At council this week, VP (University Affairs) Josh Abaki discussed his goal of limiting “contact hours”—lectures, conferences, and other face time between professors and students. He hopes to reduce contact hours from the current 39 hours per course per semester to 36, an amount more standard across Canadian universities. As a result, McGill students who currently find themselves going back to school earlier and ending just as late as most of their peers from other schools would now enjoy either a fall reading break or an extra week of Winter vacation. It certainly sounds enticing. Less work. More time to see family and friends. A week less of stress to restore our taxed-out brains to full health. Then again, it’s worth looking at the other side: class time as an opportunity.
The time students spend with professors is the only unique educational aspect of a university. Readings, problems, writing responses, and other forms of self-teaching are important parts of our learning, but they mainly have value relative to the professor’s handling of them. Otherwise, we could save our McGill tuition for a library card. It’s in interacting with our professors that we get our money’s worth—getting first hand exposure to some of the brightest minds in their fields. Unless McGill intends to lower tuition for courses with reduced hours (which seems highly unlikely), demanding fewer contact hours is, in effect, seeking less bang for our buck.
Abaki’s council report attempts to address some objections to his plan, but the rebuttals fall a bit short. He claims that the extra three hours are unnecessary as “most profs” use it just to “pump students with more information.” Even if this is true, it doesn’t seem to us to be an efficient use of time. It’s difficult to fathom professors could use time more wisely than by imparting information. Learning, after all, is the purpose of attending university (though there are those who only want a degree). Abaki also argued that quality of learning wouldn’t suffer with reduced hours. He claims that, “If profs thought carefully about the skills they want to transfer to their students and the aims of their courses, they would realize that if they can’t achieve these within 36 hours, an extra 3 hours is not going to make a difference.” Students who have struggled to contain all their ideas in an essay with page limits may sympathize with professors who cannot fit as much as they would like into a class of any length. Three hours may not make or break a class, but less information certainly sounds like less learning.
As for quality, perhaps it’s not always related to quantity. But if professors devolve lecture material into more readings, student workload won’t decrease, and quality of education will. Moreover, some faculties require a certain amount of hours to be taught in order to maintain accreditation. Finally, many schools in the United States have 3-6 more contact hours than McGill students. If we’re trying to be the Harvard of Canada, then maybe we should also rate ourselves against U.S. institutions.
It’s true, more vacation time would be lovely. Yet contact hours may not be the only way to achieve it. There is the option of evening and weekend exams. McGill also ends earlier than many other schools. We sympathize with Abaki’s goals of reducing student stress. But if we hate going to class so much, why are we here?