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Never a Dull Moment


I do know that at one point during my first year as an undergraduate at St. Michael's College in 1965 I became aware of a sensation close to awe emanating from the classroom of a professor in the College's English department. This man's classes, I heard, had something to do with "television." I didn't know it at the time but that professor, Marshall Mc- Luhan, was about to become internationally famous. He had al- ready published two books, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), which challenged the way we regard media of com- munication and technology in general. Shortly to come was a mas- sive wave of publicity rarely granted an academican article in Harper's magazine entitled "Marshall McLuhan: Canada's Intellec- tual Comet," a profile in New York magazine by Tom Wolfe, a cover story in Newsweek, an endless series of newspaper and television interviews.

By the time I took a course from him in "Modern Poetry and Drama," in 1968, he was a bona fide celebrity. In the 70s there was a reaction against the McLuhan phenomenon, so much so that by the time of his death in 1980 his reputation had faded. He seemed destined to be written off as a fad. Thirty years later, however, on the occasion of this year's centenary of his birth in Edmonton, he is increasingly recognized as a seminal thinker. The world of Facebook and twittering has dramatically vindicated McLuhan's vision of the global village, of electronic technology as an extension of the human nervous system.

There are still former students and teachers at the College with vivid memories of McLuhannot as a celebrity, not as a solitary genius, but as an amiable, warm-hearted, unpretentious, if occasionally eccentric presence on campus. "McLuhan often smoked a cigar throughout class," recalls theologian Dan Donovan 5T8, who took a course in pre-Elizabethan poetry from McLuhan in the late 50s. As was his habit, McLuhan in this course talked about everything but pre-Elizabethan poetry. Donovan recalls him mentioning the Ford Edsel, a recently manufactured automobile distinguished by its "horse collar" or toilet seat grille. Some said the grille made the Edsel look like an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon. McLuhan had another perspective, however. "For him," Donovan comments, "the grille symbolized the shift from print to oral culture."

This sort of observation had by then become characteristic of McLuhan, one of the founders of the academic discipline now known as "cultural criticism." His first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, published in 1951, was steeped in this kind of criticism. However scintillating McLuhan's remarks in this vein were, however, they alarmed many of his students. At that time, marks depended almost entirely on how students fared in their final examsthe function of professors in the lecture hall was to provide their listeners with abundant notes on the subject, for regurgitation on exams.

McLuhan was aware that many of his students were upset by his freewheeling observations, and to make amends he gave an an- nual lecture on how to write exams. "If you were confronted with a question about an author you had not read, he outlined a certain calculus you followed in constructing an answer that seemed to be somewhat related to the question," Fr. Claude Arnold, a future St. Michael's English professor, recalls. "It was an answer that was not so specific that it could be pinned down as right or wrong." The key was playing with the exam questionsbreaking them down into sub-questions, inventing contrary opinions and then comparing them and contrasting them, and so on.

As for his own marking of exams and papers, McLuhan did his best to minimize effort. "He felt the best way to correct an essay would be to do it when the student was present," Fr. Robert Mad- den 5T8 recalls. This was not a bad idea, and also had the virtue for McLuhan of calling upon his forte of extemporaneous, one-sided dialogue. Sometimes he startled colleagues with how far he could push this idea. Arnold recalls a meeting of the university's combined English departments in which McLuhan, who had become very interested in the early 60s phenomenon of speed reading, explained his marking techniques. Students would be given appointments to discuss their essay. "When there was a knock on his door, he would pick up the student's paper and speed read it and come to his judgment as to its merit," Arnold remembers. "By the time the student had entered his office and sat down, McLuhan had done his work. The response of his colleagues was somewhat quizzical. They didn't seem to know whether he was serious or whether he was pulling their legs."

Some of McLuhan's confreres at St. Michael's College were oc- casionally annoyed at McLuhan's tendency to dominate conversa- tions in the faculty dining room. The great scholar of mediaeval philosophy, Etienne Gilson, a mind steeped in the lucidity of French thought, did not always appreciate McLuhan's high powered conver- sation, filled with wide-ranging leaps of creative intuition. A story circulates that Gilson once inquired after Mrs. McLuhan's health. She's fine, McLuhan said, except for signs of deafness. Deafness, Gilson pointedly replied, can sometimes be a blessing. It was not surprising that some of McLuhan's colleagues were suspicious of his dazzling talk. David Cobb, a writer for a weekend entertainment supplement called Showcase, part of the now defunct Toronto Telegram, recalls phoning McLuhan for comments on various subjects, such as a recent song by Frank Sinatra, in the late 60s. "McLuhan was at that time such a marvellous touch for instant quotations which would prop up any callow journalist's piece about almost anything," Cobb remembers. "McLuhan was my go-to guy on three, four, maybe more occasions. I would call him and Marshall would come up instantly with an incredible, quick and snappy comment that was way beyond my powers to deconstruct."

Eventually McLuhan had to ask Cobb to stop phoning him.

"I said, 'I'm really sorry, Professor McLuhan, is it possible I have misquoted you at any time?' He said, 'No, that's the trouble. You didn't misquote me at all. The trouble is that I have to defend my position Monday morning in the common room. You give me these things to comment on, I do my best but I don't think them through and my colleagues have thought it through on the weekend and they say, 'Surely you don't mean this?'" "Anybody who can take a look out at the universe, who can see what is going on out there, and not believe in God is fast asleep"

Yet, for all his occasional glibness, McLuhan was always eager to learn from his colleagues. Gino Matteo 5T9, a colleague in the English Department who was developing expertise in film, remembers McLuhan calling him for help with a film projector. Upon arrival, Matteo discovered that the projector was actually a video recorder. For many teachers, that would have been the end of the discussion but McLuhan, his curiosity aroused, asked Matteo about the difference between celluloid and videotape. "I said, 'Well, one is basically chemical, having to do with light hitting on material, and the other is basically electronic,'" Matteo remembers. "We got into a great discussion about the physics of differing ways of projecting image and sound. It was exhilarating." Some made the mistake of think- ing they could impress McLuhan with self-consciously clever insights. St. Michael's Executive Director Emeritus of Alumni Affairs and Development Brian O'Malley recalls a member of the audience asking McLuhan a long-winded question after a McLuhan talk. McLuhan replied with one of his famous one-liners. "As Zeus said to Narcissus," he commented, "'Watch yourself.'" Professor Frederick Flahiff 5T7, of the former St. Michael's College English Department, recalls an undergraduate seminar led by McLuhan in which a participanta young woman who may not even have been a student presented a Halloween pumpkin and asserted that this was the last vestige of the mask in our society. After a momentary, uncomfortable si- lence, McLuhan continued with the class. "It was not that she was intending to embarrass McLuhan, but that her gesture came out of left field, and left field was not where McLuhan was at that point," Flahiff comments. "I think one of the assumptions made by many people was that McLuhan was far out with regard to all things. They assumed any far-out gesture would be grist for McLuhan's mill. It was not at all."

Such people were puzzled by many of McLuhan's down to earth routines, such as his daily attendance at noon Mass at St. Basil's Church. Yet, as Brian O'Malley comments, "He was a man of quite incredible faith. Simple faith. He used to say, 'Anybody who can take a look out at the universe, who can see what is going on out there, and not believe in God is fast asleep.'"

In many ways, McLuhan conceived his vocation as one of waking up students. It was not an easy job. If he woke up one student per year, he once observed, he was more than successful. Whether or not he managed to wake me up, I hesitate to saybut I do know his classes never failed to be, in Matteo's word, exhilarating.