Sunday, October 12, 2008

University Memories: English and Professor John North

Since I have my academic transcript sitting in front of me -- and a cat on my lap, so I can't stand up -- I find myself reminiscing about some of the courses and professors I dealt with many years ago. One of the most colourful was Professor John North.

North was a bit eccentric, the kind of professor who students make fun of. He had a characteristic way of speaking through tightly-closed teeth and he was very passionate about his subject passionate that he'd rub himself accidentally against the chalk board and get smears of white chalk all over his cuffs and back.

In September '91 I took his "Major Forms of Literature: Short Stories & Drama" (ENGL 102A), and though I found him a bit annoying I also took his "Novels & Poetry" course in January '92.

What annoyed me about North was that he approached everything from a biblical perspective. He didn't PREACH to us, but all of his lectures managed to tie the book we were currently reading with some aspect of Christianity. A few weeks ago I mentioned the professor who told us we should read the bible so we'd better understand the literature that referenced it; North was that professor.

One student in particular liked to goad Professor North about his biblical focus, and I assume he was the guy who wrote an essay that REALLY ticked North off. I'll never forget him standing at the front of the room with an essay in his hands, chalk dust in his hair, speaking vehemently through (literally) clenched teeth in his characteristically clipped fashion:

"Some people will have you believe...that the steeple of a a PHALLIC SYMBOL. They might also tell you that the doorway to the church is a WOMB SYMBOL." Pause. "This is crap! Nothing could be further from the truth! And any student who tells me such a thing in an essay will get a very low mark indeed!"

Lots of people took North's courses because they understood that if you towed the line -- if you worked Christianity into your essays and class discussion -- you were guaranteed a good mark. He was also an entertaining teacher and he was fun to impersonate. By listening to and regurgitating his personal biases I was able to pull off an A- in one of his courses, despite the fact that I hated the books we had to read ("A Tale of Two Cities" (AGAIN!) and "Robinson Crusoe.")

North would often digress into personal anecdotes that were less than welcome. One day he confessed that he wasn't sleeping well because a tenant in his house listened to loud music, and then he spent the rest of the class explaining why modern music wasn't nearly as good as classical music (something to do with an emphasis on rhythm). The fact that North actually, passionately BELIEVED this was, I think, a strike against his ability to evaluate anything that didn't perfectly resonate with him.

My favourite North moment, however, came when a young woman took offense to Dutch stereotypes that North was jokingly introducing into his lecture. "I'm from the Netherlands, and I don't appreciate this subject," she said.

North's response was typical. "You're Dutch? I didn't realize! I saw the blonde hair but I didn't hear your wooden shoes clomp-clomp-clomping."

So you'll understand why certain students disliked Professor North immensely, but we were all sad when he went through a sort of psychological breakdown. One day he came to class, opened his lesson plan, burst into tears, and walked out of the room. I don't remember if we saw him again. Rumour had it that his wife was very sick.

In summary I don't think Professor John North was a GOOD professor for courses on general English literature. I bet he'd be great discussing his particular fields of English -- Victoriana and the Bible -- but he simply could not step outside of his own narrow field. Most of us attended his courses because he was a known entity: once you understood how he worked you could get a good mark with no effort whatsoever.


Kimber said...

Wow Muffy. Gotta disagree with you on this one. Dr. North was my favourite prof and the reason I continued on into a Master's Programme. You are really hard on the poor fellow! I found him immensely compassionate, kind and intelligent. Yeah, he was a dyed in the wool Christian, but that didn't bother me. I found his explanations of Christianity interesting, esp. since so much of the literature he taught did have significant Biblical allusions.

I will never forget his kindness to me during my mother's illness and death, or the way he encouraged me constantly in the pursuit of my education. He was an inspiration to me during my years at UW - so I just had to post this as another viewpoint of good old Dr. North.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

It's amazing how we could come by such contrasting impressions! I seem to remember that when we first "re-met" after highschool, you were having coffee with Dr. North?

My professorial problem with North was not that he was Christian and that he taught everything from that perspective, it was that he was doing so in general, introductory, first-year English courses.

I'd be equally annoyed if I took a first year general "Introduction to English Novels" course, and the professor taught it entirely from the perspective of queer theory. I'd argue that that ISN'T a good general introduction, and that it doesn't indicate that the professor has the flexibility to go outside his or her dogma.

I'm sure North's explanations would have been wonderful in a class about Biblical influence on Victorian literature, as that appears to have been his specialty.

I'm glad you had such a good experience with him, and that he was an inspiration and a comfort!