The dead professor and the surprised student.

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Based on that headline, you may think this story is a kooky outlier in the upside-down world that is 2021. It’s not.

Aaron Ansuini, a student at Montreal’s Concordia University, found out this month that his new favorite professor was dead. After watching a video lecture, Ansuini Googled his professor to find out his email address in order to ask a question. The search result revealed that François-Marc Gagnon, an art historian at Concordia, died in 2019 at age 83.

The course description didn’t mention that Gagnon had died. The discovery was like finding out your pen pal doesn’t exist, Ansuini told our Tom Barlett. Marco Deyasi, a visiting professor of art history at Concordia, is listed as the course instructor, but his interaction with students is limited. Deyasi is teaching three courses this semester, in addition to serving as instructor for the art-history course. Even he didn’t know about Gagnon’s death until Ansuini tweeted about it. Deyasi thought the professor had simply retired.

In March we’ll hit the one-year anniversary of the shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and professors and students are still struggling to connect with one another through digital screens. Ansuini’s discovery shows how fragile the world of remote teaching can be. It calls into question the concept of connectivity. There’s also the question of intellectual property. Who owns the rights to Gagnon’s online lectures? A spokeswoman for the university said that professors are paid for recording their lectures, but she didn’t give Tom any details.

Beyond the story’s morbidity, the situation raised other concerns. In The Chronicle’s Higher Ed and the Coronavirus Facebook group, one commenter questioned if teaching via videos would be the new norm, asking if this year would eventually prompt institutions to replace professors with videos of professors.

In a statement the American Association of University Professors advised that “specific arrangements should be made” within departments so that instructors can control the use of their recorded materials. Still, when instructors allow their courses to be used online, they may feel pressured to sign the paperwork. There’s no industry standard for this exchange between colleges and professors.

Ansuini said he could tell that Gagnon had put a lot of work into the course. He said he’s disappointed that he can’t thank the professor for his work. Read Tom’s story here.

Building real connectivity.

That story prompted me to think about the community that surrounds this newsletter. The person behind your phone or computer screen does matter. Human beings want to feel connected.

I want to know who is taking time on the weekend (or on Monday morning) to read this newsletter. And I want y’all to get to know one another. In an effort to spark thought-provoking conversations and good old-fashioned distraction, I’ll ask readers a question every week. Email me your thoughts, and you may see them in a future Briefing.

Let’s start with something simple. The U.S. president’s desk has a name: the Resolute Desk. The piece of furniture is named, not because it’s where the president signs resolutions, or because the president is deemed resolute, but because it’s made of wood from the HMS Resolute. The British government had three desks made from the Royal Navy ship, which got trapped in Arctic ice in 1854 and was recovered two years later. It’s such a fun concept to name furniture or rooms, as McKinley Valentine’s newsletter “The Whippet” noted. Now that most of us are working from home, I’m curious: Do you have a named or name-worthy room or piece of furniture in your home? Was your named furniture perhaps left in your now-abandoned office? Let me know: fernanda@chronicle.com.

I can’t wait to hear from you! Have a great week.

Lagniappe.

  • Learn. New, potentially more contagious strains of the coronavirus are on American soil. Time to double-up or improve your mask. (New York magazine)
  • Read. What would you do for a Covid-19 vaccine? In Canada a former chief executive and an actress chartered a private plane to snag vaccines intended for a rural community, including members of the White River First Nation. (Yukon News)
  • Listen. The journalist David Dimbleby explains the origins of the Iraq War in his podcast, The Fault Line: Bush, Blair and Iraq. Dimbleby tells the story of how the war helped prompt an unlikely friendship between former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and former President George W. Bush. (The Guardian)
  • Watch. There’s one perk in nearly every event going virtual: The Sundance Film Festival is online this year. Watch three short documentaries from the festival. (The New York Times)

Cheers,
—Fernanda

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