Department of Anthropology and Graduate Program in Social Anthropology Response to Remediation Framework Reply

The Department of Anthropology and Graduate Program in Social Anthropology held an emergency faculty meeting on March 20, 2015, to discuss the Institutional Remediation Guidelines provided by the Senate Executive, as well as the LA&PS Remediation Framework. We are disappointed that the Senate Executive has decided to resume classes on Monday March 23, 2015 instead of settling the strike. Following careful consideration and discussion of the implications of this decision for our students, we, the faculty members of the Department and the Graduate Program, stand unanimously opposed to the resumption of classes.

We understand our collegium to be the proper steward of the principles of academic integrity and fairness to students. With regard to the curriculum, we have exercised this stewardship by establishing program UUDLES and consistent course ELOs. While we recognize that the decision to resume individual classes ultimately lies with course directors, we are keenly aware that individuals’ decisions may reflect their differential positions of power within the university rather than the principles we are charged with upholding. Without prejudice to and with respect for individual decisions, therefore, we have collegially determined that academic integrity and fairness to students are best ensured by suspending classes until a settlement is reached. We also assert the right of all instructors, no matter how precarious their contractual status, to full protection from reprisal for their decisions regarding the resumption of classes.

Despite the official resumption of classes, most of our graduate students remain on strike. Consequently, they will not be able to play their essential role in the delivery of our courses as teaching assistants and marker/graders. Many undergraduate students will also exercise their right to not participate in academic activities during the strike. Group discussions and presentations are essential to classroom pedagogy in our department, and full graded participation of students is required for maintaining academic integrity. Moreover, any course director who resumes class before the end of the strike will be required to teach two different groups of students and conduct evaluations twice, under substantially different circumstances, denying our students the equivalent learning to which they are entitled.

We are also gravely concerned about the safety of our students, faculty and staff, and all members of the York community who will be forced to cross the picket lines on March 23, 2015. The increased volume of cars crossing the picket, inevitably causing delays, will exacerbate tensions at the picket lines and place picketers and commuters alike at risk. It will also seriously compromise access to campus, especially for students with limited mobility.

We believe that in trying to resume normal activities in the face of a strike, the university is neglecting the right of unionized workers to withhold their labour. This action damages the university community by pitting us against one another instead of reaching a quick settlement.

The resumption of Anthropology classes while the strike is ongoing is thus bound to create inequities and divisions among our students as well as undermine the pedagogical aims of individual courses and our curriculum as a whole. Under these circumstances the stated principles of fairness to students, academic integrity, and timely information cannot be met. Suspending classes is an enactment of our pedagogical commitments and our political and ethical obligations to our students and to York University.

Rationale for suspending specific classes on grounds of academic integrity and fairness to students

Undergraduate courses:

In this academic year, Unit 1 TAs teach over 40 tutorials for courses in the Department. Furthermore, over 50% of the total number of Anthropology students are enrolled in courses with a tutorial component, with such courses comprising 25% of all courses in the Department. Although not every course has a tutorial component, a large majority of Anthropology students are enrolled in at least one such course.

We know that many undergraduate students support the strike as they have sent emails [1] like the one quoted below. Many have also signed the petition [2] stating that they will not return to classes until the strike is over. We thus have every reason to expect that all courses in our program will be faced with partial attendance, severely compromising the course objectives and learning goals that are outlined in our course syllabi.

Our undergraduate course offerings are organized thematically so that first, second, third, and fourth year courses are integrated into coherent programs of study, and lower level courses feed into upper level courses. As per our UUDLEs and ELOs, our courses and programs uphold the pedagogical principles of active and engaged learning in the classroom and rely on high levels of attendance and student participation. We have devised pedagogical approaches like group assignments, in-class presentations, and peer-review feedback to ensure that students learn to engage with ethnographic material in a dynamic setting with access to the views, interpretations and questions of their peers — a pedagogical process we deem fundamental to the discipline of Anthropology. Because this pedagogical process relies on scaffolding learning objectives over successive years of the degree, denaturing it for one class not only diminishes the student experience for that class alone, but hampers students’ full participation in later moments of the program.

Courses with tutorials:

In courses with tutorials, our Department’s view is that it is impossible to continue only with lectures without compromising the academic integrity of the course. Without tutorials, the significant component of the learning experience achieved through instruction from teaching assistants and small group interaction amongst students will be eliminated, diminishing the overall quality of instruction in these courses. Moreover, without feedback and grading from teaching assistants, evaluation cannot proceed as originally planned. In many courses, such weekly ongoing feedback and assessment in tutorials is essential to achieving pedagogical objectives. As such, the proposal to convert course assignments originally designed to examine students’ written work into formats that permit machine grading is an unacceptable alteration to course design, constituting a serious dilution of academic integrity. Toward the end of classes with final tests or exams, in which the tutorial is the primary space for exam review and preparation, depriving students of this venue also harms their best chances for success in coursework.

We are particularly concerned with any remediation strategy that involves the arbitrary alteration of the assignment structure of  courses at this late date. Students have been working on group assignments for presentation in class/tutorial since the beginning of term; these group presentations cannot take place given individual student choices not to cross picket lines. Altering the assignment structure with only three weeks remaining in the term is neither fair to students, nor pedagogically sound, if simply driven by the desire for alternate forms of grading.

Courses without tutorials:

For courses without tutorials (primarily at the 3000- and 4000-level), regardless of size, academic integrity depends in whole or in part on class participation, often including presentations, and will be severely compromised by the absence of students who choose not to participate in academic activities during the strike.

One of the major objectives for courses at the 3000 level is to train students in ethnographic research methods. Most courses at the third year incorporate experiential approaches to social research, and require the fulfilment of a fieldwork component through campus-based projects. The acquisition of comprehensive expertise centering on best practices, as well as a firm grasp of ethics standards, is a central pedagogical goal of these courses. However, their academic integrity cannot be sustained if students’ ability to participate in ongoing mentoring support and collaborative learning is compromised by uneven access. Likewise, the feasibility of the studies conceived, designed, and carried forth by our students is undermined by the tense atmosphere of uncertainty that prevails on campus for the duration of the strike. This is unfair both to our students, who have invested several months of preparation in laying the groundwork for their research projects, as well as to the participants in their research projects, who can no longer be reasonably expected to uphold their commitments as interlocutors to our students.

Similar challenges face freestanding courses at the 4000 level. Fourth-year Anthropology courses take the form of 25-student seminars in which students learn to theorize with anthropological concepts. Partial attendance will negatively affect the academic integrity of these seminars, not only by reducing the quality of the class discussions, but by fundamentally undermining the process of active and reflexive learning that occurs through interaction between course director and seminar participants and among participants themselves—a process that is constitutive of the seminar format. Furthermore, in terms of course administration, this situation will wreak havoc with the scheduled rotation of student presentations, which are again integral to the pedagogy of these classes.

Without question, following the termination of the strike, students and course directors in the “remediated” versions of these courses would face precisely the same difficulties.

Graduate Program:

Due to the large number of our graduate students who are on strike, the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology cannot sustain the academic integrity of its graduate courses and the overall integrity of its graduate curriculum. We refuse to demand that graduate students cross their own picket lines to attend class. The core of our pedagogical model – intensive group discussion utilizing the Socratic method of posing questions and soliciting responses between the course instructor and students and amongst peers who are well prepared – will be undermined with a smaller and unpredictable complement of students that may be divided into pre- and post-strike cohorts. All students are also expected to give presentations and prepare major papers that rely on feedback from their peers. For example, in one of our graduate courses, significant weight is allocated to weekly development of the paper proposal in active consultation with the course instructor. In another course, first year MA and PhD students are three-quarters of their way through writing an in-class collective multi-sensory ethnography with the course director based on intensive in-class peer-to-peer analysis, critique and discussion. It is therefore essential to our graduate program that students have the opportunity to engage in these critically reflexive discipline-based practices as a collective, offering support and insights about theoretical and methodological issues of the discipline as they learn to become practitioners of Anthropology.

Summary

In summary, because of our concerns with academic integrity and fairness to students in our graduate and undergraduate programs, and because of our serious concerns with safety issues, we in the Department of Anthropology have collegially decided to suspend classes until the strike is resolved. We urge the administration to focus its energies on settling the labour dispute and thereby ending the strike with Units 1 and 3 of CUPE 3903. At that time, we will gladly commence with a remediation plan that is fair, collegial, and consistent with the academic integrity of individual courses and programs in our unit.

[1] “I am writing to you as an undergraduate student in anthropology who is in support of CUPE 3903. You have shaped my education as professors, both sessional and tenured. You have taught me that other worlds are possible and showed me what some of them look like. I am writing to you because I believe what you have all taught me, that other worlds are within reach. Teaching assistants and graduate assistants deserve our support in their fight to better their worlds. Teaching assistants and graduate assistants have been an essential part of my education…Without TAs and GAs York should not resume classes. We need to send a message that their labor in indispensable. I stand with many other undergraduates who have signed a petition stating that we will not cross picket lines or return to classes until CUPE 3903 is no longer on strike. I ask that you do the same. Regardless of senates decision tomorrow classes should not resume until we can all come back together…”

[2] As per, inter alia , the online petition available here: https://www.change.org/p/york-university-senate-executivecommittee-statement-of-solidarity-with-cupe-3903-york-university-undergraduates?just_created=true

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