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Université de Montréal

'In person': beyond a neologism

The experience of the pandemic forces us to reflect on the real added value of classroom teaching, without digital mediation.


A few weeks ago, I went to a concert given by Florence and the Machine, an English indie rock band that launched its latest world tour in a big concert venue in downtown Montreal. I can just imagine you smiling and saying: “What were you, a 62-year-old grandpa, doing there in amongst that hip young crowd?” And I’d answer that I, a devoted but secret fan of lead vocalist Florence Welch, was doing exactly what everyone else in the auditorium was doing: we were sharing our enthusiasm and excitement. And I was not alone: many another sexagenarian was waving his hands in the air with a big grin on his face.


Florence Welch is an extraordinarily charismatic person, and the reaction to her performance would provide a great case study in crowd psychology. Having no expertise in this regard, I won’t go there. But I will say that I've noticed how much I enjoy these “in-person” cultural events. I’ve experienced similar emotions at concerts given by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and at the theatre – and also, at times, in the classrooms of some particularly eloquent professors. It's the feeling of experiencing something profoundly human at the same time and even at the same pace as others – a kind of self-effacement, sharing 'good vibrations' and reaching an unconscious meeting of minds.


But enough pop psychology. My evening at the Bell Amphitheatre got me thinking about in-person teaching. Ever since I took on my job as rector, which coincided with the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve repeatedly said that I would not preside over the dematerialization of the Université de Montréal. That I believed above all in the virtues of human interaction on our campuses. That while there are many benefits to be had when technology is organized and used thoughfully to enable distance-learning, the beating heart of our programs will continue to be people, meeting face-to-face. I still believe this, but that’s due, you might say, to blind faith: I believe in in-person learning because I like it. But since it’s been proven over the last two years that distance learning, when well-structured, can produce very good results, we’ll have to go beyond the statement of principle that says in-person teaching in best.


More specifically, the experience of the pandemic forces us to reflect on what should happen in class when everyone is present and on the added value that we might unquestionably associate with these meetings unmediated by digital technology. I propose to draw some conclusions, which may be debated.


First, we should only do in the classroom what we can’t do otherwise, in another setting or on another platform. Who wants one-way transmission of information to a passive audience? Not me.


Second, unlike in the performing arts, having great personal charisma doesn't justify making a whole group of people come out to hear what you have to say. In fact, you don't even have to be charismatic: professors who aren't 'rock stars' in their field can still be very effective in the classroom.


Lastly, I would venture to suggest that a large part of the advantages offered by face-to-face learning lies in shared experience, explicitly or implicitly. Students learn from each other. Questions asked by some students may reassure others about their level of comprehension or open up horizons that the professor hadn’t envisioned. This is certainly possible in an online course. But as I see it, having everyone present in the same place favours a dynamic where each person is responsible for the group’s learning as much as for their own. However, one has to be able to create this dynamic.


I really like the idea that we can improve the student experience by keeping in mind the famous four Ps: projects, carried out with peers, on issues whose pertinence ignites passion in those who want to learn. That’s where I’ve often found good answers to the question that should be on every teacher’s mind from now on: what justifies my making everyone come and sit on a chair in a nondescript room on campus?


I probably crossed paths with a number of our students at the Florence and the Machine show, individuals who are full of vitality, energy and creativity, and full of hope, too. Who wouldn’t want to give them good reasons to spend time with us, face-to-face?


Daniel Jutras


If you’d like to continue the conversation, please drop me a line.