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Career Advice

We need boldness and daring in our education system

The case of McGill’s Building 21.


“The things that are weird are exactly the things you need to be paying attention to. They tell you that your model of the world is incomplete in important ways. You have to treasure the exceptions.”

Mike Levin, Tufts University, quoted in The New Yorker

ChatGPT, deepfakes, Big Data, surveillance capitalism, social media, echo chambers, global warming, pandemics, our age feels like an endless tsunami of change. Faced with this unstable and constantly challenging world, how, then, can we train our students to understand, respond to, and analyze these transformations? How can we provide them with the cognitive and intellectual skills and tools needed to create a more just, equitable and humane society?

Our education system is not broken. While it faces many challenges, the correlation between graduation and ‘success’ (social and personal) is particularly robust. Extraordinary scientists, philosophers, surgeons, engineers, and artists have been trained in our Canadian institutions. But the question remains: is the current system rich, inventive, flexible, and bold enough to train our students to solve contemporary and future upheavals?

This first question begs another one: How do we embed innovation into our programs? I spent a decade in administrative positions (vice-provost, teaching and learning at Concordia University and deputy-provost, student life and learning at McGill University). I am therefore familiar with the challenges, anxieties and tensions that sometimes inhibit boldness and innovation. Take the pressure we all feel to produce results for example: while this “burden” triggers the discovery of new drugs, new treatments, better materials, new and positive ways of seeing the world, it can also steer professors and students (graduate students in particular) into avoiding the riskiest, most unusual, and most daring research. The search for solutions to the immense challenges that beset us will not emerge without risks. We must allow for the exploration of the most daring, unusual, and creative ideas and hypothesis.

That is why I created the Building 21 innovation lab at McGill in 2017. Building 21 offers McGill students a bold and unique pedagogical, intellectual, and creative experience that not only focuses on process rather than outcomes, but also frees students from the pressure and limitation of grades and credits. Altruism, curiosity, courage, and creativity are our key starting points.

Building 21 is a learning ecosystem open to all McGill students up to one year after graduation where disciplines (arts, sciences, medicine, music, etc.), methods (theoretical, practical, applied, fundamental) and levels (bachelor’s degree to PhD) come together. At Building 21, students use poetry to discuss physics, science to explore beauty, technology to think about what it means to be human, evolutionary biology to understand capitalism, and they use these approaches to explore the space of possibilities and find new solutions to new problems. In this unusual lab, an undergraduate literature student debates and collaborates with a graduate student in neuroscience and a PhD student in physics.

At Building 21, we train students to rely on imagination, resilience, originality, multidisciplinarity, open-ended enquiry and multi-generational perspectives to address global and local challenges. We do this through the implementation of a system of reciprocal learning through co-mentoring, in which every scholar is both a professor and a student and where all students are supported and guided by the community but are similarly expected to offer thoughts, perspectives, and pathways to other students.

Building 21 is spearheaded by the BLUE (Beautiful, Limitless, Unconstrained Exploration) Scholars Program. The BLUE program is an eight to 10-week paid internship where students work with faculty and researchers on a project of their own design that crosses disciplinary boundaries and explores unconventional ideas. Through the BLUE program, students are invited to work on their novel ideas. They are encouraged to share freely, to debate, to explore without limits, and to support each other; they are inspired to be curious, tolerant, and creative, and to think beyond the acknowledged, the recognized and the comfortable. Through the BLUE program, undergraduates collaborate with postdocs, and humanities and sciences cross-pollinate.

In this unusual, beautiful physical space, located in the middle of the campus, we immerse our students in a rich environment of ideas, questions, and debates through activities and discussions under themes such as Radical Futures, I’m Not Sure, and Knowledge, Wonder and Awe (where we debate questions like What is Language? What is the Sublime? Can a computer write beautiful poetry? What would a world run by women look like?); we train them to produce podcasts, virtual reality environments, and videos; we organize lectures from some of the top researchers in the world such as David Krakauer, Gabriella Coleman and Antonio Zadra; and we collaborate with independent student projects, such as NeuroTech, Encode Justice AI, the Francophone Poetry Collective, and Map the System, as well as great international initiatives, like the MasterCard Scholars Foundation or the Tanenbaum Open Science Initiative.

We want to inspire students to think multidimensionally using ideas, theories, and perspectives of as many disciplines as possible. We want them to embrace the fact that the problems we face are neither simple nor linear, and that solving them requires not only rigour and disciplinary know-how, but also boldness, imagination, and collaboration. Our goal is for every student project to be nourished by a rich collection of multiple disciplinary skills, methods, and concepts, a multifaceted approach we believe to be essential to solving the complicated challenges of our complex world.

And while we want Building 21 to be open and available to as many students as possible both our resources and many students’ time commitment are limited. Not all students can become BLUE Scholars. This is why McGill students can also get involved with the Building 21 community either as a Fellow and commit 5-10 hours a week to their project, or simply as an occasional participant in our activities, guest lectures and discussions. But no matter their status, all students must first meet either with Anita Parmar (co-director) or me, to better understand respective roles and responsibilities.

At Building 21, we recognize that specialization, focus, the push for results and the development of specific technical and disciplinary skills are not only necessary but essential. It is through these that we create vaccines, discover more sustainable materials, and fight cancer. But vision, inventiveness, multidisciplinarity, multidimensionality and the freedom to explore are also essential characteristics of cutting-edge research. That is why Building 21 attempts to join the two fundamental dimensions of academic thinking, that of focus and that of limitless exploration. This is, we believe, how our students will find solutions to the new and wicked problems we are all facing.

Ollivier Dyens is the founder of Building 21 at McGill University and a full professor in the département des littératures de langue française, de traduction et de création. He was also a board member for the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation du Québec from 2010 to 2014.

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