Wednesday, April 18, 2007


This article was printed in the spring 2007 issue of "Our Schools / Our Selves," published quarterly by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

David F. Noble
(guest blogger)

Critical pedagogy has long condemned grading as an impediment to genuine education, but critical pedagogues continue to grade, as a presumed condition of employment. “I hate it but I have to do it” is their lame lament.

But they no longer have to do it. Throughout the thirty-odd years of my university teaching career I have always found ways around grading, primarily by giving all A’s, thereby eliminating grades de facto if not de jure. Last year for the first time, after long bemoaning my “anomalous” practice, York University officials formally prevailed upon me henceforth to designate my courses “ungraded” (a pass/fail option without the fail), thereby taking them off the radar and perhaps unintentionally establishing a promising academic precedent.

As a tenured full professor, of course, I do enjoy an unusual degree of job security, a privilege provided by a paying public in need of some truth and thus some unshackled, socially responsible scholars. Moreover, as a unionized employee I am protected by a collective agreement which requires only that I submit evaluations on time without specifying what they “should” be. Thus I am indeed in a good position to challenge the grading regime, but so too are many others who continue to grade.

Why? Typically, as already indicated, colleagues express a fear of administrative reprisal. But they embrace grades also for other, unspoken, reasons, perhaps unacknowledged even to themselves.

Grades offer teachers a convenient device for allaying their anxieties about their own abilities by shifting them onto their students, through an endless round of tests, examinations and evaluations. Grades get teachers off the hook; they preserve professorial authority and are indifferent to professorial incompetence. Bad faith protestations about administration requirements can mask the fact that grades serve the teacher at the expense of the students, and at the sacrifice of education.

But in all this the primary reason for the existence of grades—publicly-subsidized pre-employment screening—is rarely acknowledged. Grades appear to be a matter between teacher and student—until they are “submitted.” At that point those for whom grades are really given—those who have perhaps never even stepped into a classroom—gain access to the measurements of their prospective labour force. Here is the silent third party in the halls of academia, the so-called elephant in the room, to whom academia has too long been hostage. Eliminating grades eliminates the elephant from the room, emancipates academia and reintroduces education.

The elimination of grades at a stroke shifts academic attention from evaluation to education, where it belongs. When skeptical colleagues protest that it is not fair for me to give the same grade both to people who work hard and to people who fail even to show up, I remind them that these people are not getting the same reward because the people who work hard also get an education. “Oh, yeah,” they say, remembering as an afterthought what should be at the forefront of their profession.

Students themselves have collectively never resisted my refusal to grade them, and our experiences have been mutually rewarding beyond measure, and all measurement. With grades no longer a matter of concern, no time is ever wasted on discussions about evaluation—heretofore students’ primary preoccupation. Without having to fear or defer to professors or peers, students are freed for forthright and authentic engagement, an essential ingredient of genuine education, and discover that they are not alone, despite the rituals of competitive individualism enforced everywhere else around them.

With the substitution of encouragement for evaluation, intellectual excitement becomes the defining element in the educational ethos, replacing anxiety--which, as every parent knows, is lethal to learning. Abandoning grades annuls alienation: students no longer depend on others for a sense of their own worth.

Without grades, students do not have to try to read the professor’s mind—an impossible task anyway, so philosophers tell us—and can instead concentrate upon reading their own minds, self-knowledge being the grail of education. With grades gone, and having thus side-stepped the institutionally routinized regime of infantilization so corrosive of self-respect, self-confidence and self-worth, students can now begin to take themselves and their own thoughts seriously—for too many an altogether novel experience. This is the only true end of education.

The elimination of grades is no longer merely a theoretical proposition. It is an actuality, and a precedent, given my experience at York University. I now teach officially-designated “ungraded” courses with the formal sanction of the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and in full recognition of the Vice President/Academic. From this fertile ground, I advise my colleagues across the country: Try it; you are bound to like it. And so, I suspect, are your students, who will at last start receiving what they have been presumably been paying for and what we have been professing to provide.

Historian David F. Noble is a professor at York University in Toronto.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Afghanistan: Guerre humanitaire ou criminelle? (in French)

Critique de la guerre canadienne en Afghanistan

Conference du professeur Denis G. Rancourt
(Universite du Quebec en Outaouais, 6 mars 2007 - in French.)


[Radical analysis of Canada's crime of war in Afghanistan (in French).]

Friday, April 13, 2007

ACADEMIC SQUATTING - A democratic method of curriculum development

This article was printed in the spring 2007 issue of "Our Schools / Our Selves," published quarterly by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives It was also printed in the September/October 2007 issue of "DESIGNER / builder" magazine.

Denis G. Rancourt

I teach an activism course at the University of Ottawa.

Not a course about altruism, volunteerism, charity, international aid or civic duty and building community within the confines of the status quo. But an activism course, about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.

As is often the case with effective activism, this course is itself direct, overt, and defiant. I have chosen to adopt a style consistent with this stance in writing this article, as an illustration of my pedagogical posture. Teachers need to show what they stand for and more and more we need to stand for something beyond doctrinal platitudes.

The underlying working premise of all other courses on my campus is that our societal structures are mostly beneficial and just – that the schools and other private and public institutions, government institutions, corporations, and financial institutions all work together to generate wealth and distribute services and resources. The underlying assumption of all other courses is that societal structures may perhaps need to be adjusted but are necessary in some form and mostly benefit society.

In contrast, the underlying premise of the activism course is that our societal structures, taken together, represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet– that the reality of these structures is one of continental-scale pillaging enforced by the greatest military and coercion machines ever assembled. In this paradigm, the observed generalized criminal disregard for local inhabitants and indigenous peoples is no accident; the environment, workers and inhabitants are structurally expendable liabilities in a profit-driven debt-based global financial enterprise that must be characterized as insane, not to mention unsustainable; and the schools and universities supply the obedient workers and managers and professionals that adopt and apply this system’s doctrine--knowingly or unknowingly, according to need.

This is the outlook that informs the speakers I invite, the readings I suggest, the way I position science and all the disciplines, the way I guide whole class discussions, and the one-on-one interactions I have with students.

I think there should be room for at least one such course on my campus.

The university administration and many of my colleagues do not share my zeal for this diversity of perspective--as has been amply demonstrated and documented over the last few years. Their attacks on the activism course experiment are strong testaments to the uncompromised position and moral and intellectual rigour that the students and I have chosen to apply and defend.


It all started with a modest experiment in pedagogy and social relevance in the fall of 2005. In response to twenty years of observing classes that both delivered soulless material and served mainly to prepare students to be obedient and indoctrinated employees, I felt I had to do something more than give a “better” physics course. I realized that it is activists, not obedient employees, who make a difference, who make the world a better place.

I decided that the course would itself be a realization of activism. I decided to squat the Physics and the Environment course that had been assigned to me that fall. This may have been the first example of overt academic squatting, where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.

For a squat to succeed, the occupants have to be on board, and at the first class the students embraced the project with more enthusiasm than I could have imagined. I had simply suggested that maybe the greatest societal problems around were as important as physics, that the students themselves could be in charge of their own learning, and that I saw no need for grading or any institutional evaluation.

The experiment encountered immediate and explosive resistance. After the VP-Academic choked on the course web site, we were treated to a tantrum from the Dean of Science at the second class. What followed was a textbook example of successful activism, to the point that several students asked if the administration’s response had been completely staged, and some thanked the dean for providing a laboratory component to the physics course.

At the third class, the dean was back to announce a negotiated agreement “to the benefit of all” that would have us – the students and I – run the course exactly as we had intended. But we knew the victory would be short lived if we did not get an activism course on the books, and so we fought our way through 11 months and 16 committee meetings to have SCI 1101 approved, as a credited Faculty of Science course with no prerequisites. Despite official recognition of this first multidisciplinary Science (SCI)-code course on our campus, in the words of an enlightened Science Faculty Executive, SCI 1101 "does not count as a science course."

The activism course exists because hundreds of students and community members fought for it against committee normalcy, unprecedented administrative barriers, disciplinal ghettoism, and regressive opinion echoed by the mainstream media. It has received unequalled praise from both its paying “clients” (as the administration calls students) and “freeloading” community participants. Many attest to a life-changing experience, like only discovering one’s agency and place in the world can produce.

At the very least, the students of the activism course were exposed to speakers and issues that they did not encounter in other courses, often had their first university encounter with intrinsic motivation, deeply questioned the pedagogical methods of other courses, and often became leading campus activists. In the words of one student: “Everything else is the same but this course is real.”

The more activists there are, the more democracy there is.

In contrast and true to character, the university executive has consistently attempted to block the course over the past two years: From the dean’s failed in-class intervention, to deflected attempts to censor the course web site, to ad hoc rules and evaluation committees, to forbidding community member participation, to failed disciplinary campaigns based on ridiculous premises, to withholding academic resources, to the upper executives re-writing the course description themselves, and most recently to expelling students on the basis of age.

The opposite atmosphere reigns in the classroom, where hundreds of students of all ages (10 to 70+) and backgrounds interact with intricate and compelling material of direct relevance to their place in the world. Principal actors, experts, and readings present vital issues including: war, terrorism, the armament industry, monetary economics, poverty, professional ethics, environmental issues, societal and institutional structures, human rights, science funding, the non-profit sector, the agri-food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, animal rights, democracy, foreign policy, and others. Self-motivation and unrestrained exploration and expression are enabled by the absence of grades and by individually designed progress reports.

Academic squatting works! Academic squatting is needed because universities are dictatorships, devoid of real democracy, run by self-appointed executives who serve private capital interests. Producing obedient employees and publicly funded intellectual property transfers are in fact the university’s only business, as is evident from its research, programs, curricula, and coercive methods. Of course, there are accidental side benefits that may be realized by individual students, just as friendships can develop in a labour camp, and one can marry a prison guard one met on the inside, or write a good book while in exile, but the point is that the university is an instrument of power as it has always been, period. Only activism – resistance – can change that.

One antidote to the university as boot camp in the service of capital is for tenured professors to use their tenure. This would turn tenure on its head, as it is free society’s coercive tool of choice for fabricating aligned and docile academics. Not the job security in itself, which should be available to all, but the filtering and moulding process known as the tenure track. But why not turn tenure on its head? Tenure is death, risk is life, and collaboration is criminal. Collaborating in an institutionalized system of resource looting, labour exploitation, and genocidal demographic engineering is criminal, especially when its ultimate weapon is the foremost crime known as war, such as the present Canadian war in Afghanistan.

Tenure – use it or lose it.

Alternatively, the next step is academic hijacking, where students tell a professor that she can stay or leave but that this is what they are going to do and these are the speakers they are going to invite… Here, academic freedom would apply to students, not just professors.
Now that would be taking responsibility for one’s education.

Denis G. Rancourt is a physics professor and environmental science researcher at the University of Ottawa.


*Two activism course classes reported on at YaYaCanada:

*The original activism course web site:

*My blog the “Activist Teacher”:

*del Moral, Andrea, 2002, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.

*Malatesta, Errico, 1891, Anarchy. New translation from the Italian by Vernon Richards, Freedom Press, 1974, 1994.

*Mitchell, Peter R. and Schoeffel, John (editors), 2002, Understanding Power – The indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, NY.

*Noble, David F., 2005, Beyond the Promised Land, The Movement and the Myth. Between the Lines, Toronto.

*Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Gradual Change Is Not Progress.

*Rancourt, Denis G., 2007, Activism and Risk – Life beyond altruism.

*Said, Edward W., 1994, Representations of the Intellectual. Vintage Books, NY.
*Schmidt, Jeff, 2000, Disciplined Minds. Rowman & Littlefield.