Vol. 3, No. 4 — WINTER 1991 Guest Editorial

Inequality of Educational Roles

"Qui n'a pas vécu dans les années voisines de 1789 ne sait pas ce que c'est que le plaisir de vivre" [He who did not live in the years before the Revolution (1789) cannot understand the sweetness of living.] — Prince Talleyrand, French statesman (1754-1838)

"I suppose the matrix management way that we do things gives you so much freedom here that, if you like freedom, you can move from area to area and maintain interest. [But] if you are a person who likes a whole lot of structure and wants to know who is boss and what you are going to be doing next Thursday at four o'clock, I think this place could drive you crazy." James Anderson, in W. B. Spaulding. Revitalising Medical Education: McMaster Medical School, The Early Years. . . (1991), 82.

Although much has been written about problem-based, self-directed learning as one of the key innovations at this medical school, it is likely that another one may have been more significant. This is the organisational structure referred to as "matrix management", a format introduced on purely pragmatic grounds by this Faculty's founders, who had little awareness of its theoretical underpinnings.

In a conventional medical school, a department (say Pharmacology) recruits new faculty members who are expected to serve the interests of the department, teach the required courses (in pharmacology), obtain grants to do research and participate in administrative duties. The department chair, in theory, allocates responsibilities, evaluates results and apportions appropriate rewards.

In a matrix system, on the other hand, departments provide resources whereas programs (education, research, service) allot roles and evaluate results. Here at McMaster's Health Sciences Faculty, departments, not programs, are asked to institute appropriate rewards, such as promotions or merit increases. This curious situation, in which chairs recruit and reward but do not control the curriculum has created tensions and ambivalence which some have found exciting and others absurd. As Anderson suggests, our apparent lack of structure can be perceived differently.

There was an implicit expectation from the early days that a faculty member could give about 20% of their time to educational programs but the apportioning of this commitment was not specified. Given the diverse educational roles that an individual faculty member could play, there was much scope for confusion, leaving some faculty members and department chairs, as well as programs, longing for that "sweetness of living" before the revolution. A clear hierarchy of educational roles or at least some form of ranking would have helped, unfortunately none was available. Dr. Marrin's study is an attempt to discern, using faculty attitudes toward roles, the potential for establishing such a ranking.

Dr. Marrin, understandably, based his pilot effort on the attitudes of a few experienced faculty members in one clinical department and in respect to one program, undergraduate medicine. It was important to include persons who had participated in multiple roles and thus were able to rank those roles from personal experience. Thus the eight participants were not randomly selected. The approach used, a paired comparison technique, may seem at first hand unnecessarily complex, particularly as the participants were selected for their knowledge of various roles. One obvious alternative would have been simply to give the eight subjects a randomly ordered list of the 10 roles and ask them to rank the 10 in response to each question. Dr. Marrin argues, convincingly, for his approach. The paired comparison technique requires subjects "to make selections without seeing the full spectrum of options" and thus is well suited to situations in which subjects are responding to particularly judgement- or value-laden questions.

The qualities considered in this pilot were "intellectual challenge" and "hassle" (roughly, nuisance value). Although one could quibble about the imprecision of these terms, there was certainly some advantage to permitting subjects to interpret these two concepts in their own fashion.

I wasn't surprised that unit tutor scored highest on both accounts. Tutoring is indeed a challenging yet frustrating role, as many who have been tutors will testify. Tutors need to organise their time and expend a good deal of effort to do their best. It is certainly much easier to deliver a lecture or provide a resource session in one's area of expertise; hence both the challenge and the hassles are relatively minor.

Nor was I much surprised by the rankings obtained for each role on each quality. These accord reasonably well with what I might term "corridor knowledge". (Department chairs take note, next time you are deciding on a faculty member's contribution to education: having students in one's clinic or office was ranked relatively low on both qualities.)

I generally agree with the results of Dr. Marrin's pilot study, although I would contend that there is an eleventh role that exceeds even unit tutoring in intellectual challenge and hassle, namely unit chair. However, the wonderful compensation with that role is that one gets to know a larger number of students at a personal level and that, for me, overweighs all the hassle in the world.

This study will, I hope, provoke much discussion among faculty in every program of our Faculty. It clearly needs to be replicated and the issues explored with larger numbers of respondents across several departments. Arguably, each program could develop rankings for both program-specific and Faculty-wide roles that might form a basis for Faculty-wide comparison of educational contributions. Such a set of rankings would provide both department chairs and tenure and promotion committees with a faculty-generated, faculty-endorsed evaluation tool whose lack has been felt for a very long time. They would also restore a little of that "sweetness of living" longed for by those discomforted by our McMaster Revolution.

Would the hedonists and anarchists amongst us (myself included) feel queasy about such an imposed structure? Perhaps not. We could carry on doing what we always did and always enjoyed doing, although perhaps with greater justification. Institutional recognition is but icing on the cake.

P.K. Rangachari
McMaster University