In this op-ed, Robert Leckey, Dean of the Faculty of Law, outlines the importance of in-person learning, and the excitement felt by both students and professors at the return to campus.
After our classrooms have been empty for many months, my colleagues and I are preparing to welcome our students to campus with open arms (figuratively speaking, given the pandemic). It’s the same on many other campuses. The start of school this year, different from all prior ones, prompts reflection on university teaching in our current circumstances, and particularly in a law faculty.
We will effectively welcome three cohorts: those who studied with us before the pandemic and return after a long absence; those who spent first year of law school mostly or entirely remotely; and those entering our program. The second group requires special attention for its members to develop the bonds that will benefit them throughout their studies and careers. But none of these cohorts will enter a law school unchanged from how it was in March 2020.
On the teaching front, professors and students are eager to be back in our classrooms. Professors may keep some of the techniques developed during the long period of teaching virtually on Zoom. Each of us knows better the advantages and limits of the technological tools available to us.
The three-hour long lecture from the front of the room, with a professor speaking to a passive audience, was virtually unbearable on Zoom. It had passed its best-before date pre-Covid and it certainly shouldn’t come back now.
I believe that my colleagues and I will be more conscious of the immense privilege of gathering in person with our students. I think our teaching will exploit the distinctive potential of being in person than it did before.
The return to in-person teaching and learning will be especially beneficial for our activities in response to the final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. On the eve of the pandemic, we approved the addition of an obligatory course in Indigenous Legal Traditions to our program’s first year. The professors who championed the initiative foresaw an important component of land-based learning, as well as visits by Indigenous elders. After its launch on Zoom, the course will finally take its intended form this fall.
If teaching went ahead on Zoom from the start of the pandemic, for better or worse, one of the greatest losses has been the possibility of learning and networking in the informal moments outside class. Precious and spontaneous conversations in the corridors, cafeteria, and library make up an indispensable part of a complete legal education. I’m waiting eagerly for the return of such moments for our students.
Indeed, the return to campus should facilitate those discussions of delicate and important subjects that are so central to university life. Think of the many injustices that have grabbed our attention since March 2020.
A short list would include the murder of George Floyd and the movement of protests in support of #BlackLivesMatter, the pandemic’s exacerbation of social inequalities, the death of Joyce Echaquan, the Camara affair, the discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools, the worsening climate crisis, and the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan. Our community had to make do with debate via social media, often more polarizing than around a table (better yet with a coffee or beer).
As for the profession for which we are preparing our students, it has changed irreversibly. The technological leaps provoked by the pandemic should help to address the longstanding crisis of access to justice. Some technologies that the justice system had resisted adopting will remain part of the legal toolbox. The challenge will be finding their appropriate use while recognizing the enduring benefits of being together in person, at least for some purposes.
Our universities contribute significantly to the vitality of Quebec society but they can’t make their full contributions without interactions in person. It’s thus good news that we are preparing for a fall term on our campuses.
This opinion piece first appeared on the CTV website.