Features | Socrates likes you for you

Ryan Healey on Norman Cornett's dialogic hemlock

Let’s start with a composite of his “Dialogic sessions.” Through the vestibule in Birks and down into the basement, Vegetable Lasagna asks, “Where is the balance between Britney Spears and Darfur?” This is answered in its way and seven unique fingers soon spear up, and oh is that, yes – Infinite Wonder? Infinite Wonder stands: “Do we have free and fair media anywhere?” Some oral hot air rolls around to a gamy No. A mustachioed man in a well-weathered, all-purpose sweater vest moderates. Sometimes he goes by Destiny’s Child, sometimes Lumière, sometimes Carole K, but mostly he’s Bubba. Bubba looks across twenty engrossed students in the very gray room #017, his own private Akademia, and says something like, “Think what you want, write what you want, say what you want. There is no right or wrong, true and false, bad and good.” (His expressive hands ping-pong for these binaries as if nursing a mildly live grenade.) “All of it’s open. This is open learning.” Another question, this time from The Gift of Love: “Why can’t journalists take more responsibility and try to drive the public agenda?” The Guest gathers his thoughts, and like a buoy, tide-rooted and mute, Bubba nods.

 

I THINK:

There is a robust consensus on the extraterrestrial qualities of Dr. Norman Cornett. The Dark Motorcyclist, the imitable occasional Daily letter writer from 2008 to 2011, once claimed that he was “privy to certain information that is withheld from the wider McGill community, and the withheld information is this: Norman Cornett landed on our planet in the spring of 1992.” While still teaching at McGill, Cornett/Bubba fittingly referred to himself in the plural, as his person is sharp split between two ontological modes: a very kind and quotidian vanilla warmth; and then the side exclusively reserved for his classes – the celebrated and maybe brainsick dialogic mode. In dialogic mode, Dr. C talks as if in communion with Hegelian forces, in oneiric jazz cadences that command attention. People liken this guy to both evangelical preacher and 19th-century-artist-at-work, and he acts the part in class, prophetically aflame.

His sizable fan base lionizes this steep Jekyll/Hyde division as fitting for a subversive in active infiltration mode. Some assessments by former students: “Dr. Cornett’s mild appearance is deceptive, because he is a rebel through and through.” “A revolutionary in the staid world of academia.” “An exemplar of the Montreal state of mind.”

Certain classes would begin with the arena rock anthem Raise a Little Hell, while Cornett avoided the full word himself, preferring to spell it out H-E-L-L. Ratemyprofessors.com comments underscored his physical likeness to Ned Flanders and John Cleese, while elsewhere pedagogical comparisons were often made to Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and Socrates. Many speak of coming across him in a Montreal art gallery, a “quiet man sitting unobtrusively in the corner, writing notes,” “a quiet man really looking at paintings…from different points of view, slowly, and coming back to it.” And he’s a real habitué: go to a vernissage this semester and he’s definitely there – just look for the sweater vest.

But his real genius lies in arrant self-marketing, the Cornett phenomenon as the intellectual equivalent of the Slendertone Flex Pro Ab Belt. When the time comes to scramble together guests for his dialogic sessions, he is squirrely industrious with varying degrees of success. Christina Colizza, a Daily Culture editor, receives a lot of these oddly formatted, vaguely personalized e-mails of roundabout self-promotion that tend to close with, “Perhaps it will interest you?” (And I’ve begun receiving the same.)

David Amram, a pretty esteemed jazz composer and pianist, told the McGill Reporter that Cornett “called me up about 11 times and finally inveigled me to come to his class. He was so nice and so enthusiastic – I liked his spirit.” There is acute energy around this active verb of a man, his educational project and sad story. Oh come let us adore him.

I REMEMBER:

Dr. C is an American protestant from Oregon. Upon moving to California in the late 1960s, a young Norman quickly ran for student president in a new school and town, and won. He spent his summers working in American national parks to save up to attend Berkeley. He started studying at McGill in 1987 to dog after a Ph.D. while supporting his family by working for Air Canada. His thesis was on Lionel Groulx, our favorite Catholic crypto-Nazi with an eponymous metro station. (Groulx’s bilious hatred of Jews was documented by Esther Delisle in her The Traitor and the Jew). For his thesis defence in May 2003, Cornett used the allocated 25 minutes to turn to the audience and tell them why he immigrated to Quebec. He had been saddened by the American contempt for black people, and moved to Québec only to become saddened by the contempt for French Canadians. He became interested in studying Groulx because the latter was a great defender of French Canadian identity.

He started lecturing in religious studies in 1992 with “the usual suspects”: quizzes, midterms, final exams, one-way pedagogical flow, teacher Upon student. He did this until, several years later, a 21 year-old student came to Dr. C and had a nervous breakdown in his office. An ambulance was called. Dr. C regularly relates this breakthrough: “You say to yourself, there’s got to be a better way. I saw this again and again, I would see people absolutely paralyzed, just in agony.”

His solution was to radically redesign his teaching practice into squirreled-away McGill havens that accommodated words like “open,” “freedom,” “dialogue,” “community,” “human,” “creative,” “as an artist,” “my vernissage,” and “experience.” Each class had a theme song and everyone required a blindfold, earplugs, and reams of paper to write Reflections. In Cornett’s Eden, the students gave themselves “Off-World” names that he never forgot even years later. Classes convened with eighty students called things like Unintentional Matchmaker, Lieutenant Dan, Jacko Jonestown, Stork of the Future, Warrior Heart, Fascinated Peeker, Ghost of Storytime, Tragically Gabriel, Karma Karmeleon, Spice Spears, Jefferson Cake. (I could go on.) Class would consist of art consumption followed by writing stream of consciousness Reflections in response. Much of the class was field trips to galleries, theaters, and concerts where students would write furiously en famille into Reflection notebooks. People often wrote poems for Reflections, which I really want to avoid quoting. The stress fell on Honesty above everything: the Reflections were submitted anonymously and he would read them aloud in class and point-blank to relevant Guests. Over the years he perfected a reading voice of great élan, like an off-Broadway Shakespeare monologist challenging a parking ticket. “Upon hearing your piece, you would sit there bubbling with pride, wondering, ‘Wow, did I really write that?’” said student Emily Rose Antflick. Robert Verall, a former National Film Board producer, once told The Daily, “Dr. Cornett is a dream teacher for a filmmaker.”

He based grading entirely on participation – no papers, no exams. Everyone began with 100 per cent and lost 5 per cent with every missed Reflection, absence, and cell-phone ring. There was homework every day, hundreds of pages to read weekly, but most students got As. You could occasionally tell him you were too busy or strung-out for his class, and there was no fear of penalty. A corner of McGill was beginning to be coloured by the teen emancipation/kids rool the skool themes of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and “Max Keeble’s Big Move.”

The courses inevitably came unmoored from their titles – “Religion and the Arts” or “The Soul and Soul Music” instead housed a table d’hôte menu of topics: First Nations land rights, the Holocaust, the status of witches in Ghana, the relationship between music and medicine, the truth about death and dying. (I could go on.) But the selling point of these classes was the notable Guests that would come to class and field student questions. Topics began to revolve around whatever Guests Cornett gathered by tapping into his oceanically near-bottomless network. And what a network it was – the McGill Reporter just salivates as it reports his lineup between 2002 and 2007: archbishops, imams, rabbis, monks, the composer of the Sesame Street theme, Balkan ethno-trance singers, novelists, the producer of Chicken Run, former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard (who enjoyed having to prepare nothing), actor Ethan Hawke (who was there to talk about his um, second novel (?)), and former Prime Minister Paul Martin. Cornett told the prime minister to put in a good word with Bono.

The Tribune ran a headline in 2006 that read, “Religious Studies prof has a cult following” – dialogic education was catching on, kind of. At least an affected cabal of disaffected McGill students was huddling: “It was like a slumber party you know, sooner or later the parents are gonna knock on the door and say, okay, that’s it, enough, like everyone pipe down, it’s done,” said Leon Mwotia, who, as a Daily columnist in 2007, went by The Armchair Potato. “I was wondering, I’m sure everyone was wondering, how does this guy have his job? How is he able to teach in the McGill environment?” said Planting Roots (née Jesse Gutman).  His students were beginning to smile and behave like his courtesans, sounding exactly like him, fluent in his argot, empowered and ready to strike when threatened. Per one person who Rated Their Professor, “This is one of the greatest teachers in the history of the modern institution we call university. He inspires, he engages, he electrifies.” Cornett’s wife said to him before his last class, “You are having so much fun.” He replied, “I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”

On the last day of the winter 2007 term, there was a note from the Dean, which Cornett paraphrased as, “Empty your desk. Remove all your personal effects from the building. You’re not coming back. You’re not teaching.” An outcry from the citizenry was raised. Cornett’s network reared its ambiguously sublime/creepy head.  Letters came in cultishly coordinated scattershots, as if crop circles were threshed into the pages of The Daily. The quantity got so bad that The Daily started smirking at the spam with headlines for the letters like “I’m compelled to write because Norman Cornett probably told me to”, “How many Cornett jokes can one editor make?” and, “Do you people have a newsletter or something?” A petition was signed by 13 filmmakers and published in the Gazette in June 2007. 747 students and professors signed a petition online. Cornett’s lawyer Julius Grey wrote an editorial for Le Devoir with a subsequent response from Provost Anthony Masi that was an opus of casuistry. (Masi also refused to speak with me about any of this.) A National Film Board-sponsored documentary entitled Professor Norman Cornett: “Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?” was made and given a modest distribution.

Even now, McGill has never issued a formal explanation of Cornett’s dismissal and that only spurs a lot of vague, unsubstantiated talk of the administration enacting pro-Zionist policy or bludgeoning students into conformity.

But there are some more plausible explanations out there. Norman Miller, the ombudsperson at the time, told me that some students were dissatisfied with his unconventional approach to grading, that their grades were a mystery until it appeared on the transcript, and they were left without any way to challenge that mark. And there were always some heretics hiding behind ratemyprofessors.com: “unique methodology. but you’ve done one you’ve done them all. he might seem available and present but actually will not ever help you. apart from ‘discovering’ we are all unique in our own precious and special way it’s a major waste of time.” “He is never shy to ask students for favors but he never reciprocates. He is ‘too busy’…” (His overall rating stands at 3.5.)

The most viable explanation is also the blandest – Ellen Aitken, the current dean of Religious Studies, told The Tribune that she would prefer giving sessional lecturer positions like Cornett’s to doctoral students. It’s not like he was a tenured professor or anything. He may have just been a dude, four years after getting his doctorate, hanging around.

I WISH:

McGill definitely has a pedagogical problem. The general mass class product is like Starbucks coffee beans universally burnt and drained of quality in order to homogenize the taste. I mean, I’m meeting tomorrow to facilitate a class as part of the Alternative Learning Project, a group of dissatisfied students taking their classes off-campus to learn stuff not offered at McGill, or offered poorly. Norman Miller told me that the cardinal complaint of students was that they “feel that they’re not cared for.” This is commonplace enough a sentiment at McGill, even a platitude, and it drove students in herds to Cornett’s classes. A YouTube comment on the Cornett documentary trailer: “That sounds awesome. I kinda wish I could have that experience since lectures nowadays are just boring.” Emily Rose Antflick wrote in to The Daily, “I despised the formulaic, institutional learning style that was being imposed upon my once-agile mind.”

Cornett’s “theater of learning” was an answer to this. It fused affect and entertainment: students were to laugh and never get bored. (A student wrote microscopically of Cornett’s laugh, that it “resides in the strange no-man’s land between a full-blown guffaw and a wheeze.”) Dr. Cornett said in an interview with The Tribune, “My goal became to figure out how we can put delight back into education. That became a mission, a pedagogical spirit-quest: how could we love learning, so that knowledge became a natural high?” Student Madina Baxindall says with a laugh in the documentary, “Who ever said education should be a bore?” Alongside entertainment, issues were brought up in class with a real sense of moral weight and students had to take positions fixed in their actual sentiment, moving from distant theory into visceral praxis.

Now this is where I ruin everything by taking Cornett’s cue and getting honest myself. I cringe at a lot of the language around Cornett, specious shit like “I feel privileged and inspired to have met and listened to Dr. Mendez,” or, “Dialogue with it. Answer it. Question it. Challenge it. Accept it. Reject it. Dialogue WITH that medium.” I dislike seminars for the very reason people love Cornett’s classes – I really do think there are stupid questions and right/wrong answers, and if you’re an existential asshole like me who measures out his life in coffee spoons, (you really might be if you think about it), hearing out even 15 minutes of airy questions feels like an error. I am in many ways McGill’s ideal student: comfortable, even happy in crowds as a selfish autodidact left to my own devices. I prefer the authoritarian lecture format that holds me fast to books that don’t immediately compel – when I get bored, I want the professor to bite, not sing.

Cornett’s classes are admirably passionate and alive and somewhat revolutionary. I submit that they are also completely perfidious and bad. The dialogic sessions ache to avoid becoming a boring automaton in a market system, but in practice it’s not just that anti-conformity conformity you recognized in high school emos and goths, but also an insidious grooming for company boardrooms and versatile cable news shows, an education in sophistic, insipid Dialogue qua Dialogue that cuts deals and networks well. Consider the people skills. Something striking among Cornett disciples is that while half go on to become Artists, schoolteachers in the selfsame Cornett vein, or organic farmers somewhere, there’s another half in MBA and Juris Doctor programs that seem to take his gospel to the market. (Leon Mwotia, in a gasp of weirdly privileged anger over Cornett’s dismissal, says in the documentary, “But when I’m a rich man, McGill, I won’t give them anything. Not a dime, McGill.” Mr. Mwotia is now a Manager at RBC.)

Rousseau in Émile: “Count on its being more important to be a charlatan than a capable man.” Cornett student Sara Gidding actually said this: “At most universities, they celebrate the authority of reason and logic, and a paper that I turn in to a professor is guided only on its rational aesthetic, its logical symmetry. You know, it fits with the exact format of a thesis paper, and it’s all proven, rationally. How it affected me is totally irrelevant to the final product.” What sometimes pisses people off in faculties other than Arts is how subjective and relativized the labour is in the humanities – their essays, their interpretations, their feelings. Intelligent Arts students know that the internal logic and rational process of their thesis is what supersedes the relatively unscientific grounding of their work, but here we have the radical abjuration of even that credit. Following this, Cornett becomes a connoisseur of the near-nothing who peddles a solipsism that mistakes self-truth as truth. This is why Cornett’s principal question, “since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?” is so disturbing to me. For Cornett, real truth terminates in honesty.

So what happened when Cornett’s students got honest? In the documentary, they write their Reflections with brio and one says, “It’s the way I write now. When I write emails or letters to my friends, it’s the way I write in my journal, and that raw reaction to the art, or the situation, is just so incredible.” I paused the film on a chance shot of a Reflection and it read: “My mind was everywhere! When I heard that flute type instrument I pictured it like: [here’s an image of a bar graph in decrescendo], and a train playing it dancing around.” A lanky man with a mustache, Dr. Cornett looks nothing like Socrates.

I WANT TO KNOW:

I gathered in the chancel of St. James United Church with 36 other congregants to have a dialogue about a film about dialogue. Dr. Cornett now conducts dialogic sessions throughout Montreal for sometimes upwards of $300. Dr. Cornett introduces me to Nine Lives, who is the only person within five years of my age, and talking to her I briefly apperceive the two of us as volunteers assisting an enlightened retirement home activity. We all take scrap paper and a pencil from the top of a grand piano. We watch a documentary on the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and the issue of religious accommodation in Quebec, which is a good watch that’s sure to provoke divisive emotions. As soon as the film ends, Dr. Cornett gives us prompts that he demands we treat absolutely honestly: “I remember—,” “I think—,” “I feel—,” “I wish—,” and “I want to know—.” I wrote about my ambivalence, which was honest. Then there’s a sophisticated question and answer series between the film’s director and a transcultural psychiatrist, all chaperoned by Dr. Cornett. Off-stage, Cornett has been all bonhomie and warmth, but once the session kicks in, there’s a metamorphosis. He is demonstrably louder than everyone else and seems aggressive in his responses. He’s in good dialogic form and allows only interstices of silence, with shifty eyes that don’t really seem to alight anywhere. The audience is impressive – a young Frantz Fanon scholar and other overall articulate people. It’s an affecting scene, an earnest, dedicated body politic. The name of the game throughout has been Dialogue, and here it is at last:

Q: How is it that French-speaking Quebecers don’t relate to being a minority to other minorities when they come to Quebec, how is it that they don’t relate to this larger context, you know, am I making myself clear? This is what is problematic to me.

CORNETT: As a historian of Quebec society, allow me to say, yes indeed they have. How do we understand the work of Pierre Vallieres?  Les nègres blancs d’Amérique. Why did the Quiet Revolution take place in the fifties and early fifties? Because it is Quebec’s version of the Civil. Rights. Movement. WE CAN only understand what happened here in Quebec when we see the big picture of the Civil. Rights. Movement. As a PARADIGM.

Q: The civil rights movement in the United States?

CORNETT: Yeah. Listen. I’m quoting the translation, it’s not an expression I want to use: the White Niggers of America. This is a seminal text. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is a MODEL for the Quebec nationalists. And keep in mind, GANDHI, who we ALL see as PEACE loving, is the FATHER of what? Indian NATIONALISM.

Some snicker almost imperceptibly when they realize his answer is over and then more hands are raised. Everyone gets their dialogue on and their intelligence flattered. Dr. Cornett asks us to place our Reflections on the piano and promises to use them in his next session. There is something singularly terrifying about the thought of him reading my bare honest Self alone at home. According to Planting Roots, his office in Birks overflowed with these Reflections, which he always kept in large boxes vertically stacked. Because of the structure of the dialogic sessions, Dr. C is the antenna for the most deep-seated political gripes, private idiosyncrasies, and harrowing psychodramas of every student’s naked Id. I was terribly honest in my Reflection, and if he hasn’t read it yet, he’ll certainly read it after this sentence, and he can do whatever he wants with it.

I FEEL:

But I myself have spent a lot of invasive mental/emotional time with this man, and to read the last lines of his 438 page Ph.D. dissertation makes me incredibly sad, after all this Reflection’s unstinting honesty:

By the end of his polemical career, which spanned more than half a century, Groulx had taken on the aura of a sententious prophet of doom, leftover from a troubling era which Quebec sought to put decisively behind itself. Groulx’s once prophetic stance in French-Canadian society now seemed nothing but irksome, unreasonable railing against Quebec’s long overdue modernization. Painfully conscious that many dismissed his message as a throwback to French Canada’s dark ages and considered him obsolete, Groulx’s memoirs attest that the last years of his life brought home to him the bitter truth that “a prophet hath no honor in his own country” (John 4:44).


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