Professor Norman Cornett (2009) dir. Alanis Obomsawin
We all remember our best teachers, the ones who make education more than just about learning, the ones who inspire us to understand and embody the information we usually cram and memorize in the final days before the final exam. This was the influence McGill University professor Norman Cornett had on his students and the subject of the latest film from acclaimed director Alanis Obomsawin. It's a welcomed change of pace for Obomsawin whose subjects (ie. Kanehsatake) usually involve Aboriginal concerns. Here Obomsawin branches out with this small scale but inspirational doc about the best professor his students ever had, and probably the best professor you never had.
For 15 years Professor Norman Cornett taught Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, but not with the stodgy old traditions of standard grading structures and repetitious lesson plans, Cornett’s classes challenged his students by looking at the world from different angles and interacting with the information to create a greater of understanding of life.
On the first day of the current semester, Obomsawin shows Cornett leading his students through a group rendition of Pink Floyd’s, “Another Brick in the Wall” – an anthem of counter-culture, which will feed the entire learning methodology of the students. We watch as Cornett instructs his students to write free association, visit art galleries, Canadian dignitaries Paul Martin and Lucien Bouchard give lectures, jazz great Oliver Jones even plays a little ditty for the class. Sound kinda flighty and idealistic?
According to the students, who provide articulate first person interviews, this is not a bird course, but one of the most challenging courses they've ever taken and definitely the most influential and memorable. The students describe their education as dialogic sessions where they are required to participate in the activities in the course leading to a greater understanding of themselves and the subject.
Despite the praise from his students, no doubt, it's a controversial way of teaching. Then suddenly, out of nowhere Cornett’s contract is not renewed, and essentially fired from his job. After 15 years of service, Cornett is forced to clean his desk and leave the premises without any explanation whatsoever. And so begins a law suit against the University for unlawful dismissal. Cornett is not a vengeful person, and only desires a reason for his dismissal.
The final act which follows Cornett's fight against the school for an answer for his dismissal doesn't quite hit the dramatic gravitas as we expect. It's an anti-climax in many ways, but a poignant reminder of the kind of 'though control' Cornett was attempting to break through.
If Cornett never teaches again, the film serves as a loving tribute to the students he has affected for the rest of their lives. It may not be the best title for a film, but “Professor Norman Cornett”, expresses everything we all wanted to say about the best teachers we ever had.
"Professor Norman Cornett" premieres this Friday May 8 at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto