Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 21, No. 4, 2022
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Jason McDonald
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Don Dewey
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Daniel Charchuk
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Charles Lewis
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Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Jason Mcdonald has been a college professor at Collège de Rosemont (Montreal) for nearly 15 years. He has travelled in many parts of the world, lived for a time in Europe and Asia, and lives his life in three languages. He has been a proud Montrealer for most of his life and calls it home. He is the host of the Megablast Podcast.


When asked how much educated men
were superior to those uneducated, Aristotle answered,
“As much as the living are to the dead.”
Diogenes Laertius

Education is not filling a bucket,
but lighting a fire.
William Yeats


With a look of terror and distress in her eyes, my student whispered to me: “Sir, can I speak to you privately please?”

I’m a CÉGEP prof and it was close to the start of a class in February, 2022. I usually do not oblige such requests with so little time to talk before the start of class as I am usually quite busy preparing my course notes. But I immediately saw something was really wrong, even though her face was hard to read through her mask. We went outside to the hallway, and she explained that she was having a full-blown panic attack and could not stay for the class. I had no doubt she was telling the truth, and that it was not her fault. The forced confinements of the last two years have shown us that education is not simply the inputting of facts and information into the brains of students. It is also a collective experience that makes us human, and that especially holds true for the young.

Which raises the question: What exactly is higher education? The short answer is an obvious one: to learn, to be taught facts and information that you can apply in your future life. What one typically hears is that the classroom facilitates socialization so that students can learn to form bonds that will help them build and develop networks as they pursue their education and future careers. True as that may be, I am convinced that by far and away the most salient aspect of higher education is simply, but definitively, the “experience” of being there -- for which there is no substitution. That is what the lockdowns taught me.


Before March, 2020 I had not fully realized this, despite having already spent more than 20 years as an educator in a variety of contexts, including more than a dozen years as a Cégep professor of English in the French-language system. I had, in fact, done a fair amount of thinking about what I was actually trying to achieve with students. which is something every self-respecting teacher should consider. But when the corona virus lockdown hit in March 2020, I found myself at home, like many others. After two weeks of assuming that a return to the classroom was imminent, it became obvious that this was not a ‘flatten the curve’ thing. We were stuck at home for the long haul, and it became clear that we basically had two choices: we were going to have to either teach from home (electronically), or cancel the session. So our union decided we would transition to distance learning, using Zoom.

At the time, I thought this was fair to the students, since cancelling the session left no reasonable options. We had already completed about half a semester, so the work done up to that point would have been for naught had we declared their courses incomplete with no credits accorded. On the other hand, to give credits for half a session of work seemed problematic: the students would not have the competencies that those credits are supposed to indicate, nor would the grades be much of an indication of anything. So the best compromise was to teach from home.

It should be noted here the appalling attitude of some teachers at one of our union meetings. A minority of them were demanding the session be cancelled altogether, with our paycheques to continue in full, of course. This seemed utterly selfish, showing no regard for the negative effects on students. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time that educators would show little regard for the plight of their pupils. But luckily, we have a good union president (Sylvie Demers), a talented negotiator who calmly pointed out we had signed a contract to teach an entire session, and were obliged (to our students) to make sure all the material was taught, graded and credits accorded.

I had never used Zoom before and it turned out to be a fairly steep learning curve. But I adapt well to new situations, so within those few months, and then the following entire school year (2020-2021) I developed a system to teach using Zoom. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say it seemed to generally work. Even better, the students appeared to quite like my technique, because it involved smaller groups and shorter class time. What Cégep student would say ‘no’ to one hour of class per week instead of three?

As you can no doubt imagine from my tone, I was not ecstatic about full time distance learning. But I didn’t realize how much I disliked it and how unfair and ineffective it was to students until we returned to the classroom in the fall of 2021. That academic year (Fall 2021 to Spring 2022) helped me draw some conclusions about the effects of full-time online learning and the forced confinements.

In order to stimulate brain activity, I use what is called a ‘communicative method’ which is basically a fancy way of saying ‘Socratic.’ In fact, as a language teacher, I was trained to do this: arrange the students in small groups and get them to answer questions. We usually learn better when we articulate (actively) something, rather than if it is just told to us (passively) – so goes the theory. For reasons I’ll explore in a minute, one needs to be physically present for optimal results.


What about the social aspect of education? I would never pretend to know what my students are doing socially. However, I do try to understand what they are going through in their personal lives, and sometimes that involves personal interaction of some sort. Part of what we do as humans is to form bonds with each other, so I work hard to build such bonds with every student while obviously maintaining a professional distance. And it pays off. Many students have confided in me, asked for advice and some have become friends. As with parenting, it is hard to find that delicate balance between being respected and yet sufficiently warm and open enough to build trust. Some of the most satisfying moments of my career are to be found in that balance. Sometimes I truly feel I am making a difference in the lives in young people, who, lest we forget, are the future of this country.

But as I pointed out earlier, higher education is more complicated than simply mastering subject matter and learning how to socialize.

For example, Zoom classes, even in small groups (with their cameras on), are simply not as satisfying compared to face to face interaction with students in a classroom. And the science supports this thesis.

First of all, when we are looking at a person through a screen we are not actually looking eye to eye. We are looking at a screen, seeing their eyes there, and they are also looking at a screen. However subtle the distinction, this screen interface can interfere with or inhibit the production of ‘oxytocin,’ the hormone that is released when we are comfortable looking into the eyes of an interlocutor.

Furthermore, screen communication produces a slight delay, which discourages spontaneity. Compared to Zoom or Teams, even talking on a telephone is a more spontaneous. To teach effectively I had to implement a more authoritative model: I would give a short speech, and ignore anyone trying to interject (to avoid the ‘talk-over’ problem). Then, I would call on a student and ask him or her a clear question, and allow that student to talk unimpeded until it was obvious he or she had finished. Then I would talk again. This was to avoid ‘overtalk,’ that can result in two people talking at the same time, since none of the speakers will be aware of the delay until a second or two have elapsed. Users of Zoom or Teams will be all too familiar with this inconvenience. By analogy, it’s like trying to avoid someone approaching you on the street and you simultaneously move into each other’s path, obliging you to re-correct, and maybe more than once. However, as it concerned the manner in which I like to conduct my classes, the authoritative technique was utterly stifling to my free, open and creative nature.

To illustrate the importance of physical presence in learning, I introduced the following analogy to my students. “Imagine you had free tickets to the Bell Centre to see your favourite rapper/singer. Or, you could live-stream the same event in the comfort of your home in front of a kick-ass, 120-inch mounted flat screen with Dolby 5.1 surround sound. And since you’re at home, you can do whatever you like: snack, drink, smoke, vape, bathroom nearby. Would you rather go to the live show or watch it from home?"

The general consensus was that it would be better to go to the Bell Centre, (not to compare myself to Drake, which was usually a self-deprecating joke I would use, which is also true).

Personally, I find the actual experience of live music is so much better, and same holds for the classroom. When I was a student with a great teacher, it was a subjectively more fulfilling experience, and that seemed more important than any learning of facts. I wanted to be inspired, to see how connections are made, and to feel that sense of wonder discovering new things together. It is something intangible. I don’t know if science could ever fully give us the answer to why it is more rewarding to go to the Bell Centre to see Pitbull than to watch a livestream of him, but is, and the same is true of the classroom versus a Zoom lesson.

As much as I disliked teaching remotely, many of the students probably suffered more. During the confinement, many did not complete courses. Some stopped attending regularly and were unable to keep up with work requirements and failed as a consequence. One could speculate: maybe it was difficult to adapt, or perhaps some of them needed the structure and discipline of a regular physical class to motivate them to attend, and thus be able to complete the course. I have not done a full content analysis, but the incompletion and failure rate was higher than normal, and it persisted through the entirety of the lockdown.

However, what was more disconcerting once classes returned to partial normality (in-person, but with masks and other precautions), were the behavioural changes. The lockdowns seemed to have negatively affected some of the students. A number of them seemed less well socialized and less able to focus on a task. Others were aware of this problem and would even apologize directly to me for untoward behaviour; others reacted negatively, even defensively when I pointed it out to them. Worse, many students confessed to me privately that they were suffering from panic attacks (or other anxiety disorders) and had to leave a class, or wouldn't be able to attend.

Looking back, it should have been self-evident that if a teenager is already socially anxious and insecure, the worst thing that can be done to that teenager is to lock him up in his house and force him to stare at a screen all day long as a substitute for going to school. That will make that young person even more anxious, more socially awkward and insecure.

A niece of mine in the United States, who is now 15-years-old, went through an extremely difficult time during the lockdowns. She suffered serious depression that had all of us, especially her parents, worried sick and outraged at the teachers and bureaucrats in California for their malfeasance. These latter individuals persisted in forcing school closures to continue far longer than they should have, and this may have caused irreparable damage. A year-and-a-half or two can be an eternity if you’re in your teens, and if a young person is already suffering from anxiety or depression, forced confinement will make it worse. In other words, no one should have been surprised that mental disorders and suicide attempts rose during the lockdowns. My niece’s story was not unique, it tracked with what I was observing with my students, most of whom were only slightly older than her.

And so I return to the question: what is higher education? Maybe the classroom is just an extension of how human beings have always related and interacted. As ancients we sat around campfires, discussing all manner of things: what the issues were for our tribe that week, what is true about the universe and the stars above, what is true about the world, why life is both unfair and yet the greatest miracle we can imagine. It seems that we need to discover things together, that social interaction is the best guarantor of a healthy learning environment. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty writes, “Sometimes one starts to dream about what culture, literary life, and teaching could be if all those who participate would give themselves up to the happiness of reflecting together.” This describes my purpose and mission as an educator: getting together and exploring a subject and cultivating a sense of wonder in pursuit of truth. And when we find connections and discover something new, something flares within us. I’m now more convinced than ever that those life-changing experiences are far more likely to happen when we are physically together.




Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


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