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

Some of you have been so kind to comment favorably on my writing even though it is full of errors and stumbles. A few I found—too late. Most I wouldn't recognize even if I were to look straight at them. Excellence in this, as in every other endeavor, can for me be only a dream. But playing with language, whenever time and truth permit, is fun. Language is a fabulous construction set with parts free for all, grown from sparse, primitive stock by feel of flow and sounds aslipping and couplings without end.  3

An illustration: Consider the Indonesian translation of champagne. It is (or was during my stint in the tropics) angur puf. Angur, pronounced "an-goor," is what the old planter-colonialist was heard to mutter by his djongos (boy, male servant) when holding out an empty glass, "Encore." As for puf, need I explain?  4

IS – There is a trend in the use of language that bothers me. It is the devaluing of words. That should not happen in a school. In No-name society I deplored the way we use challenge—"Come to Dawson College where the faculty challenges you," remember? In the same vein I resent the phrase quality education, that evocation of total dedication to the cause. (Dedication puts me off too. Modern people's state of mind is spread to thinly for that.) Another word that ought to be kept out of everyday reach is excellence. We use it too freely, like a child having cookies for lunch.  5

It is often tempting to work on image more than on what's real, especially in advertising. But how long can glamorous pretense hide shoddy manufacture? Ask any American car maker, or his happy Japanese competitor. Is it not the mission of a school to pass on what is, not what seems? Why not, within our ordinary means, just try to do a good job, resplendent with high aims, punctuated by an occasional pratfall, which is a seed of wisdom also, and let those interested in our efforts judge for themselves how we are doing?  6

* * *

CONTEXT – It is sad that we are short of a clear and objective context for our work. What, for example, is the relative value of what we teach? What, using a term from economics, is the opportunity cost? Might there be a more valuable alternative for students in their later life? What is the best way of teaching it?  7

Blame force of necessity, but it is distasteful to sell courses to a clientele who are hardly in a position to judge our wares. It is deplorable that those in our governmental apparatus keep us in a predicament that can't but color our views and, thereby, lower our quality as educators. One—understandable—outcome of this management fault is the exploitation of student needs by using them as bargaining chips in labor negotiations. Others are the politics and pain that come with that annual feast, the staffing project, which can hardly be done with students foremost in mind.*  8

We are inflexible gears in a machine so big we can't see it in its entirity and in which we are instantly replaceable by other gears. This degrades us. If society thinks teachers are worth so little it is because gears are cheap. This must change, especially now that students need a good education more than ever that they may cope with all that accelerating change that will be imposed on them.  9

* * *

INTEREST – The ordinary teacher, whose attentions are appreciated at least as much by those at home as by those at work, can spare little time for a laborious quest of finding out what is going on elsewhere in education and why. What printed communications exist at Dawson are mostly top-down. Lacking is a convenient critical medium (which can be dirt cheap) that cuts across faculty preoccupations and lets us view our work in the context of a broad, but disciplined, view of education.  10

Also lacking is common ground in educational psychology, the best available touchstone for judging and bettering that vaunted quality of education. It is not surprising, therefore, that in our college a healthy professional debate of the educational process and its outcomes is for all practical purposes non-existent.  11

Our meetings mostly concern administrative and personnel matters. That may be democratic, but it would feel better if we could rely on a climate of respect and trust. Educators could make a more efficient use of their time and energy than constantly getting trapped in debates tht deprive them of a truly professional interest. We need such interest to boost performance.  12

* * *

AFFECT – There are some points I have not been able to touch on in these letters, points in the domain of affect. They concern motivation of students and responsibility. The first thing that comes to mind here is our plethora of rules and caveats. Could it not be made obvious from our own conduct, along with an occasional, well-placed word to the wise, that students are not expected to cheat on tests. Students themselves are bothered by fellow students cheating. Why not try to shift some of the responsibility for prevention to them?  13

The same goes for studying. Why not let our progress tests serve as feedbacks instead of threats?* Surely, colege students should be mature enough to look after their progress themselves and thereby learn to do so better. Let our contribution simply be one of support, not the taking away of responsibility. A course failed can be a good lesson.  14

Persistent failure, however, can leave terrible scars on the psyche, scars that affect [infect?] families. I have not studied this phenomenon, but I suspect, it is bad enough to support a move toward self-paced learning with concommittantly available instruction; a form of learning that moves from one success to the next. A fine lecture can be beneficial, but it is not a suitable device for conveying an understanding of a heavy load of subject matter that demands mental accomodation. For that even the traditional classroom approach seems quite unsuited, especially with the extreme heterogenity we encounter in today's student body. Tell me if, and why, I am wrong.  

Few people are fully independent learners. Few now can be. One needs sufficient skill in handling fundamentals in the domains of language and abstraction. One must also have drive and a taste for learning. With ever more to learn—and the need to be selective—should it not be our primary aim to help make students independent learners?*  16

* * *

EXIT – This letter ends a series I wanted to write. I wanted to reflect on some of the things we are doing—or not doing—and how they affect our function as educators. Their factual substance is, by and large, drawn from personal experience. They are facts I know best. This is not to say that these letters were intended to be about me. The laying bare of private emotions in public letters is more than a fair price to pay and is not a practice I recommend. But it was, I felt, necessary if I wanted you to see some things my way.  17

Thanks for suspending judgment. I especially thank those of you who have given me an uplift by a friendly or encouraging word, I particular those fine colleagues who have commented on some of the points raised, or expressed their sympathetic concern, or invited me for a chat at a Chinese restaurant, or took the trouble to write a note, or offered to help defray costs, or did any of those things by which personal warmth is transmitted. Thanks also to Terry who carried the burden of more "mailbox stuffing."  18

Your kindness has helped me through the last three months of a fairly lonely and strange adventure that began years ago. Several stops along the way could have served as a starting point for my letters. When I first met Fleabyte, for example; or when I misplaced a costly trust in a Dawson administrator; or when the Board gave final support for a non-existent establishment of a Climate of Respect and Trust. I chose to devote my first letter to a test of the Board's resolve. I respect the Board for the burden its members voluntarily assume, but I judge the Board for not having passed that test (ref. Minutes and In the Brass's Spittoon—with unfavorable consequences.  19

Are things better above the Board, and underneath? Well, you have read my letters. From my experience it seems wise to firmly subscribe to our common sense that apparent goodness makes an excellent front. Just make sure that if any problem comes up it does so elsewhere, at someone else's expense.  20

And don't ever call that cynical! In education that is one veil the tongue shell not shed.  21

Henry K van Eyken  22


Tiss rough to discourse with one
      who talks a lot
      and listens not

Fragile notion while unfolding
      tat/    /ter--ed
      by this gusting verbiage
      yellowed or, worse,
            aged to a trusty brown. And,
            there's nothing else
      I want to say ...

                  till I

                              *            R
      *                        T

Footnotes, added in 2017

The provincial Department of Education demanded (maybe still does) a financial accountability for the number of teachers on the public payroll. Fair enough, but, as usual, action begets reaction. In our case it was thinking up positions for teachers that didn't exist before such as the lowering of admission standards and the creation of courses for otherwise unqualified students, ref. my letter named The alloyed coin.  *   fn1

Students' final course grades were obtained by assigning a percentage to various, let's call them, activities: so many percent for classroom attendance, so many for progress tests, for a midterm test, for laboratory performance, and for the final exam. Students were given the scheme in advance so that they knew where they stood. Very democratic. Very mechanical. Very unsettling for students who began to fear the worst. Combining this practice with student evaluation of teachers is the most likely explanation for the jacking-up of grades. I have been told that McGill University faculty involved in admissions would substantially devalue the grades of students from Dawson. Well, what does one say?  *   fn2

Easier said than done. I myself wouldn't know how to go about it. We need, not as some individual teacher, but as a faculty instruction by experts how to go about such practices as applying cognitivism and motivating independent learners.  *   fn3

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