Wednesday’s panel discussion

Wednesday’s panel discussion


The morning began with a hint of trepidation, as the first speaker of the Panel was a no-show. After a tangible pause, as the master organizer, Don Cartwright, considered his next move, Chris Knapper moseyed in, wearing his only suit and tie. It was good to hear his familiar voice, his words of caution, and his deep insights. The connection had begun. The bar was suddenly set very high.

Then Alastair Summererlee, Natalie Gerum, and Anton Allahar spoke. Each one of us felt the intensity of their statements. I was particularly taken by Natalie’s youthful enthusiasm. She articulated and gesticulated. Her vision was emphatic, laced with metaphors and props that spoke directly to “Blind Curves or Open Roads: Higher Ed in 2035”. I think, secretly, many of Canada’s national teaching award winners either saw another 3M Fellow in the making or wished they could speak as eloquently as she.

The panellists continued with passion. Each was resolute, real, and engaging. As one hoped, among the panel voices there were real differences in both cause and effect of the current state of higher education, let alone where it might be in the next 25 years. An audible clashing of views between between Anton and Alastair turned opening statements into an open debate, plus or minus a few dismissive lobs.

Panel_6As the exchanges heated up, timeless issues multiplied intractably. I became a spectator and wondered how far the panel would go. How do we engage unprepared students? How do we welcome and keep first-year students? What are the side effects of part-time teaching? Can we direct the seemingly troublesome corporatization of universities? Are universities reinventing themselves? Where is teaching in those new universities?

The perspectives were as varied as the topics, and some, like myself, were quick to nod in both agreement and disagreement, sometimes rolling our heads side to side – East Indian style – to signal that we had not decided.

Don smoothly moved the conversation back and forth from panellists to the audience, which unleashed potent comments from the young and the seasoned amongst us. Sebastian, a graduate student and TA, wondered how he should deal with a younger generation of illiterate students. Others reminded us of what a new generation can do and wanted to do. Table after table engaged and the room was a buzz. Perhaps we came full circle when Ron Marken’s poetry reminded us of the humanity in our endeavour. He described William Blake’s vision of mankind in “four-fold oneness,” where Emotion, Sensation, Imagination, and Reason live in harmony and balance. Blake called them “The Four Zoas.” We are, Ron hinted, too much ruled by Reason and too likely to dismiss the other three Zoas as unreliable or even dangerous. Then we remembered how many times have we heard students say teachers’ Passions inspire them most?

The morning was riveting. The clocks moved faster than they were supposed to. I wouldn’t be the only one still thinking about big visions and red flags along the bumpy road of higher education. And wondering what I can do to make a difference.

–Arshad Ahmad