STANLEY FEFFERMAN -PROFESSOR,
My life in teaching began after the first year of a two-year residency in McGill University’s Masters in English Program: I finished first in my class and won the McGill Gold Medal for English.
Now I needed a job. While was taking classes, my wife had been our main support working as a primary school teacher in the public system. We needed more income while I was writing my Master’s thesis. As luck would have it, and I had a lot of luck in my early career, a vacancy opened up for a full-time position as lecturer at the Collège Militaire Royal de St. Jean—a 30 mile commute by car from our apartment in Montreal. Being the McGill Gold Medalist got me the job.
With the job as security, we used our savings to buy a used Volkswagen: I spent the summer getting the jump on my thesis, and in the fall began the daily commute to be a lecturer with the additional rank of civilian-grade officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.
I succeeded in maintaining my preferences during two challenges at the Military College. The officer-cadets in my charge were supposed to stand and snap to attention when I entered and when I left the room. I accepted that gesture, but managed to communicate by my attitude that I did not support the entire ethic of military discipline that governed their lives.
A few of the more unruly personalities in the classes challenged my authority by being disruptive during discussions and by responding grudgingly to my requests for order. Some also felt they could get away with not handing in assignments on time without even bothering to ask for an extension. I tolerated a certain laxity, but when I became uncomfortable, I invoked military discipline and put several cadets ‘on-charge’, meaning they would be subject to military punishments involving a lot of extra double-time marching during free periods. After that, assignments came in on time and discussions flowed nicely.
Those flowing discussions were the source of the second challenge to my classroom preferences. Ideas I brought forward from the texts we studied troubled some of the boys who were from strict rural Catholic backgrounds; they felt obliged to inform their priest, who felt obliged to offer me a caution. I was sympathetic, but stood my ground with the priest saying that all the troubling ideas came not from me personally but from the texts that someone before me had put on the curriculum, and that my obligation did not extend to censoring those texts. However, said I would understand if the troubled boys refrained from entering the discussions. That problem went away.
All my experiences working in courses where other teachers chose the curriculum taught me that if I were to be happy in the classroom, I would have to make it ‘my’ classroom by choosing the books that I was excited about, in order to attract students who wanted to learn what I had to teach—big ideas, subtle expressions, and free exchanges of opinion. In the normal course of an academic career, that was often a long wait. I did not have to wait long at all.
After a two-year post-doctoral Canada Council Fellowship to the British Museum and Oxford’s Bodleian Library, I turned down the offer of a lectureship at McGill University in Montreal and returned to Toronto, a city I preferred to live in. I was lucky to get a job in Toronto lecturing in English to Accounting and Engineering students at Ryerson University.
This job confirmed everything I knew about what I didn’t want. However, at the end of my first year there, a position opened up in a new English Department at Atkinson, a start-up college of the new York University, and I got it. The new department started with a clean slate. The Chair entrusted me and the other new lecturer (with whom I saw eye-to-eye on most things), to collaborate on the design and teaching of the first two Atkinson College English Courses: Introductory English and Literary Criticism.
Introductory English, which enrolled nearly 1100 students, was an innovative multimedia presentation involving film, music and voice-tapes, live performances and ‘happenings’. I had the responsibility to design and coordinate discussion group formats for the 10 part-time discussion group leaders whom I recruited and trained. I did a good job and was promoted from lecturer to the professorial ranks.
The next year, our boss left the College and I was appointed Co-Chair of Atkinson English. I continued managing the huge Introductory English and guided our four-person Department in the development of the English Major Programme to which I contributed my first upper-level courses: Canadian Literature, The British Novel, and Contemporary Poetry. My expertise in these areas put me in a position to write regular book columns for a national newspaper, the Toronto Telegram and, over the next few years, to give more than 30 broadcasts on literature for the National Canadian Broadcasting Network.
Workshops on my innovative techniques for teaching Contemporary Poetry came to be much in demand by the School Boards of North York, Kent-Essex County, Huntsville, and particularly Etobicoke where I functioned as a Poetry Consultant to the Board of Education for 3 years. These ‘extras’ supplemented the earnings from teaching that I brought home to my wife and two children. These ‘extras’ also contributed to pressures that eventually resulted in a separation from my family. I spent the spring and summer of that separation in residence as a volunteer teacher at Toronto’s Rochdale College. Rochdale started out as a ‘Free University’ but under the pressures of available sex and drugs rapidly degenerated into an 18-story hippie haven where I taught nothing and learned a lot about sex, drugs and bikers. In other words, I learned how to fit in on the streets.
My first sabbatical research projects were conducted ‘on the streets’ of the US, Mexico, Central America, and the Middle-East. I wrote a paper entitled Drugs and World Literature for the LeDain Royal Commission on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (1971). The other project of my sabbatical year was aired on the Canadian National Broadcasting Network as a three-part series on the life and WWI service of an early Israeli poet, Avshalom Feinberg.
During this sabbatical, I plunged deeper into “The Age of Aquarius.” I travelled close to the ground in Canada, the US, Mexico, Israel and Jordan, meeting gurus, shamans and spiritual teachers. At the end of it, I returned to Toronto and connected with a refugee Tibetan Lama who initiated me into the Tantric Buddhhist tradition. For the next five years, I worked with Lama Karma Thinley, Rinpoche, transcribing and editing his translation of a work from Tibetan that was published in 1979 as The Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet.
I functioned as president of the Lama’s Dharma Centre and helped him set-up a student residence, a study centre. I obtained a grant of seed-money from the provincial government for a month-long conference in Toronto to present the Tantric teachings of the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, a teacher of the Dalai Lama. I presided over visits by three other major Tibetan teachers and also completed my studies and practice of the foundational practices of the Kargyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. I married my second wife with whom I had a daughter.
The teaching techniques I absorbed from the Tibetans shifted my teaching style at York towards a more holistic model that addressed the whole person of the teacher to the whole person of the student. The first result was a course I developed called The Changing Way,— the first course at York, or in any Canadian University, to examine the literature of Spiritual Journey, particularly the absorption into English-speaking culture of Middle and Far- Eastern Contemplative Traditions.
I also introduced meditation and other contemplative practices as part of the syllabus in all my courses. The Changing Way was current at York, more than 40 years later, under a new name– Wisdom Literature. Meditation and awareness practices remained part of that course and the creative writing courses that were developed during the next phase of my pedagogical development.
During my second sabbatical and extended leave of absence, 1978-81, I moved my second family to Boulder Colorado, where I had been invited to join the Faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Under the stresses of the transition to Boulder, my second marriage and family broke up.
I worked closely in teaching and course development of experimental B.A. and M.A programs in Poetics with some of the great figures of American Literature including several of the original ‘Beats.’ My contribution were courses in traditional fundamentals: the History of of Literary Criticism from Plato to T.S Eliot; Classic American Literature—Cooper, Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman; and Courtly Love Poetry.
At Naropa, I was able to train in the teaching of writing following the ‘apprenticeship’ model where teacher and student share life outside the classroom. All these experiences were incorporated into my teaching at York on my return to Atkinson College.
I developed the College’s first Creative Writing courses based on a radical method of teaching writing I had evolved through the use of meditation-based posture, breathing, and awareness techniques. These courses were offered every year, always with full enrollment and waiting list. Since many of my students were school-teachers, my methods for teaching writing were widely disseminated in the public school system.
I initiated the publication of five annual collections of student writing from Atkinson and Glendon Colleges of York University. I organized open-poetry and multimedia poetry-readings at Glendon, at Atkinson, and off-campus at the Nalanda Foundation in midtown Toronto. I invited particularly talented students to continue to work in association with each other and me in a group called “The Windhorse Society” where no more than 6 writers met together with me every month to read and discuss their work. My students in Wisdom Literature formed a meditation/study group that we called “the Juniper Society.” This group continued working with me at monthly meetings for five years.
Intensive study and practice of meditation resulted in my lay-ordination as a teacher in the Kagyu and Shambhala lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Meditation experience expanded the scope of my teaching in York and beyond. I was invited by the Atkinson Staff Association to lead a three-month seminar in Meditation as Stress Management at York. Also at York, students in the “Juniper Society” began undertaking intensive meditation training at the local Buddhist/Shambhala meditation centre, and “Juniper” eventually was recognized in the Vajradhatu Buddhist Church of Canada as the “Downsview Dharma Study Group” who’s activities I directed until my sabbatical in 1995-96.
My life in meditation also expanded the scope of my leadership experience. I was invited to preside over the Buddhist Council of Canada to lead Canadian Buddhist community participate in the founding of an interfaith television broadcasting network. I travelled across Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia arousing interest in the Canadian Interfaith Network that eventually was licenced as Vision TV.
Work in interfaith communications led to my appointment for a two-year term as Deputy Executive Director of a United Nations Committee to turn the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini Park, into a World Interfaith Conference Centre. That project is still ongoing. Following the 1984 assassination of India’s Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, I was appointed to the Toronto Mayor’s Interfaith Committee to deal with Interfaith conflicts and I served for a year.
The interfaith work I had been doing came to fruition in the first Buddhist-Christian Dialogues in Canada that I organized as a collaboration between York University, The Buddhist Council of Canada, Nalanda Foundation, the United Church of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Transcripts of these dialogues that I edited were published under title Awakened Heart: Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Canada (United Church Press, 1985).
A personal health crisis inspired me to undertake five years of training in Alternative Healing Arts. After three years of study, I qualified for ordinary and advanced Diplomas in Homeopathy During those same three years, I studied to certify as a regression therapist at the Woolger Institute. I started the Bluesky Clinic and practiced homeopathy and psychotherapy in Toronto for ten years.
I joined the faculty of the Hahnemann College of Homeopathy in Toronto for one year. From the point of view of my teaching, the fruit my work combining literature, meditation, and healing was a course I designed entitled The Healing Fiction:Literature and Medicine, that I taught regularly in-class and online till my retirement in 2002, at which time I authorized a colleague to take over the course which continues to be offered at York to this day.
The first project of my sabbatical year was to build an online virtual classroom for my Creative Writing course. It was delivered as streamed audio and video under the title Writing Space, as a pilot at York University. Writing Space was a huge success. The format of a virtual classroom is asynchronous: the web-presence of the teacher is available to all students at any time, and live bulletin boards make it possible for students to interact with each other and with the teacher whenever they want to.
This format made the course so successful that I was able to increase enrolment from the seminar-room standard of 35 to 125, a number I and two teaching assistants I trained could comfortably look after. I continued to offer Writing Space every year till my retirement and for six years beyond that date—2002.
My second sabbatical project was to build a virtual classroom for The Healing Fiction:Literature and Medicine. It became very popular. Enrollment doubled and I was given an assistant. I offered The Healing Fiction every year until my retirement, at which point I gifted it to a colleague who directed it every year till the present day. 1995 was the last year I set foot in a bricks-and-mortar classroom at York University.
My final years of teaching were very satisfactory. I married again. I discovered that giving up contact with students at regularly scheduled meetings made room for a situation in which students could relate with each other 24/7, at their own times, and I could relate with each of them on any and every day at any hour I chose. In that way, every question and every comment by every student received a response from me or from my assistants and from many other members of the class.
What I learned from this, my final classroom experience, is that a successful teacher’s job is to inspire and facilitate ongoing peer-learning for every student in the class. The truth of this proposition was proven by the fact when the semesters ended, and the grades had been handed out, students in both online classes organized regular meetings online and in realtime for long periods, sometimes for years.
My final success as a teacher was that my students could go on learning the lessons I had taught them without me.
Looking back on my life in academic teaching, my greatest satisfaction comes from having experienced the freedom to choose the authors and areas I wanted to study and teach, as I felt inspired to do so. When my life brought me into contact with living writers, I taught contemporary poetry and novels, as well as Creative Writing. When I assumed a ‘Beat’ way of life, I explored the work of ‘The Beats.’
When I adopted a meditative way of life, I shared what I had to say about the Wisdom literature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. When literature of the Medieval period of Europe and Asia Minor came into prominence for me, especially the Literature of Courtly Love, I studied it and took my students along with me. I enjoyed taking a long last in-class look at contemporary poetry in Canada.
When I was inspired to have a second look at my Master’s thesis topic, the Imagination of William Blake, I was free to do a three-year retrospective survey of his work with my classes. Along with Blake, other individual authors became prominent for me, and I invited my students to share my studies of D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert Browning, and Walt Whitman.
During my last years of full-time teaching I had become fascinated by post-human literature that involved hybridization of human and cybernetic systems, and I was able to construct and teach an online course I called Cyber-Fiction, that looked into the future of intelligent life on this planet.
I am deeply grateful for my opportunities to freely share, through literature, intelligent life on this planet, past, present and future.
Home page photo credits: “Professor” Dale Hildebrand, “Poet” Eric Fefferman Photography, “Journalist” Eric Fefferman Photography, “Photographer” Marisa Macri-Fefferman, “Get in Touch” Eric Fefferman Photography