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SSMU hosts inaugural Forum on Undergraduate Education

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Last Thursday SSMU Academic Research Commissioner Devon Willis hosted McGill’s first ever “Forum on Undergraduate Education” in the Shatner ballroom.

Willis organized the forum in collaboration with Engineering senator Andrew Doyle and SSMU VP University Affairs Joshua Abaki. Concerned about the current dynamic between students, administration, and staff – and having briefly discussed something similar in Senate caucus – Willis decided that a more comprehensive discussion would be “a really positive way to connect.”

“I wanted to create an environment where students, faculty, staff, and administration could come and be together and have a discussion about something that they all could participate in,” Willis said.

The forum’s main purpose was to discuss the role of a research institution in undergraduate education. Willis explained that she chose this particular topic because it was “open,” and could be a starting point for a more expansive dialogue between different groups within the University.

Paul Axelrod, a professor in York University’s Faculty of Education, directly addressed the topic of research-intensive universities in his keynote lecture. He focused on teaching strategies, and stressed the importance of undergraduate education in all institutions claiming to promote “higher learning.”

A short presentation by Cynthia Weston, director of Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, led to a discussion about teaching outcomes, and allowed students to express their concerns about the development of their own learning. While the majority of students felt satisfied with their breadth of knowledge, many felt that they lacked professional capacity and autonomy.

“Weston brought up those two categories, the first one being knowledge-based and the second one being citizen-based,” said SSMU Clubs and Services representative Max Zidel. “Knowledge is important to my degree but I don’t see how those two things are separate. I want them to be combined.”

Zidel also questioned the large disconnect, for Arts students in particular, in terms of their education and the University’s research.

During the lunch break and roundtable discussions held at the end of the forum, students were given the opportunity to speak informally with some of McGill’s faculty and administrators, including the Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson.

Mendelson, who also took part in a panel discussion, spoke about the role of students and administrators in the active learning process. While he recognized that the University has a responsibility to provide opportunities for students, he told The Daily that “students [need] to become engaged in their own education” both inside and outside the classroom.

Mendelson also noted McGill’s low levels of student-faculty interaction. He referred to the launch of the student-staff mentoring program, which “was done very specifically for trying to increase…interaction.”

In his closing remarks, Abaki said he hoped the forum would be the “beginning of a cooperation between students and staff.”

In terms of future forums, Willis hopes to make the event less formal.

“Next year I’d like to have more roundtable discussions about different issues,” said Willis. “I was happy that we managed to make this event that was really useful, but also really fun and comfortable.”