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

It does not behoove me to pontificate on the rights and wrongs in this world. Whatever I let on as getting my goad is expected to meet the terms of the silent contracts binding upon those within my circles. In Dawson these terms include a climate of respect and trust which—and its twenty years have proved this time again— is a sine qua non, an aboslute prerequisite if we wish our practices to be woven into one untangled web. We profess and teach, and we must try to profess and teach without deception. We must do so with verve and with conviction and with pride to enhance those powers of mind and those skills we believe, after thorough consideration, will prepare and sustain generations throughout their hardening struggle for life.  3

Their struggles must be worth their wiles; their reward of a finer spirit, because chances are their part in the struggle for life will be rougher than ours has been. Its scope may be utterly unfathomable by those who have remained ignorant of Man's holocausts. I am convinced—and I certainly should explain this—that we must not only pass on, as professors and as teachers, visions of Man's noblest dreams, but that we also must show students the deepest abyss in which Man has dwelled. We must do so not only for the sake of memory, and certainly not for the sake of such prurience as makes one watch a horror movie—or for interesting conversation, for there is nothing here to converse about. We must do so to hone their decisiveness if ever they need to cut in and apply force on the steering wheels of State and Earth.* We must tell them how not to be sucked into yet another black hole in fate. Their curriculum must have a place for humanity well ahead of efficiency.  4

I am afraid that anyone innocent of the knowlege indicated here is tempted to think of me as exaggerating beyond reason. If so you do, I commend you to set aside one afternoon or one evening to follow the lines of The Investigation by Peter Weiss, a play that might as well have been named The Particiption. I must warn you, it is evil crystallized into the purest black and you will need much time to accomodate to its reflections. But assess it you must because no way can ever you place any value on anything you profess unless you first view the whole scale of human works from ten all the way down, right to zero.  5

* * *

The immediate business of this letter is not as serous as that of the introduction, yet it is linked to it by chains too short for comfort. We are doing an injustice to young people who, either trusting our judgment as educators or bypassing it, engage in adventures for which they are ill equipped. We do not offer good advice in the selection of their paths and entice them into programs without living up to our promises. Oh no! It is not all our fault and we are nowhere near zero on the scale of human behavior, but we are well below five.  6

We are not mean people, I should think; we are pretty good. But not so stupid as to voluntarily get ourselves in trouble. Isn't it sensible to not look at the other side of that most valuable coin which is making a living for ourselves and for those who depend on us? And aren't we puppets toyed with by fate, often with our hands tied? But ought we not, as teachers, be conscious of the coin's flipside, an be able to reassess our stance? However, before we do it may be wise to first assay the coin's mettle.  7

* * *

Chemistry 202-111 was not in the calendar when Dawson opened in 1969. It came in a few years later to take care of students wishing to study science, but lacking the skill to do simple numerical exercises of a type common to the subject. In other words, "111" is a vehicle for remediation. Today, most incoming students begin their college chemistry with this course. In addition, a large fraction of those enrolled are social science students who take it either as some option or in the hope to later switch into their first choice, the science stream.*  8

The failure rates are high, especially during the Winter term when classes are mainly composed of repeaters and social science students. For many, if not most students it becomes quite clear already early in the game that they have no reasonable chance of succeeding.  9

Chemistry 202-211 is a later addition to the remediation courses. It is for those who never had chemistry before, but interestingly, its content is not strikingly different from that of 202-111. The difference, it has been said, lies in the pedagogical approach.  10

Further in the realm of remediation, we have sections of similar courses in, both, the Preparatory Science Program and in the Developmental Science Program, commonly called PSP and DSP. These programs are creations of the Science Sector for the express purpose of preparing students for regular college science as well as preserving faculty positions. Similar programs exist in other sectors. A pedagogical purpose of limiting the participation of those students to four courses per semester is paired with the merit of a more favorable student/teacher ratio for the college. Truly, such programs are an alliage of goodness all around, or so it seems.  11

So it seems. I told you at the outset that I am drawing on my own experiences. These, to be sure, may not sufficiently represent those in the College as a whole, but, dear colleague, for me they make reliable history. I have no other data to go by.  12

I taught chemistry in the DSP; two years in a row. Sometime during this stint I read a blurb in the Dawso College Calendar:  13

The Developmental Science Program is designed for students who have just completed high school but whose grades in Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics require improvement.
These programs are designed to provide:
• students with the opportunity to enter studies at the Cegep level in pre-university Science or Engineering and Medical Technlogies by acquiring the necessay pre-collegial science and mathematics prerequisites.
• a study environment of close student-teacher associations
• a program of study tailored to the students' individual abilities and programs
• an opportunity for students to study science and mathematics in an integrated program
• a satisfacory transition for students whose education has been interrupted between high school and Cegep
• an opportunity for students to improve their study skills.  

Well, that is a lot of malarkey. Anyway, it was then. There was no close student-teacher association as advertised and I don't believe the program should have been labelled as one tailored to individual abilities. And integration? I'll just keep silent on that point.  15

A colleague has told me that things run very well now. But I can't help scrub from my mind a survey I made of DSP students' career goals. Here are the tallies  16

      1983: ~80% medical profession (mostly in some specialty)
                ~20% engineering, nursing and medical technology

      1984: 54% medical, engineering, science
                 38 % nursing, med. tech., other technologies
                 8% other.  

Thus highly unrealistic, young people were placed in a program decidedly not adapted to their needs, as judged from my little niche. We did not even know their needs! (Do we now?) In May 1985, eight students passed out of those 68 who had embarked on the course two semesters before. I don't know how well they have fared since; we are lacking te needed educational process control.  18

The proliferation of remedial options now offered may not be the best way of achieving worthwhile objectives. I don't know of any thorough review of the performance records of the whole stucture. Nor, I must admit, I am aware of any performance criterion demanded of courses in terms of objectively established student success rates—a fact that in itself should be regarded as alarming in any organization that aims to manage for objectives.*  19

In recent years, I have taught* a lot of "standard" 202-111. Did I not already comment on the large fraction of repeaters and social science students, especially during the Winter terms? We take in students with scant thought given to Ausubel's dictum that

      "The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows."  20

It is overlooked at our clientele's peril. I should think that, after a thoroughly professional diagnosis of our ways, an effective medicin needs to be found. One good place to look for it should be in the cabinets of modern psychology of education.  21

* * *

We have assayed the coin's alloy. It is composed of cyndicism and fear, bonded with a certain affinity. Coins struck from it make deceptive tender. It is time to devalue them and create a new and viable currency to take its place.  22

Henry K van Eyken  23

Footnotes, added in 2017

Now, a quarter of a century after writing that totally forgotten sentence ("We must do so to hone their decisiveness if ever they need to cut in and apply force on the steering wheels of State and Earth."), I find myself deeply engaged in a matter of governance, ref. On guard in a global environment, an essay about our Senate.  *   fn1

At the time, many applicants for the science stream of studies were, for obvious lack of qualifications, immediately shunted into the social sciences.  *   fn2

Currently (2017), the Chemistry Department offers only one remedial course: 202-001-50: Remedial Activities for Secondary V Chemistry. It looks as if things have improved greatly over the last two decades. The Department also offers two "fun" courses: Comic Book Chemistry and Chemistry of Wine-Making.  *   fn3

I used the word taught advisedly. It is said that a teacher hasn't taught unless his students have learned.  *   fn4

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Delta I = -25¢

Seen that old man
         at the Atwater Metro?
White-stubbled face;
         softly grooved
         his mushy flesh;
a styr'foam cup
         afumble from his sleeve -
for coins,
         one should suppose.

Near th'escalator he now stands,
         the mumbles he's mumbling
         too muffled for my ear
as I walk by with eyes toward
         where I'm going,
but just catching'm
         at th'uncertain vrim
         of my vision.

I should've dropped a quarter
         into his crumply cup
and be a bastard less
         by the sum total
of twenty-five cents.