How a Dead Professor Is Teaching a University Art History ClassBreaking News
tags: online teaching, academic labor
When a Concordia University student went to email his professor recently, he found out something startling.
“HI EXCUSE ME, I just found out the the prof for this online course I’m taking *died in 2019* and he’s technically still giving classes since he’s *literally my prof for this course* and I’m learning from lectures recorded before his passing.” In a follow-up tweet, he wrote, “I mean, I guess I technically read texts written by people who’ve passed all the time, but it’s the fact that I looked up his email to send him a question and PULLED UP HIS MEMORIAM INSTEAD that just THREW ME OFF A LITTLE.”
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.
All around us, the dead perform postmortem work. In the past, I’ve written about the ways people’s likenesses or creative materials may live on beyond them, perhaps allowing corporations, platforms, or other institutions to profit. Thanks to digital technologies, dead celebrities can appear in ads, dead musicians can play at live shows, and individuals’ social data can manifest as chatbots. In addition to journal articles and syllabi, college professors like me might have a collection of video lectures and recorded talks that could potentially outlive us, perhaps instructing students and captivating audiences after we die. Does the university really have the right to profit from the lectures of a dead person? Or to charge students full tuition when they cannot access their professor except through a spirit medium?
This case may be particularly egregious, but it intersects with larger questions about copyright and control over faculty members’ online course materials and the various ways faculty labor within higher education is degraded and devalued. During the pandemic’s first days, contingent and tenured faculty members alike quickly adapted their syllabi and moved their course materials online, offering remote classes so instruction could safely continue. As weary professors have lamented, teaching online is, in many respects, more labor-intensive than being there in person: It involves recording, uploading, and transcribing video lectures; responding to asynchronous discussion posts; and fielding more questions from confused students. The pandemic has also brought new challenges, with faculty teaching from cramped quarters and caring for young children at home. Additional workload expectations are even more of a problem for part-time faculty members, who are expected to perform this additional work without more compensation. Despite increased workloads, some universities are cutting faculty positions, especially adjunct and other contingent positions, and reducing faculty pay. With an abundance of curated class materials uploaded to university drives, critics have flagged problems related to intellectual property rights and the repurposing of recorded lectures: Will faculty essentially automate away their own jobs by recording lectures that can be recycled year after year?
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