University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Nick Mount.
Nick Mount. Photo by Derek Shapton

Literature Junkie

From street art to hip hop, Nick Mount connects English lit to pop culture

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.”

Nick Mount lectures on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel

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  1. 3 Responses to “ Literature Junkie ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I read this article with dismay. When I was privileged to study at University College in the 1950s, students who matriculated in a faculty of arts were able to acquire something then called “culture” (not in today’s broad sense) – a kind of literary-historical education with exposure to the great achievements of mankind. Today it is possible, even at reputable universities, to obtain a degree in literature without ever having read a word of the Bible, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, or Goethe, simply by selecting useless “cinch courses.”

    The admission of such courses to North American universities has been devastating to serious historical disciplines, now an endangered species. The politically correct substitution of a justifiable canon of great books with ephemeral, worthless, and even harmful trivia is destroying the humanities under the pretext of “diversity” – dear to administrators, who wish to be all things to all people.

    Warren Kirkendale
    BA 1955 UC
    Professor emeritus, University of Regensburg
    Rome, Italy

  3. Rebecca Li says:

    I don't see why it has to be either/or.

    As in why certain lit forms have to be kept out of a curriculum so that the historical templates for greatness can shine.

    It would be kinda tragic if the past were being disregarded completely in favor of something more easily digestible and hovering in dangerous vicinity to the orbit of words like urban or edgy, but I can't see that being the case here at all.

    All I mean is that I'm pretty sure Shakespeare can hold his own while Mos Def is playing, even though both of them understand words in their own way. To suggest differently trivializes everything written after 1616, and I'm not trying to be modernistic or anything but it doesn't hurt to appreciate what's going on right now.

    There isn't any substitute for the real or the immediate, and even though maybe a substantial amount of what's being written now is cloudy and self-aware to the extent that there isn't much value in it anymore, the difficulty exists in diving for little pearls of understanding and cultivating a genuine love and patience for the craftsmanship that comes with housing all those shapeless ethereal human discoveries.
    How could those qualities ever be independent from Dante, even without his own tailor-fitted version of Italian and set to a really tight Premier beat?

  4. Esther Jones says:

    Students are still able to study those works, but it's important to note that the course is called "lit of our time," meaning the present. Shakespeare, Virgil, Dante and, god forbid, the bible certainly are not dead in our culture. But new books and ideas are born everyday, and are in many ways are more relevant to our mindset. Living in the past is fine, but living in denial of the present and future "culture" is equally if not more devastating than what you suggest.
    It's not the 1950s anymore. Values change. Perhaps our generation is better equipped to be a part of that change.