This post is my 200th at Novel Readings, and I’d like to turn it into something of a special occasion.
A month or so ago, finding myself in “a bit of a posting slump” after wrapping up my series on “This Week in My Classes,” I asked for suggestions about things to write about. I recently received this nice suggestion by email from Tom Wood: “How about a post on a teacher/scholar whose work has had a significant influence on you?” I really liked this idea, because I still think with admiration and gratitude of several teachers whose influence, support, and guidance shaped my life in ways exceeded only by the love and direction provided by my parents. So, for this 200th post, I thought I’d take up Tom’s suggestion and celebrate them.* Now that I’m a teacher myself, I reflect often on the potential we have, in this profession, for making a difference in someone’s development. If you had a particularly memorable or influential teacher, I hope you’ll post a comment telling me about them!
It is impossible to overestimate the importance the right teacher at the right time can have on a student, though it may be impossible to foresee what will turn to be “right” ahead of time. In my own case, I think of my sixth grade teacher, Mr. James. I hadn’t wanted to be assigned to his class, as he had a reputation for being brilliant but eccentric and sort of scary–all of which he was, and indeed still is! But he was the right teacher for me after all: he saw something in my moody, bookish 12-year-old self that caught his interest enough for him to lend me extra books and encourage me to be less fearful about the differences between my own strengths and the qualities that earned other students ease and popularity with their peers. I think, too, of the indomitable Joni MacDougall, who browbeat me into being a better writer and let me, as a nerdy tenth grader, visit her History 12 class to give a presentation on Richard III (when I say “nerdy,” I mean that I was the youngest member–at least to my knowledge–of the Richard III Society of Canada). Later, when she had moved to a different school, she invited me to speak to her social studies class on the Industrial Revolution. Both teachers intimidated, bullied, and pressured me; both also, in equal measure, inspired and motivated me. Somehow, they had an idea of what I was capable of that exceeded my own, and by urging me to cultivate my own interest in reading and history, they started me along my career path well before I could have articulated anything like academic ambition for myself.
But probably the most influential moment, and the one I never saw coming, was my enrollment in D. G. Stephens’s first-year English class at UBC. I nearly missed it: I had registered for another section, but after the first class meeting I was told that I had to switch to what they called a “Z” section (I had done well on a placement test, I think). So I showed up in Dr. Stephens’s class for the next meeting (and, I distinctly remember, had to write an in-class essay on the seven deadly sins, about which everyone else had been forewarned). Prior to taking his class I had fully intended to major in history. I was a lifelong avid reader, but a complete skeptic about literary interpretation: when I thought about literary criticism at all, which was almost never, it seemed to me an exercise in second-guessing, or just plain guessing–in seeing what wasn’t there. In retrospect, I think this dismissive attitude was partly the result of growing up in a house full of devoted readers: I took reading for granted and didn’t see why or how it could be complicated.
So what happened to me in Dr. Stephens’s class? Obviously, whatever it was, it changed my mind about a lot of things. But it wasn’t because he was messianic. His teaching style is probably best described as “understated,” in fact.** I particularly remember the way he would make a comment and then scan the room, looking for responses, which were slow and hesitant in coming (his demeanor was, or I remember it as being, a bit intimidating–wryly ironic, a bit cynical). Many of his remarks were actually very funny, and I came to believe he was looking around to see if anyone got the joke. (I do that too, now: it’s a good way to see who’s paying attention.) But I don’t remember that he ever cracked a real smile himself. When he asked the class a question, I often wondered what mysterious answer he had in mind. Whatever I was thinking seemed too obvious to be right, and clearly hardly anybody else would hazard a guess. But it was frustrating not to have more discussion, and one day we had read a poem I really liked (it was Robert Graves’s “The Cool Web“) and I finally put my hand up and ventured some replies to his questions about Graves’s language and how particular words fit the central ideas of the poem. He seemed pleased! My answers were good! I knew what he was talking about! Things started to fall into place. He wasn’t making things up, because I could see them there too, in the poem, and thinking about how the details of form and language built up the whole piece made the poem better, more pleasurable, more exciting to read. It was like something coming into focus, something I (as someone who had always loved to read both fiction and poetry) had always seen, but had never really looked at.
I actually have all of my old undergraduate essays (it’s a good exercise in humility to look them over, especially during marking season). I certainly didn’t get all As in his class. What I did get was a sense of the rewards of interpretation, of lingering over details, of making a specific connection with a text. It probably helped me that Dr. Stephens was not a showy teacher, and it certainly helped me that he was a rigorous one as well as a witty one. I didn’t give up the idea of majoring in history. Instead, I became the first UBC student to do a combined Honours degree in English and History (back in the olden days, interdisciplinarity was not the norm). I had many excellent teachers in both departments, and superb mentors for my Honours thesis in James Winter and Jonathan Wisenthal. But I dedicated my thesis to Dr. Stephens, with gratitude.
*I realize that Tom’s question may have been meant to elicit more about scholarly and critical, rather than personal, influences. I’m still thinking about that dimension of influence. No question, I have learned a lot from many teachers and scholars. But is that the same as having been “influenced” by them? And have any of them actually inspired, moved, or motivated me? (If not, is that a problem or a loss?)
**My search of the UBC website for pictures or other details about Dr. Stephens to link to revealed that he won a “Master Teacher” award in 1974 and 1977 (fully a decade before I took his class), so clearly I wasn’t the only student he impressed. This raises the further question for me of whether UBC had, at that time, a deliberate policy of putting senior and well-regarded faculty in their first-year classrooms.