What a shame professor refused to grade

University of Ottawa was right to dismiss Denis Rancourt

This week saw the end of the long, strange story of former professor Denis Rancourt and his ongoing conflict with the University of Ottawa over his so-called Activism Course, a conflict that made national headlines when Rancourt took the extraordinary step of awarding everyone who completed the course an A+. An arbitrator, whose decision can be read here, ruled that Rancourt’s dismissal in 2009 was valid.

This very long story has no end of complications. But the big questions boil down to one main issue. That is, to what extent is a professor free to teach his course his way, free from the constraints of a prying university administration? Or, put another way, to what extent does a university have an obligation to ensure that its professors are teaching the courses they say they are teaching and teaching them in a way that meets at least some basic principles of sound academic policy?

In both matters, Rancourt seems to have acted out of a genuine desire to inspire students and make them not just better scientists, but better people.

And in the second case, at least, I must conclude, as did the arbitrator, that this passion took him too far.

As his career progressed, Rancourt increasingly abandoned a traditional approach to science education and began to treat at least some of his courses as seminars in how to approach science-related issues in a passionate, politically engaged way. Scientists, he seems to have concluded, need to be as aware of the social forces as they do gravitational and nuclear forces.

Still further, Rancourt came to see traditional grading as antithetical to his vision of his courses in particular, and pedagogy generally. Rewarding students with high marks, in his view, only teaches them to be concerned about the marks themselves, and not to value real learning. For this reason, Rancourt at one point wanted to conduct a course on what is often called a pass/fail basis where a student either got credit for the course (S for Satisfactory) or not (N for Not Satisfactory). Later, Rancourt came to rely on student-centred evaluations, and seemed ultimately to altogether eliminate what he called “competitive grading” by giving everyone in the class a 9, the equivalent of A+.

Professors should be given every reasonable latitude in teaching their courses. After all, every prof teaches better when she is excited about what she’s teaching, and all life would quickly be drained from higher education if courses were constantly questioned and nit-picked by nosy administrators.

Nevertheless, I might come to think that a sound reading of Shakespeare relies on a knowledge of the emerging capitalist economy in early modern Europe, and I am entirely within my rights to address that, but if my course becomes primarily a course which focuses on economic history where students are required to learn only as much Shakespeare “as they like” (Rancourt’s words about the science in one of his classes)—well then, I’m no longer teaching a Shakespeare course. That the professor would rather not teach the course as it was approved is no justification for what he called “academic squatting, where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.”

Still, Rancourt seems to have been willing to compromise on this point and did eventually move his activist interests into a new course which was, at least, better suited to it.

So what of the A+ grading system that ultimately got him turfed?

This part is puzzling because, as the results of an earlier arbitration suggest, the U of O eventually relented on the grading issue and conceded that its own regulations were vague enough to allow for the S/NS grading that Rancourt preferred. So it’s not at all clear why he became dissatisfied with the grading method he had championed in favour of the predictably contentious A-plus-only scheme.

Whatever his motives, whether such a system really promotes student learning is dubious. Though Rancourt derides the “numbing influence of grade-based motivation,” his system seems just as likely to promote student apathy. Why work hard, or at all, when everyone gets the same grade in the end?

But more importantly, a professor has an obligation not just to teach a course and to set a program of work, but to evaluate the relative strength of that work. Graduate programs, professional schools, future employers, even the university itself has a right to know, not just that the student did work, but how good that work was. The difference between a genuine A+ paper and a D- paper is huge: much greater than the difference between a D- and an F. Students whose work is genuinely excellent should be recognized for that excellence, and students who just scrape by should not be considered for scholarships on the basis of their universal A+ results.

Rancourt sought to justify his grading by arguing it was not an automatic A+, but that because of his innovative teaching, all his students earned their A+ grades. In theory, I would concede that such an outcome is possible. I would give all my students an A+ if they earned it. But to imagine that everyone in multiple undergraduate classes was capable of the highest levels of excellence and, in actual fact, really demonstrated that capacity simply beggars belief.

And indeed, the arbitrator’s report quotes numerous public statements by Rancourt in which he admits saying that he told students up front “I will not grade you. You have passed the course. You can walk out of here and you still get an A+.” Student witnesses confirmed that that’s how their courses went, and records show that other faculty were “appalled to learn” of the practice.

Rancourt has always insisted that his job was not to evaluate students.

But that’s not true. And despite his courage and conviction, his dismissal isn’t wrong. It’s just a shame.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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