Winter semester, 1990

Touch wood
The alloyed coin
No exit
No-name society
To purposes fickly faithed
Interlude: Lesson from Leo
Pulex in the rapids
In the brass's spittoon
The whited sepulchre
All-terrain vehicles
Salomé in the buff


Thirteen weekly letters written in 1990 reflect personal observations and feelings about Dawson College at that time. They are reproduced here in the autumn of 2017—with a few editing touches and footnotes for clarity.  0

Dear Colleague:  2

Twenty years of teaching experience is a lot of experience and at this time in Dawson's history our students ought to benefit from it handsomely. But do they? I really haven't much of an answer but if, perchance, you do, please share it with me.  3

How do you measure progress, I wonder, in the educational enterprise? Students, and teachers, and student-teacher interactions engulf us with unknow or, if known, not readily measurable variables. And this makes the getting of timely information for designing our day-to-day educational approaches neigh impossible.  4

That doesn't prevent researchers from trying their darndest. Hypotheses are framed and tested and reported on in such massive numbers that the educational literature has become more of a desease than a cure. Unless I am badly mistaken, not many teachers dig into it to find answers to their professional problems. Anyone who'd try is likely to get lost in the heap, never to be heard of again.*  5

But if Mohammed sees no point in going to the mountain, the mountain can always come to Mohammed. Educational speakers exhort teachers, usually without proof of potential benefit, to set aside just a little of their precious classroom time, five minutes, say, for, perhaps, some informal exchange with their students—maybe to reveal a little about themselves so as to lessen fright rooted in awe—or to let students compare and fix up their classroom notes, or let them communicate something to their teacher in writing.  6

Even though a dozen of these folk medicines and snake oils add up to 120 percent of available classroom time, they are in line with well-established, good, old North American tradition. Don't we already spend a scant fifteen minutes each day to become a little wealthier and another quarter of an hour to become a teeny-weeny bit wiser? What is a mere fifteen minutes in a 1440-minute day if we take such excellent benefits into account? And why not let a student tag on another fifteen or so to keep a diary for his chemistry teacher ... and for added returns, another one for his humanities teacher as well?*  7

Sorry, I don't want to use cheap rhetoric, but is it not just about here were things stand? Are we not as individual teachers simply left to our own devices? Will those advisors step in and really help us when things go awry? When we don't get the results—and satisfaction—we seek from our work?  8

Well, I have my experiences and so, I guess, have you. And when all is said and done we are left to muster any needed fortitude from within ourselves so that we may carry on with a process in which we let unwarranted optimism alternate with helpless-but-cheerful acceptance, stiff upperlip bent in smiles eternal.  9

Part of our weakness is that we are such a compartmentalized lot—even when we teach sections of a course in which more than one teacher participates. Narrowly localized in time and space and with enough burden to prevent us from gathering and studying whatever facts are available and assessing what end is up.  10

* * *

Pulpwood is a variable material. Not as variable as students, I am sure, but sufficiently so as to require careful attention in a pulp-&-paper mill whose management values a healthy balance sheet. I used to work in the pulp and paper industry, sixteen years, and I know a little bit about it.  11

Four of those years, I worked as a sulphite control engineer. The control department's function was to gather and analyze information about raw materials, intermediate materials and products, as well as information about the industrial conversion processes in use. We assembled and attempted to interpret data in daily and weekly and monthly and annual reports, and added to them commentary about plausible reasons. Our ultimate purpose was to learn; to improve things. To create a better balance sheet. As sulphite control engineer I was assigned to that part of the mill that produces wood pulp by the sulphite process, and alcohol from the wood sugars in the chemical waste liquor.  12

The Ontario Paper Company in Thorold started up its Control Department way back in the thirties. Once, looking over old reports, I found, if I remember the figures correctly, that the efficiency of the pulping process was then in the order of 35 to 37 percent which means that the weight of the sulphite wood pulp was 35 to 37 percent of the weight of the wood used. By the time I became sulphite control engineer, in 1956, that yield had increased to a little above 50 percent, and as far as I know, that had been done without much detailed scientific understanding of precicely what combination of facors made every litle step of progress happen.  13

One major item to test for was moisture content of the wood. A high moisture content slows down the penetration into the wood chips of the calcium bisulphite solution that attacks the wood lignin while diluting it as well. The ensuing localized variations of the chemical agents' concentration and the duration of its action within each of the chips of wood (on top of naturally variable wood quality) caused an infinite variation in the ensuing fibre quality from an excessive decay of the wood's hemicelluloses on the one hand to, on the other, a burning rather than digesting of wood chips by some undesired combination of acid and heat, Even under the best conditions, the raw pulp contains an inordinate amount of knots, which are dark-hearted, broom-ended chunks of undigested wood that horrify balance-sheet conscious management and must be screened out and separately refined if they are still to find good use. A process that is not sufficiently adjusted to suit the raw material affects pulp quality and the quality of the newspaper of which it will be part.  14

Interestingly, for us as educators, many of the appliued control procedures were of an after-the-fact kind. Testers establish (or used to establish—I am talking 30 years into the past) for each batch of pulp produced a so-called chlorine number. The pulp cooks used the chlorine number of a batch as a guide to adjust the rate by which they applied the high-pressure steam for the next batch. Somewhat like we do when we attack a next semester.  15

One would think that the sulphite mill's huge woodchip digesters would be charged with wood of uniform moisture content, but the needed segregation of the incoming wood to meet this objective was by-and-large not feasible. As to wood species, however, a certain degree of selectivity was essential for making pulp of a satisfacory quality. Pine was of great concern. It contains too much resin to allow it to enter the digesters in any substantial amount, a lesson we have yet to take to heart in our business as educators as I shall discuss in anoter letter.  16

The overall improvement in percent yield had come about gradually by making some little planned change here, another adjustment there. Looking back at things superficially, it would have seemed mostly a by-the-seat-of-the-pants process, but I can assure you that it was based on careful observations and on hypotheses that exploited every available bit of information; hypotheses continually challenged and replaced by seemingly better ones.  17

Ideas were tested on their merit, not by the dictates of Robert's Rules of Order or the savvy of those who manage to circumvent them. In part they were exchanged at formal meetings ruled over by the plant manager, who listened more than talked and who would not permit some upstart to make smart-alecki statements unchallenged. In larger parts, ideas were exchanged and refined at informal coffee breaks of which we had two a day in the Control Superintendent's office. Good ideas were valued because they could be worth big money. Improving the sulphite yield of wood by more than 40 percent was worth a fortune and the company's managment could hardly afford to ignore those pesky variable data obtained and by examining and testing the materials and the processes to which they were subjected to. The salaries of the Control Department's staff were a mere fraction of the benefits gained.  18

* * *

Now, one would think that students are worth a lot more than pulpwood—that variable mixture of balsam and pine coming down the Welland Canal from the company's woodlands. One would think that before we subject students to instruction we should do everything to get potentially relevant data to work by. That, in effect, we ought to have a good control operation. Especially because much more than money is involved.  19

Well, I don't need to tell you that this is not so. Not because of a dearth of data. We just don't attempt to make good use of them. Why not? My asessment is that this is so because, ultimately, we don't have the health of a balance sheet to worry about and, hence, are not really held resposible for our action where it really counts. The accountant's balance sheet of a government-funded institution is not performance oriented the way the accountant's balance sheet of a commercial enterprise is. That is our major weakness, our supreme problem.  20

We have been here at Dawson for twenty years. Except for a limited number of individuals, we have labored mostly as compartmentalized individuals. We are easy targets for potshots about good and bad behavior in the classroom. We may have done things that seemed good and rewarded with appreciation expressed, but which were, in fact, bad. We may even have done things that seemed bad (in the eyes of some outsider), but which were actually the proper thing to do. And we probably did much that was useless; much of it for the sake of appearance more than the ultimate enhancement of students' minds. Many of us have probably done much shooting from the hip, both in our classrooms and at our meetings.  21

Much of all that is made possible because we—and those who draw up the rules!!— are not held accountable for what we and they do by virtue of firm data. We have no annual reports other than those data that bear on the number of teaching positions that are available—important data, but data, really, that bear no visible relation to the quality of or performance. Tell me, what percentage of our students succeeded in life, and to what extend? Too difficult a question? Then tell me what percentage of my students in a given class succeeded in the next chemistry course—in other words, attempt to tell me how good or how bad was my performance and how well I judge my students.  22

OK. OK. Enough of such questions at this time. But here is a point in giving rein to the kind of thoughts they must provoke in your mind. Please, don't discard this letter lightly.  23

Henry K van Eyken  24

Footnotes, added in 2017

"More voluminous than nutritious," is how one well-known educator summed it up. Sorry, I forgot his name.  *   fn1

I kid you not, these proposals were made with a straight face.  *   fn2

The space below serves to put any hyperlinked targets at the top of the window

Valid XHTML 1.0!     tux     mveMVE


Above space serves to put hyperlinked targets at the top of the window