Canadian author David Gilmour found himself in an Internet brouhaha this week in regards to an interview he provided for Hazlitt, an online magazine promoted by Random House of Canada. The interview is about the books adorning his shelves, and…well, it’s best to quote rather than paraphrase:
I’m not interested in teaching books by women…when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.
Response has been passionate and plentiful, almost entirely upset with Gilmour’s seemingly misogynistic and homogeneous comments. Interestingly enough, the comment section on the Hazlitt page is almost complete condemnation of Gilmour and his interview (author’s note: the comments section has since become like most comment sections, a series of trolls and profanity-laced semantic debates, really devaluing the initial responses). Gilmour has issued an attempt at a mea culpa through the National Post, claiming that he is not a misogynist, though…ah heck, it’s still best to cite rather than paraphrase:
It’s got nothing to do with any nationality, or racism, or heterosexuality. Those were jokes by the way. I mean, I’m the only guy in North America who teaches Truman Capote, and Truman Capote was not what you’d exactly call a real heterosexual guy. So I really don’t know what this is about. And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something, because when I said “real heterosexual guys” I’m talking about Scott Fitzgerald [and] Scott Fitzgerald was not what you’d call a real guy’s guy, a real heterosexual guy. (emphasis mine)
There are plenty of people handling the privileged white male reading of this whole issue. I see another layer to this situation regarding Gilmour’s views on education and teaching. It’s not about the copious research Gilmour did to determine he is the only person in North America who teaches Truman Capote. Rather, it’s about why an institution like the University of Toronto entrusts courses to someone like Gilmour, the antithesis of a pedagogue.
Gilmour is a fairly well-known Canadian author who wrote a memoir called The Film Club. The premise of the book is that Gilmour allows his son to drop out of school (Jesse, age 15) if the son watches three movies a week with dad. I am a proponent of homeschooling, but the methodology here is rather suspect and somewhat wonting of valuing a teacher. However, according to Wikipedia, success of The Film Club led Gilmour to his current position as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. More quotes from Gilmour!
“It’s a f–ing dream,” he says. “You write a book about your son dropping out of school and they give you a professorship at U of T. How cool is that?” – August 29, 2011 in The National Post
“I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students. It’s the same thing.” – September 25, 2013 in Hazlitt
I have not taken a course from Mr. Gilmour, nor have I read The Film Club (though it is on my reading list, in part for a new project I have regarding popular media and societal assumptions on education). That said, his ideas on literary content (male and homogeneous), antiquated in modern scholarship, are just as antiquated as his ideas on teaching methodology and pedagogy. Yet the system is designed to promote the Gilmours of the world over those with experience in, you know, teaching.
This is common in literature. I ran into a lot of this in literature offshoot creative writing. One of the troubles of creative writing pedagogy is the master-led workshop model. Creative writing students enter a classroom and begin writing on a story, the master providing feedback to each student’s manuscript. While this is helpful in an abstracted, manuscript-specific sense, there are numerous flaws with the thinking: many students do not know how to develop ideas and so beginning at a draft is a doomed proposition, many writers do not know how to explain their process and craft in a scaffolded manner, many writers have no interest in providing genuine instruction and development to students, many students want accolades from a professor rather than criticism and instruction, and so forth. However, the predominant method of teaching creative writing at all levels is the workshop model. Perhaps it sounds authentic, with authors rolling up sleeves and crafting out an artisan story. Perhaps, like Freytag’s Pyramid, it’s what has always been done, so we keep doing it. Or perhaps there is value in bringing a visiting writer to the University, a writer with name recognition and sales and the sort of things that are easy to market and value and lead to adages like Those who can’t do, teach. Stephen King has no training in pedagogy or teaching methodology, but if he were offering a workshop at State University it would gain much more notoriety than Tenured Writing Professor. This is the crux of our modern-day view of education, where celebrity and notoriety are easier to sell than ability in the art of teaching. This is why it would not surprise me if the rock-star professors at the forefront of MOOCs no longer act as the relayer of content in their courses in five years’ time, replaced by Morgan Freeman and Gary Sinese.
Gilmour, with his background in television, would perhaps be immune to the change. That said, most visiting professors do not celebrate their ignorance in methodology or equate their time with students to time with a camera. Those who make it about the learner, teach. Those who make it about themselves gloat about hijacking a teaching gig.
UPDATED 9/26 – I took last night and this morning to read Gilmour’s memoir The Film Club. It fit with some work I am doing, and the book is considered to be a prime reason Gilmour became a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. The story between father and son is compelling, for the relationship’s weakness as much as for its strength, and textually and subtextually it is evident that father loves son. Of course, that was not what led to Internet incredulity yesterday, and I imagine a feminist reading of The Film Club would find many of the same faults as Gilmour created in his Hazlitt interview.
As far as pedagogy, there is not a lot to sink into…Jesse (Gilmour’s son) drops out of school rather than continuing towards a diploma via homeschool, and so for three years the only education (formal or non-formal) is each film in Film Club: a preamble by David, the film itself (sometimes with commentary during, usually without), and a discussion on the porch afterward, which (in the book) does not always focus on the movie. In the book, Gilmour both highlights his college experience and bemoans education, in one place propping the importance of the formal education experience and later touches on the pitfalls of said college experience. In some ways higher education is an antagonist in the book; two of Jesse’s love interests exist in a higher ed dichotomy to Jesse: him a high school dropout assumed little ambition (by the girls) as compared to those (girlfriends) in school with degree plans and career minds. There is a lack of forward planning in Gilmour’s Film Club, but in the book choosing a film depends on the environment of Jesse’s life situation, and Gilmour’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of the medium proves an asset. That said, Gilmour is only working with one student in the Film Club, and he does wonder at several points whether flying by the seat of his pants in this parenting exercise will be beneficial or catastrophic for Jesse.
The film list for Film Club suffers from a similar fate as Gilmour’s self-described class syllabi: a lack of female influence and a predominantly caucasian group. It must be noted that in film, however, female writers and directors have only recently (less than 10 years) seen a rise in their produced work and guild memberships, with perhaps 5% of studio movies today employing a female writer or director. There is some inclusion of non-caucasian film influence, though almost entirely Japanese.
To close, I took some liberties in writing yesterday’s blog post, most notably a sarcastic caption to a picture I found of Gilmour while reading some of his earlier interviews. When I saw the classroom of unaffected, dazed female students I had trouble resisting and included it in the post. While a film critic, Gilmour is not a trained academic, much less a pedagogue. Gilmour was offered a teaching position, asked for it to be rather specific, and was granted such a request. Victoria College at the University of Toronto, his employer, issued the following statement in regard to Gilmour’s Hazlitt interview, noting this relationship:
Neither Victoria College nor the University of Toronto endorses the views attributed to David Gilmour in the article. Mr. Gilmour, a noted Canadian author and journalist, teaches elective seminars on his area of expertise, leaving other areas of literature to be taught by colleagues who can do so most effectively based on their areas of specialization
As I mentioned yesterday, the problem with providing teaching positions based on hype, accolade and celebrity measured outside academe is a celebration of the individual rather than the celebration of the student. The position provides notoriety to the university, prestige to the celebrity, and the opportunity to be in the presence of the celebrity to the student. And yes, it would be great if these positions were filled by capable celebrities who either were trained teachers, understood pedagogy, or had an interest in learning some pedagogical techniques. It’s not that simple. There are geographic considerations. There are often monetary issues at play; in many cases the visiting professor is paid through grant or endowment involving entities outside the school, entities that place parameters on the hire or dictating it entirely (though I do not know how the finances of Mr. Gilmour’s position are handled). David Gilmour was a celebrated author handed a position with teaching responsibilities because he was a celebrated author. It was not required of him to read Piaget and Vygotsky before his first seminar. Moreover, it likely looked like he received the position because of his teaching, teaching as the film critic and in some ways the Film Club proprietor. But much like in The Film Club David wants Jesse to dig deeper and is aghast when his son does not know where the state of Florida is in the United States, the Hazlitt interview shines a light on David Gilmour’s lack of intrinsic expedition and subsequent pedagogical misnomers.
Great pedagogy makes learning meaningful to the learner. In which case, David Gilmore’s students are being short changed. Granted, we are all obsessed with celebrities. If J.K. Rowling ever teaches a class at the UCLA Film School, the aisles will be packed. Once, when she was asked where she got her ideas, she said, “I watch a lot of TV.” So that is really not unlike “The Film Club” premise.
Hearing him gloat about his “high-jacking a teaching gig” is reprehensible. In my opinion he’s a one hit wonder and he should seriously consider some actual teacher training at an accredited university.
But the views of David Gilmour are not his alone; this is how many people view teaching, as something they can put on without much effort, that their method is sound because they were students. Evidence of this is the proliferation of Teach for America as a viable training ground for teachers, foregoing four or five years of training in Education as a major for a three-week crash course.