Students vote! – Trevor Holmes

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As a teaching developer, a good deal of my time is spent thinking about faculty members’ needs in the teaching/learning equation. I consult with them individually, help to run a workshop program, go into Department meetings on curriculum design… but I also think about students in the overall picture. My own teaching philosophy used to include an emphatic claim about students knowing best what they need; since my idealistic early days, I’ve tempered that a bit, while maintaining that some, in fact, really do have a solid sense of themselves and their learning. This frames the difficulty I have reconciling two views I hold about the recent voting by students in general and students on Senate.

On the one hand, I am always thrilled when I hear that students participate in matters Senatorial. Student Senators, like all Senators in the bicameral university system, take their roles very seriously. According to the Daily Bull, a surfeit of students caused Senate Chambers to overflow this week, and that’s got to be a good thing. President Johnston was right, I think, to defer the question to the next meeting rather than use Chair’s privilege to pick a side in a 23-23 tie. At the very least, current students will have had a serious airing of concerns about an early start to classes in late Labour Day years, and will have an effect on future students’ experiences of Orientation.

On the other hand, the student body (or its proxy in the form of a sizable minority) has now declared SoundFM, the campus community radio station, quite dead in a relatively close poll. I can understand voting to enlarge Health Services. I can understand voting against a new Student Services building (I suppose, though I haven’t followed this campaign, that students feel someone else ought to build their buildings, and fair enough). In these cases, I trust that the students know what is best for them and have expressed this democratically. But community radio… something in me thinks that perhaps I know better than the students how valuable SoundFM could have been to future generations of undergraduates. Was it shortsighted of them? I have followed the arguments a little bit both pro and con, and I still have a soft spot for the things a radio *station* can do (as opposed to individuals taking over various internet tools, for example) for the community.

So for me, this raises the larger question of student self-determination versus paternalism in the tertiary education sector. If faculty and staff know what’s best for learning and learners based on experience, based on research, based on innovation that sees the big picture (one hopes), how do we persuade students that something “good for them” is worth endorsing? If students believe strongly that it’s time to take back the campus, or shape it for future students, how do we find ways to listen to them, be persuaded by them even if we think they are being Icarus to our Daedalus?

Am I just getting old? There was a time when I would have insisted that students need regularly to take over the system. I may even have lamented the decline of radicalism amongst undergraduates. But now, I hear them not understanding the principles behind things like professorial research agendas, or things like tenure and academic freedom, and I wonder how their votes may be different if they could see a bigger picture.

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