An article that I wrote recently, originally published in the McGill Daily (Oct. 8, 2009):
Raising a Little Hell on Behalf of a Great Professor
Educator George Leonard describes lecturing as “the best way to get information from teacher’s notebook to student’s notebook without touching the student’s mind.” The information that Dr. Norman Cornett presents takes an alternate route, arriving soundly at its proper destination – the minds of his students. And staying there.
Throughout my undergraduate degree at McGill, I took two classes with Dr. Cornett, neither of which had anything to do with their course titles, and both of which stirred me on an intellectual level that no other course has before or since. The tone was set as we walked into class with theme songs like Trooper’s “Raise a Little Hell” blasting, and the sentence starter “I believe…” scrawled on the blackboard. Cornett’s students were engaged in a complex dance with our own identities – simultaneously cloaking ourselves in pseudonyms and anonymous readings, while revealing truths about – and to – ourselves through no-holds-barred reflections and candid dialogic sessions. He hurled an issue at us, be it same-sex marriage, Aboriginal land rights, or the Holocaust, and shattered our apathy. Employing media as varied as contemporary dance, short story, musical performance, documentary film, and political cartoons, Cornett showed his students not only that we were capable of formulating educated opinions about contemporary issues but more importantly, that our opinions mattered.
By my fourth year at McGill, I was achieving excellent grades but was jaded and frustrated. I despised the formulaic, institutional learning that I felt was being imposed upon my once agile mind. Another day, another A. Depressed and on the verge of dropping out, I consulted Dr. Cornett. Not only did he convince me to stick it out for one more semester, but he set me on a lifelong pedagogic quest. For my final project in his course, I painted a self-portrait, literally seeing myself in a new light thanks to Dr. Cornett’s guidance.
A few months ago I attended the premier of Alanis Obomsawin’s excellent film profiling Dr. Cornett and his ongoing struggle with McGill administration (if one can call such a one-sided battle a struggle) at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival. Sitting in a row with several of my former classmates, the lights dimmed and I was transported back to the Birks building, circa 2002. I felt the anxiety of anticipation – will he read (anonymously) one of my reflections to the class? After the screening, Cornett’s Q & A transformed into one of his famed dialogic sessions. He thoughtfully addressed a range of topical questions and comments, facilitated audience dialogue with Obomsawin and with his wife Laura. One moment was particularly illustrative of Cornett’s care for each and every one of his students. In the midst of a rambling but insightful answer to a question about applying his pedagogic theories to the teaching of maths and sciences, Cornett paused, looked into the theatre’s upper rows, and with eyes alight exclaimed, “Dora the Explorer!” He had spotted one of his former students, and without missing a beat, called her by the name that she had assigned herself for his class years before.
Having completed an MA in Education and currently enrolled in teacher’s college, I am perpetually shaping and refining my ideas about effective teaching. Thanks to Dr. Cornett, one thing is for certain – my pedagogic philosophy involves raising a little hell.
Check out the trailer for Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary, Professor Norman Cornett: “Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?”
Read more about Dr. Cornett and join the online dialogic session at Montreal State of Mind