"I'm not interested in teaching books written by women."
Without context, I might assume this quote is from a professor at the turn of the 20th century. I wish I were wrong. Professor and novelist David Gilmour of the University of Toronto recently revealed his backwards views in an interview with Random House blog Hazlitt. He went onto emphasize that he only teaches "serious heterosexual guys" because they write the books he personally "loves."
But perhaps I misunderstood. After all, he issued an “apology,” in which he mansplained and pointed the finger at his female interviewer for misinterpreting him. “Those were jokes by the way,” he remarked to the National Post, placing the blame not on his words, but on "the journalist in charge" who should have known better. This remark sounds a lot like similar rhetoric used to defend offensive humor on rape, race, and LGBT issues.
He also noted that he does not feel qualified to teach authors outside his identity, whether they be female, of another ethnic group, or of a different sexual orientation. "I tend to teach people whose lives are a lot like my own, because that’s what I understand best, and that’s what I teach best.” He further clarifies (and narrows) this group to "middle-aged writers," who happen to represent a predominantly well-off and white class of males.
This contradicts not only my own experience as a recent literature graduate. Literature is not simply about what we personally love and prize. It is not about what reinforces our own views and beliefs or about studying writers who look like us. Literature is an exercise in empathy, in widening our perspectives. By choosing to limit the scope of what he teaches, Gilmour is censoring the experience of his students.
The interview's timing is strangely appropriate, given that it's Banned Books Week.. Gilmour's approach implies that other perspectives are not important and have no value. I would love to know the deep value that Gilmour finds in teaching his students the writings of Henry Miller and Philip Roth, as he specifically mentions their aggressive depictions of male sexuality as part of the reason he enjoys challenging his students with finding the line between art and pornography. While Miller and Roth are important writers, I find his emphasis troubling. There is nothing wrong with teaching such authors and focusing on depictions of various sexualities. However, it is problematic to focus solely on one brand of sexuality, while dismissing female and gay writers. This serves to reinforce antiquated and heteronormative ideologies that have proven harmful to everyone, whether it be in regards to writing off rape as a miscommunication and a by-product of untamed masculine sexuality or discounting the sexualities of LGBT folks.
In his words and teaching practice, Gilmour is unable to connect with millennials . We are a generation that has grown up with diverse perspectives, and we are able to navigate our world more confidently for it. By dismissing the experiences of students, many who are presumably female, not white, or gay, he places value on the literature that not only ignores that there are narratives outside dominant culture, but reinforces the marginalization of those of us who aren't straight, white, middle-age men.
We know that even if the story of history is predominantly told by “dead white males,” we don't have to believe the story. Literature's value is in its offering of diverse perspectives. It is necessary for those who teach it to understand its potential: that it enables us to empathize and understand others.
Professor Gilmour clearly doesn't know even that much. Maybe he should read a little more.