The professors’ paradox: Improving education by refusing to teach

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This column is an opinion by Darryl Whetter, a professor at the Université Sainte-Anne in Pointe-de-l’Église, N.S. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

To my poet’s ear, that instrument of music, memory, imagination, emotion, and more, why we strike sounds a lot like that perennial question, and great documentary title, Why We Fight.

So many of the lessons I teach in literature classes and creative writing workshops, lessons in paradox, irony, absurdity, injustice, and the “self-ruin” that is tragedy, confront me each snowy day here as I move from recently joining my brother’s picket line at Acadia University to, now, ours in the first-ever strike in 130-plus years at Université Sainte-Anne. 

With students in three provinces frustrated by recent campus strikes, you might be wondering how we profs can walk out on the students we are charged to teach and who, in ways, we once were. How, you might ask, does heading to the picket lines instead of the classroom, library or laboratory constitute the improved learning conditions for which we claim to be fighting? Let me give you one professor’s perspective.

Education is my family trade. Our father was a high school teacher. My romantic partner in my 30s taught everything from Grade 3 to lecturing at university to teaching some of Nova Scotia’s first (and blessedly pre-COVID) online high school classes. 

Like my only sibling and my wife, I was a university student for a decade. How, then, can I turn my back on my students and walk out on them, surrendering my pay to halt the production of the product/service/soul transformation that is a university education?

Diluted education

Colleagues in other fields, most of us on our first strike, whether here, at the University of Lethbridge, or the Ontario Institute of Technology, or Acadia, where binding arbitration was required to end the month-long strike, may not be so tortured by metaphor. 

With one of my novels substantially devoted to the First World War, I cannot help but compare the students I just walked away from to Great War conscripts falling on the barbed wire so that next year’s students might not have their educations so diluted and diverted by the well-paid vice-presidents who haven’t taught in years, or maybe even this millennium. 

When, paradoxically, I stop teaching today’s students for better teaching conditions tomorrow, I do so thinking of what a good undergraduate education can and should be. 

One of the courses I have just suspended is a senior-year seminar devoted to Portraits of the Artist. My students should be reading these cartographer’s lines from Martin Amis: “[Richard] was an artist when he saw society: it never crossed his mind that society had to be like this, had any right, had any business being like this. … This is what an artist has to be: harassed to the point of insanity or stupefaction by first principles.”

Faculty gather to organize in front of the picket line on the University of Lethbridge campus last month. According to Darryl Whetter, professors across Canada are uniting to deliver a message to university administrators: We’re not going to take it anymore! (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

One stupefying and sanity-threatening fact of Canadian campus life is the recurrent, nation-wide decision to make administration the highest paying of the professorial triathlete’s three events. Our perpetually finite but perpetually reallocated time is divided between teaching, research, and administration. 

In what I call the “vice-presidentification” of our universities, a tiny band of administrative plutocrats and the business people they appoint to university boards of governors decide that the best paid of those three professorial endeavours should be administration, the one task where you don’t mentor students. 

Why?! 

Tax dollars arrive to universities to fund teaching, research, and student life, yet a handful of self-enriching university administrators appoint themselves first to the feeding trough. Here at Sainte-Anne, we have posted a surplus for five years running, including almost $1.6 million last year. Meanwhile, students tell me of poor living conditions in residence and the abrupt closure of all dining halls and restaurants on campus. 

Money ripped from students’ hands

A recent Toronto Star race-for-the millions exposé of Canadian university presidential salaries reveals that the president of the University of Alberta “took home $960,000 in 2020.” The article notes that the governors appointed to campus boardrooms arrive there from corporate boardrooms, presumably asking questions like “What would I deserve to be paid?” Neither side, the one-per cent administrators nor the university governors, most of whom have never taught, appears to care that money is being ripped out of the hands of students. 

I’m told that one student protester on Acadia’s peaceful picket line recently marched with a sign reading “$341,305,” the salary of Acadia’s president (before perks like a housing allowance or, at many Canadian universities, a serviced mansion).

To teach irony, I often play Pink Floyd’s song Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2, with its unforgettable children’s chorus, “We don’t need no education.” More ironic than the grammatical double-negative is the fact that those child singers would eventually sue for unpaid royalties to recoup a minuscule fraction of the value they contributed to a fortune-making song. 

Without teachers, none of us would learn of rights, value, courts, and justice. We all need education, and professors across Canada are uniting to sing a different rock anthem: We’re not going to take it anymore!


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