Controversial professor to host discussion at Bishop’s

The Record (Sherbrooke)
Tue Oct 16 2012
Page: 1 / Front
Section: News
Byline: Gib Mcinnis
Source: Special to The Record

Dr. Norman Cornett, a religious studies professor who was dismissed without explanation from his post at McGill University in the spring of 2007 for unorthodox teaching methods, has been invited by a Bishop’s University student group Cinema Politica, to host a dialogical discussion on university educational reform after the group’s screening of a National Film Board documentary, Professor Norman Cornett: ‘Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?’

Cornett, who taught at McGill University for 15 years, has been the subject of controversy since his dismissal, and even more since the release of the documentary film, directed and written by Alanis Obomsawin. The film recounts the story of Cornett’s journey as professor of religious studies at McGill and his unique style of teaching that led to his dismissal.

The film begins with Cornett asking students in his class to stand up and act out the motions of the characters portrayed in a Pink Floyd video animated song ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, which is a very well known song for its criticism of conformity, and of the “program” approach followed in most educational faculties across the country.

In a telephone interview from his home, Cornett discussed the film documentary, and how he was chosen for the topic. “It was Alanis Obomsawin, the director, who approached me when these events happened in 2007 (his dismissal), and proposed to do a documentary. I felt that it was in keeping with my dialogic approach to education, that creativity requires the individual to remain ‘uncensored, unedited, and unplugged.’ So, I said go ahead and make it, as long as I never see any outcome during the shoot, as long as I do not look at the final cut (which is standard in film making), and as long as I do not see the final cut until the public at large sees it.”

Cornett received an invitation by a third year Bishop’s University liberal arts student, Erich Burton, who is organizing the screening of the documentary at the Foreman Art Gallery for the group Cinema Politica, to demonstrate Cornett’s dialogical pedagogy after the screening. When asked about his reason for bringing in Cornett to Bishop’s, Burton said, “Just considering the title of the film, When Do We Divorce the Right Answer from an Honest Answer?’ you can’t watch that film and honestly say that what happened (Cornett’s dismissal) was right. It was unjust, there was no public explanation (on McGill’s part). People were learning, enjoying his teaching…Also I am amazed at how he can call up that creative force in so many people with one process, dialogical pedagogy or the reflective writing process. This creative force is what students are starving for.”

Cornett explained that his motivation for advocating educational reform in the university system began when he recognized a growing pragmaticism among students who were attending university for the sake of getting a good grade, not a good education. “I will never forget one student telling me ‘what I have learned at this university is how to cut corners so I can get an A'”

“If that is the goal of education, we have missed the boat. Please keep in mind, that I am a religious studies scholar, so issues of morality and ethics are central to what I do, and I began to ask myself to what extent do we communicate or cultivate a moral, ethical approach to knowledge, if what we are really fostering is how you get an ‘A’ rather than honesty, so this poses some fundamental questions,” says Cornett.

In the course of his 15 years of teaching, Cornett explains that there were a number of major articles in student newspapers, and coming from the administration too, on the topic of plagiarism. This he experienced and this put him in a moral and ethical dilemma, “when you know the work you are reading and grading was actually done for another course and you verify with that professor that indeed the student had turned it in for their course.”

When asked how this ‘miseducation’ came about or how it is encouraged in the university classroom, Cornett stated, “if a person gives you the right answer, but they do it not on the basis of their convictions, not on the basis of what they really think, what they really believe, we are encouraging a dichotomy, a type of miseducation.” Thus, the reason for the title of the documentary and for Cornett’s session on dialogical teaching Wednesday evening.

On a blog at Cornett’s web site, a former student (2003) commented on Cornett’s response to battling this miseducation in the classroom. “In Norm’s class, however, through hundreds of reflections inside and outside of the ‘theatre of the classroom’ as he put it, we found our own voices, perhaps writing creatively for the first time since high school. Norm did not ask for grammar, spelling, concerns for political correctness or his position; he wanted instant unencumbered phenomenological sensation articulated without anxiety.” This is in fact what Cornett calls stream of consciousness teaching and honest reflection, which is difficult to plagiarize.

The documentary ‘When Do We Divorce the Right Answer from an Honest Answer?’ will be screened Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Foreman Art Gallery, in conjunction with Cinema Politica. It will be followed by Cornett’s dialogical pedagogy session

© 2012 The Record (Sherbrooke)

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