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

They had carts that were hardly more than wheeled platforms with a motor and some seats on them, and they drove them right off the road, through ditches and all sorts of terrain. I had read about them long before then in one of those one-page, Dutch underground newspapers of which we had bundles hidden in the widened hem of heavy living room curtains, stored there for delivery to trusted readers.  3

It was either on that very day May 5, 1945, or the day after that I first saw one of those funny vehicles. It was painted a dull green and on the flat hood was a large, white five-pointed star set in a heavy circle that had been segmented by a painter's stencil. They called it jeep (short of general purpose) and it was parked on our street by an advance party of two or so Canadians. If it was documents they were after, they had come too late. The Germans had already been burning paper. We knew this from he crumpled char that kept wafting down from a clear blue sky the day before.  4

* * *

I wonder from time to time why one should formally learn what. "What is worth knowing most," is, I believe, how a practical philosopher (Locke?) put it. And during my twenty years at Dawson, I have often questioned the relative importance of te topics I am obliged to cover. This can be rather cruel on the mind and, hence, on the mortal coil if one is obliged to work, year in year out, in harmonious step with a committee of teachers all giving the same chemistry course.*  5

Education, we glibly overlook, is an expensive enterprise. I gather that last year it must have cost Québec ca eight percent of the annual budget, or about 2.8 billion dollars, or about $420 per person in the province, babies and human derelicts included. Add to this the property taxes levied by the province's schoolboards. For all that money it is perhaps well to pause once in a while to ask ourselves some questions, not only as teachers and members of our associations, but also as citizens. The money could help a lot of people in other ways. Our social security is too weak to support basic human welfare and is outright shoddy when compared to that in many other countries. The battle against pollution will be increasingly costly. Not able to peer beyond provincial boundaries nor deeply into the future, those elected now allocate monetary awards for adding to te Earth's population, and doing so with concomitant increases in social welfare expenditures to come.* We are ofen told that we can't count on our pensions and health care because the communal coffers are nearly bare. Poor politico-financial judgments of the past and political quarrels of ill-defined scope are aided by a free-trade agreement with the U.S. and threatened to chase financial resources away to greener pastures elsewhere. For example, see this item in The Gazette of May 11, headlined Canada doesn't excite Desmarais as a place to invest:  6

Paul Desmarais runs a good show. The annual meeting of his holding company, Power Corp. of Canada, was a star-studded affair, with the usual cast of directors in tow.

Former Ontario premier Bill Davis was on hand, still sporting his Florida tan. Also present was Ross Johnson, the chief executive who tried and failed to [an illegible line] $300 million in taxes to federal and provincial governments last year.

Yet the evidence shows that from a business investment standpont, Desmarais is much more interested in putting his money into Europe than Canada.

It's hard to blame him for that. In his speech to Power shareholders on Wednesday, he painted a decidedly gloomy picture of this country, with its schools and hospitals choked by a $350 billion public debt that requires Ottawa to pay $80 million in interest every day.

He compains that while Canadians are locked into a squabble over "constitutional theory" the economy is in urgent need of fixing. &c.  

* * *

Back in 1977, I had reason to go through some twenty or so years of the U.S. Journal of Chemical Education in search of an answer. I got somewhere. I found reports on two surveys of opinions held by college chemistry teachers about what they believe the content of a college chemistry course should be. One was published in 1961, the other in 1973.* In both articles topics are ranked by perceived relative importance.* To give a feel of things, here is a piece of table taken from the 1973 report:  8

Topics in order of relative importance: knowing most
112Chemical bonding
229Acids and bases, general
36Atomic structure
43Ionization of acids
511Avogadro's number
64Concentration of solutions
734Equilibrium constant  9

Of the 353 questionnaires mailed out, 55% drew a response. We don't know how much time on the average the respondents allocated for polishing off the irksome task so as to get on with their own bigger and better things.  10

On another occasion, I received a reply from an author of a general chemistry text with some ideas of his own. He wrote that his publisher frowned upon original thought. The textbook market couldn't take it.  11

In 1988, I asked J.J. Lagowski, a dyed-in-the-wool professional and editor of J. Chem. Ed., just what determines the general chemistry course content. May he forgive me for quoting from his personal letter. He wrote,  12

"Publishers are, indeed, an influence on the content of textbooks and ... this dictates what is taught. Pragmatics directs us to use 'someone else's notes' ...." ..."organic [chemistry] colleagues ... are the most immediate 'users' of our general chemistry products." ... "my best guess is that our organic chemists would just like to have their students exist in a milieu of chemical terms for about a year before they attempt to teach them organic chemistry." ... Put bluntly, ... general chemistry appears to be a 'holding pen.' Perhaps that is too harsh."  13

Dear colleague, isn't it amazing that the academic community has no better rationale for that educational project first-year general chemistry and which requires a continual massive inflow of public money? A project known in North America as the killer course? Do you think that a junior engineer developing some industrial gizmo can get away with these sorts of design criteria? Hell, no! And I don't for a moment think that this only goes for chemistry. I wager that the contents of the general course of instruction in your subject area are cut from similar cloth... (May I hear from you if you have some details about this?*)  14

* * *

How about embedding such fickle designs in human minds?  15

Begin with pencil and paper and draw grids. First draw grids that become hours of recitation, hours of lab work, and hours of homework. In a new CEGEP science program, slated for 1992, those total 44 hours per week for every student in each and every semester. Then draw grids for programs of study in which every career program is neatly stretched or shaved to exactly three years. Next come grids called timetables and grids that become classrooms, labs, corridors, and offices, and expenditures on furniture and equipment. Draw grids that define contact hours and grids that set salary scales. True grids here, more grids there, grids for grads everywhere. And if you don't think this can led to a wacky way of doing things you have either become too used to it or you are not critical by nature.  16

Not that those grids ar without benefits. They permit the allocaion of resources and they help bureaucrats and administrators to figure out when their next promotion is due. They also provide a framework for student behavior and for the social and professional conduct of their mentors. They tells us when to get up and where to get off. But, please, notice that I have listed grids in some sequence in which most grids support a next. Further notice that the weakest grid, the one that contains the allotted time for the assumed mental assimilation (to say nothing of accomodation), is the foundation of the whole structure, With that poorly designed foundation collapsing all around us, the rest gets a bit ramshackle too.  17

Surely, we must find a better way of doing things.  18

* * *

Yes, those grids can be so wasteful! Contemplate, if you will, a case of a student who needs 50% more time to ingest the contents of a certain one-semester course. Assume that he gets lost so badly that he may need two retakes to learn enough to further build on. The taxpayer then forks out money for a total of 3 × 15 = 45 weeks—if our sample student doesn't get discouraged before completing the job. If time were cut to suit the student, it would come to 1.5 × 15 = 23 weeks, a pretty hefty savings. Feel free to create your own variations on this theme.  19

Even within the grid system, though, some improved student performance can be had with various forms of educational technology among which Keller's personalized system of instruction rates especially high in North America.* Unfortunately, when faculty is being shunted from teaching one course during one semester to another one the next, a process which is in part a response to the annual "staffing projects" and their painful application of staffing quota formulas, it is hardly feasible to introduce and further develop such technology effectively. This government-imposed way of managing things interferes badly with the maintenance of, both, faculty esprit and the consistent evolution or development of educational approaches. The weight of fickle management methods tends to crush any stucture teachers may dream of building into the entire system's very foundation.  20

One design principle essential to creating a solid foundation is Ausubel's observation that the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows, see my letter of March 4, Mascara). For too many students enter CEGEP courses insufficienty prepared (March 18, No exit). An uncertain and fast-paced future make a a higher level of educational attainment more urgent (April 15, Pulex in the rapids) and, therefore, even more vital that we optimise Ausubel's principle that fundamental skills such as listening and speaking, reading and writing, comprehension of algorithms and expressing oneself through them be acquired by students as early as their mental maturation allows. And this requires a close cooperation (which my evidence says does not now exist) between separate sectors within the Québec educational bureaucracy: the sector responsible for K-11 schooling and the one that looks after the college system.  21

Only then can we ever hope to help students acquire minds prepared for all eventualities, minds like jeeps that can move them through all sorts of terrain.  22

Henry K van Eyken  23


Nechamkin, H., "The course content of general chemistry." J. Chem. Ed. 38, No. 5: 255–256 (May 1961). Jones, D.E. and Roswell, D.F., "The course content of general chemistry: A decade later. J. Chem. Ed.. 50, No. 5: 359–360 (May 1973).  fn3  *

Footnotes added in 2017:

Classroom sizes were limited to about 30–35 students whereas the total number of students taking a science couse would be in the order of 200–300 (as far as I remember). That is why a number of teachers would be looking after some sections of the same course.  fn1  *

Bonuses were paid to expanding famlies.  fn2  *

Not one reponse received—not surprising, of course.  fn4  *

Keller Plan.  fn5  *

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