Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Nothing to do with The Girl in a Coma

It's been eleven years since I reluctantly retired. "The Girl in a Coma" is one of the brighter fruits plucked in a withering vineyard. It's my new YA mystery and I'll comment on it in a few days. For now, I want to share my retirement speech. I was struck by how thoughtful it was, entirely concealing the hysteria that has since dwindled into benign amusement. Here goes: A Few Words I have been a teacher for thirty-nine years, mostly as a professor of Canadian literatures. When I was seven I vowed to my grandmother that I would live a life of adventure. By the time she died, following her hundredth birthday which coincided with the centennial celebrations of Canada, the adventurous life took a bit of a turn. From surviving high school football, enduring a desultory undergraduate career, walking through the desert with David Lean, dressed as Lawrence of Arabia for my job standing in for Peter O’Toole, swimming the Hellespont from Abydus to Sestos, patiently lecturing Robert Bolt, the author of A Man for All Seasons and the Lawrence filmscript, about how to write plays, my understanding of adventure shifted, and after a chance reading of Don Quixote I became immersed in a world of books. Never, however, did books confine my life. As well as writing and teaching, I was busy with family, competing in the Ironman, running Boston, travelling Greenland and Spain and Japan, breeding horses, teaching myself architectural design and carpentry, learning the arts of the plumber, the roofer, the electrician, the dry-waller and tile-setter, the cabinet-maker. Books enhanced everything I did. Bee keeping or scuba diving, watching “Bewitched” with the kids, white-water canoeing, collecting vintage Bordeaux and tribal carpets, walking twenty-eight solitary days in the Barrens, or skiing the glorious annual marathon from Montreal to Gatineau, books swept me toward those silver reaches of the estuary. And now, books written, books read, and with five thousand students behind me, I find myself momentarily in stasis, caught between retiring and expiring, not entirely comfortable in the realm of the undead. I am curious as to where the great adventure will lead next. It has been my good fortune never to think of our profession as work. To be a professor is not something you do but something you are. Being a professional has always seemed open-ended, a vocation exceedingly difficult to enter, and to be quit only at a time advantageous to all. But since both law and the university deem mandatory retirement a present necessity—it has not always been so, and soon will seem a barbaric anachronism—I will retire with the same forbearance as I intend, eventually to expire. On the way, I would like to share a few words I have jotted down about my profession. The irony here is that I have never lectured from notes. It is my conviction that if I do not sufficiently know my materials and the rhetorical design of their presentation, it is unlikely my students will engage with what I have to say. I do not advocate this for all personalities, for sometimes what I do is more like sky-diving without a parachute than walking a tight-rope without looking down; and it would be inappropriate in some disciplines, for I cannot imagine cluttering my mind with the periodic table or the finite particulars of quantum mechanics. I have never hidden who I am when I lecture. If my own life does not broadcast the pleasures of the text, then I am a charlatan or, at best, uninspired. It may be instructive, knowing that I thrill to the lines of Margaret Avison and Gerrard Manley Hopkins in their magnificent affairs with God, and am an atheist. It could be illuminating to know that I often travel in the high Arctic wind where the snow flies parallel to the ground, and that sometimes I dive deep among canyons of coral in the South Pacific, and my perceptions are shaped by Blake and Al Purdy, Shakespeare and Margarets Atwood and Laurence; imperative to recognize that culture is not a contiguous phenomenon but the shape of our consciousness of ourselves in the world. While trained in the liberal arts, I value the study of science to help understand what we are. The arts tell us who. While trained in literary analysis, I appreciate how essential is full awareness of the texts of our history, the maps of our human geography, the conversations among philosophers through time. A text without context is an unbroken code, hiding far more than it reveals. While trained in English literatures, and thrilled by Spenser and Austen, Shakespeare and Beckett, writers of the great tradition about whom I have written, as well as by the visionary Wilson Harris, the revolutionary N’gugi wa thiongo, the metaphysics of Doris Lessing and Tennessee Williams, I have focussed my interests where these writers intersect from a Canadian perspective. No-one can be open to literature as literature who does not know the writing of the community that shapes his or her perceptions. As a Canadianist, I have been able to work close to home, not just to help make us real but to break down the garrison palisades, to make us connect. I have always held that students know more than I can possibly imagine and sometimes significantly less than they think. It is folly for the authority speaking from a lectern to assume there are not, among those attending, minds of greater capacity, fuelled by experiences drawn from the South African veldt or the mean streets of Arnprior, who should not be addressed. It is my function as a teacher to provide them a safe context to critically interrogate their own versions of the world through the lenses of our cultural capital. It is never enough to know a poem as a poem and not another thing. One must know the poem as a meeting place or it is merely an artefact. At the same time, it is folly for the lecturer to presume knowledge: sometimes even graduate students need to be reminded about the strategic differences between a metonym and synecdoche. A word about marking: as a practical humanist, I hold objectivity to be an illusion, whether in response to a text or in pedagogical assessment. I make it clear to my students that neither justice nor mercy will determine a grade, for there is no justice when a gifted student who is lazy does well, nor mercy extended for the student in need of a mark undeserved. But I urge them to trust in my fairness, and try then by example to earn that trust. In the process, it is imperative to teach informed taste and good judgement. While ideas build empires, it is the quality of our singular engagement with the world as perceived that makes what matters matter. I have never been able to contain my astonishment at animating this brief point of consciousness in the universe. As I leave the University of Ottawa, I am sad. Even those of my colleagues I know only in passing have defined this place from which I weigh and measure the world. I thank you all so much. Over the decades, my daughters, their husbands, and their mother, all earned Ph.D.’s or doctorates. My beloved Beverley (and it is still exciting to say that, after nearly a decade together), Bev is literally within weeks of finishing her own Ph.D., in Cultural Theory. I have had the good sense to surround myself with people brighter than I am, whether family or this larger community of writers and colleagues and friends, who have tolerated my eccentricities, humoured my pretensions, and nurtured my heart and my soul. Thank you again and again. —John Moss 2005

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