Meeting the Minds – Interviewing Dr. Mark McCutcheon

An Associate Professor for AU’s Centre of Humanities and Master of Arts in Integrated Studies programs, Dr. Mark McCutcheon teaches a variety of courses on everything from the cultural politics of copyright to Canadian adaptations of Frankenstein, to modern media theory and beyond. He was kind enough to give The Voice Magazine this interview. You can also read the first part here.

What is your particular philosophy on student evaluation?
I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean evaluation of students, as in instructors assessing and marking course work? Or do you mean evaluation by students, as in student evaluations of courses?

If you mean the former, evaluation and assignments have to fit and advance a given course’s learning objectives. I teach English and writing, so essays are kind of a big deal in my teaching and marking. But I’ve also taught hands-on media work, assigning students to make Wikis or produce audio podcasts. I assign process work (like essay proposing, drafting, and writing), performance-of-knowledge work (like exams), and practical work (like media production) as each course requires.

If you mean the latter, I simply wish more students would submit evaluations of their courses and instructors. The response rate when these evaluations are held online is appallingly low and so doesn’t give instructors a very representative glimpse of their teaching effectiveness according to students.

What pedagogical standpoint is most reflective of your way of teaching?
Can I quote my official “statement of teaching philosophy”? It’s the kind of document that otherwise doesn’t circulate too far beyond hiring and promotion committees. You may wonder: what’s a “statement of teaching philosophy”? Professional academics keep what’s called a “teaching dossier” of courses taught, student evaluations of courses, evidence of teaching effectiveness, and one standard ingredient in the teaching dossier is one’s statement of teaching philosophy. So the teaching dossier is an always changing, always growing documentation of and reflection on teaching experience, and It’s usually submitted, along with other documentation of professional academic work, when applying to academic jobs, or when applying for promotion and tenure. But it might be worthwhile sharing one’s teaching philosophy with students, to give you a peek under the hood of the teaching process, as it were. Also, since you asked. So here’s the core excerpt of my statement of teaching philosophy, an approach I think of as “cultivating Mündigkeit“:

My pedagogy is based on three premises. First, a demonstrated passion for the subject matter, and the assurance to students that their learning matters profoundly to me, are necessary to inspire students to do their best work. Second, sophisticated thinking develops best through the processes of composing arguments and creating artifacts; and concentration on the process of composition (in writing and other media) produces better, more effective thinkers in the academy, the workplace, and wider social engagements. Third, a responsive, critical attention to current teaching technology developments is indispensable in the classroom and supports the first two premises in practice. … Combining contextual critique, process-oriented production work, and a commitment to student ideas and interests, my teaching strives to achieve Mündigkeit, a German word that combines contrasting senses of apprenticeship and aptitude, training and talent. By designing courses that challenge students’ assumptions and abilities, and that speak to their lived cultural experiences, I try to help each student realize her or his own intellectual potential in a balance of curiosity and skepticism, expressiveness and discipline: traits that are all essential in study, work, and citizenship.

The only thing I’d add to this summary of where I’m coming from as a professor at AU is that it is crucial to remain open-minded and non-judgmental about prospective students, their situations, and their research interests. AU has a vital role to play in making university education accessible to people and communities who have not historically been able to access traditional university education: minoritized and marginalized people and peoples in various intersecting contexts. For instance, a now-retired colleague was fond of pointing out that among prison inmates, the tendency to re-offend once released from prison is statistically way lower for inmates who pursue postsecondary education while incarcerated than for those who don’t. For another, I have to say I was disappointed?appalled, actually?to see The Voice Magazine run an op-ed, a year or so ago, which argued that students who have to do sex work to fund their tuition do not deserve a university education. That’s a harsh, unkind argument, and one contrary to AU and its social-justice mission.

What technological shifts would you like to see online education take in the future?
I have a few thoughts on this. I would like to see more students as well as faculty and staff use the AU Landing more ? it may not be perfect but It’s an amazing bundle of social media tools. At the same time, I’d like to see AU’s course development and teaching processes become more agile and flexible – and AU’s programs become more autonomous and self-governing – with respect to technological change in general. That is, whatever technology a course happens to use (like Moodle) or an instructor happens to prefer (like the Landing), I’d like to see AU’s teaching practices and principles better able and equipped to adapt to different, changing, and proliferating teaching technologies ? and of course to rigorously test them and integrate critical digital literacy in how they’re used in online teaching. And correspondingly, faculties, centres, and programs deserve and need genuine autonomy and self-governance to determine what technologies do or do not best serve their teaching, their academic capital, and their students. E-texts can’t work for each and every course and program ? neither can the controversial “student success centre,” aka the “call centre model.” Academics and academic programs need to be able to independently and critically assess which teaching technologies best suit their pedagogy and programs ? not have these decisions made for them by senior administrators.

And last but not least, as I said above AU needs to make sure prospective students know that, if they want or need to, they can still take AU courses and programs with no technology more advanced than paper and the postal service.

What is your view on social media in the online learning environment?
I use social media extensively and in a few different ways, and I encourage students to do likewise, but not unexaminedly – I also try to encourage students to approach social media critically, cautiously, skeptically. I also know everyone has different comfort levels about social media ? that goes for me too. I don’t use Twitter at all like I use Facebook (with which, like many users, I have a kind of love-hate relationship), or like I use the Landing. I encourage students to at least try AU’s social site, and I try to explain?especially for students who aren’t comfortable with being public online?that the Landing has highly customizable privacy settings. If You’re not comfortable with more people than your instructor seeing your work, the Landing can do that.

I hope this doesn’t sound pushy about social media?I’m no cheerleader, I know a lot of the big services are actively complicit with state surveillance and corporate interests, I know they’re effectively privatizing a lot of public space. But with some of my colleagues in Learning Design and Development, I share the view that, as an open university, especially, we owe it to our students to teach them how to critically and effectively use emerging tools and technologies of communication and representation, both to augment course learning and as valuable, transferable learning in its own right.

If you had one piece of advice for online learners, what would it be?
Can I share two? First: like that student said on the Landing, the achievable course workload is the routinely scheduled and therefore manageable workload. Stick with it for even just a few minutes a day. I’ve seen students graduate who have spent literally decades completing their program, often in the face of profoundly trying and troubling circumstances ? the point is that they stuck with it and saw it through. Second: don’t let anyone try to tell you that a degree or credential from AU isn’t worthwhile. we’re in the top tier of Alberta’s comprehensive research universities, along with the U of Alberta, for good reason: quality and accessible university pedagogy, and research excellence.

If you could wave a magic wand and improve one thing about online education, what would it be?
All university tuition should be free of charge. (For more on this issue, see

What is your view on interdisciplinary studies for English majors?
Sure, interdisciplinarity strengthens any area of study ? conceptually, theoretically, and contextually – and literary studies are no exception. But get first things first: make sure you figure out the specific disciplinarity of English, of literary studies, before trying to integrate it with other inter- or multi-disciplinary interests or approaches. (Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory are two excellent books for learning about the disciplinary character and history of “English”.)

How do you keep abreast of best teaching practices?
I keep current on issues like these through meetings and conferences with colleagues, especially those in my own discipline and field. Reading current research in my areas of interest also keeps me on top of best teaching practices, because (contrary to some arguments and contrary to some recent developments elsewhere, like “teaching-stream” academic jobs), research and teaching are integrally linked (an argument I make in detail at ). The journals I read regularly often include articles and essays on teaching and related professional concerns. I also like to stay in the loop, much as I can, with what my colleagues in the Centre for Distance Education are doing. Some of what’s happening there is I think at the forefront of exploring, establishing, and promoting best teaching practices for open postsecondary education.

What are some of the challenges and highlights to publishing academic literature?
I love writing and seeing my work reach publication?That’s always a highlight, it never gets old. A more recent highlight for me is joining the critical dialogue of public scholarship: seeing what other scholars make of my work. That’s a trip through the looking glass, discovering the unexpected ways that others will interpret what you’ve written, or will make a big deal of what you thought was a minor detail. Of course, the enduring challenge is to establish an audience. There’s a lot of scholarship out there more readily available than ever before?which is great, I strongly advocate for Open Access and most of my articles are openly accessible?but I think that means there’s also a lot more “self-promotional” (ugh) work that needs to be done to draw attention to new research publications.

Further to the Open Access thing, a related challenge in academic publishing is that standard author contracts want you to surrender your copyright to the journal publisher. It’s not necessary?all they really need is a non-exclusive license?but It’s expected, and when you try to negotiate this It’s all too common to get a flat refusal to negotiate, or, worse, no response at all. But It’s not impossible. Some of my favourite journals, like English Studies in Canada, have relatively good Open Access policies, and more seem to be going that way.

What is your favourite course to teach? Why this particular course?
I can’t say that. That’s like saying one of your kids is your favourite, which You’re not allowed to say. I like all the courses I teach.

If you could confer one piece of wisdom on an upcoming student in English, what would it be?
Talk about the writing. To succeed in literary studies means to focus on and talk about the writing of a given literary work, about its form. don’t focus on what a text “says” or what happens in it, focus on how It’s put together, how its elements of structure and style make it an effective or successful reading (or viewing, or listening) experience. A literary text isn’t a window to look through, It’s a tapestry to look at. (For more on this tip, I can’t highly enough recommend Jack Lynch’s short, excellent, free online guide, Getting an A on an English Paper: