nick mount’s word work

NICK MOUNT. Photo: Derek Sharpton

Photo: Derek Sharpton

Does the title “Greatest Professor Ever” seem hyperbolic to you? Probably. But for me, the epithet belongs to Nick Mount at the University of Toronto, the nationally recognized and celebrated associated chair at the Department of English who also serves as fiction editor at The Walrus.

This year Professor Mount concludes ten years of teaching first year English, a massive course made even bigger by waitlisted riff-raff and unknown auditors that packed Bader Theatre at Victoria College to experience one of his preeminent lectures, some of which have even been televised. In the fall, he guided us through literary loneliness in the 20th century with Eliot, Woolf, O’Connor and Achebe. In the spring, he contextualized a more contemporary reality with Marche, Crosbie, Ware and McGregor.

In one of the most personally significant interviews of my life, I sat down with the man that afforded me frameworks for critical reasoning, a man whose words helped shape the way I think about language and how it shapes meaning. We talked about the end of his time with ENG140, how the internet has changed both english and English, and his feelings on architecting a literature syllabus in a post-David Gilmour-for-Hazlitt world.

And be sure to check out the official Nick Mount playlist, curated in part by the man himself. It also incorporates tracks used in ENG140’s renowned weekly playlists.

ALL HOURS: You’ve completed 10 years of ENG140, arguably one of the most famous and well-attended classes at the U of T, and you’re now moving on to other opportunities.

NICK MOUNT: There’s an awful lot about it I will miss. It was a complicated decision, and there are a number of reasons behind it. The main reason is that I have this research leave that I’m on next year. As Associate Chair, I had to find a replacement for myself. And it’s very hard to get someone to do it for one year, it’s kind of unfair. I was worried about that. I could have suspended the course for a year and not offered it, perhaps offered other courses. Teaching a class this size is not for everyone, and one of the things that’s an indicator of your ability is desire. If you want to do it, you probably can do it. You don’t want to force someone to do a lecture like that. We hired a woman named Denise Cruz and she wanted it. And I think she’ll be phenomenal at it, I really do. I think she’ll change the course, I think she’ll update it. But the basic structure of the course, including the guest speakers, will remain the same. Knowing that there was someone here that would look after my baby was a huge thing for me. And as babies do, by the time it gets to be a teenager I won’t recognize it. And that’s okay too.

I didn’t really come here to do large class lecturing – it turns out I like it, and that I’m reasonably good at it.

Did you offer her any advice or guidance?

You want to be careful about how much you give someone in that situation, you have to be able to let them find their own way. Ten years seemed like a good, round, epic, Virginia Woolf kind of number. I didn’t really come here to do large class lecturing – it turns out I like it, and that I’m reasonably good at it. I came here to teach and write and to teach a class where I don’t have to wear a microphone. I wanted to be able to talk to students in a classroom setting. The big difference between that size lecture and a regular third or fourth year class is that in the latter you make your discoveries together. The lightbulb goes on at the same time for all of you. In a lecture, all the intellectual energy comes from one person. It’s draining. The work involved in creating those lectures – it was a 40 or 50 hour per week job for me. While I find that work personally more rewarding than any work I’ve ever done, academic culture is such that it’s not rewarded. They tell you to publish an article already.

So publishing articles is your focus now?

[Laughs] No, well, I don’t like academic articles. That’s never going to change. Writing, yes; I’m working on a book. And I’ll be writing more than ever have. For magazines, newspapers, trade publications – anything that has an audience larger than a tenure committee.

Anything could potentially be interesting – the evolution of the toothpick could potentially be a great book or a great lecture.

Looking forward to that! In ENG140, there was this sense of urgency in your lectures. Whether the text you were teaching was published ten years ago or a hundred, your lectures always felt fresh and necessary.

In other English classes I didn’t always feel that what was being taught was an urgent matter, that it was something that was essential to understanding on many levels. Was the creation of that feeling deliberate on your part?

I find history interesting in an of itself. Anything could potentially be interesting – the evolution of the toothpick could potentially be a great book or a great lecture. Studying the past doesn’t need the justification of being relevant. But for this course, the title became a conscious mantra for me. What does it mean to be literature for our time? It’s a different concept than say, a course on Canadian literature: you have a responsibility to introduce the students to some segment of the overall field of Canadian literature. In Literature for Our Time, you could arguably teach Homer. For every book, I had to ask myself why is this literature for our time? Then I realized in the second term that I wanted to bring it up to the present, and include some books that were set here as well as now. I’m not from Toronto, I’m from places in Canada that don’t have books written about them. It was a big kick for me to come to a place that people write about. I wanted to recreate something of that experience as well.

In a first year class, not all of those students are going to go on in English. And god love ‘em, that’s fine – that’s not what it’s for. It may be the only English class they ever take. So that’s an additional part of it for me – it’s a bit evangelical in the sense that I’m trying to create readers. Not English students, but readers. Readers need relevance. The student doesn’t need relevance, the student is already interested and doesn’t need justification. But the citizen needs relevance. And so for me, that was a big part of it. If we’re going to read “The Waste Land” almost a hundred years after it was written, why?

I’m trying to create readers. Not English students, but readers.

Let’s unpack the title of the course a little more, especially the word “our”. There’s been talk over what literature should be taught in an English classroom and whose voice deserves to be heard. Whose time are you talking about? Who is the “our” in Literature for Our Time?

The first thing I should make clear is that I inherited the course title, and I was very happy to inherit it. Just think how different it would be if it was literature of our time. Homer couldn’t be taught then. That’s why I’m so grateful for it, because it left me with a certain degree of freedom. As it turned out, I stayed in the 20th century and came into the 21st.

It’s a complicated question. I will say that it’s very hard to step into any other perspective other than your own. When I say “our” a lot of the time it’s code for “my”. And I’m hoping the rest of the room will say “Yeah! Exactly! I’m with ya!” If you’re not interested yourself, how can you expect to interest anyone else? On the one hand, one of the worst things you can do (which is something I learned from being a DJ) is to try to give the kids what they like. Making the mistake of thinking, “I don’t like this stuff, but they will.” When you’re a DJ, if you don’t like the music you’re playing, you’re done. But this is where it gets tricky. I like all of the stuff I teach, but I like some more than others. But the course is not a greatest hits lists of all the books I’ve loved. As a teacher you have a responsibility to strike a balance. I dont want to teach books that I can’t find something to say about, but having something to say about them isn’t the same as loving them. In the 19th century Canadian literature course, I teach books I hate all the time. That’s kind of what 19th century Canadian literature is: just horrible books. [Laughs] But they’re so bad they’re lovable in their own way! I’m not sure if that answers your question but it is something I’m conscious of. I probably don’t manage to pull it off entirely, maybe I don’t think about it enough. I also have the great fortune of being at U of T, when you look out at a room you’re reminded that “our” is very diverse.

When I say “our” a lot of the time it’s code for “my”. And I’m hoping the rest of the room will say “Yeah! Exactly! I’m with ya!”

Even aside from the students themselves, the people lining Bader Theatre who are either auditing the course or just dropping in, they’re definitely from a variety of age groups and backgrounds.

Exactly, and every year there are at least a dozen people in the room that aren’t taking the course. I had a homeless guy sitting there a few years ago. In terms of where they’re from and the experiences they’ve had, it’s so diverse. I grew up in this country, in communities with mostly white people. For many of my students, that’s not true. You have to be careful to generalize from “me” to “you”. One of the ways you do that is to include some books that will reflect back a bit of the experience of the students in the room. I think it’s a mistake, though, to think that brown people need brown books. There was a young international student from Hong Kong and he really loved Prufrock. He felt it was like his experience coming to Toronto, it spoke to the loneliness. It was a reminder to me that there are all kinds of ways to be racist – one of them is to assume that you must give Chinese students Chinese books. You want your course list to be representative of as many experiences as possible but race is not the only experience. As a teacher, you look at your list of twelve books and sometimes you’ll realize there’s not a single woman on the list.

I will say that regardless of how consciously or successfully you addressed these very real concerns, your course reinforced my belief in the power of fiction to bridge those conversations and speak to those variations in experience. It strengthened my fascination with the creation of fiction.

Thank you for that. The novel is such a new form, and a historically a relatively white form as well. In a country like Canada, which has a tremendously young population, as a teacher you’re presenting the realities and the possibilities that exist. It doesn’t mean that it always has to be this way. Like, I remember reading Richard Wright saying that he learned it all from Mark Twain.

The digital/information/technology age has transformed the written word completely. It’s changed the way we educate and the way we’re educated. Do you believe the study of English dying?

I’ve thought so much about this and because I’ve thought so much about it I have many different answers. The study of English might be perceived to be in jeopardy right now because people are asking how it will lead to a job. In my opinion, they’re asking too much. People perceive it to be in jeopardy because it isn’t fulfilling the utilitarian value of leading to a job; see I don’t think it ever did that. I think the bigger problem is why are there no jobs, not whether English leads to a job. It’s tremendously unfair to say to the current generation, “I know we had the luxury of going to university and not having to worry about getting a job, but you have to.” English as a critical skill will always be evermore relevant. You’re making arguments and working with complicated texts. I read a piece last year by a CEO who said that he prefers to hire English students to business students. In his mind the business student is someone who is given an assignment and asked to come up with an answer, and the English student is given Moby Dick and told to say something smart. He said that was the kind of person he wanted to hire.

I worry about the decline of reading long works. People are reading now more than ever, but they’re not reading in a sustained way and getting the experience of a novel or a non-fiction work or a magazine. A lot of our reading is browsing, and maybe that’s just inevitable. But I also think that the English degree has not helped the problem. A lot of students that get a degree end up saying that’s it, I’ll never read a novel for the rest of my life. I think we failed if that’s the outcome.

 I think the bigger problem is why are there no jobs, not whether English leads to a job.

The paradox of the age is that writing has become more measured than ever, to supposedly outfit it for maximum reach. But it ends up being the same as everything else. There’s no secret to successful writing on the internet in that sense, no formula you can follow.

Of course, because the whole point of something going viral is that it’s something you haven’t seen before. I’m not sure numbers could ever explain why something has gone viral. In a grammar program I tried recently, the system indicated the level of your writing, and the optimum it wanted was a grade nine level. I’m still trying to get my head around that.

It’s common wisdom that writing for the internet requires “dumbing down” in some capacity, or at the very least you have to simplify. Think like an adult, talk like a child.

Now you’re scaring me – because the thing is, I kind of approach my lectures the same way. One of my doctrines of teaching is that there is no concept that is too difficult for them to understand, but I have to be careful with the language. I don’t use jargon from the discipline. Up to a point, I’m quite sympathetic to the “think like an adult, talk like a child” argument. The more people involved in big ideas, the better.

But it does reach a tipping point. I think the tipping point is: if you know a more precise word, why would you not use it? Ezra Pound says something like, “My astute critics are telling me that nobody will read me if i don’t stop quoting so many other books. I’m reasonably certain that there were at least a few other ideas on the planet before I bought a typewriter.” Why would you handicap yourself if you know something? Twitter is to me a very frustrating genre for that reason.

I like that you call Twitter a genre.

It is! It’s a 140-word genre with its own set of conventions. One of the first things I learned is that I don’t think you actually read it, you just write in it. You just talk.

Which means that people who maybe aren’t creators or writers are actually writing more than they ever have, for better or for worse.

Exactly. The main problem I believe that’s confronting the written word is that so much of it is given away. The music industry seems to have solved the problem by making iTunes easy enough for people to get to. It turns out, when you make it easy and you charge a fairly reasonable price most people will use that service. Even iTunes is fading in favour of streaming services, but it was the first to successfully monetize it. That system has so far evaded the written word. I think it’s because so much of it is given away. If I know that I can follow the Twitter feeds of a half dozen reporters at City Hall watching Rob Ford’s every move, why would I buy the Toronto Star? It’s not even that I don’t need it, it’s also that frankly after reading 50 tweets about Rob Ford I don’t want to read about it anymore. I’ve hit my word limit.

The main problem I believe that’s confronting the written word is that so much of it is given away.

You’re not starved for knowledge. University institutions are not the meccas of information anymore, where words were locked behind doors and hidden far away in exclusive access stacks. As far as learning and education goes, the conversation has shifted in that sense over the past 10 years.

Oh most definitely. Access to information has definitely changed, Robarts has become almost irrelevant. When I wrote my first dissertation I looked at newspapers on microfilm, and what a painful experience it was. Google has more free newspapers in it than Robarts Library subscribes to. So I’m pulling up pages from a Montreal Gazette from the 60s on a moment’s notice. It’s sort of amazing. But that’s a long historical trend, dating back to the manuscript era. The fact that text is more widely available is a good thing. I think if the English degree and the university system is going to survive this transition though they have to ask themselves what value they provide.

It’s not what some administrators now think it is, which is massive free online courses. The internet does that better than we do now. I think online education serves very specific purposes, most of which is distance education. It can be a wonderful thing for someone who’s stuck in Kapuskasing and can’t get here, or someone who’s in Sierra Leone and can’t get here. I don’t think there’s any substitute for the face to face experience of a classroom. That’s why I never put lectures up on the web. I continue to believe that an undergraduate degree should be the best four years of your life, damn it. It should be the greatest experience. We’ve put up a lot of roadblocks in the last 10-20 years. One of which is, of course, the cost of the experience. The other one is the decreasingly sense of the there being any kind of reward at the end of it. It’s certainly taking people longer to get into adult jobs and adult lives. On the other hand, maybe spending fewer years of your life working is not a bad thing.

We have more people than ever going to university. Going to university increases your expectations of the kind of life you’re going to have, sometimes falsely. Where and when i went to high school, very few people ended up in university. It wasn’t in our mental picture. When didn’t finish high school, I just went and got a job. I was an assistant manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then I spent 10 years working at a department store which was kind of a precursor to Walmart. I had no expectations of the kind of career I have now. I was in my 40s before I got my first mortgage.

You don’t hear these stories much anymore. The idea seems to be that if you’re not a multimillionaire by the time you’re 21, you’re doing something wrong.

I can’t imagine why that would be the case. I certainly don’t agree.

One of the most innovative and engaging aspects of your course was the weekly playlist, which pulled from themes you explored in your lectures. What are you personally listening to these days?

I like the resurgence of that sort of psychedelic pop, over the last few years. All over the world, not just from California anymore. I’m thinking of a band like Phosphorescent, we used one of their tracks in the course. Tame Impala is another one, also a band called The New Mendicants. I bought the Kanye record and I worked to like it. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it either. It’s a B+ record and everyone else is either A+ or F. Someone tweeted recently, “Why is that is everyone with an ivy league degree loves Kanye West?” For me, it was Blood On the Leaves, where he’s rapping about breaking up with his girlfriend over a Nina Simone track about guys getting hung. I was like, holy shit dude. But to be fair, that’s exactly what Sylvia Plath does in her confessional poems, when she lays personal problems over top of the Holocaust. One of the things I’ll miss most about the class is having 500 music experts to help me out with this stuff.

Words by Elizabeth Haq.

1 Comment

  1. Anne O
    April 9, 2015

    Thanks for this. I did not have the opportunity to attend Nick Mount’s class. I am one of the TVO fans.


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