English department loses its Muise

Sitting upon a sun-drenched bench in a local downtown café, John Muise’s eyes were puffy and bloodshot, but his green shirt was pressed and his checkered blazer complimented his brown dress shoes. He had been meeting a friend, networking, talking about his post-STU prospects.

Anyone who knows Muise, or anyone who’s seen the slender bald man walking around campus, would hardly recognize him in this full-length-pants-and-golfer-hat ensemble. Muise has been biking up the Windsor Street hill to get to classes he teaches at St. Thomas University for 17 years. In the summer he wears short shorts, in the winter he also mostly wears short shorts.

He said he never minded the trek, but since Jan. 25, peddling up that hill in the frigid temperatures has been almost unbearable. That freezing Friday, 51-year-old Muise was told he is being dismissed from his regular appointment at St. Thomas University. He was told the class he’s teaching this intersession will be his last, at least for the next few years.

That day he was called in for what he thought was a routine class allocation meeting.

“I had just finished teaching [novelist] Flannery O’Connor and I was all excited, I was talking about that,” he said.

The university had decided to cut three first-year English sections, and it just happened Muise only taught first years.

“I thought the time might come that I would get a reduced allocation because of enrolment, but I never thought all three. I said, ‘What about the prospects of next year? What about after that?’ ‘No,'” he said.

“It’s just a perfect storm, my three [courses].”

So he went home and saw his wife, Kim.

“I said, ‘I just lost my job.’ She said, ‘What did you do?’ because I’d do something,” he exhaled what would have been a chuckle, but he wasn’t smiling.

It wasn’t because of anything he did. It was a purely logistical decision, he said. On March 2, he received a three-paragraph letter, what he called “bedside manners,” stating he’s being dismissed from his regular appointment, but not because of disciplinary reasons.

“It’s not personal but it feels incredibly personal. I’m sure people in administration don’t even know this is going on. It’s just one of these things.”

Since January, Muise said he hasn’t been sleeping well.

“If I go in the chapel and I see you having a coffee sometimes, I just feel like I want to break down because, it’s just, I’ll miss it. Sorry,” he quickly wipes a tear away.

“It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just hard to be rational about it. I have to apologize, I feel embarrassed to go out in public. This has been on my mind so much. As much as you can rationalize it, you know that it’s not a personal thing you do feel it personally. But I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, that terrible university.'”

He repeated that point a few times: Don’t blame the university.

“STU has been extremely good to me, I mean it has … It’s hard for me to conjure up any ill will towards the school.”

Since the news began going around, many students have spoken out, expressing their disappointment of losing Muise. His former student Nick Piers wrote a letter, saying the university has made a mistake.

“I feel extraordinarily flattered but, at the same time, I don’t want anyone feeling [sad],” Muise said. “I know he’s feeling very badly and I can’t change it … I would like to thank him but at the same time I don’t think anything can or should be done about it.”

Muise said a few more people reached out to him personally, including STU grad Jamie Ross who now works for the Globe and Mail.

“He left a message saying, ‘I don’t know if you remember me.’ I said, ‘Remember you? How in the name of God am I gonna [forget]? I remember your essays, I remember the class you were in, I remember everything.”

People ask him if they can do anything and he says no, please don’t.

“Because I don’t want to give the impression that there’s any bad feelings.”

When asked about how his wife feels about this he pauses for a few seconds.

“She had to go to work, but I said, ‘I wish you could be here [at the interview] because you can hold me up.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ She’s been devastated.”

His wife has been an avid follower of his class. Over the years, she has sat in on some classes and even wrote some essays, as if she were a student.

“She’s cried a lot more over this than I have. Maybe that’s the problem, maybe I should have a good cry or something,” another half chuckle.

“She’s really upset and my folks back home are really, really upset.”

Financially, Muise said he’s been worried.

“I don’t think I would [be] if I didn’t have …” he said as he gestured toward 11-year-old Alphonsus, his only son, who was sitting behind him fully absorbed in a tablet.

“I have to live in the real world.”

The rationale

Jeffrey Carleton, associate vice-president communications of STU, said cutting the number of first-year English classes from 10 to seven is a logistical decision made because of decreasing enrolment.

“Last year the average first-year class was 29 students. The average class size in English last year was 22.9. And that’s decreased. It was at 23 for three years and prior to that, in 2013, it was at 28 … In English we’ve certainly seen a downward trend in class size.”

With three less first-year courses, the university may run the risk of having bigger class sizes. This may take away from the small-class-size learning experience STU prides itself on.

But Carleton said that’s not a risk, since STU has a cap of 60 students per class. He said that cap has not changed.

“Professor Muise is a well-respected teacher. Students think highly of him, I know his peers think highly of him. But in this case, once the allocations of the first-year courses were done … there was no course for him to teach,” Carleton said.

“If there are any courses available in the future, he’s able to apply for them.”

Not just Muise

Muise is not the only one with less allocations this year. Andrew Titus will only be teaching two courses in the second semester of next year and no courses in the first. Ella Allen has also lost allocations.

“It’s a kick in the teeth [financially], there’s no doubt about it,” Titus said. A marathon-instructor manual sat on the table next to his seat in the Great Hall. He’s studying for an exam to be qualified to be a marathon coach.

“But at the same time, I made a conscious decision to not pursue a phD, understanding the consequences of that decision. The consequences of not having a phD is that you’ll never become a full-time professor. It’s just as simple as that.”

He decided he will look at his financial life as a stool, with many legs supporting it. He’s teaching some classes at the University of New Brunswick, and he’s looking for more opportunities.

“I’m not a religious person but man, you gotta have some faith.”

Titus has been teaching for 12 years. He said he knows he has no control over this decision.

“Being the very busy person that I am, I don’t have time to put into the queue of my priorities frustrations at things that I can’t do anything about,” he said.

“On a more personal note, I feel saddened by it … I love my first-year students. I love to teach intro.”

“It has been a continuous exciting and dynamic and rewarding learning experience for me more than anything else. So I’m just really sad that I don’t get to do that anymore.”

The highlights

Muise said he’ll miss putting on puppet shows for his students. And class outside.

“I’ll miss the students. The relationships with students that last years. I’ll miss taking students outside on the lawn, all of it,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

“There’s no one single thing, it’s just, it’s been kind of like family,” Muise said.

“You want to talk about a highlight? It’s the whole thing.”

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