If you’re not Nabokov

And then there’s the academic peonage aspect.

In all the recent talk about dead white males and the living white males who teach them, we’ve missed something about the David Gilmour controversy. It’s not at all unusual for people to want to teach only the things they like, but, generally speaking, it is unusual for them to get what they want.

In other words, why did David Gilmour get such a sweet deal?

Consider this set of well-worn truisms about higher ed: arts enrolment is at an all-time low. The academic job market is bleaker than a house in a novel by Charles Dickens. Actual PhDs, who have trained to teach the curriculum, compete with hundreds of qualified applicants for every one position available. Those who don’t opt out altogether fall back on “sessional” instructor work, which is widely known for its poverty-line wage, lack of job security and low status.

Sessionals don’t get to teach the material they love. They’re usually just grateful if they land in the right department. The image of the overworked instructor working out of the trunk of her car as she commutes between two (and sometimes three) colleges or universities is the poster child for the new “working poor” academic. In many universities, sessionals account for about half the teaching staff, since universities can’t afford to hire more full-timers — what with the system being in crisis and all.

Yet David Gilmour got one of those scarce jobs. It’s hard not to wonder why.

As I’ve said, I can see wanting to have a working novelist teach novels and stories. But…why David Gilmour when there is, say, Rohinton Mistry?

Aside from the alleged sexism, one of the many offensive aspects of Gilmour’s comments is his cavalier attitude about what to teach. Academic inquiry is all about giving reasons — for many things, including what to teach. Sometimes they are bad reasons, like many of the ones provided by both sides of the culture war the first time the dead white male topic blew up. But at least they were reasons.

Which leads one to believe that what Gilmour is doing at Victoria College might not be all that academic. It’d hard to blame him for that, frankly. If U of T offered me “ENG 350 — Books I Like,” I’d teach it in a heartbeat. And if I were offered an office with a view of the fall foliage, I’d even throw in “BIO 310 — Evolution: How I See It” as part of the deal.

Gilmour has every right to prefer literature written by whatever small portion of the population he chooses. But, since the university is publicly funded and the system is in “crisis,” it’s fair to question whether or not it’s right for an institution to spend resources on a course that seems to fall outside of the normal confines of academic inquiry.

To be fair, this is not without precedent. In fact, bringing in a real live author or critic is a time-honoured tradition. But writer-in-residence gigs generally last a year and Gilmour’s been there for six. Now it’s not entirely unheard of for it to be extended, either. For example, the PhD-less Vladimir Nabokov taught at Cornell from 1948-1959 and it’s pretty likely he had free reign to teach books he was passionate about. Of course, he was Nabokov.

Well quite – he was Nabokov. Gilmour is not. I don’t mean to be all “Rebecca isn’t Ayaan Hirsi Ali so ha,” not least because I’m not Ayaan Hirsi Ali either, but I do wonder why Gilmour is being treated as if he were a Nabokov-equivalent.

The university needs non-academic voices. But choice is key and the university better start providing some good academic reasons for their choice of Gilmour, given that, at present, it’s apparently impossible to pay the sessional teachers who are doing all the heavy lifting. When appointing writer-in-residence types, the candidates need to have both serious literary chops and be entirely above reproach. Since a good deal of Gilmour’s fame seems to have come from his most recent gaffe, it looks like the University of Toronto has failed. On both counts.

Looks that way to me.



  1. Al Dente says

    I’ve heard of Nabokov. I’ve read Nabokov. I’ve never heard of David Gilmour until this week. Have read the interview and his defense of himself, I have no interest in reading Gilmour’s novels. He ain’t no Nabokov. I don’t even know if he’s a Dan Brown.

  2. tuibguy says

    I had always thought that David Gilmour was an atheist guitar player from the UK. I never realized he was a writer, either.

  3. Great American Satan says

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a member of a right wing think tank, and has said promoting xtianity in africa is a good idea. I should hope you aren’t her. I wouldn’t be an occasional reader here if you were. I’d be talking smack about you somewhere else.

  4. Julia F says

    When I tried to think of Canadian writers the first ones I thought of were women: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Anne Carson (a poet, but still), L. M. Montgomery (for many years the best selling Canadian author in history), Carol Shields and Mavis Gallant.

    The only male writers I could think of were Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies and Michael Ondaatje. Bellow was born there, but he doesn’t count. ( I hadn’t realized that Mistry was Canadian).

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Should anyone who misspells “free rein” have license to criticize lit’ry academia at any level?

  6. Noah says

    @6: Yes. Next question?

    I like spelling and grammar as much as the next person, but come on, that’s a pointlessly silly level of pedantry.

  7. smrnda says

    Spelling errors happen all the time, even among great writers and the PhDs in an English department. They even get in published books. Now and then mathematics professors add up numbers wrong. Overall, I think focusing on spelling errors (unless they are so prevalent as to make one doubt that the writer is even basically literate) is missing the point.

    All said, could nepotism be at work? I’ve met ‘artists in residence’ with pretty unimpressive resumes, but who had personal connections with faculty members eager to find a paycheck for a friend.

  8. enkidu says

    “free rein” is correct. It refers to riding (a horse) the reins are left loose to allow the horse to choose its own path.

  9. iknklast says

    since universities can’t afford to hire more full-timers — what with the system being in crisis and all

    I don’t know about Canadian universities on this, but I do know that in many American universities they are screaming that they can’t afford to hire more full-timers, while larding up the administration with new hires that often make as much as two (sometimes three) full-time professors. And yes, I know full-time professors get benefits which cost the university money, but so do full-time administrators, so that is no argument.

  10. says

    When I was in college, our writers-in-residence taught… writing. Not literary studies.

    Then again, my college was weird; the majority of our classes were still taught by full-time professors.

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