Sometimes a Great Teacher: What a literature professor taught me about the dysfunction of modern biomedicine
David J. Schleich, PhD
Forty-two winters ago I was sitting in Dr Christopher Drummond’s Saturday morning Renaissance Literature seminar at the University of Alberta. The smokers in the class had their parkas draped over the backs of their seats for quick exits during the brief breaks in our professor’s highly structured class. On this particular day, a blistering snowstorm slammed the city – normal fare for high winter in Edmonton. We were a motley bunch in that warm classroom. Some of us were graduate literature students finishing up a missing prerequisite. A dozen upper-year medical students, one of whom was female, were belatedly picking up an available Arts and Humanities course, in those days a required element of their medical degree. Our section was a popular alternative to the usual twice-weekly, 2-hour seminar. Professor Drummond’s class was open-enrollment, which meant that it was available to full-time, part-time, continuing education, and any other students who cared or needed to sign up. It had the added benefit of being abbreviated into one 3-hour meeting with two 10-minute breaks. In prospect, perfect for everybody. And then we met the teacher.
Encountering a Great Teacher
There was no hiding out. His assessment rigor and in-class intensity surrounded us from the first moment. What we thought was a convenient credit turned out to be demanding and unrelenting. Even so, Dr Christopher Drummond remains my all-time favorite university teacher. Now that I know a bit more, objectively, about what a “great teacher” actually is and means, I can point to him as a superb example of what the literature about “great teacher qualities” sets out as benchmarks.
He had an engaging personality and teaching style, grabbing and holding the attention of his initially shell-shocked students. It was not a good plan to skip the readings. Indeed, the course syllabus stated exactly that expectation in bold caps. Whether you had done the readings with care or not at all, he would reel us all in with eloquence, context, frameworks, anchors, and real-world associations. Not only did he bathe the weekly gathering with insight, connectivity and reach, he guided and motivated us through it all with the mischievous patience of the master teacher who knows where s/he wants us to get to. I could tell that he had always reflected on what had happened in the immediately previous class. Whether deliberately structured or intuitive or both, he had intentions for every seminar. His style was decidedly unlike some others on the faculty who, more often than not, could be random and picaresque in their ramblings, probably because of, rather than despite, their profound, hard-earned knowledge.
Those of us who were professor apprentices paid attention to all taskmasters, whatever their style. We had to vie for their attention and favor in order to make it through the PhD and post-doc gauntlet. After all, they had their PhDs and had enviable jobs which paid them to read and write about their beloved specialties. All of this was happening during that long-ago era when coming-of-age baby boomers were in high-octane competition with each other. It was the beginning of a brand new trend when tenure-track jobs started to disappear as a consequence of spiking higher-education costs. Notwithstanding the career preparation aspect of Dr Drummond’s course, though, those 15 Saturdays stand out, even all these years later, as a time of paradigm shifts and transformation. We became more thoughtful, more reflective, more open, and more tired.
Benchmarks of a Great Teacher
A great teacher will engage his or her students and reward them for looking at issues in a variety of ways. Dr Drummond always began with the text (of the literary works we were focused on that week), using facts as his starting point, not an end-point. His technique was to drop provocative statements into the dialogue, encouraging us to see into the complexity of the work, to see it from many angles. His exams and assignments did the same, forcing us – if we wanted to get an “A” – to predict what would happen next with a particular idea or concept or insight. He put us in charge of such explorations, dive-bombing any daydreamer at any moment with, “… and, Mr [student’s last name … for he knew them by heart], does the rational form of Ben Johnson’s work here support our idea in this seminar that the short poem of the Renaissance was the basis of later realism of the novels of Nash and Sterne?” Uh…. My notes from those seminars are loaded with potential MA and PhD thesis topics. Who knew?
Invariably, after numerous, all-seminar-long slices into our comfort zones, he would end his seminars with, “So, what is worth keeping from today?” He wouldn’t let us leave, even though the minute hand might have hit the hour, until at least one of us brought closure to the meeting with some encapsulating effort, however facile, naïve or amazing. One brave answer was enough to release us all back into the long winter outside. This particular Saturday, though, Dr Drummond asked his question but followed it up uncharacteristically with a statement. Then he sat alert, in no hurry, at the desk in the front of the class, waiting for the first one to blink.
The Good “Doctour”
We had been discussing the power of character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, an important idea for an era when ideal Petrarchan beatific verse was at odds with the rascally mundane French fabliaux. Our professor was trying to get us to see the modern era writ large centuries before it took hold of the masses. In any case, that day Dr Drummond had focused for a time on the famous Chaucer character, the “Doctour of Physik”, initially to the delight of the MD students who were in for the count, now that the course had passed the 3-week drop date.
The good “Doctour” shows up in only a few lines of the famous prologue. However, The Doctour of Physik, in a very short space, impressively cites the names of a dozen famous Greek, Arabian, and contemporary physicians. One gets the impression, Dr Drummond had suggested, that the good doctor, representing the status quo of the medical profession at the time, is a confident, proud fellow, but that he is also a businessman, given his knowledge and his appearance and dress. Dr Drummond had gone on to explain that this fictional character was probably modeled after John of Burgundy, one of the most prominent physicians of the era, and that he seemed to be Chaucer’s exponent of medieval medical science, indeed of science generally. Our professor, though, citing critic W. Curry, speculated that perhaps the “Doctour” was altogether too boastful of his knowledge. Perhaps what he claimed to know was neither broad nor accurate. I noticed a couple of the MD students, roused from their reveries in this time before laptops, opened at least one eye a little wider, calculating the odds on whether their required Arts and Humanities elective professor might choose one of them at any moment to respond to some macro question, to test not only attentiveness to the topic, but its relevance to their lives and the world, in general. He didn’t choose anyone, for the moment. Instead, he went on, citing Walter Curry:
For the good ‘Doctour’ I suspect talks too much. He is exceedingly, though perhaps not abnormally, well pleased with himself and with his profession, and seems determined that the Canterbury Pilgrims shall be properly impressed with himself and with his profession, and seems determined by his success in the recent pestilences… that he discourses rather ostentatiously upon the occult philosophy of medicine.
(Curry, 1960, p.68)
There followed an unusual, wonderful, side-bar but strategic exegesis spanning centuries (I have my class notes from that day to remind me of the detail) in which Dr Drummond spoke from his own notes (clearly prepared, he was, for this challenge to the MD students in the class), citing examples from random works across 3 centuries of the depiction of other mainstream, status quo “physicians” [Tobias Smollett’s (1721-1771) egocentric Dr Mackshane in The Adventures of Roderick Random; Hawthorne’s Dr Rappaccini, in the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”(1846); Melville’s Fleet Surgeon Cadwallader Cuticle, in The World in a Man-of-War (1850); Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne (1858); Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871); and finally, Dr Cottard in Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (1927)].
“Now, wouldn’t that make a nifty Master’s thesis or even a PhD dissertation topic – ‘The Depiction of Medical Doctors in English Literature,’” our professor announced. One MD student confidently declared that their forebears deserved the acrimony of the authors of the time. “After all,” I see in my notes that she insisted, “they did not have the benefit of modern science to assure safety and effectiveness.” “Indeed,” Dr Drummond countered, “but to hear their protestations about the medical science of the time, your insistence that they deserve the acrimony might be disputed, don’t you think?” He quickly added before she could respond, “Would what you consider acrimony be any less sincere or valid then, as now?” The subtlety of the nuance did not wash over her or us fast enough, although I do remember suggesting myself that contemporary science, “surely, is more advanced,” to which Dr Drummond replied instantly, “Without doubt; however, the point in question is the self-surety of the person arguing for that superior position of contemporary science, for surely [he repeated my word deliberately; he was like that], you cannot deny such assurance to anyone believing it so, from any period.”
The parry-thrust of the next quarter-hour did not resolve the question. In fact, I don’t think any of us really understood the question. As with every Saturday at noon, the class ended as it always did with our professor asking us, “So, what is worth keeping from today?” No one spoke up. Dr Drummond rescued us from the uneasy silence. He said, “We might have had the courage among our cohort today to explore, in light of the rich, allusive literature on it, the notion that modern contemporary medicine can benefit from reflection on the metaphor of doctors as plumbers of the human body.”
The following Saturday morning our professor began the class with an apology. I wrote down what he said:
I have learned from the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine through my Dean that three men from among the medical students in our class were offended by certain of my remarks in our last meeting, most specifically about the physician as character in literature, for which unintended, but experienced offense I apologize. Today, in addition, I withdraw from potential conversation my reference to the role of plumbing as a metaphor in modern western medicine.
David J. Schleich, PhD, is president and CEO of NCNM, former president of Truestar Health, and former CEO and president of CCNM, where he served from 1996 to 2003. Previous posts have included appointments as vice president academic of Niagara College, and administrative and teaching positions at St. Lawrence College, Swinburne University (Australia) and the University of Alberta. His academic credentials have been earned from the University of Western Ontario (BA), the University of Alberta (MA), Queen’s University (BEd), and the University of Toronto (PhD).
- Chaucer, G. (1951). The Canterbury Tales. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Classics.
- Curry, W. C. (1960). Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble.
- Smith, R. D. (1994).Dysfunctional doctor of physik. West J Med, 160, 70-72.
- Eliot, G. (1984). Middlemarch. New York, NY: Modern Library.
- Hawthorne, N. (1982). Rappaccini’s Daughter. In: Tales and Sketches. New York, NY: Library of America.
- Melville, H. (1988). Moby Dick; or, The Whale. Hayford, H., Parker, H., & Tanselle, G.T. (Eds.). Evanston and Chicago, Illinois: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library.
- Proust, M. (1934). Remembrance of Things Past (Moncrief CKS, transl). New York, NY: Random House.
- Smollett, T. (1778). The Adventures of Roderick Random , 10th edition. London, England: Gardner.
- Trollope, A. (1980). Doctor Thorne. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.