Originally published: https://mycommunity.trentu.ca/file/Trent-Magazine-49.2_web1.pdf
The university in 2018 has a diversity of programming. It should come as no surprise, then, that university leaders in different disciplines will have vastly different opinions on the purpose of the institution. Alumna Ayesha Barmania reached out to academic deans at Trent University to get their views.
Dean of Trent/Fleming School of Nursing
For me, university is mainly about people learning to recognize what it is that they don’t know—and then using this to question and learn as they go through life.
I would argue that, in part, critical thinking comes from critical inquiry—it comes from constantly trying to bring multiple pieces of information together, asking questions to better understand, and then bringing what you have learned into the situation. As almost every situation is unique, you can’t rely on patterns. You can’t teach students to actually know everything. In nursing, medications change all the time, therapies change all the time, the health care system changes all the time. If we educate nurses on merely memorizing and knowing and not on developing curiosity and understanding, then we’re producing nurses that are never going to give the best possible care. The world will have changed by the time they get into it.
We talk about relational inquiry underpinning our curriculum—about understanding there are relationships at numerous levels. Not just between you, as a nurse, and the patient, but with the health care system and patients’ other health care issues and the family in which they’re situated; always asking questions, always seeking more information and not thinking that you ever know everything.
These ideas about the purpose of the university are central to nursing. This is reinforced by studies, with hundreds of thousands of patients, that show that care by baccalaureate-prepared nurses results in better outcomes for patients in terms of factors such as mortality and complications. I think what underpins this is the capacity that a university education builds for critical inquiry and thinking.
Dean of Arts & Science – Humanities
Humanities students gain a much deeper appreciation of the kinds of suffering that human beings experience and the reasons why we suffer. Importantly, they also develop expertise in both traditional and innovative ideas for reducing suffering and benefiting humanity. With the study of world literatures, history, and philosophy, students also gain a lot of insight into human character. It’s important to have a pretty solid understanding of character to live a flourishing life that benefits others.
At Trent, students have terrific opportunities to discuss course material directly with faculty and other students, at length, in their seminars. A very high degree of faculty engagement and peer engagement is possible at Trent. In terms of developing understanding, this is enormously important. It is crucial that students get instant feedback on their ideas and exposure to different perspectives. When you’re reading history or philosophy on your own, you encounter your own perspectives, thoughts, and reflections—which is great—but it isn’t enough. We have to engage collaboratively with others to truly improve our thinking and feeling. A lot of empirical research now supports the idea that you need a diversity of discussants and researchers to produce really high-quality research that can withstand critical tests and create genuinely novel solutions to longstanding problems.
Humanities students have wonderful opportunities at Trent to engage with others as they work to enhance their reasoning, communication, and research skills, and we are very proud of this fact. The study of the humanities gives students a set of tools that they can take into any occupation or discipline and use to further a more ethical and constructive engagement with others and the world. Seeing students cultivate these skills over the course of their degrees is so exciting and meaningful. I feel such gratitude that as a professor and dean I get to witness student transformations and transform myself in response to their thoughtful perspectives and new ideas.
Dean of Graduate Studies
I believe that university education, including professional graduate programs, has become more accessible for students. Today, many students are looking for additional education after they finish their bachelor’s degree.
I think back to when I went to school, most students would not pursue graduate degrees—you would graduate with your undergrad degree and you’d be set for whatever type of career you were interested in. Students are realizing that grad degrees have value in many different types of careers.
In many fields, the entry to practice level has moved from an undergraduate to a master’s level. Oftentimes, in graduate school, you get very specialized skills. For example, you may do an undergraduate chemistry degree, which will have it’s own focus while remaining fairly broad, and then move on to the graduate level, where you narrow that focus down to a
very small area that you have a lot of knowledge and skill in.
Certainly, we see more and more students getting graduate credentials to differentiate themselves from their colleagues or to better market themselves for a job.
In terms of the university ecosystem, having more graduate students present is a good thing, with the undergrads benefiting from the presence of grad students. The teaching assistants for undergrad courses are grad students. Many times, in fourth year, students will be doing thesis projects mentored by grad students. As well, undergrads looking for summer job opportunities will often have grad students that supervise them during their summer employment. These undergraduates see the grad students as potential role models as well. When they ask, wondering about next career or academic steps, they’ll often talk to the graduate students because they’re only a year or two removed from where the undergrads are.
So I think that the graduate students help enrich undergraduate life. They elevate the intellectual experience that undergraduate students receive when they come to university.
Graduate education builds on students’ undergraduate learning and teaches advanced skills in areas such as critical thinking, communication, problem-solving and leadership. Where an undergraduate degree provides a broad disciplinary experience, a graduate degree provides students with more advanced learning in a very specialized area.
Dean of School of Education & Professional Learning
We have a belief in the School of Education that the best teaching is learning. That, when we are teaching, we are learning; and when we’re learning, we are learning to teach.
Our teacher candidates are teaching and learning here at Trent —and teaching and learning in the classroom during their placements. It’s an immersive experience all the way through.
The goal is for them to take some of the theories and practices that they’ve been learning and try them out themselves—which they get to do during placement. And it’s not always going to work.
But there’s something about the resilience and grit and persistence that’s needed in trying again and again to tweak things, and to continually revise and reframe and redesign as they go. Teachers do that at every level. You know a good teacher is going to take the time to really watch and listen to the students. Based on those observations, they’re going to make decisions about what they do next in their teaching. And that’s true for our teacher candidates as well as our faculty here.
Sometimes they will learn about a strategy or a way of thinking in classes at Trent and then apply it in the classroom—and it may not be successful immediately, but we encourage them to persist. It’s really important to really press on through the challenges and take the lead from the students.
Acting Dean of Arts & Science – Science
Trent University has always prided itself, and is well recognized in Ontario and in Canada, as being a university that creates an academic environment that allows students to have as much breadth as possible. It becomes a timetabling nightmare to be able to use such diversity and breadth in your undergraduate education, but you can major in Chemistry and do a joint major with English Literature here. We have the capabilities of allowing students to explore academically as much as excites and entices them. This fosters a student that is well suited for today’s job market—a market that is looking for individuals who have learned how to learn, which you do in your undergraduate degree, but have also learned how to learn things that are outside of their one comfort area.
Speaking from the experience of my own classes, having students that exhibit diversity enriches the class experience. Often questions from people that are outside of the subject discipline lead to intriguing new ways to perceive the material. As an instructor, these questions are often challenging and thought provoking. The students’ approach and their thoughts are, at times, unexpected, and it challenges you to be able to describe your subject in different ways, and to allow people to learn from different backgrounds. It is good for both the instructor and the students to see different rationalizations of subject matter.