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Education Gilmour’s comments drive debate at U of T about professors' responsibilities

Novelist and broadcaster David Gilmour seen in his home in Toronto. March 29, 2005

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

The controversy over a University of Toronto instructor's comments that he avoids teaching women writers has sparked a debate on campus about a professor's responsibilities to students.

David Gilmour, a lecturer who is the Pelham Edgar Visiting Professor at U of T's Victoria College, drew the ire of many colleagues and students for saying in a published interview with the literary site Hazlitt, "I'm not interested in women writers." He went on to add that he only teaches authors he truly loves, none of whom "happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf."

That drew strong condemnation across campus on Thursday, including from the acting chair of the English department, professor Paul Stevens, who said Prof. Gilmour's comments "constitute a travesty of all we stand for" in a note circulated to his department.

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But as Prof. Gilmour continues to face backlash, his musings have spurred debate about a professor's right to teach and say what he wishes, but also about whether he had a responsibility to step outside his comfort zone for the sake of his students.

"Teaching literature should not be self-indulgent, a matter of opining about one's likes and dislikes. It is a serious discipline in which students should be enabled to come to a better understanding of the world in which they live in all its complexity and diversity," Prof. Stevens told The Globe and Mail.

In a subsequent interview with The Globe, Prof. Gilmour, who is also a celebrated writer and broadcaster, said his comments had been "totally, totally misinterpreted." He considers Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro "top-flight international writers," he said. "It's just that I don't connect with the material as profoundly as I do with, say, Phillip Roth's The Dying Animal."

The U of T English department was at pains to distance itself from Prof. Gilmour, with Prof. Stevens pointing out that he "is not a member of the department." Angela Esterhammer, the principal of Victoria College and a professor of English, described him as "a part-time instructor," and said his comments do not reflect the college's range or diversity of courses.

"Like many professors and students, I am concerned that Mr. Gilmour expressed his views about teaching literature in a careless and offensive manner," she said in an e-mail. "He has since apologized to all of us – to students and colleagues and in the media."

Prof. Gilmour "was well-respected," and "people mainly thought he was kind of a funny, cool academic," said Sian Last, a second-year Victoria College student who has several friends taught by Prof. Gilmour. But she would now think twice about taking his class, and Madison Rodriguez, a second-year art history student minoring in English, agrees.

"I think you kind of have a duty to teach certain works by females, just like other works by males, as a principle," Ms. Rodriguez said. "He should do the work to find some [female] writers that he at least respects and thinks are valuable to the students that he's teaching."

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But Jonas Becker, a third-year student, got to know Prof. Gilmour in first-year seminars, and after reading the instructor's clarification of his remarks, feels he is being "unfairly demonized," even if "he should have known better."

"His viewpoint is, it's my course, I like to teach the people that I identify with," Mr. Becker said. "Ultimately, I think people completely overreacted. It's very endemic of the very reactionary, very politically correct society that we live in, especially at universities."

Nick Mount, a professor of English at U of T, thinks the conversation taking place on campus is healthy, but believes professors have a responsibility "to teach outside our taste."

"Where I've got to draw the line with eccentricity is when it makes a woman or a student of colour or a gay student feel uncomfortable to be in that room," Prof. Mount said. "Eccentricity is lovely, strong opinions are lovely, but we can't have a university in which we have a class that a significant portion of our student population does not feel comfortable sitting in."

With a report from Adriana Barton

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