s, Queen’s) and although I excelled (for the most part) academically, I never experienced the “true” undergraduate experience, i.e. where you met your life-long friends, felt a part of something larger than yourself, memorized songs and sang them until you lost your voice, wore one color even if it didn’t suit you, etc! I didn’t realize how much I missed – a focus on active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, small class sizes, and a strong commitment to teaching – until I was hired at Bishop’s in 2009. I could, retrospectively, mourn my lack of a liberal education experience and berate my 18-year-old self for making choices that were not in my best interests (I want to live in Montreal! I love the big city!). Instead, I have embraced the experience Bishop’s offers and endeavor to provide my students with a quality education – the integrative, the holistic, the transformative – every single day.

I believe that universities have a responsibility to prepare our young people for responsible, ethical, and sustainable leadership.

However, most Canadian universities are struggling to fulfill this mission. A number of books have been published recently that paint a rather grim picture of higher education. Recently, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, published a damning indictment of undergraduate education in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago, 2011).

The statistics they compiled are disturbing:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.

The reasons are complex, but most scholars agree that many institutions of higher learning – in response to cutbacks in funding, debt crises, and rising tuition – have grown their undergraduate enrollment rapidly and focused their resources on graduate programs and research. The rapid growth, combined with a myopic focus on the “bottom line,” has drastically diluted the quality of undergraduate education in Canada.

Now, this is where Bishop’s comes in. We have been insulated from much of this wide-spread crisis because we have grown sustainably with a consistent commitment to the tenets of a liberal education. We should be leading the debate about the type of university system Canadian society should support publicly for the current generation and the legacy that should be left for future generations.

So how does a little university exert a mighty voice on a national stage?

In an ideal world, we shouldn’t have to say a word: our results speak for themselves. We are recognized in independent nationally and internationally recognized studies – such as Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, and NSSE – for our dedication to active and collaborative learning, enriching educational experience, level of academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, small class sizes, and quality of teaching.

And yet, despite our expertise, our existence as an alternative to much larger comprehensive universities is not well known in Canada. This is in stark contrast to the situation in the United States, where there is widespread public appreciation of the liberal arts undergraduate universities such as Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Williams, and many more.

So how do we take a leadership role in undergraduate education?

 We’ve got a plan to initiate the conversation! Bishop’s will host an exciting day-long event called “Up for Debate: The Future of Undergraduate Education” on February 9th, 2013.

The event will have three components:

9:00am – 12:00pm: Student Debate Tournament

We will take a refreshing approach to debating in order to stimulate lively discussion around broad issues that affect young people today. Teams comprised of four students from each University will be drawn from existing university debate teams or, in the absence of an established team, from other outstanding students.

1:00-5:00pm: TEDxBishopsU

We have a TEDx license to run a multidisciplinary event featuring speakers drawn from the talented pool of students, faculty, alumni, community members, and staff from Bishop’s and three other universities who share our vision, mission, and values (Mount A, St. FX, and Acadia). As the TED motto suggests, the talks (max. 18 minutes each) will feature “ideas worth spreading.”

7:30-10:30pm: The CBC’s The Debaters

The evening event – the CBC’s The Debaters – will extend the debate about undergraduate education outside of the academy and into the world of stand-up comedy. The popular CBC radio show is an irreverent public forum that deconstructs the ideological underpinnings of the debate structure and moves the traditional, even elite format from the esoteric to the accessible.

As Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc write, in The Heart of Higher Education (2011), “sometimes good conversations are ends in themselves, good simply because they are enjoyable and edifying. At other times, something stirs in the participants, and larger forms of dialogue and action begin to take shape”.

We anticipate that “Up for Debate” will create spaces for encounters that will lead to future collaborations on teaching, learning, and knowledge creation.

See you February 9th, 2013!

Dr. Riddell


One Response to “Up for Debate: The Future of Undergraduate Education

  • Bob Perkins
    8 years ago

    Thanks for the posting …… I am a Bishop’s Grad (B.Sc. 1972) who went on to UBC for a Ph.D. (1976) in organic chemistry and then spent the next 32 years teaching chemistry (Memorial, UBC and Kwantlen University College). I am now a part-time continuing faculty member at Quest University Canada – the private liberal arts and science university (Squamish BC) scoring at the top of the NSSE results for the past 2 years.

    We are striving to provide students with an education – not just a degree.


    Dr. Bob Perkins

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