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Adventures in Academe

Where do we wish to go in higher education?

Chaucer’s Arthurian story, The Wife of Bath’s Tale – with its governance model based on a roundtable – offers us a tantalizing clue on how to frame the issue.


Recently, I was asked to think about the contemporary trends, opportunities and challenges for learning and teaching in Canadian universities. The timing of the question coincided with a trip that took me to a national conference, a series of on-campus consultations, a writing retreat and a public lecture. This gave me an opportunity to consult with university presidents, administrators, faculty, educational developers, staff and students.

As you can imagine with a question this broad, the answers varied depending on whom I asked. For some, Indigenization is the most pressing issue, while others cited accessibility and inclusion. Various colleagues identified mental health as an urgent challenge, and others proposed accommodations and universal design as our biggest hurdle. Although many argued that online learning is the most important opportunity, others were equally passionate about experiential learning.

The chorus of diverse perspectives reminded me of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, written in the 14th century. The tale, set in Arthurian England, tells the story of a knight who must atone for a heinous crime by answering the question, “What do women want?” If he can find an answer that satisfies all women within a year, he will be pardoned.

He travels far and wide, but no woman gives the same answer: some want fame, others wealth; some wish for beauty and others desire freedom. Just as we think this knight is doomed, a “loathly lady” gives him the answer that has hitherto eluded him: she tells him that all women desire sovereignty. In other words, all women want the power of self-determination.

When the knight delivers the message to the court, he is set free. He marries the old lady and once he gives her the power to choose her shape and state, she turns into a beautiful fairy maiden and they live happily ever after.

How does this map onto the original question? Is there one thing we can all agree we want in higher education? I think sovereignty still rings true: we all wish to be treated with dignity and self-determination, with rights and freedoms to reach our best capacities.

Yet how do we anchor this in practice? Chaucer’s Arthurian tale – with its governance model based on a roundtable – offers us a tantalizing clue on how to frame the issue.

First and foremost, we must invite under-represented and marginalized people to our existing tables within the university. We must insist that every table includes the voices of our Indigenous peoples – as elders, administrators, faculty, students, community leaders. We must insist that students sit at every table. We must ensure that our existing tables are spaces that reflect equity, diversity and inclusion.

We also have the opportunity to build new tables. Technology provides us with an unprec­edented opportunity to create virtual tables that harness the power of technology to enhance, rather than dilute, learning in discipline- and institution-specific contexts.

We can build public-facing tables with our communities in order to engage in rigorous and nuanced dialogue about society’s most pressing issues. We should build more tables for inter-university collaborations – whether building those tables is inspired by shared values and size, or to respond to a particular educational shift.

Since higher education is always evolving, we ought to explore how to refurbish tables. What tables need to be transformed from square to round tables? What tables need to be extended, or moved into new spaces? How can we restructure tables to include learning and teaching at the heart of our endeavours?

Finally, some tables need to be flipped. I am not suggesting we physically flip tables. Instead, we can borrow the language of “flipping the classroom” where we reverse traditional learn­ing environments. In mapping this concept onto higher education, can we flip traditional modes by taking a pedagogical approach to all our endeavours as learners, scholars, collaborators and leaders?

My pedagogical approach in the classroom is curiosity-driven, models failure and resilience, builds upon each member’s best capacities, embraces complexity, values multiple and diverse perspectives, co-constructs meaning, and invites transformation through careful, respectful dialogue. How do we import this approach into committee meetings and boardrooms, at senate and in hiring meetings, at negotiation tables and on taskforces?

What tables do you want to sit at, to build, to repurpose – and to flip?

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Amanda Dobbie / July 9, 2018 at 12:40


    These are fantastic questions! At Carleton University, we are addressing all of these by enabling everyone at the institution to have a chair at those tables through Carleton Leader, our leadership development initiative for all faculty and staff

    Our principle and philosophy is based on the ideology that leadership is throughout the university at all levels. To be leaders at these tables we must get rid of the traditional notion that leadership is held by a few individuals with titles sitting in their “thrown” or people combating for those seats through a game of musical chairs.

    Instead, we take the view that leadership is about all the chairs at tables in a banquet hall. There are many tables and many chairs. If you want to make a leadership contribution, pull up a chair!

    We are also encouraging cross collaboration between institutions. We all need to engage with each other in this important dialogue. We need those who work across the higher ed sector to see themselves as leaders in whatever it may be that they choose to work at.

    Please join us:

Click to fill out a quick survey