English As A First Language. The Wonderful Journey of Dr. Robert Morrison

My first recollection of meeting Rob Morrison was in the pit after a Lethbridge Musical Theatre show. A bunch of musicians were jamming at an impromptu party and Rob dazzled me with his prowess on the piano. He was a fun-loving guy who knew a bunch of Elton John and Beatle songs. (By the way, as I write this I’m drinking coffee from a Beatles mug.) What impressed me was that he even knew one of the lesser known Elton songs called Idol from The Blue Moves Album that I was trying to learn. Rob started a band called The Soup which featured one of my very good friends Lyndon Bray on vocals and so I would run into Rob on numerous occasions. He even helped me do a Greetergram one day. Little did I know that this talented musician would develop another very important passion: Literature. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in English at the U of L, got a Masters in Philosophy at Oxford (Yes that big one in England, not the shoe company) and then his PhD in Edinburgh. Rob is also a renowned author focusing on 19th century English Literature. He has written extensively about English Essayist Thomas De Quincey. In 2013, the University Of Lethbridge honored Rob with the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award. He is currently a professor of English at Queens University in Kingston. He took time out between classes and answered these questions:

The first thing a person would probably realize upon first meeting you is that you have incredible passion. Can you put your finger on where that comes from?

My family, I’m sure. I grew up in Lethbridge in a wonderful home with my mom and dad, and my brother, and my two sisters. They were supportive and loving, but I also have to say that they put up with me. It’s not always a joy living with someone who is pumped up. I’m very grateful to them for always allowing me to pursue what I loved.

I have to add that my first great passion is the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. I don’t follow any other sport and I don’t follow any other team. But I follow everything about the Lions and everything about the CFL. To me it’s the greatest game in the world, and we are the only country in the world that plays it. I started following the Lions when I was 8, and I have lived and died with them ever since (more dying than living by a long way!). When they win, the sky is bluer. And when they lose, I go for a long walk…

What are some of your fond memories of Lethbridge both growing up and being a student at the U of L?

I love Lethbridge. I have not lived there since the late 1980s, but in many ways I still think of it as home. My parents are there. One of my sisters is there. Some of my closest friends are there. My wife Carole is from Lethbridge, and a lot of her family lives there.

When I think of Lethbridge, I think of playing road hockey in front of the house, and walking to Gilbert Paterson School, and having sleep-overs in the back yard, and playing football with good friends who lived nearby. Later, when I was a teenager, my parents built a cabin near Pincher Creek and we had wonderful weekends out there. Carole and I were married in a small church by the cabin.

I was not a great fan of high school (it wasn’t the place, it was me), but I loved university so much that I haven’t left yet! I started at the U of L in 1979 and it changed the whole course of my life. I had a series of wonderful professors – Herb Hicks, Bill Lambert, and Paul Upton especially – and they gave me a very clear sense of what university could do. I carry that all around with me still. I worked very hard at the U of L. I laughed a lot. I loved the life in the classroom and beyond it as well.

What led you to deciding on an English Major and then continuing on to a doctorate?

To be honest, I don’t think I could have done anything else! English literature made sense to me in a way that no other discipline did, and so I chose it. I can remember feeling a bit concerned after I graduated from the U of L in 1983. Some of my closest friends left Lethbridge to pursue their careers, and I stayed behind to read novels, practice the piano, and live out at my parent’s cabin. I got lots of encouragement from my U of L professors, and when I applied to various graduate schools, I was lucky enough to be accepted.

You went to Oxford. How special is that place?

Oxford for me was a very special experience. My tutor was Jonathan Wordsworth, who was the great, great, great nephew of the poet William Wordsworth, who is my favourite poet, and I think the most important poet of the past two hundred years. To study with Jonathan was daunting but also exhilarating. Jonathan passed away in 2006 but I still think of him all the time. Sometimes I think I am driven too much by my desire to make sure I don’t let him down.

Can you relate the story of how you were given the wrong exam for your final at Oxford?

The examination process for the degree was quite grueling. In addition to a thesis, and four long essays, you had to write four three-hour exams. You were allowed, however, to pick your exam topics. For the exam on “Prose Writers”, I picked two essayists, “William Hazlitt” and “Charles Lamb.” On the day of the exam, though, the proctor handed me a sheet of paper with questions on “Walter Scott” and “Thomas Love Peacock” – two completely different “Prose Writers”! Honestly, I can still feel the fear pounding through me when I think about it. “What is going on?” “How could this mistake have happened?” “Did I write the wrong names? – no I didn’t write the wrong names.” “What do I do?” “Am I going to fail?” Ultimately it was resolved, but at the time it was ghastly.

You got your PhD in Edinburgh. How different was it there?

After I graduated from Oxford, I came home to Lethbridge and taught at the U of L for a year, which was a wonderful experience, and which gave me the confidence to think that I might be able to make my living working and teaching in a university.

Edinburgh was very similar to Oxford in terms of the intellectual level and the intellectual challenge. But whereas in Oxford I had classes and essays and quite a tight course schedule, in Edinburgh I sat in libraries and wrote my doctorate, which was very liberating. It was time for me to start trying to think independently, and Edinburgh really pushed me to do that.

Was there ever a time in your pursuit for your doctorate that you said to yourself, “Bugger, this isn’t worth it.”

I had plenty of hard days, and plenty of days when I said to myself, “I think the basic problem here, Robert, is that you just aren’t bright enough to do this.” But then Carole and I would go for a walk, or have a cup of tea, and I’d get myself re-centred again, and go back to it. In a way, writing is quite a lonely job, but I guess I also thought it was a real privilege to get to spend time thinking about the work of great writers, and how I might in a very small way contribute to our understanding of who they were and what they did.

For some, schooling is an enjoyable journey. Others call it a necessary but painful road. Where do you come out on that?

I didn’t really enjoy “school” until university. My grades were ok for most of the time, and I didn’t dread it or anything. But all three of my siblings, for example, were much better at school than I was. In high school, my grades dipped even further because I was far more interested in music, and my attitude wasn’t great. Looking back now, I would say that lots of my schooling was pretty painful, though working through the pain often turned out to be good for me.

I guess I would just add that I am a much bigger fan of “learning” than I am of “schooling”. Lots of people I know in universities stopped learning long ago, and it shows especially in their (poor) teaching and in their (lack of) research. On the other hand, some of the brightest and most successful people I know didn’t go to university. They left school early, but they have spent a lifetime learning.

You’re a big fan of Thomas De Quincey. Explain who he is and why you’ve done so much research on him.

Thomas De Quincey is a nineteenth-century English essayist. He was born in Manchester in 1785, and he died in Edinburgh in 1859. Virtually everything he published first appeared in the leading magazines of the day. He is best known for three essays. The first is Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which is the first modern account of drug use and abuse, and which has had a massive influence on how we perceive drugs and addiction. The second is On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, which is a brilliant exercise in black humour, and which helped to lay the foundations for crime and detective fiction. The third is a series of biographical essays on famous contemporaries such as William Wordsworth and another poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom De Quincey knew.

I had never heard of De Quincey before I arrived in Oxford. During my second term I had to write four essays on four different writers. Jonathan didn’t think much of my first three tries, but he thought my fourth essay on De Quincey was a little stronger. I decided that I better stick with De Quincey, which is essentially what I’ve done for the past three decades. For me, De Quincey’s writings illuminate central concerns in his own day and retain a sometimes disturbing relevance in ours.

Getting your degree is one thing. Becoming a good teacher is another. You’ve won awards for your ability to get your students to buy in. What’s the trick?

If you’re interested, they’ll be interested. If you’re bored, or fed-up, or dull, they’ll be bored, or fed-up, or dull. In my view, it starts with the teacher. I think English literature matters. I learned that at the U of L. And when I go into the classroom, I try to tell my students a whole host of different things, but one of them is that what we are doing matters – for their lives, for their personal and public relationships, for our democracy, for our culture.

What is the most frustrating thing you see in your students?

I don’t like students texting or emailing in class at all, and managing that is sometimes a frustration. But I tell them at the start that I want their attention, and that I don’t want them burying their heads in electronic gadgetry when I am talking to them, and the vast majority of students respect that. I always say to them, “You’re going to get 100% from me, and I want 100% from you.” Across my career at Acadia and Queen’s my students have been wonderful. No complaints.

Is texting the source of all evil in English academia?

No. Sloth and charlatanry are far greater sources of evil in English academia than texting. When students text, they use one form of English, and from what I have seen it is a particularly hideous form. But it is not the form they use when they write formal essays for me, or make formal presentations, or even raise their hand to participate in class discussion. I still get lots of weak essays. But I got lots of weak essays long before texting emerged.

You’ve written a number academic books that require incredible research. Have you ever considered just following the path of Thomas De Quincey, take some opium and write a wild novel? (Or maybe you don’t need the opium)

I would love to write a novel – wild or otherwise. But there is a fundamental problem, and it is the same fundamental problem that I had when I wanted to make my living playing the piano: I don’t have the talent. Darn. Wish I did. But I don’t. If I could play the piano – or sing – or write a song – 1/800 as well as Elton John, I would. Believe me, I would. But I think in life that you can make yourself really unhappy wishing for something that you can’t have or can’t do. It’s all hard enough without piling that on! I’d love to play the piano brilliantly well. And I’d love to write a brilliant novel. But I’ve learned that for me it is better if I concentrate hard on the things I actually can do, and work to get stronger and stronger in those areas.

You are also an incredible musician who loves Rod Stewart and the Beatles. How do your students in the English department handle that?

A lot of my students past and present have been Beatles fans, so they have been quite receptive to my endless references to the importance of Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, Abbey Road, and so on. They know less about Rod Stewart. Last year one of my students sent me an email which said, “Why, Dr Morrison? Why do you love Rod Stewart so much?” I wrote back and said it boils down to this: when Rod Stewart sings any lyric, I believe him. When he sings “I Would Rather Go Blind (than to see you walk away from me)”, I believe that he would rather go blind than to see her walk away. To me, Rod sums up everything you need to know about the glory of rock ‘n’ roll in “Maggie May”: “You stole my heart, I love you anyway.”

You were in some great bands while in Lethbridge and played a lot of gigs. How important were those times in making you the person you are today?

Some of good teaching is performance. Playing in bands, and getting used to being up in front of people, has definitely helped me in my career. I have been a professor for twenty-three years and I have given thousands of lectures, but I still get a rush of adrenalin every time I walk into a classroom. Some days it’s quite stressful, and I learned a lot about how to deal with that stress playing gigs in Lethbridge.

Could you ever see yourself moving back to Lethbridge and working at the U of L?

If any U of L administrator ever wishes to talk to me, I have a very clear message: I am listening.

You just went for a walk in the coulees and you found a bottle with a southern Alberta Genie. (It could happen) He grants you a wish to go back in time to talk to 5 of the great masters. Who’s on your list?

  1. Jane Austen (greatest novelist in the history of the world)
  2. William Wordsworth (greatest poet in the history of the world)
  3. Thomas De Quincey (greatest essayist in the history of the world)
  4. John Lennon and George Harrison (members of the greatest band in the history of the world)
  5. Elvis Presley (the King)

Who has been the most important person in your life?

I have had to think about some of the questions you’ve asked. But this one is easy: Carole. Like me, she grew up in Lethbridge. I had a big crush on her in the late 1970s when I was playing in a band and she worked at Musicland in (what used to be) the Woolco Mall. I would go in all the time, pretend I was looking at sheet music, and then try to find the nerve to go up and talk to her (which I never did!). We met in Lethbridge a decade later, got married within ten months, and will celebrate our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary later this year. She has been my partner for all that time, in my work, but far more importantly, as we have raised our two wonderful boys. She is the smartest, wisest, strongest, kindest person I know. And – to quote the immortal Rod Stewart – “just about every love song that’s ever been written”.

What’s your best advice for a kid struggling through university, not really sure where s/he’s going to end up.

Think about what makes you happy. Not casually, or briefly, or intermittently: sit down and think about what makes you happy. In the long (and short and medium) run, that’s what matters. If university is a way to cultivate, or access, or deepen what makes you happy, stay there: work really hard, deal honestly with the bad stuff, make sure you celebrate the good stuff, and work your way through to your degree.

If, however, university and what makes you happy are at odds, there is nothing wrong – spectacularly nothing wrong – with not going; nothing wrong with leaving before you get the degree; and nothing wrong with leaving and then coming back. I have seen far too many students who come to university before they are actually ready to be there. I have also seen far too many students who are only half-heartedly committed, and for whom university is everything from a drag to a misery. University is one way through and one way forward. But it is not the only way, and for many it’s not even a good way, let alone the best way. Be thoughtful. Be honest. Do what works for you.

When is there going to be a Soup reunion?

As I have written and thought about these answers, I have been listening to Elton John. He has just finished singing a song (from his 1982 album Jump Up!) called “Where Have all the Good Times Gone”. As the title suggests, it’s a song about nostalgia. When I was teaching at the U of L in 1987, the great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye gave a lecture in which he spoke about nostalgia, and said, in effect, “always distrust it”. I think Frye is right to say we should be cautious about how we view – and recreate – our past. But he’d also agree that nostalgia is a very genuine and powerful emotion, and thinking about Lethbridge, and the U of L, and my days playing in The Soup certainly make me feel nostalgic. Playing in The Soup was a privilege, and the guys in the band – Lyndon Bray, Randy Paskuski, and Neil Sheets – were all great players, and great friends. I’d have to practice very hard to stay with them now (it was hard enough back then!), but if anyone wants to organize it, I’m there.

For more on Dr. Morrison check out his Website:

http://robert-j-h-morrison.com/news/

Thanks to the U of L for the photo of Rob when he was back in Lethbridge to receive his Distinguished Alumnus of The Year Recognition.

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