You’ve been voted best professor by our readers what is it that you teach?
I teach the history of western civilization but it’s sort of teaching almost everything — looking at all major disciplines and the ideas that animate them and seeing how they all hang together.
Are you in the history department?
No I’m actually in Communication and Culture which used to be general studies. In an odd way I guess the two things go together. I look at culture and how I guess communication or discourse makes culture come together. We have conversations like we’re having now and people sometime have conversations about what I would call deep issues and that’s really how a culture arises is through people talking about important questions and articulating basic assumptions about life.
I hear you sometimes bring props into the classroom.
Oh yeah I believe in total classroom interaction. For example I’ll sit in the audience and ask myself questions if they’re not asking questions. I once brought God to class. Here’s how I did that. The trick was to say “the next class we’re going to have God now if you could speak to God what question would you address to God? But you’ve only got one.” So you had to really think that through. I set up a screen at the front of the room with a light behind it and I stuck a microphone down my throat and spoke in a deep voice as they asked questions. Now I had to be on my toes because you know I didn’t know what they’d ask. But the point of the exercise is you think deeply about religion by saying “well what would I ask God if I had a chance to do that?” Some people took it seriously and others would say “why am I so short?”
The other thing too I’ll sometimes play different roles in the front of the room. Like the women from Othello Shakespeare’s play about jealousy. I had a whole bunch of wigs and I would just put on a different wig for each female character. Another time for example I wanted to have a dialogue between Hugh Hefner and Aristotle on sex. So I just got a housecoat… and whenever I was Hugh Hefner I would just put on the housecoat and talk to Aristotle. It’s really easy. You don’t have to have a lot of technical stuff.
It makes the students think basically.
And gets them engaged I imagine.
Yeah that’s right. My goal is to fascinate and to get them to do the same thing. I encourage them to do presentations and they’re a lot more talented and sophisticated than I am. They know how to use videos and create films and stuff like that and that blows me away usually. Or they’ll do little plays themselves. You sort of bring a class together that way by not making them passive but encouraging them to be as active as possible and forget their fears forget their uncomfortableness. If I could sum up my teaching it would be never let your curiosity be silenced by your fear of your intellectual adequacy. Let your curiosity guide you and it will take you where it goes.
Do you have a topic that you most like to talk about?
I think I gravitate towards four of them actually but they’re universal: life-death you know what is the meaning of a person’s life; freedom-slavery what does it mean to be free and what is it that limits your freedom; wisdom-folly what is true wisdom because that is what guides your life and what is folly; and finally good and evil which is the biggest one of all. If you talk about those things you’re talking about the central issues of everyone’s life. You do it in different cultures at least I try to and you do it over time. How did those views change and how do they differ from your views right now? Because if you don’t do that you live kind of mindlessly.
I guess if I had to sum it all up in one thing I’d say that I talk about consciousness as a kind of state of being more aware of what’s deep inside you and you have to just bring that up to the surface. People come to the room with all these cultural assumptions buried deep inside them and I just try to make them aware of that.
You hear the history of western civilization and you think it’s going to be straightforward. To hear a professor talk about good and evil and consciousness is very interesting.
Well all our lives are caught up with that. You open the newspaper and you see these things and you wonder about them. What does it mean… how do people do evil? What’s in their minds? Do they think they’re doing good when they’re doing evil? And how are you supposed to respond to that? And it’s painful. I guess I should say that some people do find the class painful and they get angry and frustrated but I’m not here to win popularity contests. And other people get really engaged in it because they say: “hey yeah this is my life. No matter what happens not matter what job I get or don’t get I’m going to have to face death. I’m going to have to try to carve out a space of freedom for myself I’m going to have to try and live wisely and I’m going to have to confront evil including in myself.”
Are you surprised by your students? I imagine some profs look down on their students and some see them on an equal footing. Are you surprised by their intelligence?
I’m overwhelmed by it not surprised. I’m in awe of them. I’m in awe of what lies down there. Here’s a trick: If you get out of the way that will flow forward. They’re itching in a way to grow and expand. Not all of them some of them are too frightened and they just want to get through but most of them are really interested in letting their creativity flower. And yes I am in awe of that. Like look what’s down there. All I do is get out of the way and actually encourage them to get out of their own way.
Most profs think “they want to get through the material I want to get through the material game over.” But that’s not what I’m aiming at. I want to make each class an experience of transformation otherwise why bother. Transformation can only occur if the student does it. I can’t transform them. Only they can transform themselves. You have to give them the opportunity to do that and they have to first of all trust you that you’re not going to punish them for doing that. One of the things that kills me is when a student goes: “I can use the word ‘I’ in this essay?” Well who else is writing it for God’s sake? It’s your views. You have to support them and be literate.
I mean there is a practical side of this. I tell them “you’re going out into the world and I don’t care what you do you can be in business you can be a physician an architect but sooner or later you’re going to have to go before other people and make a case for what you believe in. That means you have to make sense you have to support it.”
How long have you been teaching at the university?
This university? Since ’89. Before that I was at the University of Western Ontario before that Trent before that Mount St. Vincent. I started my teaching at Mount St. Vincent in 1980 and before that I was a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto where I got my degrees. So if you count being a teaching assistant I’ve been teaching since 1972.
And you still have this passion for it?
It grows every year. It’s an amazing privilege. Like I get to do this for a living. If you want to hear me speak about it you can Google me on the lecture of a lifetime I did I think in 2009.
I’m basically a pretty lucky bastard when you get right down to it because I get to do something I love like few people in this world do.