The Internet was abuzz yesterday following the publication of author and teacher David Gilmour’s provocative and contentious interview with Hazlitt Magazine‘s Emily Keeler. In the interview, which has since gone viral, Gilmour states that he is “not interested in teaching books by women,” and that, by teaching only novels that he “truly, truly loves,” by “serious heterosexual guys” like Tolstoy and Chekhov, he is teaching “only the best.” If students want to read works by female (or, presumably, queer, or racialized writers), they can, as Gilmour says himself, “go down the hall” to his other colleagues at the University of Toronto.
Understandably, literary and academic communities (especially in Canada, since Gilmour claims that he hasn’t encountered any Canadian writers that he loves enough to teach) have responded with sharp criticisms of Gilmour’s seemingly exclusionary attitudes towards what constitutes literary “greatness” and what is deserving of time and attention in his classroom. Over at The Globe and Mail, Jared Bland writes that only teaching white, male, heterosexual authors does a disservice to students. Feminist writer and blogger Anne Thériault, in an open letter to Gilmour, calls for him to critically examine why he upholds these texts as the pinnacle of literary greatness, and challenges him to spend six months reading anything that isn’t a text by a straight white male.
In response to this backlash, Gilmour did an interview with Mark Medley of The National Post, in which he attempts to both explain and apologize for his words. Claiming that there isn’t “a racist or sexist bone in his body,” and that he is sorry that “people are offended by it.” Furthermore, he claims that the interviewer, Emily Keeler, is a “young woman who wanted to make a little name for herself,” assigns his carelessness in his words to being more concerned with another conversation he was having in French at the time of the interview, and points out that his apology is largely motivated by the fact that he doesn’t want his teaching reputation to be besmirched, nor to lose female readers. Gilmour’s latest novel, Extraordinary recently made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award.
I could go into my own lengthy analysis of Gilmour’s words. I find his attitude towards Emily Keeler to have been dismissive at best, his “surprise” at how people “take offense” to be narrow-minded and representative of his privilege, and his attempt at an apology to be wholly insincere. I could talk about how people with Gilmour’s attitude are not an anomaly in academic worlds, but part of a deeply embedded structure that still privileges the voices, stories, and histories of certain individuals over others. I could talk about the ongoing sexism and racism in university settings, and how they manifest themselves not just in chants at undergraduate frosh events, but in the boardroom and in the classroom.
I could talk about how Gilmour’s views of the critical thinking skills of undergraduate students is not rare, and that many professors still believe that age and experience are the necessary gatekeepers to knowledge. I could talk about how Gilmour seems to privilege one type of literature, and seemingly condemns all other “2nd and 3rd-rate literature” (and the colleagues who study them) to occupy space “down the hall,” far away from the intellectual enclave in which he works and thinks. I could talk about how Gilmour’s ability to “teach what he loves” and his need to “only teach books he emotionally connects with or represent his interests” demonstrates a particular kind of privilege in teaching and a curious lack of empathy or interests in others, as if we should (or can) only ever teach the texts with whom we personally identify.
While I don’t believe that equity in academia means that we can no longer specialize in a field, or that we all need to become generalists, I still find myself troubled by Gilmour’s assertion that the literature he reads and teaches is “the best,” and his inability to recognize that these longstanding works of well-regarded literature are framed by a long literary history that has often not consistently encouraged, published, or privileged other works, especially those by women, queer writers, and writers of colour.
What I want to do is to take an active, optimistic, and collective approach.
This is what I propose: let’s take David Gilmour’s suggestion that students merely “go down the hall” to find those who can teach things he’s not personally passionate about or don’t speak to his own lived experience and turn it into a way of strengthening our own academic communities.
– Go down the hall to take a course in a different department, especially if you’re an undergraduate student. If you have to take courses in different areas as part of a requirement, see it as an opportunity to look at something new. See how you can bring your skills to a completely different discipline or set of texts.
– Go down the hall to the library, and read a book by someone who doesn’t represent your own lived experience.
– Go down the hall to speak to your fellow graduate students. Form reading groups, writing circles. Don’t let the competitiveness of academic life and funding opportunities shut those conversations down and keep you isolated, thinking only about your own work and interests.
– Go down the hall to see what your colleagues are researching, writing about, thinking about. Ask them if they have any new recommendations for texts. Have a coffee, talk about what you’re teaching next term. Swap out a text or two. Change it up. Include a text that you don’t necessarily love, but one that challenges you, frustrates you, or provokes discussion.
– Go down the hall and take a pedagogy workshop. Remember that teaching is a process, and that speaking to students is not the same as speaking to a television camera or even a group of your peers. Ask for feedback. Ask your students what they want to learn.
– Go down the hall to a classroom and listen in to what students, especially undergraduates, are talking about. Realize that they’re having brilliant, intellectual conversations. Don’t underestimate their abilities to read complex literary or theoretical texts.
– Go down the hall at a conference to attend a panel that doesn’t necessarily have something to do with your field or your favourite author. See what you learn there. Meet new people.
– Go down the hall and see which projects are engaging the issue of literary representation and politics. See how you can contribute to creating an equitable field in the teaching of literature, the writing of literature, and the reviewing of literature.
And finally, perhaps most importantly: go down the hall, open the door, and walk out of the ivory tower, at least once in a while. Look around. Attend community events, speak to people who aren’t “scholars,” people whose life experiences are their body of scholarship, people whose literatures are the stories of their lives, their families, and their cultures. See what kids are reading these days. Open a different chapter, listen to a different or a new story, and you might find that you learn more about yourself and the world than you ever thought possible.
A VERY BRIEF AND INCOMPLETE LIST OF RESOURCES
Interested in Canadian Women’s Literature?
Interested in Asian Canadian Literature?
Interest in Queer Canadian Literature?
Interested in Indigenous Literatures in Canada?
Interested in Black Canadian Literature?
Interested in Québecois Literature?
PLEASE ADD MORE LINKS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION FOR OTHER GREAT RESOURCES ON A VARIETY OF LITERATURES (NOT JUST CANADIAN!)
Lucia Lorenzi is an interdisciplinary artist as well as a 4th-year PhD candidate in the Department of English at The University of British Columbia. Her research examines the aesthetics and politics of silence in narratives of sexual violence. This article originally appeared on Lucia’s blog, the body politic. It is reprinted here with permission.
Image: Lucia Lorenzi