Commentary | Paging Doctor Cornett

Unorthodox professor dismissed by McGill helps students reach their full potential

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 Professor Norman Cornett presents takes an alternate route, arriving soundly at its proper destination – the minds of his students. And staying there.

During my undergraduate degree at McGill, I took two classes with Cornett. Neither of them had anything to do with their course titles; both stirred me on an intellectual level like 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. At us he hurled issues like same-sex marriage, aboriginal land rights, and the Holocaust, and shattered our apathy about them. Employing media as varied as contemporary dance, short stories, musical performances, documentary films, and political cartoons, Cornett showed us not just 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 style that was being imposed upon my once-agile mind. Another day, another A. Depressed and on the verge of dropping out, I consulted Cornett. He convinced me to stick it out for one more semester – and he also 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 his guidance.

A few months ago I attended the premiere of Alanis Obomsawin’s excellent film profiling 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 as the lights dimmed, I was transported back to the Birks Building, circa 2002. I felt the anxiety of anticipation – will he anonymously read 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 and facilitated audience dialogue with his wife Laura and with Obomsawin.

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 math and science, 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 nickname that she had assigned herself for his class years before.

As the recipient of an MA in education and a current student at teachers’ college, I’m perpetually shaping and refining my ideas about effective teaching. Thanks to Cornett, one thing is for certain, though – my pedagogic philosophy involves raising a little hell.

*Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary will be screened for free at the NFB’s CinéRobothèque (1564 St. Denis) from October 8 to 14 at 7 p.m.

Emily Rose Antflick received a BA Honours in Renaissance Jewish Studies in 2004. Open a dialogic session with her at emily.antflick@gmail.com.*


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