Friday, February 06, 2009

University gadfly zapped

I'd love to audit a course given by University of Ottawa physics professor Denis Rancourt, who's in a spot of bother at the moment. He's wildly popular among his students because of his teaching style. He likes his students to think for themselves, explore and shatter boundaries, ask questions and look for answers, no matter how unorthodox. He has been focusing recently on what these days are called Science Studies--an interdicipinary critique of science, its uses, its value-laden underpinnings, its relation to power and so on.

The last course he delivered, before being shut down and ultimately led away from the campus in handcuffs by the Ottawa police, was called Science in Society. This prompted a memory: my late father was once involved in a small group in Ottawa with that very name, although there the resemblance ends. Dad wanted to promote a deeper understanding of science by the lay public, not to deconstruct it. (I am still kicking myself, thirty years or so after the fact, for missing his lecture on Arthur Koestler.)

Rancourt might have been loved by many, even most, of his students, but he did not endear himself to his colleagues, nor to the university administration. With student input, he changed curriculum material without university approval (calling his approach "academic squatting"). In 2007, one-third of his colleagues signed a complaint against him, after he sent around some emails criticizing their teaching methods. He allowed two 10-year-olds to register in his Science in Society course, and he supported a human rights complaint against the university for ageism when the kids got the boot.

The final straw seems to have been when he announced, on the first day of a fourth-year physics course, that all of his students would get an A+. Last December he was suspended, locked out of his lab, banned from campus, and told that the university is seeking his dismissal. A few days ago he ventured onto the campus to run a meeting of an alternative film society that he hosts, and was arrested and charged with trespassing.

That, of course, was needlessly, stupidly heavy-handed. The Canadian Association of University Teachers is on the case, seeing the bid to fire Professor Rancourt as an issue of academic freedom. At present he's meeting unofficially with his students in off-campus coffee shops.

Rancourt sums up his critique of the academic establishment thus: "Grades poison the educational environment. We're training students to be obedient, and to try to read our minds, rather than being a catalyst for learning."

He's right. But I'm with the university on this one.

Institutions are no place for frolicking, and I mean that not in a stern schoolmasterish way, but rather as a fairly pedestrian observation about how institutions work. So why do mavericks join them, then? For a number of reasons, assuming that they are not simply selling out: to change the institution from within, or to engage in a little jiu-jitsu, employing the gravity of that institution to his or her own advantage. I don't mean to imply self-indulgence or selfishness by the latter, necessarily: such a person might wish to advance aims that are arguably within an institution's potential if not actual mandate, adroitly using an institutional position to assist in that endeavour. There is nothing inherently wrong in that.

But this is a strategic question, and I write as a dissident who once made a conscious decision to become a union leader in the very organization that I continually confronted and challenged as a rank-and-filer. I wanted change, and thought I could help from inside. And, over time, I watched my organization move in a progressive direction, and assisted in establishing forward-looking policies and structures within it.

If I'd behaved like Denis Rancourt, though, I'd have been dead in the water from day one. I would have had no allies, no access to institutional resources, and no credibility except with a few activists. If you choose to work within the system, you need all of the above, and more. You get nowhere joining an institution but remaining resolutely, antagonistically anti-institution, and trying to go it alone.

Universities should, ideally, be just the sorts of places that Rancourt wants--engaging, unorthodox, stimulating. But, because they issue credentials, universities must also ensure that students have actually learned something. Curriculum is decided, not on the basis of student input (although that input can be well worth having), but on what the discipline requires and what people in the outside world expect. I want my bridges designed and constructed by
qualified civil engineers and tradespersons, not by critics of the regimentation that such qualification inevitably entails, whose expertise is in sociology.

Yet we need just such critics, unmannerly or annoying as they might be. They're part of the whole picture, in which institutions are another part. In fact, being unmannerly or annoying is an essential part of the package. They're gadflies on the lazy horse, an image that comes to us courtesy of Socrates, who was mild-mannered enough but insisted upon asking annoying questions.

Disciplines require the undisciplined, or they would never change. Institutions need to be challenged. People like Rancourt are invaluable assets to the wider community, walking question-marks, who, through a mixture of charisma and skill, are able to persuade others to engage actively in their society. They make us look at received wisdom, and problematize the "natural order." They can make us better citizens if we learn their lessons well.

But unfortunately that's not all there is to it. They also need to be strategic enough not to frustrate their own ends. Rancourt clearly is not. I'm sure that he considers strategy a compromise: I'm familiar enough with anarchists who have no patience with patience. But his personal project was doomed for the lack of it.

Inside an institution, one has limited options: profound irritants will inevitably be expelled by the host. Even the court jesters of old, who spoke truth to power because power, on occasion, likes to listen, lived precariously. People like Rancourt who are unwilling to bend are far more effective from the outside, where he now finds himself. I, for one, hope he does well, and I'll be looking for him in Ottawa cafés or at public lectures, delivering well-placed stings to the academic nag.

UPDATE: (February 10) Stanley Fish and blogger Blind Man With A Pistol weigh in.

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