HI EXCUSE ME, my online professor is dead
January 21, 2021 12:43 AM   Subscribe

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 ..........it’s a great class but WHAT
posted by LarryC (85 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
...how?!

Also, is some mysterious TA really doing all the grading?
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:46 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


That's messed up. Wow. And yeah, professors matter. Not just lecture content but there's mentorship and letters of recommendation. I wonder if this thread will be updated with more info.
posted by NotTheRedBaron at 12:53 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


Professor Binns?
posted by obol at 1:03 AM on January 21 [17 favorites]


First year undergrad I took Psych 1A6, the single most popular course on campus (roughly 10% of the low-five-digits student body was enrolled any given year). There was exactly one prof; all the lectures were on videotape, which we watched with the TA, who answered any questions and as I recall, did all the marking of the tests we wrote once every three weeks. I think the prof did mark the exams, though, which must have been daunting.

The virtue of the video system is that if you found 8:30 AM classes to be as unattainable as I did, you could just go to the science library on campus and catch up in a carrel as suited your schedule. As long as you caught up in time for the test every third week, all was well. The system still apparently endures as of at least 2019, though: Dr Day was still there when I asked, though I suspect the students can watch the streaming videos on their phone or laptop wherever might suit them. The student body has quadrupled since my day; if the ratios hold, there’s no way one senior prof is doing five thousand exams, so he must have help there.

I recall, incidentally, that even in the mid-eighties, I was bemused by how the videos occasionally include short skits to demonstrate some concept or other. These were, in classic scholastic fashion, a good fifteen years out of date and the black and white low-quality videotaped clips of performances by hippie-era students seemed initially kind of a bizarre choice. My university had a pretty good drama department and I was surprised these had not been updated. I presently got a clue as to why they may have not been redone: one of the performers was one of our predecessors in the course, a teenaged Martin Short.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:12 AM on January 21 [30 favorites]


Do you want Videodrome? Because this is how you get Videodrome.
posted by HunterFelt at 1:35 AM on January 21 [22 favorites]


That reference letter might not be worth all that much.
posted by srboisvert at 1:43 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Gen X was just waiting for all the gerontocrats to die and leave us spaces to be promoted up into, joke’s on us
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 1:50 AM on January 21 [77 favorites]


The virtue of the video system is that if you found 8:30 AM classes to be as unattainable as I did

Having been to college in the 80s, I find it hard to conceive of a college imagining that its students would be out of bed by 8.30am.

In fact, I find it hard to conceive of a college imagining that its students would be back from the party by 8.30am.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 2:05 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Wow. I mean I knew tenure made it tough to fire professors, but I had no idea it went this far.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:48 AM on January 21 [25 favorites]


I have many thoughts about this.

It's kind of heartwarming that this prof has been immortalised in a set of recorded lectures, but not that heartwarming that the university is profiting from posthumous use of his image like this. Is this different to using written course materials made by a deceased person? Should there be a different clause in lecturers' contracts for this kind of thing, with a different scale of compensation? Is this just an artifact of the COVID era and its abrupt and disorderly switch to online learning? It would be sad if this guy's lectures just disappeared and were never used by anyone again, but that doesn't mean that it's OK for them to be used by the university on these terms.

They probably should have anticipated that students would assume that the prof was alive, and that they would develop some level of parasocial rapport with him through these recordings -- and that this would lead to an unpleasant surprise down the line. It's also weird that they didn't clarify up-front that he was deceased, because surely a university course is more than just watching lectures, and students are expected to interact with the lecturer in various ways? Who was made available for these kinds of interactions?
posted by confluency at 2:55 AM on January 21 [25 favorites]


If I may derail for a second, AaronLinguini's Twitter in general is superb - very funny and very thought-provoking at turns (his stuff about 'out-skilling ableism', for example, really resonates). That's my reading material sorted for the next few hours while I should be working.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 3:14 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


If disclosed and appropriate resources are made available for students who need further guidance, I don't see it as much different than the approximately one million Youtube videos of dead lecturers I've watched over the years. I might feel differently if I had paid for any of the lectures (video or in person) I've seen/attended in my life.
posted by wierdo at 3:48 AM on January 21


One of the first college courses I took, way back in the 80's, was based on Sir Kenneth Clark's art history lectures/videos of Civilization, so using the work of another academic as the backbone to a course doesn't throw me, but that class still had an actual living professor present in the classroom to teach it. Not telling potential students their professor is dead and probably won't be answering their questions anytime soon is a whole different kind of thing and feels a lot like fraud.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:01 AM on January 21 [8 favorites]


I'm an academic and my course material is work product that belongs to the university I work for. If i was to turn up my toes tomorrow (or just leave, which would be easier on me) they would be entitled to keep using it. At the same time, I am entitled to be acknowledged as the author of my course material.
posted by biffa at 4:03 AM on January 21 [8 favorites]


*looks sadly at the academic job market*
posted by ChuraChura at 4:59 AM on January 21 [35 favorites]


they would be entitled to keep using it

But at issue here, would they be entitled to keep billing you as the prof teaching the course to students?
posted by Meatbomb at 5:01 AM on January 21 [12 favorites]


No that would be weird indeed. Its also depressing to think declining student feedback scores would haunt me for years after my demise. "Hasn't responded to an email I sent 3 months ago". "Student feedback was non-existent." "Prof. Biffa has started to smell."
posted by biffa at 5:13 AM on January 21 [52 favorites]


This happened to me in graduate school. It was weird but we got through it.
posted by all about eevee at 5:20 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Do the TAs also classify as pallbearers since they are assisting a corpse?
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:21 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


*looks sadly at the academic job market*

Yeah. My state university system has laid off over 100 tenured/tenure-track faculty this year across the member universities (along with countless adjunct faculty and staff), and I expect more next year unless we make a miraculous budget recovery. I'm not excited about the potential for all our newly-built online courses to keep getting used after we lose our jobs.
posted by pemberkins at 5:24 AM on January 21 [16 favorites]


Our college has intentionally not had online classes in the past because we think our population of mostly first generation college students does much better in our small face to face classes. We have all been paranoid that the online classes we have developed for the pandemic will not all go away and that some of our students will be perpetually subjected to the canned, low engagement courses we've been forced to develop temporarily. All that said, I had not anticipated this as a possible outcome.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:30 AM on January 21 [15 favorites]


Why settle for publish or perish when you can have both?
posted by oulipian at 5:44 AM on January 21 [51 favorites]


This is absolutely grotesque, and not for the Weekend At Bernie’s angle, but for the “charging students thousands and thousands of dollars a year for access to a proprietary video library” angle. And what of the poor TAs? As if it weren’t hopeless enough already, I can only imagine how I’d feel about my chances of getting on a tenure track while administering classes where the professor has been replaced by a set of DVDs.
posted by gelfin at 5:46 AM on January 21 [32 favorites]


Relatedly: Colleen Flaherty, "Who Owns All That Course Content You're Putting Online?," Inside Higher Ed, May 19, 2020
posted by unknowncommand at 6:04 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


On a realistic level I am deeply curious how someone thought this was going to go/how students were not informed they were just watching (much) previously recorded video. Its been a long time since i was in college and never online but id think office hours/grading/questions would still present a logistical hurdle to deal with.

To totally trivialize the relationship between teachers and students: this is kinda reminding me of the office episode where Michael Scott is obsessed with/in "love" with the woman from the chair catalog only to be bereft when he finds out shes died.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 6:14 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


I guarantee that at least one student per year will swear they had a coursework extension approved by the dead guy.
posted by biffa at 6:26 AM on January 21 [9 favorites]


This reminds me of a grimly funny anecdote from high school. Our grade 10 history teacher died in the first couple weeks of school. I'm not sure how and that's not the funny part. Her replacement? Mr. Posthumous.
posted by Evstar at 6:38 AM on January 21 [14 favorites]


*looks sadly at the academic job market*

The academic job market has been broken for some time, but making people compete for jobs against the dead (who will work for free!) is a new low.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:47 AM on January 21 [10 favorites]



Do the TAs also classify as pallbearers since they are assisting a corpse?


Why is this night different from any other night?
posted by lalochezia at 6:48 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


This is a particularly macabre instance of something that is otherwise absolutely predictable, given local variants on who owns what when it comes to recorded lectures (see unknowncommand's link). It isn't something that would work if you do synchronous instruction, with students interacting in real-time, but if you're recording lecture content and conducting discussion separately...
posted by thomas j wise at 6:49 AM on January 21


Instant A for all students if the prof died in harness back when I was at school. I suppose Covid Changes Everything, but then again - maybe not.
posted by BWA at 7:05 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Instant A for all students if the prof died in harness back when I was at school.

You also get all As if your roommate dies!
posted by thelonius at 7:13 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


"Having been to college in the 80s, I find it hard to conceive of a college imagining that its students would be out of bed by 8.30am."

This was in '79 so maybe the 80's were different. But in my Engineering School my first class was an 8:00 AM Differential Equations class. :(

And worse, I didn't live on Campus so I'd ride my Motorcycle there and come in with water dripping (this was Oregon) off my leather jacket and the rubber pants I wore.

*And* a very pissed off expression on my face.
posted by aleph at 7:16 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


You also get all As if your roommate dies!

Now that's just asking for trouble.
posted by BWA at 7:23 AM on January 21 [6 favorites]


On the flip side, a lot of professors are probably rejoicing at the idea of a GE level course being phoned in. But to have a course listed as primarily taught by someone dead is macabre, bizarre, and totally in line with the decay of the ivory tower.

I found academia broken 20 years ago, and upon that realization, promptly skedaddled after passing my orals. ABD to this day and sad to see it's certainly not gotten better.
posted by linux at 7:24 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


Yes, this story is grotesque.

It does make me wonder though why teachers and professors spend so much time re-inventing curriculum though. Classical physics hasn't changed a whole lot in 50 years, why are new profs having to write new lectures, class notes, and textbooks for Physics 101? I think this applies less to the humanities; our understanding of, say, Greek literature has changed radically in the last 50 years. But basic math and science? What's wrong with a few year old lecture?

I had exactly that experience on Coursera taking Andrew Ng's fundamentals of machine learning class. It's mostly a math class, building up neural networks and back-propagation out of linear algebra, and that stuff hasn't changed in 20+ years. Some of the later lectures get into more subtleties like overfitting and the power of large networks; that's newer. But even so a 5 year old video was just fine.

Imagine if teachers could just reuse solid prepared course materials and spend that time one on one with students instead.
posted by Nelson at 8:02 AM on January 21 [6 favorites]


A friend who's a steward in his faculty's bargaining unit has been really concerned about this development. It's literally his worst-case scenario - who needs to hire newfaculty if you're just replaying dead professors' lectures to paying students? He's done some digging, reached out to the poster in question, and confirmed this is real and happening at Concordia University in Montreal.
posted by thecjm at 8:11 AM on January 21 [22 favorites]


There are so many people who want to be professors and are already lagging in their careers because elderly professors who are no longer effective don't want to retire. This isn't cute in any way. If we don't start giving subsequent generations a chance to have normal adult lives we are not going to survive.
posted by bleep at 8:14 AM on January 21 [9 favorites]


elderly professors who are no longer effective

This stereotyping is suspicious to me. I took some really great classes from old people.
posted by thelonius at 8:19 AM on January 21 [21 favorites]


I've been the TA for a class that was mostly video lectures taught by a guy who was not dead but retired, and I think that contributes to my worries about video lectures and the adjunctification of university teaching -

That universities have been trying to get as much of their teaching as possible done by adjuncts and TAs to save money -

But that students (and their parents) who are paying $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a year for school want classes to be taught by Real Professors -

So the ideal solution (from a university administration perspective) is to have classes taught by Real Professors who don't actually need to get paid (because with video lectures you just record them and you're done), while TAs and adjuncts take on the work of grading, conferences, answering student questions, etc, which is the most time-consuming part of teaching. Because people still conceptualize teaching as pouring knowledge into students, but good pedagogy is, I think, less "I'm going to tell you how to do this," or "I'm going to tell you this information," and much more "We're going to figure this out together (and I'm the expert you can consult when you get stuck or need help)." And of course a 10-person seminar on social issues in modern American literature is much different than a 300-person lecture on organic chemistry, in how much you're able to respond to students in the moment, so I don't want to be one-size-fits-all about this, but... I do think a well-taught video lecture course will require as much expertise, as much time, as much thoughtfulness about designing assignments and exercises, as a well-taught live class. It's just that all that work is going to be offloaded to people who are getting paid $4000 for the semester.
posted by Jeanne at 8:21 AM on January 21 [15 favorites]


and much more "We're going to figure this out together (and I'm the expert you can consult when you get stuck or need help)."
Which is not to mention the role of mentorship. Which is, theoretically, part of what people are paying exorbitant tuition and going into lifelong debt for.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 8:28 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


When I did Study Abroad in England in '93, I had one course from an elderly professor. Each day he would shuffle into the lecture hall, read aloud (honestly: he mumbled) for an hour or so from a stack of yellowing sheets of notepaper, then shuffle out.

A lively recording would have been vastly preferable to the sad droning we had to sit through.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:38 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


There are so many people who want to be professors and are already lagging in their careers because elderly professors who are no longer effective don't want to retire. This isn't cute in any way. If we don't start giving subsequent generations a chance to have normal adult lives we are not going to survive.

The flip side of that is that--at least from my experience--the elderly professors don't want to retire because they don't know that they'll be replaced. The days of "here's a tenure line, when X retires, we'll fill it with someone new" are over in a lot of places. We've got a couple of programs in my department being currently held together with the staffing equivalent of toothpicks and string due to empty tenure track lines not being approved for a new hire by administration for nearly 5 years running now.

Look at this right here, where a professor died and the presumably university administration decided that, rather than hire someone new, they uploaded the videos, and hired some TAs and/or adjuncts.
posted by damayanti at 8:44 AM on January 21 [17 favorites]


(And just to be clear "staffing equivalent of toothpicks and string" means like, people being shuffled around teaching courses they don't normally teach, forgoing teaching electives, taking on an absurd number of advisees, etc., rather than comparing anyone to a toothpick or a piece of string.)
posted by damayanti at 8:46 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


I do think a well-taught video lecture course will require as much expertise, as much time, as much thoughtfulness about designing assignments and exercises, as a well-taught live class. It's just that all that work is going to be offloaded to people who are getting paid $4000 for the semester

I agree, and personally really value academia, but I have to say students should really be questioning the entirety of how the academic industry is proceeding and make some greater demands on it. If the kind of class mentioned in the article is deemed as worthy of credit as any other class, then there is little need for a great many of the things students are forced to put up with in gaining a degree, if the degree itself is all they want.

I can't speak to differences between Canadian and US schooling, but if video/distance learning is treated the same as in person learning, then why should any student accept being taught by a nice but undistinguished prof when they could just as easily be watching the most distinguished professor in their desired field give a lecture online?

Why do they have to go through any selection process at all if learning can be done online in this fashion, as the TAs don't have to be associated with a single school and there are good arguments to be made that anything less than open enrollment for public schools is going to be discriminatory in outcome as part of the professional value of a degree is in where it came from when schools are allowed to be selective. Distance learning could replace that artificial barrier if this is deemed the "same". There's no reason schooling should cost as much in that case either.

For those in or seeking jobs in the academia, this would be a nightmare of course, and that shouldn't be diminished, and it would eventually have an impact on the lower and middle tier colleges themselves, if they aren't offering equally enticing online classes. Higher level classes would still need some more direct professorial involvement, but where that level is clearly seems to be left far too much in the hands of the colleges to decide based on things that aren't purely in the best interests of the students.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:56 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


Been there, done that back in 98-99 with VHS tapes of a guy who died something like two years earlier. I knew my teacher was dead the whole time, but it didn't really affect the class at all and I think I wasn't the only person in the county to use those tapes. He was a pretty good teacher and that's why he recorded the classes in the first place. Occasionally I would check in for attendance then instead of walking to the videotape room in the library, walk to my car and go get some doughnuts or just put the tape on and go to sleep until the bell rang.

Lot more memorable than some of my classes and it never felt morbid to me.
posted by mattamatic at 8:57 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I think the quality of the content and pedagogy is what is important. There are loads of material out there whose creators are now dead. But... the teacher / student relationship is also very important. I don’t think Ouija boards should replace office hours.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:24 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


using the work of another academic as the backbone to a course

We used to call these "textbooks."
posted by doctornemo at 9:34 AM on January 21 [14 favorites]


I don't know which college or university the author attends, but American campuses have been financially clobbered by 2020.

About 2/3rds are public, meaning nominally funded by state governments. Those states have generally cut funding, especially at a per-student basis, since the 1980s, but many cut even more deeply over the past year. The reasons are obvious: the pandemic drove up some state expenses (PPE, deep cleaning, public health hiring, etc) while the horrific economic crash clobbered revenues. We know that state governments of all stripes will happily cut public universities early on in a crisis, and so that's been happening.

Meanwhile, enrollment ticked down again in fall 2020. Total enrollment went down 2.5% across the board, according to the latest data I've seen. Undergrad numbers dropped by 3.6%. Since the supermajority of campuses depend on tuition revenue for income, this is bad news. Worse, since total enrollment has declined every semester since 2012. It's even worse, since typically we expect enrollment to increase with high unemployment.

At the same time campus costs have risen. Doing even basic public health measures for any degree of in-person operation isn't cheap. Doing more digital work can also cost, everything from getting new equipment to remote people and in-person classes to upgrading networks and (for some) hiring more online learning expertise.

So we've seen cuts of all kinds. Early retirements "encouraged," furloughs, staff layoffs, adjuncts cut, tenure-track faculty removed, classes and programs cuts. Rumbles of campus mergers and closures are there.

(I do need to emit an FPP on this)
posted by doctornemo at 9:42 AM on January 21 [22 favorites]


As someone who occasionally teaches college classes, this is kind of my dream - impart the wisdom, but be in the one place where even academic bureaucracy or grading deadlines cannot (for now) reach you.

I'd just like to record a "Good morning, class - FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE!" intro for each session beforehand, if possible.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:16 AM on January 21 [8 favorites]


This explains the tweet I saw by a Microsoftee talking about IP rights for professors to have/carry on after their death and so their descendants can profit from this even after their passing.

I'm not sold on IP rights at all, and I know universities have different rules for IP than for-profit corporations (at least I think they do? a lot of times you sign over your rights to the university on research, for example - but media sure seems to be a new thing, especially if it's under the guise of "learning from the professor" and not "here are some lectures from this professor")...

So anyways, if we are to have a fair and equal, producer centered rights IP regime, surely it should be allowable in the same way Disney gets to milk their franchises to a shriveled teat.
posted by symbioid at 10:28 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


The question here of course would be to find a way to use such a regime to not kill existing jobs. If the IP rights were too friendly to the university (e.g. lowballing the content creators), they would do that instead of hiring new people.

On the other hand high-end IP payments would mean universities would constantly be fighting against... Oh... Maybe we can use this to get universities to exert further pressure against IP regimes (but looking at how journals work, it seems there's a lot of leeway for unethical processes in this... ) can of worms...
posted by symbioid at 10:31 AM on January 21


I do think a well-taught video lecture course will require as much expertise, as much time, as much thoughtfulness about designing assignments and exercises, as a well-taught live class.

Difficult to disagree after this year of switching over. I can certainly see no time savings for next year re having stuff in the bag. I guess there might be some efficiencies for disciplines where little changes over time (thermodynamics, basic maths for science, etc).
posted by biffa at 10:36 AM on January 21


I took a course in college in which I never once laid eyes on the instructor of record. Luckily, our graduate TA, Frank, was great: engaging, knowledgeable, and reliable. I learned a lot about how to be a professor from Frank. In retrospect, I'm quite grateful that the "real" professor was such a slacker.
posted by BrashTech at 10:42 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


One thing I found touching about that thread was how sad the student felt that this prof she appreciated had ... died. She would never get the chance to have a conversation with him or show her appreciation through sharing the experience. And because nobody bothered to say so (perhaps trying to dodge questions?) she felt both she and the prof had been betrayed in a way. And also a moment of “how could this happen?” Showing her a glimpse of the Black Mirror university of the future - today! Would love to get Audrey Watters take on this.
posted by zenzenobia at 11:05 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


(PS: Some of us once got to take a look at a draft IP policy for my uni and we were able to head off any claim that our work was "work for hire" owned by the uni. I made all of my course material licensed under Creative Commons anyway, but locking it up with a uni copyright was not okay and, given that particular place's culture, the faculty successfully retained their rights. At least for the time being.)
posted by zenzenobia at 11:12 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I must say, Dr. Hill, I'm very disappointed in you.
posted by benzenedream at 11:43 AM on January 21


Things have changed a bit since I graduated almost 30 years ago. My undergraduate dissertation supervisor died round about this time of year in 1991. He was the sole expert on the subject (turbopumps) I was writing up, and no-one else could help. I was basically told to write up what I could, get something working, and I'd pass.

He was a great bloke: came from an industry background but developed some great experimental methods. Great at explaining concepts in fluid flow, and taught very practical numerical methods classes. Also had a spectacularly-maintained quiff. Sad to think he was likely a year or so younger than I am now when he died.
posted by scruss at 11:59 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


if video/distance learning is treated the same as in person learning, then why should any student accept being taught by a nice but undistinguished prof when they could just as easily be watching the most distinguished professor in their desired field give a lecture online?

1) Because good teaching is so very very much more than a recorded lecture. If all a student gets out of a course is recorded lectures, they are being robbed. Literally none of my teaching could simply be replaced by recorded lectures.
2) Because good teaching really has very little overlap with the research that makes one "distinguished", and many of the best teachers are "undistinguished" in their research fields because ultimately it is very hard to be "distinguished" as both a teacher and a researcher.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:02 PM on January 21 [27 favorites]


^ this comment earns my applause. Thank you.

the whole 'celebrity culture/teaching as content' applied to higher ed can suck it, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by elkevelvet at 1:48 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


You also get all As if your roommate dies!

Now that's just asking for trouble.


Um... The movie already exists. It wasn't very good and it didn't age well... but... hey - it wasn't murder!
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:53 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


turbopumps

I choose to believe this is the science of high-intensity farting.
posted by biffa at 2:28 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


That reference letter might not be worth all that much.

Forge the best reference letter ever from the Professor, date it just before his death.......if anyone goes to check up on it...well we know you were in his class, but he died, but not before giving you a kick-ass reference...
posted by inflatablekiwi at 3:56 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


I wonder if some people preparing recorded lectures will incorporate really topical examples/references. Make it super obvious when lectures were recorded.

Classical physics hasn't changed a whole lot in 50 years, why are new profs having to write new lectures, class notes, and textbooks for Physics 101?

Even if knowledge in a domain hasn't changed how we teach has.
posted by Mitheral at 5:17 PM on January 21 [3 favorites]


I am teaching an online version of a class I teach in person, and had to hastily move online last year. I do add the recorded lectures from me and the professor (it's different in Oz, but some years I am the 'professor' for the course, some I am the TA) but even from one semester to the next, and the shift from on person but taught online to fully online, demands aspects be changed. Specifically this is a course about Hollywood history up to the current day. Even though technically history doesn't change (in terms of 'this is the Production Code, these are the films, these are directors and genres') how we communicate it to our students does. The examples we use to clarify understanding, the language we use to explain technology and theory, the terms we use to talk about people and society changes.

Am I slightly weirded out by the idea that in several years time students may well be still watching me as a talking head in the corner of the lecture describing indie film in the early 2000s using examples, language, and definitions from 2019? Yes. Not to mention the lecture is also where I communicate things like "assessment is due this friday" etc. Even purely informational mini-lectures or definitional micro-lectures benefit from being refreshed according to both contemporary lived experience, technology access, and teaching styles.

But hell, I'm still wrangling the issues with teaching film when you need to screen it for an online cohort but you can't go on campus and streaming services don't much go for the majority of films I screen, and copyright influence on technology means there is no simple way to play a DVD for my online classes. I managed a few kinds of workarounds with Collaborate last year, but the occasional "oh we are dropping support for audio via application tabs" and "no you don't get a timer" and that highly irritating endless replication of the screen effect were not helpful. Given 90% of my students watch their media on a device, it's not just obstructionist, it's embarassing to have the tech constantly shift and change, because it's entirely designed around the concepts of 'here is your information lecture which doesn't change and here is your interactive session which is very much the same'.

(That all said I'd really like a job that has more than a three month contract, please)
posted by geek anachronism at 5:31 PM on January 21 [8 favorites]


That reference letter might not be worth all that much.

If someone is coming back from the world beyond to recommend a student to me, I'm gonna pay attention.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:04 PM on January 21 [7 favorites]


Reminds me of a course I took online almost 20 years ago. It was a stats grad course that was taught face-to-face on a campus in Australia and about 40 of us were taking the same course online. No video. The prof had been given no training on how to use WebCT. The whole course consisted of a single forum thread. We were pretty much just a cash cow add-on. After a while the prof went silent on the forum. We emailed a bit later. No reply. Somebody finally got a human on the phone. Turns out the prof had had a heart attack or something and had been hospitalized for weeks. They'd assigned a sub for the on campus course but just plain forgot about the rest of us dangling at the end of the wires.

Some of my colleagues who think that just straight up lecturing is teaching are going to be in for a surprise when all of this highlights the fact that the economic value of a 101 level lecture by itself is essentially zero.
posted by Gotanda at 8:45 PM on January 21 [4 favorites]


Because good teaching is so very very much more than a recorded lecture.

Sorry, it seems the main points of my thoughts were misunderstood, which is both understandable for not being entirely explicit and for a likely set of differing beliefs or assumptions over the university system as it is.

I hoped it was clear that I agree with the belief that education can be a better experience in person, if the parties involved indeed are interested in learning as something aspirational, a way to better oneself or gain knowledge. I suggest though that isn't the case for a great many students who attend college primarily to get the degree as a career path and that the college system is based as much on what's best for the colleges, not what's best for the students. I take it as a given that most teachers do their best to teach and care about their subject and students, but they are just one part of the larger system that has been largely given over to other concerns beyond education for its own sake.

I suggest there is as at least as much a sense of colleges treating students as if the students are their for them and their prestige as there is the colleges are there for the students. The college system is old and based on a set of values that arguably no longer hold the same hierarchy of importance, with colleges still deciding what's "best" for the students to fit a rather arbitrary set of rules over credit hours and requirements that may not be what the student wants or needs to have a career. I could offer a number of examples of what I mean by that, and almost did, but I'll spare everyone that and just suggest the linked article points a bit towards the arbitrariness in the academic industry over who is supposed to benefit from a college education and what that means.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:56 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Having been to college in the 80s, I find it hard to conceive of a college imagining that its students would be out of bed by 8.30am.

Omg my second semester at university my Latin class was only offered at 8am, 5 days a week. JFC that was rough

Instant A for all students if the prof died in harness back when I was at school.

I wish! My first semester at university my calc professor died of a heart attack in the middle of the semester. And he was young! Didn't look like he could be more than 40.

Um... The movie already exists yt . It wasn't very good and it didn't age well... but... hey - it wasn't murder!

I see your Dead Man on Campus and counter with The Curve (also known as Dead Man's Curve) complete with 1990s movie trailer voice (and omg I forgot I had a huge crush on Michael Vartan!)
posted by LizBoBiz at 5:02 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


*I’m* grading the exams and term papers. *I’m* the instructor of record for this course. It’s unnerving seeing this twitter thread blow up over the internet. So here's what I first posted at BoingBoing in response to their post about this:

Let me give you folks some info about the situation.

This is an online course offered through the university and a 3rd party company as part of an online education partnership started 10 years ago. The professor in the lectures was an illustrious expert and beloved teacher at my university. He worked with the company to create and develop this course. The whole organization, readings, assignments–everything is what he put together.

There are two TAs along with myself (Ph.D. art historian) to grade the assignments and exams and give feedback to the students. Although it is online, this is a completely standard kind of survey class with standard forms of assessment in my field. Nothing out of the ordinary in that regard.

My name appears in the first sentence of the first line of the course outline. The second sentence explains that the late professor is the one in the recorded lectures. It’s a shame that this student appears to be upset about the passing of the professor, but they missed the parts of the syllabus and registration that list me as the person on the other end of the email address for the course.

By the way, one of my colleagues tells me that a member of our department reached out to the online learning company and told them that the original professor had passed away. They didn’t don’t seem to have done anything with that info.

I’ve worked at universities where the upper admin would have loved to create recordings of professors and replace us all with underpaid adjuncts or TAs. This is not that kind of school. I’m really fortunate to work here now.

There’s plenty in the world to get outraged about these days. This is not one of those situations.
posted by Krazy at 9:21 AM on January 22 [31 favorites]


I'm in my last semester at UPenn and the format for online learning is basically this:

- Recorded lectures that we watch async
- TA staffed office hours queue via online system
- Optional sync attended recitation section led by TAs, recorded and available for async consumption
- Around one hour / week of office hours with the actual professor

This is for 3/4 of my classes. The three that are like this are all grad level CIS courses. The fourth course meets once a week for four hours, sync with the professor.

Honestly it's...not that bad? I do feel like I'm not getting much time with the professors themselves (and I'm not) but like...idk. I'm a mess due to COVID lockdown and mental health anyway. I know for a fact that many of my professors are as well. I hope that their workload is at least a little bit lighter due to this method.

My biggest beef is actually more with the lack of standardize software platforms and how each are used. I currently need to use Canvas, Zoom, Gradescope, Colab, Piazza, OHQ, Gather.town, Slack, Perusall, and three email accounts for my classes. Every class posts the lectures, homeworks, quizzes, updates, etc in different places. Is that thing I need to do linked on Piazza as an announcement? On Canvas as a module? Emailed to everyone directly? Who knows! Good luck, fucker!
posted by lazaruslong at 10:09 AM on January 22 [6 favorites]


But at issue here, would they be entitled to keep billing you as the prof teaching the course to students?

If they can get away with that, I'm going to start telling everybody I studied physics under Richard Feynman. And drama from Shakespeare himself.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:30 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Welcome to MeFi, Krazy! Hope you stick around. And thanks for explaining the situation better.
posted by Nelson at 11:49 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


My name appears in the first sentence of the first line of the course outline. The second sentence explains that the late professor is the one in the recorded lectures. It’s a shame that this student appears to be upset about the passing of the professor, but they missed the parts of the syllabus and registration that list me as the person on the other end of the email address for the course.

Did they miss the part where not only did the prof have nothing to do with the present-day course but also that he was dead?
posted by praemunire at 1:01 PM on January 22


Also...geez.

It’s a shame that this student appears to be upset

"Appears to be" upset? Did you read the student's comments? They said nice things about the prof that I think most academics who cared at all about teaching would be glad to have said about them.

You're not exactly positioning yourself as committed to a humane and decent pedagogy here.
posted by praemunire at 1:02 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Did they miss the part where not only did the prof have nothing to do with the present-day course but also that he was dead?

Why would that be hard to believe? Students miss bigger and more obvious things than that all the time.

You could have this be directly in the course title, have the students have to click through a warning in the registration system that their lectures are recordings of a now-dead man, send the students an email reminding them of this fact, have them have to acknowledge this email in their own words, call every student individually to remind them about it, and finally send the Queen to individually tell every student that their lectures are recordings of a dead man, and there will still be a few students who are surprised by this mid-semester.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:37 PM on January 22 [15 favorites]


...finally send the Queen to individually tell every student that their lectures are recordings of a dead man, and there will still be a few students who are surprised by this mid-semester.

Not hyperbole. I had to fix the network in an IT lab a few years ago. All the PCs were offline, so I put a sign up on the door saying that the lab was "Closed! Out of order" in 2" high letters, then smaller writing saying why it was closed (no PC's were working), and when it was expected to re-open, and to use the other lab; and locked the door, because I know what students are like.

A student rocks up, sees the sign, clearly reads it with an expression of puzzlement, then peers round the edge of the sign to look through the glass. He sees me there on my knees, big toolkit on the desk, hands full of wires. He tries to catch my eye, I wave at the sign. He jiggles the door handle. Another two students arrive, they have a little discussion, they both jiggle the handle, and they all wander off.

5 minutes later, he was back, and this time, after carefully reading the sign, he decided to continue knocking on the door until I put down what I'm working on, lay aside my tools, get up off the floor and unlock the door.

Somewhat agitated student: "Can I just come in? I only need 5 minutes?!"
"I'm sorry, the lab is closed, you'll need to use the one on the next floor. Everything is broken, I'm trying to fix it.".
"Oh. I didn't realise. I'll come back."

He was not the last one I had to turn away verbally before they'd reluctantly accept it.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 2:41 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


We had something similar back in June, lots of emails, video announcements, online meeting reinforcement making it very clear none of our students were to be on campus, never mind using labs or workshops, this was on top of standing policy on not using workshops on your own, ever. One of our students decided it would still be ok to go to the workshop, somehow gain access and start a summer project to refurb his van for beach camping.
posted by biffa at 5:24 PM on January 22


Yes, I was a grad student, I am familiar with this phenomenon, but, as I am now a lawyer, I couldn't help but notice that nowhere does this person actually claim that the students were told that the prof was dead, or even that the prof was not involved at all with the present-day teaching of the course.
posted by praemunire at 5:33 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


From what I gather from Krazy's comment, the syllabus clearly stated who the instructor of record was, and this instructor is very much alive. The creator for a media resource used in the class (ie, the videos) was also credited, appropriately, but not billed as the instructor. One doesn't typically list the vital status of the authors of the textbooks one uses; I'm not sure how this is different.

That said, I do have very real concerns about how universities might abuse recordings made by instructors (dead or alive) even if this class isn't evidence of such abuse. Academic labor has been eroded for decades, and it's only getting worse with COVID. (doctornemo, I'd love to read that FPP. EG, what Kansas is doing to tenure is alarming.)

(And as someone who is of an age where my beloved professors are starting to die... I wish I/the world had recordings of their lectures.)
posted by Westringia F. at 3:59 AM on January 23 [3 favorites]


One other thing that I think is possibly being misunderstood, perhaps because of a difference between classes in the STEM branches and those in the humanities is that the lecture is emphatically not the same as a textbook. I took a reply along those likes as just being as a joke earlier, but there are crucial differences.

Way up thread I referenced a class on Clark's Civilization, where we watched a set of video Clark made and read lecture notes he used in teaching to look at the history of art through Clark's eyes. That history is a world view of how one might understand Civilization as seen through art, but that world view is value laden in a deeply problematic way as it bases the idea of civilization as predominantly as Western European development. This presents a number of important difficulties for a student, even more so were it to be taught without an adequate professor there to intervene between Clark's claims and how the students evaluate them.

In the sciences, student questions are often those of requesting clarification on what is meant or how a process works, in the humanities those kinds of questions also play an important part of the educational process, asking, for example, clarifying Clark's claims as he meant them to be understood or in better understanding a timeline or connection between developments. But in addition to that, there is another element of equal importance, to use the artspeak term, that of interrogation, the student challenging claims for how they appear to support a possibly questionable, limited, or flat out misguided set of values or assumptions. Without a professor there to speak to those questions, the course becomes tied to the values of the lecture alone, as if the claims must stand as "true" in totality rather than within a more limited worldview.

The problems this raises are manifold. There is little need for a class at all if it is just to be based on lectures from the perspective of student gain. In the case of Civilization I could have watched the videos without a class and gained the same knowledge as Clark's presentation is admirably thorough and clear, the only potential gain comes from the test proving I understood his claims, which I might have already known but now can be reassured of, but is done mroe for proof to the school that I "got it" and can receive credit for having done so. That benefits the school more than the student. But even were that not so, a failure to allow or provide for interrogation of Clark's claims can actively promote harmful thinking, not in the sense that Clark isn't providing valuable knowledge within a certain set of traditions, he did and that has value, but those traditions themselves carry harm that students need to have addressed either by question or intervention from a professor to speak to those limits.

Unfortunately there are professors adamantly opposed to that kind of questioning of their beliefs or teaching which is one of many reasons why being limited to being taught by whoever has standing at a given college has consequence. Art history can be taught in many different ways that all carry different values or will open different perspectives to the student, a bit unlike many STEM classes where the informational goals around processes might tend to be more aligned no matter where you learn them, making it more just a question of effectiveness in teaching from one class or professor or adjunct to the next.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:14 PM on January 23


But isn't that the role of the instructor of record? There was a live instructor for the class; it just wasn't the same person giving the video lectures. And presumably the role of the instructor was to help the student interpret and interrogate the claims in the lecture videos (just as you describe the intervention with Clark's Civilization). I certainly agree that if that is not being provided, that's a huge failure of teaching [and from my perspective as hard-science faculty, would be a failure in STEM as well] -- but I'm not sure I see how it hinges on whether video-creator is accessible. It would seem to me that the class you describe would have been equally successful whether Clark himself were alive or dead.
posted by Westringia F. at 3:40 PM on January 23


It is, and in the particular example the thread is based on, I'm still unclear as to what role the professor of record was playing in the class, as at least one student doesn't seem to be aware they existed in that role. So it may be that it's just that student being confused, but either way I think clarifying something of the responsibility of the school warranted being addressed, since there appeared to be a misunderstanding over some of the stuff being talked about.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:50 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


I see, and I agree with you about all of that!
posted by Westringia F. at 3:56 PM on January 23


There's a recent CTV News story about this situation with more details.
posted by oulipian at 11:24 AM on January 30


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