I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, 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. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
I should begin by saying that I don’t think David Gilmour should be fired or otherwise shouldered out of his U of T job. If professors were banned from teaching for being arseholes, there wouldn’t be many of us. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think a course that teaches his brand of literary machismo is necessarily a bad thing; in and of itself, which is to say, taken in isolation from other courses, reading lists, and approaches, it is a manifestly terrible thing, but your average English degree and English department (especially one as huge as U of T’s) is capacious enough to take all kinds. I would go further and say that if, in the course of an English degree, you don’t have at least one class with a hoary old unreconstructed literary curmudgeon who doesn’t believe that anything worthwhile was written after 1922 (or 1622), you’re missing a key English Lit experience.
The point is that there is room in the pedagogical firmament for the David Gilmours of the world, more so now that they find themselves in the minority. Which isn’t to say that I agree with, endorse, or otherwise tolerate his particularly arrogant brand of literary chauvinism—just that sometimes such characters (I’m looking at you too, Harold Bloom) can be inadvertent catalysts for fruitful and beneficial argument and discussion.
Case in point: though I am writing this the morning after Gilmour’s ill-conceived assertions in Hazlitt, and his even more ill-conceived follow-ups in The National Post, I am coming very late to the party, so much so that I wasn’t sure there was any point to actually putting in my two cents. So far I have read three blog posts taking issue with his comments, and one very funny parodic biography of a Chinese Virginia Woolf by “David Gilmour” (to say nothing of the many, many articles popping up on various news sites). These pieces do a lovely job of showing just how simple-minded and indeed closed-minded Gilmour’s comments are, so I won’t waste my energy or your time rehashing them, other than to say that Lucia Lorenza’s comments (the second blog post I link to) are particularly worth reading, and are a wonderfully elegant discussion of just why Gilmour’s pedagogical approach is unbelievably myopic.
The copia of response over social media, from outrage to snark to tentative defenses of Gilmour, is to my mind an example of when social media works to intellectual and social advantage—the speed and critical mass of the responses, the ongoing arguments, and the overall attention being paid to the otherwise innocuous question of the contents of English syllabi, all of this puts certain crucial questions and issues that are always-ongoing in literary study front and center, and gives it an immediacy that otherwise does not exist, that otherwise would not be possible.
As has been pointed out by several people, Gilmour is free to choose what he teaches. Academic freedom is, among other things, the right of the professoriate to organize readings and classes without interference. Academic freedom does not, however, guarantee one against criticism, mockery, and/or derision when one loudly and arrogantly trumpets one’s opinions in the public square. As I said, I don’t think he should lose his job over this, but I am heartened by the response to his words. From what he says in the original article and the follow-up interview, I suspect he is not nearly as good a teacher as he imagines—but he has certainly provided us all with a very teachable moment.
OK, I lied … I said I wasn’t going to rehash the arguments against Gilmour’s idiocy, and I won’t—not much—but I do have one thought I feel compelled to voice.
When all is said and done, what I find most appalling about Gilmour’s statements isn’t his insult to his colleagues “down the hall,” who, he implies, obviously do not teach worthy texts; it isn’t his blinkered suggestion that the number of texts worth studying can be counted on one hand; it isn’t the breathtaking arrogance of a second-tier novelist dismissing the need to read outside one’s comfort zone; it isn’t even his overt misogyny. No, what appalls me is his smug assertion of his excellence as a teacher, when everything he says provides evidence to the contrary.
Whatever my theoretical defense of Gilmour’s class, I feel sorry for his students and hope they learn, through a broader exposure to various conceptions of literature and various approaches to its study, just how narrow and impoverished Gilmour’s approach is. Which isn’t to say I don’t think we should study the writers he celebrates—there is no one on his list (with the exception of Proust—I’m ashamed to say, I have never made that attempt) that I do not endorse as worthy of study. But I really have to wonder: he says “I teach only the best,” which I suppose is fair enough. But what qualifies as “the best”? He does not say. I hope he explicates that in his classes, though from his comments I’m not hopeful on that front. Apparently, it’s standard at the start of his courses for some student to ask why there are no women on the course, and he responds that “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall.” I think it’s safe to say that much of the outrage that has proliferated in the last day is rooted in the unbelievably dismissive arrogance of this comment. Gilmour goes on at length about what an awesome teacher he is, how “impeccable” he is in the classroom, and how much passion he has for it. And yet in sneeringly suggesting that his students “go down the hall,” he gives the lie to these pretensions, for he makes it obvious that he has no interest at all in actually teaching. You want to teach macho hetero dead white men? That is entirely your prerogative (see above, freedom, comma, academic). But if you have serious, genuine academic and intellectual reasons for doing so, that question you get—if you’re lucky enough to get it!—is a gift. “Why no women? Let me tell you …” Honestly, I have difficulty imagining an explanation that won’t enrage me and all the other people currently bashing Gilmour on Facebook, but for the love of literature, have a better reason than “I don’t like women authors.” Presumably there is some reason for this antipathy … presumably, you have a well-thought-out rationale for such exclusive reading lists.
Apparently not, though. Such a response suggests a complete and utter lack of intellectual content to these choices, to say nothing of a reactionary refusal to defend them. But what is worst is the way in which such a response functions as a figurative slap in the face to whoever is brave enough to ask the question. A student asking you a question deserves the respect of a real answer, especially when it is one as fundamental as asking about reading selection. At one point in the original Hazlitt piece, Gilmour says “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.” The “therefore” in the second sentence here is dumbfounding and yet entirely enlightening. Never mind the fact that some of the best professors I have had hemmed and hawed and digressed and stuttered and otherwise would have made utterly useless TV personalities—the idea that students are like a camera is rather appalling. That’s not teaching—that’s self-congratulatory, masturbatory performance.
And really, that’s all I have to say on the matter.