The Principal’s Teaching Excellence Award recognizes the commitment of exceptional teachers who are at the heart of the academic experience of McGill students. During the fall 2021 convocation ceremonies, six of McGill’s outstanding educators will receive a Principal’s Award. Juan Serpa, member of the Desautels Faculty of Management, is this year’s winner of the Principal’s Prize in the Associate Professor category.
Somewhere on the road to the Great Revolution, Juan Serpa turned away.
Originally from Colombia, Serpa moved to Peterborough, Ontario at the age of 17. “I lived in a hippie town somewhere in an Ontario forest, between my bachelor’s degree and my graduate degree,” he says. “I shared a big house with 15 hippie comrades. The principle was to share everything. We only had underwear, a toothbrush and our bar of soap. Other than that, everything was common, including the clothes. We practiced dumpster diving to collect our food. The main philosophy behind the commune was anti-speciesism [the philosophy that all animal species are morally equal]. Since then, I have been interested in veganism.
“To be honest I have no idea [when I realized I wanted to teach]. I grew up with the dream of becoming a communist revolutionary. I came to Canada with the dream of studying post-Marxist philosophy, ”says Serpa. “But somehow I ended up becoming a business school teacher. Somewhere in the process, I had to be co-opted.
Ultimately, the loss of communism was the gain of the Desautels Faculty of Management, as Serpa just won the 2021 Principal’s Teaching Excellence Award in the Associate Professor category.
Unsurprisingly to someone from his background, Serpa is praised by his students for his commitment to social responsibility. This virtue is fully evidenced when he discusses his course on Data Analytics and AI for Business.
“When you teach artificial intelligence in business school, you are teaching a double-edged sword. An algorithm that promotes operational efficiency could be used to effectively run a community organization, or to make people more dependent on online shopping, or to promote deforestation, ”says Serpa.
“I have a great ambivalence vis-à-vis the educational tools which are responsible for the destruction of many societal fibers. At the same time, these same tools could become the best ally in reducing most of the damage we have done. The stake is: How to transmit this knowledge while inculcating a personal and social responsibility on its use?
His desire to use the data for the benefit of society inspired Serpa to develop the COVID-19 Analytics course last year.
“I taught students how to use analytics to study pandemics and prevent future pandemics. We then created one of the first COVID-19 dashboards in Quebec with this group of students, ”he says. “And we are in the process of creating a data repository to store COVID-19 data from Quebec. This data could be useful to act more effectively during the next pandemic. “
Overcome natural shyness to become a great storyteller
Overcoming the shyness of his youth, Serpa transformed into an award-winning teacher who in 2017 was named one of the world’s top 40 undergraduate professors in a business school by Poets & Quants.
“You become a storyteller in something you love,” he says when asked what he loves most about teaching.
“Don’t teach from textbooks or borrow slides,” he says as advice to new teachers. “Think of a lecture as a story, the students as an audience, and Facebook / Instagram as the other storyteller in town (vying for their attention). “
“Your goal is to tell a better story, a story that will inspire students to be with you, instead of turning to the other storyteller in town,” says Serpa. “It forces you to break your lessons into five-minute chunks and imagine how each little bit can maximize the attention of your students. Once you’ve mastered each five-minute track, you’ve got a great story to tell and a great lecture to deliver.
“You will see your students smile, and it will make your teaching experience a joy. “