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L is for Little vs. Big schools

by Alan MacEachern

L is for Little vs. Big schools
Illustration: Amanda Woodward

My assignment for "L" loomed: Lectures? Lifelong learning? Libraries, LSATS, LUGs, leaves, Lodge (David), lowbrow, loquaciousness, licentiousness? Lunch? "L" offers a fine selection, but what I really want to write about, even if it doesn't make for a nice title, is little schools and big schools in Canada.

While an undergraduate at the University of Prince Edward Island, I was once the only student to enrol in a fourth-year history course. The professor and I knew each other, and knew that we both played squash, so we decided to meet in class time on court. It seemed quite civilized (though like many students throughout history, I came to fear my teacher's backhand). In the locker room afterwards and, yes, in the shower, we would discuss my readings from the past week and what I was getting out of them. It was a memorable learning experience.

When I arrived at Queen's for grad school, I found that the students from bigger, more prestigious Canadian universities on the whole had a better grounding in historiography and a better sense of the discipline's current fashions, but their writing wasn't as strong. They'd had the advantage of a greater variety of professors and teaching assistants, but fewer contacts with any one of them and perhaps overall. The personal attention I had received from my UPEI professors meant that I was pretty competitive.

Now I teach at a big "medical- doctoral" university with the population of Charlottetown, and occasionally I notice judgments being made about the quality of education - and educators - at Canada's smaller schools. Maybe the job candidate who's a sessional teacher in the big school is looked upon a little more favourably than the one from the university college. Maybe a member of the graduate committee consistently gives a rougher ride to MA applicants from the periphery than those from southern Ontario.

It's natural to make distinctions between universities. Some are more worthy of esteem than others, and academics offer that esteem in countless ways. (I once knew a North Carolinian who, from what I could determine, had spent a long weekend in Oxford and still carried the accent a decade later. My own department has a Cambridge mafia; every time they wax nostalgic - and, oh, they do wax - about their alma mater, I yell "Cambridge!" and chug.)

But the distinctions made between big and little (and old and new, central and peripheral) universities in Canada is a remnant of an earlier time, when the differences between them were more acute. Most notably, it was understood that the quality of faculty differed, because bigger schools had a considerably higher percentage of faculty with doctorates. But that is no longer the case. I checked the calendar description of three history departments in Canada. One, my own, has 34 full-time faculty members, all of whom have PhDs. The department of a randomly chosen mid-size school has 16 full-time members, all with PhDs. Even the department of a quite small university, again chosen at random, has seven full-time members (itself impressive) and all have PhDs.

Today, young academics apply for jobs at A-list and C-list Canadian universities simultaneously, and it may be the merest of chances that they land the C-list job first. They might feel they're better than the school - that's an almost universal feeling among academics, after all - but they accept the job because they need the experience and, truth be told, they need the job. There will be opportunities to move on, of course, and there is more academic mobility than there used to be (though in my experience academics are good for no more than two or three moves, whether because they grow content in the position, they're labeled flighty for trying to move too often, or they're simply no longer the next big thing). But having taken that first C-list job, they are immediately classified by some as a C-list academic.

The degree to which bigger schools have better faculty may be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Working in a big research-intensive university means I have a manageable teaching load, my research efforts are valued and I have access to little pockets of research support. Being at Western hasn't so much validated my worth as an academic as allowed me to be a better academic. So to those in big Canadian schools, I counsel humility. Small schools can offer excellent educations, with excellent educators. As novelist John Crowley writes about the nature of small places, "The further in you go, the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until, at the center point, it is infinite. Or at least very very large." The novel? Little, big.

P.S. Last month, I directed readers to my students' web exhibit at invention2innovation.ca. But University Affairs published before the exhibit launched, so some readers weren't able to find it. I'd invite you to visit it now.

Alan MacEachern is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario.

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