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Controversial prof profiled at Hot Docs

BY HARRIET EISENKRAFT | JUN 08 2009

A tribute to a popular but beleaguered Canadian academic had its world premiere at the 2009 Hot Docs film festival recently in Toronto. Professor Norman Cornett – “Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?” is Alanis Obomsawin’s perspective on his innovative teaching methods as a contract instructor at McGill University for 15 years, and the sudden termination of his employment there in the spring of 2007. (You can watch the trailer here.)

Using students’ own videotaped footage of his classes there, among other material, the renowned director makes a case for the unusual but controversial religious studies professor.

Dr. Cornett had become disenchanted with the usual means of postsecondary pedagogy and assessment after a student broke down from pressure in his office many years ago. His subsequent “dialogical sessions” asked students to respond to the works and words of a diverse group of artists, musicians, religious scholars, doctors, politicians and filmmakers, including Ms. Obomsawin. He invited them all into his classroom or accompanied his students to witness their art and ideas at off-campus venues. Dr. Cornett marked on participation and lengthy written reactions, conveyed – anonymously – to the guests themselves, who would then enter into conversations with the class.

The students who speak up in the film appear defiant and devastated over the end of his career at McGill. They attest to his ability to personally connect and inspire and theirs were among several petitions that circulated in his favour after the dismissal.

McGill chose not to comment about Dr. Cornett for the documentary or afterwards.

The numerous films of the award-winning Ms. Obomsawin have focused mainly on First Nations people. Nevertheless, she does not see the Cornett one as a departure, given her life-long interest in education: “I have very high regard for his way of teaching.”

A sold-out crowd gave the pair a standing ovation when they mounted the stage after the documentary’s screening at the University of Toronto‘s Isabel Bader Theatre. It will have its Montreal debut, in English and French, at a film festival in June.

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