Ask Nick Mount what makes a good teacher, and he looks a little uncomfortable. It’s a boilerplate question that invites the gruffly gracious English professor to blow his own horn. And it doesn’t take long to figure out that cliché and self-aggrandizement are probably two of Mount’s least favourite things.
But every time Mount wins an award (most recently, the prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship), the media wants to know his secret – why he has been blog-checked by some students as the best teacher they ever had; become the subject of a Facebook page called “I Heart Nick Mount;” and been showcased on TVO as a Best Lecturer finalist. “There really isn’t any one right way to teach,” Mount says. “But being able to remain curious about the content and the students is essential. You have to stay open, so that your lecture notes don’t become dogma.”
The class that Mount is best known for is the first-year survey course “Literature for Our Time,” and it exemplifies his view that course material cannot be static. “When I took it over, it was primarily dead white men from the 20th century who I happened to like. I kept most of them, added a few women and condensed them all in the first term.” The second term became something else entirely. Mount enthusiastically crowded it with young, living writers, such as Newfoundland author Lisa Moore (Open) and graphic novelist Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth). As time and money allows, he will even bring the authors in to speak. He changes some of the books each year, he says – “which forces me to stay fresh.”
“Fresh” is a word he likes; “hip,” not so much. Even though Mount has received a great deal of attention for playing pop and rap music before lectures and during breaks, he’s not doing it to curry favour. “I think if you’re over 40 and you try to play music that you think an 18-yearold will like, you’ll look like an idiot,” he says. (Mount is 47.) “Students are not there so you can be cool and be their friend. They’re there because you’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time studying the subject in which they’re interested.” Indeed, his song choices are connected to the work under study; prior to taking up Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, for example, he’ll play a confessional rap by Nova Scotia hip-hop artist Classified.
And there, if anything, is the secret: Mount’s ability to directly connect English literature to the culture in which young people live. Informed by his past as a DJ, and as a “music junkie,” he’ll reference street art or popular movies, or show how Canadian poet Karen Solie has created the literary equivalent of a musical mashup. “It’s a way of demonstrating that literature doesn’t get produced in a vacuum,” says Mount, who is also associate chair within the department.
Add to which, Mount never forgets his audience. He didn’t even attend university until his late twenties (“It just didn’t exist on the psychological horizon,” he shrugs), and says that instructors imperil themselves when they pay more attention to their books than to the outside world and the students who will soon reshape it. Universities “miss something when they don’t have people from unorthodox career backgrounds,” says Mount, a former division manager for Woolco department stores. “People with a sense that there are other ways of thinking about things.”