I was a tad skeptical when I saw the tweets being reshared from a student who was (rightfully if true) upset that his university was having dead professors teach classes.
It was the macabre right out of a Netflix series idea of the Teaching Dead but then it is amplified by this Slate story,
How a Dead Professor Is Teaching a University Art History Classhttps://slate.com/technology/2021/01/dead-professor-teaching-online-class.html
The fact that the dead can literally replace living faculty members is a perfect metaphor for what is happening across higher education.
It’s almost like Slate is doing the click bait headline work left off by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Is this story really the perfect metaphor? And what is happening across higher education according to the Slate magic 8-ball?
I have no means of deciphering the truth here, I have not spoken to the student, but the Slate article reads like they did not either. But we do not see inside this course, nor do we know what ways these video lectures are set up for the students. Nor do we know the level of instructor/student interaction.
But Slate did give me enough, to in about 5 minutes of searching last night, to through some light on the shade.
In a statement from Concordia, the university confirmed that François-Marc Gagnon, a longtime lecturer in the Department of Art History and prominent scholar with a large body of written work, created the lectures as part of Concordia’s online course catalog, eConcordia. In other words, Gagnon’s lectures are from a pre-COVID-19 era and were intended for a dedicated online class, not the in-person-designed courses that have moved online as a result of the pandemic. Technically, Marco Deyasi is now listed as the instructor of record, along with two teaching assistants who also interact with students and grade their work. Gagnon’s lectures continue on as a “teaching tool,” according to the Concordia spokesperson.
It’s rather easy to find the course in question is ARTH 272 – From Realism to Abstraction in Canadian Art right there in the Confordia catalog, and detailed information in the Course Outline.
It rather clearly defines who the instructor is and that videos are from another profesor, as well as who to contact.
The instructor for this course is Dr. Marco Deyasi. The video lectures are by Dr. François-Marc Gagnon. All general inquiries regarding the course can be emailed to: email@example.com.
Is there any doubt who the instructor is? Is there any question how to email them? There is a rather detailed section under Communication that is abundantly clear that the way to communicate with professors is not googling for their email.
One could say it suggests that Dr. François-Marc Gagnon is a co-teacher, and it does not specifically state that Dr. Gagnon is deceased. Are syllabi required to define living/dead status of all course videos?
It does not take much effort to find the lecturer is dead.
I’ve used video lectures in my class from Kurt Vonnegut and none of my students tried to email him with questions.
If anything, to me, the student missed rather critical course information. Or maybe ressented the format of the class. I don’t know, and it’s not right to guess.
Is it slimy to offer course built around dead professors lecturing? Maybe this course was just watching course videos and the paid teacher clicking buttons. But we don’t know that.
I can’t call it ghost work as Slate as tossed into the mix. We do not see the workings of this course. And yes, there is a plenty of this in higher education. And I too am part of the lowly paid adjunctariot.
The issues they raised are worth discussing, but I have trouble taking a Dead Professors Society as the perfect metaphor for the problems in higher education. There are much bigger ones. It reeks more of sensationalism.
I give Slate a D for digging in with this story.
Update Jan 29, 2021
From comment below by Marco Deyasi– the very much alive professor- there is more clear article on the situation from the Toronto Star: Concordia University says lectures from dead professor are ‘teaching tool’
Featured Image: Tombstone Herbert Sandberg a Wikimedia Commons photo shared under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA license superimposed on a single frame from Dead Poets Society
Thank you for your very sensible take on the Slate article. You understand the situation correctly.
Slate, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and other publications went with the most sensationalist and distorted version of the story that they could. Thanks for setting the record straight.
If you–or anyone else–is interested in better reporting on the issue, this is a good article:
Thank you so much Marco for confirming the situation and offering a much better coverage of the story. I hope this has not been too negative an experience for you.
Marco I really appreciate you popping in and commenting on this issue. And Alan, thanks for providing a more nuanced and rational take on the issue than I have been reading elsewhere. When I first heard the story, I immediately thought of the infamous & now-legendary Feynman lectures and how those lectures have been used and reused as learning resources by hundreds of Physics teachers for decades. The fact that Feynman died in 1988 but yet his lectures are still in use today as learning resources should be seen as a testament to Feynman’s wonderful skill as a teacher and I imagine the same is true here.
Clint, you’re quite right about the lectures. François-Marc Gagnon was was a beloved teacher, as I understand it.
Glad Marco Deyasi shared some insight. While I can’t claim any knowledge of this specific situation, I’m thinking of exploring the precariat angle.
I’ve taught at Concordia University from 2006 to 2015 as Part-Time Faculty. On several occasions, during that period, I’ve thought about building some courses through eConcordia and enquired several times about ways to make that work. It was rather tricky because of differences between agreements that eConcordia had with CUPFA (the Part-Time Faculty union) and CUFA (representing fulltimers).
In my experience, CUPFA is among the strongest unions throughout the “Contingent Academic Labour” landscape. In fact, ConU was rather prominent within CoCAL. At the same time, CUPFA was so opposed to the push to the eConcordia model that their terms with the online provider were making it almost impossible for a member to build a course there. I don’t remember the exact details (trying to block that experience from my mind, I guess), but the basic idea was to protect courses from being taught by others.
At the time, there was discussion of changes in eConcordia’s IP regime (in parallel with the KnowledgeOne move). Martin Singer had already left ConU, yet we were told that his eConcordia course was still generating revenues for him, as he was grandfathered in. I remember discussing the situation with Jordan Lebel (@DoctorPleasure) whose “Marketing Yourself” course was quite popular at eConcordia.
It was a fascinating context for an OER advocate! As well as for a “contingent academic labourer” who actually enjoys the flexibility afforded such a position.
Given the sensationalism, I’d put coverage of Ansuini’s reaction to discovering François-Marc Gagnon’s demise in «faits divers», or “back page” news. Yet there’s an opportunity to discuss something rather profound in the relationships between content and teaching. Particularly through the shift to contingent labour.
Allow me to dream up a story… (Thanks!)
Say, Dr. Thomson created an Open Textbook and a set of interactive modules for use with her eConcordia course in genetic engineering. Thanks to workshops from the Centre for Teaching & Learning (CTL), her project combines Learning Experience Design (LXD), accessibility principles (#a11y), and Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+).
(Don’t know if an eConcordia course would qualify for the OER initiative from ConU’s Library Services Fund. It’d make things even more interesting.)
Given her status as Part-Time Faculty, there’s no guarantee that Dr. Thomson will get to teach this course again and CUPFA might have some problems with such a situation. I can readily hear the voices of people involved, vociferously decrying the other sides’ demands.
Thomson did get paid to produce the content and to “deliver” the course.
However, eConcordia gives the teaching contract to somebody else the following year.
In one scenario, Thomson’s reaction is extremely negative as she expected this work to give her more stability. She agreed to make the content open because of a half-digested line about textbook costs (in my experience, ConU’s studentship is very cost-sensitive, unlike McG’s). That could be enough of a PR nightmare for ConU that it’d have a chilling effect on further OER initiatives.
In another scenario (more likely, I hope), Thomson’s reaction is rather positive as she perceives the potential of having more teachers adopting the same content. Because this content is open and she’s the one who created it, she develops a new course outside of eConcordia. Her actual teaching leverages the content and allows her to focus on approaches based on active learning. Meanwhile, diverse learners start collaborating based on this shared material. Another teacher pulls a DeRosa and encourages learners to contribute additional material. Yet another “forks” the content for use in a course in bioethics. A shared bank of questions is created based on this expanding material. What was originally a course/textbook assemblage gives way to some chunking. Subject librarians at diverse institutions help in the referencing of individual OERs within this set, associating specific competencies to particular modules.
Through that whole expansion, Thomson’s profile remains attached to her original contributions. Similar to the way code repositories serve as portfolios for coders, this whole project gives Thomson a leg up in the academic labour market. In the end, her career in genetic engineering expands outside the Ivory Tower but she maintains teaching practices which are not only personally rewarding but professionally relevant. ConU’s “NOW” celebrates her work. MacLean’s does a profile which is disseminated by CUPFA and the library. More teachers warm up to OER, in partnership with CTL. Open Pedagogy rides the OER wave at ConU and elsewhere.
Perhaps more importantly, competencies in genetic engineering improve across the world. Particularly on the ethical side.
Decades later, Thomson dies peacefully. The material she built is a significant part of her legacy. What’s harder to trace is the actual learning which has happened thanks to her teaching.
Thanks Alex for filling in more background on the union angle at Concordia, and more so for a positive view of Dr Thompson’s possible experience – that’s how things should be!
This really good be a “Black Mirror” episode where a beloved teacher is holographically recorded and then eventually let go and replaced largely by her holograms and AI/ML generated answers to questions. If you teach for 10 years, you have probably answered almost all of the possible questions that will be asked – if the cohort of students remains similar (lots of ifs there).
Will we have a right to delete our virtual selves?
That’s the kind of thing our Networked Narratives course did in 2020, we ran it with a Black Mirror theme.
The plot should hinge on the dark consequence of buying into the promise. Something that happens to the people who buy into this. Great plot!