Students speak – Paroles d’étudiants

Sudents Speak: Lives Transformed by Teachers – Paroles d’étudiants: Des vies transformées par des enseignants

Afterword

Longer than an anecdote, this story embodies themes and insights common to all the above responses.

I am honored to offer a few remarks about 3M recipient Professor X. He is one of the most important reasons why I am a Professor. The story goes back to 1969, when I had long hair and was trying to grow an impressively long beard and look oh-so- cool, even though I was from a small village and knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t cool at all. Not even luke-cool. I came out of high school pretty certain that a) I never wanted to farm like my dad, and b) that English just might be the kind of world of ideas that would be exciting. So in my first year of university – rather terrified and hapless as a small-town-to-big-city student—I signed up for my English class with great expectations. That professor was a dud: pompous, condescending, full of high sentence, and much self-puffery, with an easily detectable loathing for these young intellectual crustaceans he was forced to attend and feed weekly. I suffered only two of these lecture. I was determined to get my money’s worth out of the subject that I had so magnanimously chosen as THE subject of subjects at the ripe age of nineteen. So who to take a class from, and how to switch out of this stultifying, life-deficit class? I asked around. Who? His name kept popping up. I discovered nevertheless that Professor X indeed had a first-year English class and, better yet for me, I could get into it, which I did.

The first classes I attended were like entering a live improv theater, with an audience rapt and keen and so energetically willing to participate that I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This was what I’d been looking for : challenge, a passion for ideas, an aesthetic exuberance, style. And the prof in question……wow! Here was this young dazzling man who smoked cigarettes, dressed like us, had long hair and beard, knew our slang, and truly was cool. But that was just the surface stuff, exciting as it was. What really blew me away was this teacher’s ability to take us into the world of language and ideas as though it were a 3-D cave and we were viable creatures— not crustaceans—who could actually inhabit this wondrous place of verbal magic, breathing its breath and living its life.

And my god could this man bring a poem alive when he read it out loud. He did things with words that astonished us all, bringing us into the intimate rhythms and tonal graces of major and minor writers in ways that dazzled and inspired. We couldn’t do those tricks ourselves, of course. We knew that. But here was a teacher who could lead us to the threshold of vision and show us what it looked like. Even more, his warm and engaging manner always held open the promise that we too might some day create such visions on our own. And not only that, he actually wanted to know what we were thinking: fancy that! The earlier prof whose class I’d dumped only wanted to hear answers that echoed the dull pompous storehouse of ideas he had lumbering and smoking in his heavy head. Professor X was prepared to improvise with our energies—however limited they might have been—and he would help us raise our collective take to levels that were often very flattering to us, although we would’ve been hard pressed to articulate our collective genius after the fact. And all this without impatience, condescension, obfuscation, or defensiveness—traits that sometimes

characterize the new teacher. And he was relatively new. We loved what he was doing. Every class seemed fresh, a new option, a new horizon. This was why I had come to university. Needless to say, there was only one class in my first year that I wanted to be at each week.

Fast forward. I did well in the class, and at the end of the year when returning my final essay, he attached to my scrawl an application form for graduate studies, which surprised me. I knew it wasn’t a joke, although I also knew I was still this rather unknowing fellow from a small town. But I also understood and deeply appreciated the encouragement and support that this meant. The scrawny kid from the small village, now bearded in scraggly fashion, had been given a nod, a pat on the back. I was deeply flattered, and that gesture confirmed my decision to pursue English literature at higher levels. I didn’t realize at the time that these generous acts were part of his strengths as a mentor that would be extended to hundreds of students like me. I took another class from Professor X, a senior undergrad course on 20th-century poetry. It was difficult stuff for me in my second year—all that self-absorbed quirky vocabulary and private language so inaccessible to the unsophisticated mind of the undergraduate—but he could open these windows of thematic beauty and rich prosody that mesmerized. I really was hooked.

Fast forward again. In 1979 I was lucky enough to be hired for a tenure-track job, teaching Restoration-18thC British Literature. And as a colleague of X’s what I came to realize in time was the depth and breadth and magnitude of all the things he did as an academic. And there were many: chairing the department, chairing major departmental committees, directing the teaching centre, being involved significantly in

the administrative life of the university community, authoring, mentoring, supervising. But he always made one thing very clear about his priorities as an academic: teaching. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a colleague in my thirty years as an academic myself who so whole-heartedly has given himself (or herself) over to the act, the craft, the art of teaching. My sense has always been that, for him, teaching was a privilege—a way to give back to that wonderful world of student curiosity an appreciation for the glories and the sometimes bleak truths that literature records on behalf of our species. Committed to the importance of that experience for students, X’s class- room performances—and I mean that word in its very best senses—of the literary imagination and all its marvels has enlightened countless students over many decades. I was one of the beneficiaries, and I am very grateful.

~ Professor