Oct. 1, 1994
Dear Professor Zaky,
I have attended the University of Toronto for four years. I spent the first two years as an electrical engineering student, followed by a year in third year Physics and Math, and the fourth year as a third year electrical engineering student enrolled mostly in engineering science courses - electrical option. During my time here I have often been bothered by certain aspects of academic behaviour. I am writing this letter with the hopes of finding explanations and solutions.
It was not until second year when I started to notice that things were not right. I was disappointed by the amount of copying and cheating that was occurring. I wrote quizzes in which no calculators were allowed, but the silence was repeatedly interrupted by beeps from Hewlett Packard calculators. On separate occasions discussion about quiz problems could be heard. There were times when I handed in my quiz paper early, and as I returned to my seat I saw papers being passed back and forth. I never understood why the teaching assistants did not stop people from cheating. Were the teaching assistants so preoccupied that they could not see or hear anything, or did they see and hear but decide not to take action?
Throughout the years professors have re-taught the same courses. Problems used for evaluation have often been recycled. I am not concerned about exam questions because of their general availability through the school library. On the other hand I am concerned about problem sets, quizzes, and mid-term questions. I recently asked an acquaintance of mine if she knew of a good course to take in fourth year. She suggested a course, describing it as easy because all the problem sets except for one, along with the mid-term test questions were identical to the previous year's; she obtained the solutions from a past student. This strategy is not uncommon among students. Students seem to have mastered the art of finding previous problems and lab reports. I can understand labs not changing, since there is a limited number of experiments that can be performed with the available equipment and still demonstrate the important principles. However, this does not excuse the re-using of test and problem set questions by professors. I don't understand. Do the professors not see what is happening or do they just not care?
Students who choose not to copy are at a disadvantage academically. I know of a fourth year student who, on his problem set, wrote "I could have copied and got perfect, but I didn't." The student received 3/20. During second year, I developed stress related symptoms from constantly questioning the credibility of engineers. It seems like there are so many students who go through school searching for free marks that they have forgotten school is a place for learning. With so many students receiving marks not their own, how will they be able to contribute positively in the work force and what does this say about the University of Toronto. Perhaps the prestigious reputations held by both engineers and a University of Toronto education is somewhat undeserved.
I left engineering after second year to enter Arts and Science for a year. I returned to engineering with a renewed thirst for knowledge. I was determined not to allow the things I saw in second year bother me. Third year engineering brought other concerns to my attention and raised more questions I didn't understand. I had a usually well-meaning and well-intentioned professor who told engineering science students that electrical engineering students procrastinated when it dealt with school work, and could not properly maintain lab books; therefore his course, which was being taken by both electrical and engineering science students, could not incorporate the use of quizzes or lab books. This comment was the reply to a question posed after class when the professor requested that the engineering science students remain behind while the electrical students left. I, being both an electrical and engineering science students stayed to be shocked with what I heard. I believe everyone should be allowed to have their own opinions, but I disagree with the expression of this sort of opinion to students. This type of idea only divides students. There are already so many myths circulating in engineering, like "Arts and Science is a breeze,"; and phrases like 'fartsy, artsy' exist. Why deepen the pit of misconception?
I mentioned earlier that I had a drive to learn when I entered third year engineering. My year in physics and math tested my academic ability to the limit, because I had to learn both the material presented, as well as the background material that was required (two years of electrical engineering was not adequate preparation for third year physics and math). I wanted to continue the intensity of this learning process, so I decided to enrol in engineering science courses.
The intensity of the learning process dropped when I returned to engineering. Topics, mainly involving the use of higher mathematics, such as cylindrical and spherical problems requiring Bessel Functions and Spherical Harmonics, which would have been covered if they were taught by the physics department were omitted in engineering. I didn't understand why this occurred, because the engineering science program was suppose to be one of the hardest programs offered. Yet, each time we reached a point in the textbook or lecture notes which required a little more thought it was skipped.
I completed the year with the impression that the electrical engineering department was not a single cohesive group working to educate students, but a collection of small disjoint groups that don't seem to communicate with each other. Courses did not seem to flow naturally from previous courses. At times it felt as though professors didn't know what was being taught by other professors. One professor apologised to the class for not having enough time to cover a particular section in the textbook, but that topic had been dealt with the term before in great detail.
I have often wondered about the assignment of teaching staff to their teaching positions. We have professors (mainly in the earlier years) and teaching assistants who can't speak english. We have teaching assistants who do not understand the course material they are responsible for. At times, the assignment of courses to professors does not fit well. The differential equations professor told the class that he did not like math and he was there because they were making him teach the course. Discipline within the classroom is also a problem. The complex variable professor was unable to control the class, as banana peels soared across the room. The voice of the partial differential equations professor could not be heard, from the front row of the room, over the constant chattering of the class.
Sometimes it seems as though nobody cares about what is happening in the faculty of engineering. School is a place to learn and explore new ideas. Yet, there are students who have become very concerned about marks and not about learning and understanding. Students trying to get ahead of all the other students, always searching for free marks. We have a teaching staff which does not seem to optimize the learning experience, as evaluation questions are recycled, individuals are misassigned to their to teaching duties, professors do not talk to one another about the topics they plan to or have covered, and omission of more challenging material from courses. These are the conditions a student must bear to try and receive an education at the faculty of engineering. The conditions are far from ideal.
Thank-you for taking the time to read my concerns. I am looking forward to your response.