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Freedom of Expression Committee

Letter to UofO Pres. Gilles Patry, from Sarah Lawrence, 1 April 2007
Response from the Government of Ontario
REGISTRATION: 2007 AC as Protest
About the Activism Course
Letter: ES Exec to Dean - March 2007
Letters of Support 2006
Letters to Patry in 2007
Replies from Patry 2007
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Sarah Lawrence,
4th-year U. of O. student

President Gilles Patry,
Dean André Lalonde,

As a concerned 4th-year undergraduate student, former Killam Fellow, and potential graduate school applicant, I want to express my support for the SCI 1502 and SCI 2101 courses to be given/created in Fall 2007. As I understand it, the Dean of the Faculty of Science has engaged a campaign to cancel these courses altogether. I'd like to make you both aware of my dissatisfaction with these plans.

I believe that a university environment ought to encourage critical thinking, not blind adherence to traditions and norms. I also believe that real learning (rather than simple "schooling") necessarily takes place through the practice of critical thinking. These are two different yet interrelated points. If a professor takes the initiative to implement a new pedagogical model to ameliorate the students' academic experience in response to her or his perception that the traditional model is ineffective or incomplete, the university ought to applaud such efforts. Don't we want students to have a positive and enriching academic life?

The second point refers more specifically to a course's subject matter. The university administration recognizes my point to some extent, since our 4th-year-level courses tend to encourage some form of critical thinking. What we need to do is not merely reserve this level of thinking for the final years, but to encourage and foster a critical approach throughout a person's university career. It is only in this way--by asking difficult questions and challenging one's own deeply-held assumptions and beliefs--that real learning can take place.

The "Activism Course" follows/establishes a pedagogical model where both its method and content can foster a critical thinking approach. In addition, it also proposes a model that is far more student-centered than any other I have seen at the University of Ottawa. It places the responsibility to learn squarely on the students' own shoulders, allowing them to pursue themes or issues that particularly interest them, as opposed to requiring the entire class to compose the same paper of specified length on a specified topic. I strongly believe that this freedom is what fosters a love of learning, so the university's attempt to cancel the course is a step in the wrong direction. If anything, this is a model that other courses ought to emulate!

Another way the course is student-centered is how the students have a voice in determining its content. A truly democratic educational process gives students not only the option but the responsibility to determine their own education. Making students accountable for their own academic experience is key in developing responsible and accountable citizens.

My final point relates to the course's de-emphasis on competition among students. Organizing the course such that there are no grades assigned for "good" or "poor" performance encourages a positive learning environment, wherein students can work at their own pace and be free to enjoy the learning process without the anxiety that goes along with evaluation. Last semester's course was particularly interesting because of the students' adaptation to its bilingual presentations. Instead of sitting in silence and passively absorbing what was being said, students actively participated in their own and others' learning experience, in some cases by asking questions, and in other cases by providing impromptu translations for their neighbors. This emphasis on cooperation and mutual aid--as opposed to competing for the best grade at the expense of others--is necessary to building a fair and just society.

While I was unable to attend the course last semester due to another commitment during the same timeslot, I have been researching similar pedagogical models and ideas in my spare time. The methods presented here are not new, they reflect century-old and older ideas embodied by the Modern School and Free School movements around the world, and have been documented at length in various publications. The methods are effective in creating a desire to learn--evidenced by the lecture hall regularly overflowing with students and non-students alike. At the same time, the methods encourage the development of values and skills that are necessary for producing responsible and accountable citizens in a truly democratic society.

I strongly believe that making efforts to cancel one of the University of Ottawa's only politically, methodologically and pedagogically progressive courses is a big mistake. The "Activism Course" ought to continue being offered, its professor, Denis Rancourt, ought to continue teaching it, and its model should set an example for more courses to follow.

Sarah Lawrance
Joint Honours Bachelor in Social Sciences, in Communication & Sociology

back to: Letters to Patry 2007