I am a feminist, a writer, and, most importantly, a woman, who has voluntarily enrolled in David Gilmour’s 300-level course. I write this not as a staunch attack or defense of Professor Gilmour, but because the responses to his troubling interview have been troubling as well; this kind of dialogue, predicated on illogical, emotional responses to contentious issues, can easily snowball into a lynch-mob style reaction. And, from what I can tell, this is exactly what has happened.
On Thursday, Twitter exploded with reactions to Mr. Gilmour’s inflammatory and insensitive interview. I don’t disagree that his words were abrasive and upsetting. This year, I enrolled in his senior-level class, knowing full well what to expect. I took his seminar in first year and got more than enough material to get an idea of his character, yet I took his class again. Why? Because, and I know many of you won’t believe this, he is actually quite a reasonable person and I found his class enjoyable. This, however, is not the issue at hand to me, though it is to many others; an ad-hominem attack has grown out of his comments which should be viewed objectively and rationally, not with a foaming mouth.
Yes, sure, his Random House interview is upsetting upon first glance, but we should look at the root of his argument: he teaches a course, entirely elective, on literature to which he relates. If he were teaching, say, American Literature, a degree requirement for English students, his narrow-minded syllabus would be much more troublesome. But it’s not. He’s teaching a course that should really be called David Gilmour’s Bookshelf, which, apparently, is the nature of his agreement with Victoria College. It’s a course which fills to the brim each year, truly, with an 80/20 female/male ratio. It could be argued that this is largely because the Victoria community is mainly women, but surely if his students were so enraged with his views, the enrollment in his class would be through the floor. It’s not, though. There is a double digit waiting list every year.
I acknowledge that his entry level course is part of the Vic One program and is therefore mandatory if a student wants to complete the program. This, perhaps, should change. If Mr. Gilmour is to maintain his post at the university, I think his courses should be entirely elective and not a part of a program or area of study. This way, students can take his course and, by extension, submit themselves to his ideology by their own volition. His course is not without value; the reading list is interesting, students learn how to engage with a relatively difficult professor, as he forces his students to consider their own opinions and fight for what they really believe in a pedantic and almost obsessive fashion. If, on Tuesday, I went into his class and proclaimed that Ann-Marie MacDonald is the best writer in the world (she is a woman, a lesbian and a Canadian author: the holy trinity of Gilmour’s detest) he would likely challenge me by asking why I thought that. Of course, this is a ridiculous statement to make – equally as ridiculous as his comments about Chekhov – but I’m using it as an example because of its superlative nature. He would ask me why, and, if I gave him a good enough reason, he would nod and accept my point. I’ve contested his views before, and so have other students. If you put up a good fight and defend your own opinions, he will respect them. He will interrogate you. He will ask a hundred questions if he needs to, but if you provide him with solid reasoning, or just a summary of your gut feelings (which, I cannot stress enough, can never be wrong ) he will understand. But I digress: this is not the real issue at hand, though I felt it necessary to give a firsthand account of my experience in his class, since I’ve seen dozens of people say things like “I wonder what it’s like to be in this asshole’s class.” The answer? Not bad. Quite fun, actually.
I was talking to a friend of mine, also a Gilmour alumnus, about the interview. She summed it up nicely: “I’ve never encountered any other individual who has simultaneously made me feel enraged and inspired. I’m the first person to soundly berate his practices which always mysteriously turns into a staunch defense of his class. I swear I’ll reach my deathbed still not knowing exactly how I feel about David Gilmour.”
This, admittedly, may seem like some perverse Stockholm syndrome, though I do genuinely enjoy his class. I’ve seen a number of highly emotional responses on Facebook, Twitter, and in person, and what people seem to be neglecting is the nature of his position at the university: he is an honorary professor teaching a syllabus that the school let him decide entirely by himself. His reading list is based on opinion and emotion: two things can’t be “wrong” or “untrue.” If you accept this basic premise of his argument, his comments don’t translate into “female, homosexual and racial minorities’ writing isn’t valuable and shouldn’t be taught.” He said that he can only teach things he loves and can relate to, meaning white, heterosexual, male authors. This is where the problem lies. I agree that his comments have been taken out of context; people flinging around accusations like “he hates women! He’s racist!” but these are not the case. He doesn’t see the value of them in the context of teaching a canon that he, David Gilmour, relates to on a personal level. What could be “wrong,” however, is the university’s decision to let such a course be taught by anyone, not necessarily just Mr. Gilmour.
Rachel Bulatovich is an English student at the University of Toronto.