Interview with W. Terrence Gordon

© W. Terrence Gordon and Figure/Ground
Dr. Gordon was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. November 12th, 2010.

W. Terrence Gordon is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and Part-time lecturer in Linguistics at St. Mary’s University, Halifax. He is the author of the three titles on McLuhan and the editor of the critical editions of his Understanding Media (2003), McLuhan Unbound(2005), and The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time (2006). His McLuhan for Beginners brought him the invitation from the McLuhan family to write his biography: Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, critically acclaimed in The New York Times and many other sources. Professor Gordon is also the librettist of a multimedia opera about McLuhan.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I was very fortunate to have excellent and inspiring teachers in high school for English, French, German, and Latin.  I may have had more natural ability in language learning than in math and science, but I am inclined to give more credit to those teachers than to my genes as the earliest determining factor in moving me toward an undergrad degree in modern languages.  Those language teachers seemed to have a more dynamic engagement with their subject matter than the math and science teachers, and so they became models for me, perhaps even before I knew for sure that I would enter the teaching profession.  I also absorbed my maternal grandfather’s enormous respect for learning at an early age.  He was an immigrant who had no opportunity for formal education when he came to Canada as a very young man.  He became very successful in running small businesses  and worked long hours even late in life, but he also spent endless hours reading, a habit he passed on to my aunt (his younger daughter, who gave me early encouragement to think about becoming a writer) and to me.  Every Sunday afternoon he would spend hours reading aloud to my grandmother, who was illiterate, and the importance he attached to that sharing of his skill and learning also made its mark on me.  When my mother remarried, I acquired a second inspiring grandfather with a huge library where I was free to read whatever, and that certainly drew me deeper into the world of books. Many of my undergrad professors were just as inspiring as my high school teachers, and I think I had pretty much decided even in first year that the teaching profession was for me.  I did (very) briefly consider other careers, and my stepfather wanted me to become a dentist, so that I could take over his practice, but I knew I was neither interested enough nor strong enough in science to go down that path.  So, strictly speaking, my career choice was a conscious one, but, above all, more or less inevitable.

Joshua Meyrowitz’ main thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

I am not familiar with JM’s book, but being Marshall McLuhan’s biographer, I can hardly disagree with its thesis!  I think the role of the undergrad professor fifty years ago was primarily to provide guidance and authority.  If s/he could also provide inspiration, that was a bonus that motivated students.  My sense is that undergrads today are more overwhelmed by life and learning than we were in my generation, that they have less confidence in themselves to come to grips with the world (at large as well as the world of learning) and that consequently they attach less importance to  the guidance and authority roles of their profs.

What makes a good teacher today?

I don’t think that providing inspiration as a professor has changed or is threatened by technological changes, because the ultimate challenge to put to students remains fundamentally to foster critical thinking.

How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in this age of interruption characterized by information overload?

Attention deficit was a problem long before there was information overflow, stemming from a variety of sources that it is not germane to discuss here.  If we identify information overflow in its extreme form (students engrossed in their laptops while the professor is trying to deliver a nineteenth-century style lecture), I am enough of an optimist to say that the problem can be its own solution.  I say this because students in my classes often check out web sites dealing with questions we are discussing in class as soon as I raise the questions and volunteer the information they find.  Their discoveries are germane most of the time and I am able to integrate the finds with what I am presenting.  At a lower level, if it’s web-surfing for its own sake that is going on, or e-mailing or whatever (I think of a circular I found on a desk in my classroom, distributed by the Student Union, saying “Bored in class? Vote on line”) the challenge to the prof is even greater to make the class useful enough to be interesting.  Of course, “useful” has to be negotiated.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring university professors?

That’s easy: aspire to inspire.

You mentioned your language teachers and your own family as primal sources of inspiration early in life. Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what did you learn from them?

I was fortunate to have a variety of teachers in graduate school whose strengths individually were very different from each other, so it seemed intuitively like a good idea to assimilate (or imitate) and integrate those strengths.  Stephen Ullmann was an extraordinary blend of orator and entertainer: elegant and eloquent above all, but never short of amusing anecdotes and illustrations.  In a sense, his whimsical stories were a constant reminder of the old Russian proverb that there is nothing more serious than a joke.  The same was true of Jean-Paul Vinay, though his humour tended to be a little more outrageous.  In an interesting flip of that approach, he would make patently outrageous statements designed to make us stop and ask if he was joking, as when he suggested that he might revise his entire system for analyzing the comparative stylistics of French and English as a result of fresh “insight” into hamburger condiments.  Edward Burstynsky was my model for encyclopaedic learning.  As a doctoral student himself, he had taken more than three times the required number of graduate courses before doing his comprehensive exams and dissertation.  My thesis supervisor was Henry Schogt, far and away the most important influence on me in terms of showing the way to the critical thinking that is indispensable to solid and balanced scholarship.  The “ahas” that he gave me through constant feedback on my thesis chapters unquestionably laid the groundwork for all the writing that I would do throughout my own career.  Some 25 years after I defended my thesis, Henry came to my university as an external examiner for another thesis, and we co-taught a session in my graduate seminar.  It was a highlight not only of my career but of my intellectual life.  To cap it off, we co-authored an article for a festschrift.

You mention humour and entertainment as important personality traits that good teachers must possess in order to at least “aspire to inspire.” This resonates with McLuhan’s oft quoted remark that “those who make a distinction between education and entertainment don’t know the first thing about either.” I’m assuming you agree with the statement. What I really wonder though is how you would characterize McLuhan’s sense of humor: What function do you think his humorous personality played within his system of thought, and to what extent do you think he was misunderstood because of his jokes, puns and aphorisms?

Yes, I agree with the statement.  To some extent, it was inspired by his mother, Elsie McLuhan, an extraordinary woman who travelled coast to coast as a monologist (at the height of the Great Depression), giving readings and recitations that definitely blurred the line between education and entertainment.

Some of his jokes were truly awful: Q: What happens to a duck when he flies upside down? A: He quacks up.  Others were thought-provoking.  And he analyzed the function of jokes: airing grievances, etc.  Very useful.  He was at his humorous best when he stuck to puns, and that is not surprising because the single biggest influence on McLuhan was that master of the pun: James Joyce.  (There are more references to Joyce in Understanding Media and in From Cliché to Archetype, for example, than to any other author.)  In his public lectures, McLuhan used jokes to warm the audience up, and that is pretty much a foolproof tactic.  I don’t think he was misunderstood because of his jokes, but his puns and aphorisms were challenges to follow him in his thinking.  On the whole, I think they were less abrasive and off-putting than the tradition they stem from: stay-with-me-if-you-are-smart-enough.

Did you ever meet McLuhan in person? I am curious as to the circumstances that led you to become his official biographer…

When I was an undergrad, I heard him speak for the first time in a public lecture shortly after Understanding Media was published.  Ten minutes into the lecture I realized that although I had come to university for the intellectual challenge, I was in my third year but had never heard anything so stimulating.  Essentially, he was challenging you to think new thoughts AND to think them in new ways.  I became a McLuhan groupie and took every opportunity to hear him speak.

Years later, after I had brought out Saussure for Beginners, my editor for the same series gave me carte blanche to do another, so I wrote McLuhan for Beginners.  It was a short book but heavy on quotations, so I wrote to the agency handling McLuhan (he had already been dead for 15 years) to get official permission to use the quotations.  A week or two later I had a call from his widow, Corinne McLuhan.  She said “You understand my husband’s work so well, I would like you to write his biography.”  I didn’t feel I could say no!  I have been on a “McLuhan detour” ever since, having produced four books about him and critical editions of four of his own books.  I say “detour” because at that time I was already more than ten years into the research on a scholar who is, in his own way, every bit as amazing as McLuhan—the British polymath Charles Kay Ogden.  Interestingly enough, McLuhan studied at Cambridge with Ogden’s co-author of The Meaning of Meaning (I.A. Richards), and he explicitly acknowledged that his phrase “the medium is the message” was inspired by the title of the Ogden and Richards book.

Philip Marchand also wrote a great McLuhan biography. I was wondering if you have a personal relationship with him, and if you read his work. How do you think the two biographies complement each other?

I have never met Phil, but I respect his work.  I don’t think it would be appropriate to say anything more than that.  Douglas Coupland called Phil’s book “marvelous” and mine “equally marvelous” and that is good enough for me!

What are you currently working on?

I have an enormous number of irons in the fire, including a complete script for a multi-media piece about McLuhan’s life and work that may or may not get produced during the centennial year.

I originally approached Mark Batty Publishers with a proposal to serve as commissioning editor for a series on major intellectual figures of the twentieth century.  So far, I have produced the only two books in the series myself (that was not my plan!): Everyman’s McLuhan, Everyman’s Joyce.  If I am going to be a one-man band, I hope the next will be Everyman’s Gertrude Stein, though the publisher himself seems to be leaning toward Susan Sontag at the moment.

And then there is the Ogden biography, though I am tempted to do it as a biographical fiction, because readers would inevitably think the real parts were pure fiction and the fiction biographical!

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Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2010). “Interview with W. Terrence Gordon,” Figure/Ground. November 12th. <  >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

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