Prof. Pettigrew on the limits of 'teach what you love'
I don’t like Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but when I first taught Introduction to English Literature,there it was on my syllabus. I felt like I had to include it, so I did. When the time came to teach it, I gave some background, including an account of an earlier poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Once we got to Spenser though, I quickly realized my students weren’t liking it, because I didn’t like it. They had picked up on my enthusiasm for Sir Gawain, and wanted to know more about that Green Knight guy.
So I learned a good lesson: teach what you love, not what you think you’re supposed to teach.
This same principle, taken to an absurd extreme, has also been adopted by University of Toronto English Instructor David Gilmour, who got folks excited yesterday when he was quoted in an interview saying that he had no interest in teaching female writers because he only taught what he was passionate about: “Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”
Gilmour, no doubt, felt like a fox in the henhouse, even as he was bringing the chickens of literary academia home to roost. In one fell swoop he skewered the notion of diversity (sacrosanct in most English departments), while disingenuously shrugging his shoulders and claiming that as a white heterosexual man he wouldn’t dream of presuming to speak to the experience of non-whites, gays, women, and so on.
Gilmour quickly tried to backpedal in a National Post interview, but ended up digging himself in deeper by reasserting, for instance, that, “I actually send people down the hall to somebody who can teach it better. The same thing goes for German writers, for women writers, for gay writers, for Chinese writers. It’s got nothing to do with any nationality, or racism, or heterosexuality.” And besides, he maintains, the “girls” in his class know what they are in for.
That this represents Gilmour’s carefully considered clarification of his earlier statements is astonishing. He insists he teaches writers that he is passionate about, and yet is somehow, by remarkable coincidence, not passionate about a single female writer, or gay writer, or Chinese writer, or German writer, and then claims it has nothing to do with gender or sexuality or nationality? I wonder what is so non-serious about Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, for instance. And if, as Gilmour says, in his own defence, that Virginia Woolf is “as great a writer as exists,” why does he have no passion for her work?
That Gilmour teaches what he loves is commendable. And that he has not been cowed by a literary culture that sometimes over aggressively insists on diversity (I was once told at a conference that there was “no point” in teaching Shakespeare anymore) is refreshing. But neither his energy nor his individualism are problems. The problem is that by his own admission, Gilmour only feels passionate about the work of people very much like himself. Such a view speaks to a remarkable failure of imagination on the part of one whose very job it is to fire the imagination of students.
“I can sell anything to anyone,” Gilmour proudly asserts in the Post interview. Well, not anything, apparently.
Because this week no one is buying what he’s trying to peddle.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.