Professing Education


A Few Thoughts About University

Kenneth A. McClelland

Brock University


I must admit to a certain fascination when I recall those exemplary (or is it scholarly?) teachers who managed for whatever reason to have an impact on my life and my thinking. But the fascination rests not only in what these exemplary individuals taught me, that is, the content of their lectures, but also, and perhaps more importantly, from the fact that I even remember them at all. Now certainly the content of their lectures cannot be severed from my general recollection, but it is not primarily that content that feeds my memory. Rather my recollections retain something of their qualities as teachers — their unique styles. I recall, along the timeline of my life, certain poignant moments of quality (can I call it wisdom?) in which relationships were formed, in which important meanings evolved. I'll describe them, then, as moments of transformation, transformation being a suitable enough descriptor for what occurred.


In his essay, "Context and Thought" John Dewey makes some intriguing observations about the strange relevance of the background in a picture or a painting.

That which is looked into, consciously scrutinized, has, like a picture, a foreground, middle distance, and a background — and as in some paintings the latter shades off into unlimited space….The contextual setting is vague, but it is no mere fringe. It has a solidity and stability not found in the focal material of thinking. The latter denotes the part of the road upon which the spotlight is thrown. The spatial context is the ground through which the road runs and for the sake of which the road exists.1

Every situation has a subconscious intelligibility, a pervasive quality. Perhaps that is what feeds my memory of those exemplary teachers. You see it is hard for me to put this quality into exact words. I think my actions now speak louder than the words I'm struggling to find. But how would you explain my actions? Precise explanation takes precise tools, but the painter's brush paints the background and elicits its overarching vague relevance and perhaps the vagueness is just the thing it is and is the thing it should be. Reading John Ralston Saul I convey to you his suggestion to perform a kind of meta-cognitive exercise — try to remember important people you've forgotten. Why have you forgotten them? Is there something wrong with your memory? Or is it, perhaps, that their importance is ill-conceived, eliciting a kind of forgetfulness? Saul asks us to name a manager or an administrator from the Renaissance? There were many. Why do we all know Leonardo da Vinci then? It cannot simply be publicity or celebrity. Well-paid CEOs seem to find the public eye far more readily than artists, but in time we seem to have a memory for the important artist. "It seems that memory does work. It retains what is central and filters out what is tertiary or marginal. Leonardo remains because he is an expression of our shared knowledge. The manager does not. He has a role but remains marginal to society's sense of itself, even to the manger's sense of himself."2 To return to those exemplary teachers in my life, then, what were they — managers or artists? I think I'm beginning to find my focus.


So, what makes for a scholarly teacher? Perhaps it is that the scholarly teacher reflects about those finer-grained details that compose the artfulness of exemplary teaching. This is the kind of reflection that transforms one, and even transforms future modes of contact with students. But to reflect is always also to situate oneself in that larger context — that taken-for-granted whole, the `ground through which the road runs [or teacher teaches] and for the sake of which the road [or teacher] exists.' So let us consider the teacher as researcher.

I've never liked the pure separation of teaching from research. The poet Wallace Stevens said:

Two things of opposite natures seem to depend

On one another, as a man depends

On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.

Winter and spring, cold copulars embrace

And forth the particulars of rapture come.

Music falls on the silence like a sense,

A passion that we feel, not understand.

Morning and afternoon are clasped together

And North and South are an intrinsic couple

And sun and rain a plural, like two lovers

That walk away as one in the greenest body.3

There is inter-dependence here — `cold copulars embrace' — teacherresearcher! Yet, what a measurable history the researcher has, what an amassing of measurable (and fundable) accomplishments. But this is a particular kind of research is it not? It meets the dictates of an ever- changing society. Yet, surely there is much research that defies easy quantification. Be it measurable or immeasurable, measurable and immeasurable both, it can lead to an exemplary teacher. It is the content that fills out the canvass of a good teacher's artful expression. Whether the content comes from publishable research or perishable research, I cannot imagine a scholarly teacher who has done no research. And yes, transformation will occur. On that we can rest assured. But what kind of transformation, and transformation for what, and how to measure such transformation — there's the rub. Perhaps outside of the teaching act itself (but never really outside), scholarship is measured by long hours of disciplined study and thought. If this difficult rigor is an utter joy for the individual it forms part of a scholarly life. If it is drudgery then perhaps scholarship is not of the essence. I suppose there are many different reasons one would endure it. But for the individual to actually love it, love the labor of it, and for the individual to feel part of a community of others who also love it, that seems to me scholarly. You cannot pretend such a labor of love, or its communal resonance. It is a life-work. However, I am convinced that quality (scholarly) transformation will somehow escape absolute measurement (do I need to provide measurable evidence for this?).


What kinds of students we choose to transform makes a huge difference. Is the teacher a teacher of undergraduate students or graduate students? Should there be a distinction in how we approach each group? I think, surely there must be. Just what is beginning for the undergraduate student? A career? Well, perhaps, but surely a career is a kind of end, and its beginning, if it is to result in a productive end, must be potted in something more generally nourishing. There is ample time in graduate school for fine-tuning the end, that measurable outcome (or product) of a supposedly good education — that career! But up front, it is a kind of death of the spirit, is it not? Ends do not always mean justified means and different ends call for different means. Bruce Wilshire said: "One may know how to make money, transform the earth and ourselves in indefinite numbers of ways, and not know how to live."4 Transformation is a weighty concept indeed! And it seems there is (or should be) a reciprocal element as well. Teachers act on their students, to be sure, but students also act on their teachers — reciprocal transformations, vital community. It seems to me that undergraduate education must be of paramount importance, and the entrenched expert or specialist must reopen themselves to the imaginative energy of youth. Education is most enlivened then. The eventual background `through which the [career] runs and for the sake of which the [career] exists' is vaguely but powerfully conceived if all goes well. Alfred North Whitehead said many years ago:

Youth is imaginative, and if imagination be strengthened by discipline this energy of imagination can in great measure be preserved throughout life. The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have feeble imaginations. Fools act on imagination without knowledge; pedants act on knowledge without imagination. The task of the university is to weld together imagination and experience.5

To be a graduate student and a teacher of graduate students, then, is to be, in a way, already in a career. My sense is that part of determining whether or not the career is dead-end depends on the nature of the transactions that occur along the way, what happened when the graduate was an undergraduate and the graduate teacher a teacher of undergraduates. For putting our undergraduates on the fast track of graduate school or into early career mode is, as I see it, a kind of spiritual robbery. It is the tail wagging the dog. The Cartesian split sees its contemporary expression within the university, as the graduate faculty mind split off from the undergraduate student body. As Wilshire says, "to be cut off from others, especially those whom we generate, our [undergraduates,] is to be cut off from ourselves as adults and teachers, and from a possibility of our own regeneration."6 Clearly the implications for transformative learning (for both teacher and student) are enormous. We must be cognizant of what begins at the undergraduate level and feeds into the quality at the graduate level. Perhaps, after all, it is not the destination, but rather the journey, not the formed, but rather the forming. A healthy university, then, embodies a healthy democracy — reciprocal transformations, vital community.



1 J. Dewey, "Context and Thought," in R.J. Bernstein, John Dewey. Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing Company. (1966). p. 4.

2 J.R. Saul, On Equilibrium. Toronto, Canada: Penguin Books Canada (2001). p. 41.

3 W. Stevens, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," in H. Stevens (ed.) Wallace Stevens: The Palm at the End of the Mind. New York: Random House, Inc. (1972). p. 218.

4 B. Wilshire, The Moral Collapse of the University, cited in W. Cude The Ph.D. Trap Revisited. Toronto: The Dundurn Group (2001). p. 84.

5 A.N. Whitehead (1955), The Aims of Education. New York: Mentor Books (1929) p. 98.

6 B. Wilshire, cited in W. Cude, 84


Kenneth A. McClelland is a Ph.D. candidate at Brock University and co-editor of Professing Education. He is active in Philosophy of Education and his scholarly interests include the Classical Pragmatism of John Dewey and the Neo Pragmatism of Richard Rorty.