All Posts Tagged With: "Nick Mount"
You can engage a room of 500 students: know the material cold, and know how to share it
In 1986, to recognize the importance of university teaching, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada created the 3M National Teaching Fellowships. Since 2006, Maclean’s has proudly been the program’s media sponsor. Over the next several weeks we will be profiling each of the 10 winners, starting here with English professor Nick Mount.
It is a rare warm day in what has proven to be a punishingly cold Toronto winter. It is a Friday afternoon—a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. In essence, it is the sort of afternoon for which the playing of hooky was invented. So why is Nick Mount standing on a stage before a sea of first-year students—hundreds of them, piled like waves up the sloping floor of a University of Toronto lecture theatre? “I’m actually,” admits Mount, “shocked you’re here.” He spends the next two hours reminding the class of 450 students why they are.
The topic today is the Chris Ware graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The course is Literature for Our Time, a primer that encompasses all of Corrigan, Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness To the Lighthouse, and Toronto novelist Andrew Pyper’s literary noir The Killing Circle. Mount’s close reading of Corrigan, an anti-hero parable of fathers and sons that ends ambiguously with a Superman figure swooping angel like upon the protagonist and carrying him away, is as careful in its attentions as Mount had been with either Woolf or Vladimir Nabokov’s dense, disturbing Lolita.
Suddenly, Mount projects a garish image onto a large screen above him: it is the cover of another comic book, Smooth ’n’ Natural, a clever homage to the blaxploitation B movies of the 1970s. It is uproariously funny. Mount identifies its creator—he is a student, Brian McLachlan, sitting in the hall, totally surprised that Mount knows who he is or what he does. “Did I just embarrass the hell out of you?” asks Mount, who on the contrary, with a magician’s trick, has suddenly summoned the spirit of his theme—Literature for Our Time, the way poetry and fiction really do respond to the world—and housed that spirit in the shape of one of his own students.
“It’s something I learned from Northrop Frye,” says Mount, an expert in 19th-century Canadian romance novels, referring to Frye, the world-renowned U of T literary theorist. “Frye says that romance is the genre that’s best at revealing the wishes of a society—and its fears. An experimental avant-garde novel by some guy wearing a beanie in a café in Yorkville is about his anxieties. But if you read a popular novel, romance or genre fiction up against the culture of their time, they can have really interesting things to say about what that culture worried about, what it hoped for, what kind of heroes it wanted.”
Each Friday, Mount, who’s 47, favours grey stubble over full beard and pairs dark suits with wine-coloured, open-necked shirts, steps onto that stage and holds that mirror up to his 450 students. Somehow—through humour, knowing asides, but above all through a grasp of the material so complete and fluid that it tends to conceal the dozens of hours of prep he dedicates to each lecture—Mount makes the experience intimate. “It’s like I’m just talking to a friend about the book I’ve just finished,” says 18-year-old Alisa Lurie.
It’s not just that he’s passionate about the material (he’s been known to choke up describing how the poet Sylvia Plath placed mugs of milk in her children’s cribs before committing suicide), or that he knows the material cold. These are the basics. Mount recalls that one of his own profs—Patrick Grant, back at the University of Victoria—“broke every rule in the good teacher’s rule book. He read from dusty notes that were clearly 10 years old, he never made eye contact. And I learned more in that class than any other in undergraduate because the guy knew his stuff. And he knew how to share it.”