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Great Profs

To be one, I'd have to emulate one

The memory of their wonderful classes back in the Pre-Jurassic Academic Era (i.e. the 1960s) came just at the right time. I was creating a new undergraduate course on Canadian newspaper history and although I have taught before, I have never created a course. As I proceeded, the whole business seemed infinitely more daunting than any of the administration work I do at Massey College, and I was in need of inspiration.

I won’t embarrass myself by regaling you with the specific questions that attended the initial moments in this arduous process. I am only confessing this much to explain how welcome the memory was. It was a roll call of the mentors and teachers who helped me along my way. We all had them or we would not be what we are, but because life pushes on, we often put aside both the memories and the consequent indebtedness.

Until the moment of panic arrives.

For me, that moment came at the first concrete thought of actually standing up in front of a class of bright third-year students – enthusiastic bloggers all, I have no doubt – and trying to convince them that the history of newspapers, with all their fallible and often malicious accounts and reports, had a legitimate role in university studies. The other problem, it seemed to me, was also convincing them that the old boy standing up before them was somehow capable of getting it all across to them. And not just the chronological history of newspapering in Canada, but also the milieu, the significance, the social and economic matrix of the trade, as well as the undeniable corners of darkness and the unapologetic glaze of superficiality.

Or to put it another way: here is a course that has to travel the distance from George Brown, founder of the Globe and a Father of Confederation, to Leah McLaren and Jan Wong, the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary journalism, at least at today’s Globe and Mail.

Brooding about everything in between was when the welcome spectre of my mentors arrived, in the nick of time. They came from both my undergraduate career at Memorial University of Newfoundland and later graduate work at Exeter College, Oxford, and the University of East Anglia in Norwich. At Memorial, there were Helena F. (first-year literature) and Patrick O’F. (18th-century literature); John B. in Oxford (17th-century social comedy); Jack W. (Shakespeare) came on loan to Memorial from the University of Manitoba, while Angus W. (Dickens) in Norwich was on loan from the wider world and, belligerently and delightfully, never quite accepted his academic confinement.

The generous amongst us will acknowledge those teachers from whom we learned almost everything that experience itself didn’t provide. Often, though, we take them for granted, incorporating what we learned into our own hopefully unique vantage point.

When I was an arts writer for the Globe and Mail in the early 1970s, I once had the privilege of interviewing the great modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. At one point in the interview, I asked her if she ever resented it when younger choreographers stole her ideas or themes and incorporated them into their own work. “Look dear,” she said, as she fixed me a steely gaze and reached out for my hand with badly arthritic fingers, “we all steal ideas, but in the end we are judged on who we stole them from and what we did with them.” As a rough and ready definition of intellectual derivation and obligation, it can’t be beat.

That’s what “Shakespeare Jack” taught me in classes so absorbing and thrilling they still get me excited thinking about them. Long before the current craze for checking out The Bard’s historical, religious and social milieu (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, for example, or A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro), I had a teacher who roamed about Tudor London not as a tour guide but as a denizen and the patience he extended to those who were willing to travel with him seemed infinite.

For all the heated debate about professors who follow their research stars more assiduously than they develop their teaching skills, I had the experience of all kinds. “Shakespeare Jack” had only a BA and perhaps a “doctorate (minus thesis),” as some “unfinished” scholars occasionally and comically put after their names, but his great mentor was Northrop Frye whose guiding light was passed along to me with some reverence. To this day, Jackwith-only-a-BA was the greatest classroom performer I ever encountered and a spectacularly inspiring teacher.

Oxford’s John B. was one of the very top 17th-century men of his day, but if you worked hard and didn’t waste his time, he was as generous a master’s thesis supervisor as anyone could hope to have. To bask in the gravitas and empathy of a great research scholar who is also generous with his or her time and wisdom is one of the great highs in life, never to be forgotten, ever to be cherished.

“Prof. Helena F.” was married to a cabinet minister in Joey Smallwood’s Newfoundland government. She raised nine children, made bread every week, read Chaucer in one hand while hoovering with the other, and made you want to do research. She had her specialty, of course (the Romantics) but to my mind her gift was to start students on their way – with confidence and heightened curiosity.

In trying to figure out if there was any common denominator amongst my best teachers that I could try to find within myself – or simply steal! – I have come up with only one and it is the obvious one: passion. Passion for their field of expertise; passion for getting it across to students; passion for the art of teaching and for the chance to teach; and passion for passing on what had been passed to them.

I also remember “Prof. George S.” of Memorial, who died a few years ago to the immense loss of every single student who ever experienced his erudite and sweetly ironic way.

When he walked into the classroom and looked out at us, lecture material in hand and his reputation in the field of the English metaphysical poets like a Zen mantle around his shoulders, you knew at once that the class was going to be real work, but also that it would be gripping and – am I allowed to say it? – a lot of fun.
If I can deliver a tenth of that, I will count my new course a success.

John Fraser is Master of Massey College. His new course, “The Newspaper in Canadian Society,” is part of the Book and Media Studies Program at St. Michael’s College.

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