No Women Writers On My Syllabus, Professor Says
Novelist David Gilmour wants us to know that he only teachers literature by “serious heterosexual guys” and that University of Toronto hired him to do so, even though it usually “doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate.” The writer made these comments in a September 25th interview with Emily M. Keeler for Shelf Esteem, a weekly feature about the contents of writers’ libraries on Random House Canada’s site. The backlash on Twitter and elsewhere was immediate.
By the end of the day, Gilmour was telling the National Post that his remarks had been “tossed off” and taken out of context and that there is “not a racist or sexist bone” in his body. Random House Canada published the full transcript of Gilmour’s remarks and emphasized noted that these had been edited for the Shelf Esteem column. Keeler’s piece, said the publisher, had been written in an “as-told-to” style that is a “common journalistic format.”
Why Women Literature’s Doesn’t Have a Place on Gilmour’s Syllabus
Most of the writers on Gilmour’s syllabus for his classes on modern short fiction are American or Russian. As he explained, “I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach”; when he was “given this job” at the University of Toronto, he said he would only teach the people that [he] truly, truly love[s]. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.”
Every teacher makes her or his choices when compiling a syllabus for a course; Gilmour’s is apparently to “only teach stuff I love .” As he states, that means “mostly Russian and American authors” — Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Leo Tolskoy, Anton Chekhov (the last-mentioned being dubbed “the coolest guy in literature”). He does include one short story by Virginia Woolf but finds her “too sophisticated” for his students.
You Can’t Teach Modern Writers and Not Include Women
As he himself notes, Gilmour (who was recently nominated for the Giller Prize) is teaching at a major research university, the University of Toronto. By his own account, he is not your “average” professor.
Nonetheless, a course on “modern short fiction” taught to third- and fourth-year students at a major research university should provide a full account of that period’s writers — and the modern era is precisely the time when more women writers are getting published and when access to writers from beyond the borders of Europe was growing; when artists like Matisse and Picasso were encountering art from non-Western cultures and the influence of these was appearing in their art. For Gilmour to be teaching only “serious heterosexual guys” from Western countries (what about Lu Xun? Yasunari Kawabata? Katherine Mansfield?) offers students only a limited and biased view.
Gilmour does not purport to be a scholar or academic. He’s a writer and, as he also points out, was “trained in television.” He refers to himself as a “natural teacher,” noting that working on television taught him “how to talk to a camera” and that taking “to a room of students” is “the same thing.” He’s won awards for his writing including a book, “The Film Club,” that had a specifically didactic focus, teaching his son “about life and the world through film.”
Still, a university teacher needs to go beyond his or her own literary preferences and present students with the full picture. I am not the biggest fan of Roman history, but as the only classics professor at a small university, I make sure to teach a course about it every few years because students studying classics simply need to know about that topic — and about ancient Greek history and archaeology and women in the ancient world and a whole lot more. Sure, the literature we have from the ancient world is almost exclusively by male writers (some heterosexual and many not). Few texts by women have been preserved and that is all more the reason for studying what fragmented evidence remains about their lives.
Gilmour’s comments may have been intended to be “tongue in cheek” but they touched off a chord in anyone weary of being told that only certain writers — the “guy” ones — are “serious.” For someone teaching a course on “modern” literature, it’s a perspective that is thoroughly out-of-date — if not outright prehistoric.
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