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Sep 28 2013

Guest post: two real teachers of literature respond to Gilmour

Andrea Day and Miriam Novick read these remarks yesterday at the event Serious Heterosexual Guys for Serious Literary Scholarship, held at the statue of Northrop Frye at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. The remarks are on Facebook, and posted here by permission.

For those of you who couldn’t be there yesterday, below are the remarks @Andrea Day and I read at the start of yesterday’s events.

Good morning, serious and unserious readers, teachers, and lovers of literature! We’ve asked you to join us here today to respond to David Gilmour’s recent comments about why he teaches what he calls only “very serious heterosexual guys” in his literature courses here at Victoria College. In his own words, “I teach only the best.”

Because Gilmour does not “love” any Canadian authors or writers who “happen to be Chinese or women” (except, of course, Virginia Woolf), he focuses on books about white, middle-aged male authors here in his classes at Vic. This misrepresents our profession: as teachers of literature, we want to introduce our students to a range of perspectives and to encourage them to think critically. This is particularly important in introductory courses, where many students are encountering university-level literary studies for the first time. “I don’t like it, so I won’t do it” is not a thoughtful approach to reading or to teaching. We don’t let our students stop there; why allow it from our faculty?

Indeed, Gilmour’s real offense is against his students. By telling them to go “down the hall” if they wish to hear non-dominant voices (perhaps voices like their own) or challenge a narrow, heterosexist, racist, and patriarchal view of what the literary canon “should” be, he is effectively telling them to think as he thinks, to read as he reads. Teaching, contrary to Gilmour’s beliefs, is nothing like being on television. Teaching is interactive, and our students deserve to be engaged, challenged, and respected. They deserve better.

We’ve asked you to join us around this statue of Northrop Frye for a reason, and not only because, as Professor Emeritus Germaine Warkentin reminds us, “His lethal wit would have disposed of Gilmour in a millisecond –and he liked women” (presumably, Professor Warkentin is using ‘like’ in a broader sense than the Seriously Heterosexual). Frye is an example par excellence (that’s French, for those of you who don’t speak the most serious of languages) of Serious Heterosexual White Guys Who Have Thoughts About Books. More importantly, he was both a student and a teacher here at Vic, an advocate for peace during the Vietnam War and South African Apartheid, and a literary critic who passionately believed in the role that literature had to play in the shaping of the imagination. In The Educated Imagination, he writes:

… what is the use of studying a world of imagination where anything is possible and anything can be assumed, where there are no rights or wrongs and all arguments are equally good? One of the most obvious uses, I think, is its encouragement of tolerance. In the imagination our own beliefs are also only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others.

Frye thus encourages us to read widely, the better to build empathy and understand the imaginations of those around us, and he would no doubt encourage Gilmour’s students to take that trip down the hall. We are not young women who want to make a little name for ourselves, but we are the people down the hall. (Not literally; neither of us is lucky enough to have an office as nice as Gilmour’s.) And so are all of you, and so is everyone who expressed outrage at Gilmour’s comments publicly, on social media, and in private conversation. We are all the people who believe that writers of colour, women writers, disabled writers, queer writers, and trans writers are absolutely worth reading.

In one sense, Gilmour has done all of us a favour. His comments have made explicit what is so often implicit. He has gracelessly articulated the biases that too often dictate what sort of literature is considered “serious” and “useful,” opinions which too often shape teaching and reading at all levels of education and private life. This is why we’ve invited you to join us today to share viewpoints and readings from down the hall: we want to make it clear that many, many students and teachers at the University of Toronto do not share these views. We also want to open a conversation that uses Gilmour’s ridiculous remarks as a starting point for an interrogation of the systemic oppressions that too often relegate particular voices and perspectives to second-class status in some classrooms and in society more broadly.

Reading broadly and deeply is particularly important in the current academic climate. This is an academic climate in which the humanities are under attack in the popular press and at institutional levels. This is an academic climate in which adjunct instructors are tenuously employed and paid pittances – you may remember the recent death of the 83 year-old French instructor, Mary Margaret Vojtko, who died penniless and nearly homeless after twenty-five years of service to Duquesne University. This is an academic climate in which men’s rights groups – thinly-veiled fronts for misogynist grumbling – flourish on university campuses, including on this one. This is an academic climate in which now, more than ever, we should all attempt to look beyond our own experiences and privileges in order to think critically about the world around us. Only after we open our minds can we communicate effectively and better empathize with others. Good teachers and great books facilitate that process.

We echo Anne Theriault’s challenge to Gilmour. She writes,

I’ve got a dare for you, David Gilmour. I dare you to spend six months reading nothing but writers who aren’t white cis males. Read female writers. Read Chinese writers. Read queer and trans and disabled writers. Read something that’s difficult for you to love, then take a deep breath and try harder to love it. Immerse yourself in worlds and thoughts and perspectives that are incredibly different from your own. Find a book that can change you and then let yourself be changed.

We invite you to join us and read from literary works that have opened your imaginations despite the fact that they were not written by “very serious heterosexual guys.” In the spirit of “tolerance” and empathy that Frye believed that literature encourages, we should emphasize that this is not a witch hunt, and our primary concerns today are pedagogical. We want to start a conversation about what it means to teach and to study literature, and about what doing so in a way that expands the imagination of both teachers and students might look like.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    And they say we don’t need feminism anymore. When still, the default serious author is a heterosexual male and all other people are somewhere down the hall.

  2. 2
    geoffarnold

    I guess what most disturbs me about Gilmour is his smug complacency. I’m not sure how you can claim to be a good teacher and challenge your students if you’re unwilling to challenge yourself, and question your assumptions. Maybe this doesn’t apply to the humanities, but Richard Feynman’s views seem apposite:

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    Well at least there’s been a lively reaction, which is a healthy sign. And no outraged closing of ranks behind Gilmour that I’ve seen, which makes this radically different from what happened with Michael Shermer’s equally sexist remarks.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Geoff – I know; exactly. The narrowness of it just repels me. That’s the OPPOSITE of what a literature teacher should be doing. No PhD, who cares; no curiosity, do not let that person near a classroom.

  5. 5
    A. Noyd

    Ophelia (#3)

    And no outraged closing of ranks behind Gilmour that I’ve seen…

    Quite the opposite! And, as far as I’ve seen, no useless “we’re not all like that” whining, either. Everyone who wants to be seen as separate from Gilmour is making sure to criticize the hell out of Gilmour and his nonsense.

  6. 6
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Well at least there’s been a lively reaction, which is a healthy sign. And no outraged closing of ranks behind Gilmour that I’ve seen, which makes this radically different from what happened with Michael Shermer’s equally sexist remarks.

    And this even though it’s not like the guy’s a nobody either (as he’d no doubt rush to inform anyone who will listen). He’s a GG winner and popular former arts journalist.

  7. 7
    infraredeyes

    Hang on: he’s read Proust twice and he thinks he (Proust) is a “very serious heterosexual guy”? There must be a lot less to this “Professor of Literature” racket than I had assumed. The man is a fool.

  8. 8
    Nathaniel Frein

    @Infraredeyes (#7)

    To be fair, the “racket” isn’t a professorship, it’s a “guest instructor”-ship. And it sounds like the university won’t be renewing his contract when the time comes.

    And this may be my privilege speaking (and flame me if it is), but I don’t think he’s worth the university breaking the contract over or ending the guest lecturer program over, because i’ve read testimonials that this guy is just a bad apple, and that the system usually works well to bring in different views for the students.

  9. 9
    thephilosophicalprimate

    Breaking contracts is a pain, and Gilmour’s comments reveal him to be a shoddy human being and a poor teacher in many important ways, but do not constitute evidence of misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance. But the university definitely won’t renew his contract for next year, or ask him to teach ever again, after he’s so thoroughly embarrassed them.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Yeh I don’t think they should defenestrate him or anything, or give him the bum’s rush tomorrow. But not asking him to come back for a seventh year, and getting someone more thoughtful and eloquent instead? That might be a good plan.

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