Editor’s note: On March 2 English professor John Muise received a letter saying there are no classes for him to teach in the 2017-18 school year. There are seven sections of ENGL 1016 this year, three fewer than last year. The university said because full-time faculty get the first allocations on those, six of the seven allocations for 1016 went to full-time faculty and the one left over went to a part-time professor that has more seniority than Muise. After 17 years at St. Thomas University, Muise will not be teaching a single class. This letter is a STU alumnus’ reaction to this news.
One of my best friends recently told me that John Muise – long-time instructor at St. Thomas University – is not returning to teach next year. St. Thomas University is not renewing his contract. For me, and for everything John has done for me, this is absolutely heartbreaking. I firmly believe that STU is making a mistake.
Dear St. Thomas University,
It recently came to my attention that St. Thomas University is not renewing their contract with English instructor John Muise. As a former St. Thomas student, I’m writing in the hopes that those involved in the process rethink their decision.
After all, if it wasn’t for John Muise, I wouldn’t be a published writer. Let me explain.
If you look at my records, I first attended St. Thomas University in 1997. I only lasted a year as I brought all my bad high school habits with me. My attendance was shoddy, I barely paid attention, and as a result, my grades suffered. When I returned in 2003 and wanted to be there, I became a keener at the front of the class. My marks went from Cs and Ds to Bs and As, a rarity in my academic life.
It was during this return that I first encountered John Muise. He taught my ENG1006 class. At first, I didn’t know what to think of this guy. Here’s this kooky, rambling hippie who bikes to school every single day of the year (even in winter)! His wife comes with him to be basically his teacher’s assistant. He tells stories about how he doesn’t own a TV, hates using computers, or that he actually liked not having hot water in his home for a while.
“What’s a weirdo like this teaching English?” I asked myself. “With all these soapbox rants, he must love the sound of his own voice. Why does he show so many clips from movies? What does Fight Club, Annie Hall, My Dinner with Andre, Cool Hand Luke, or the frigging Matrix have to do with Hamlet or Frankenstein!? Why isn’t he living off the land like some glorified Henry David Thoreau, one of his literary heroes?”
As I attended John’s classes, listening to him quote Thoreau, J. D. Salinger, Chuck Palahniuk, or Ken Kesey, I started seeing John’s brilliance. Here’s a guy who uses pop culture in order to connect similar ideas with classic literature. Here’s a guy who, inspired by his favourite rebellious writers, sees society in a different way. He sees consumerism has overtaken our world. He sees the unnecessary waste it creates. He sees people unwilling to be themselves, putting on fronts in order to please others. He frowns on society’s obsession with beauty and aesthetics. He worships the outliers; the outside-the-box thinkers; the unconformers to society’s sometimes silly rules. As Thoreau said in Walden: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
John Muise became not just my own writing muse; he became an inspiration for how to lead my own life. I became less afraid of being myself. Even today, I still feel like an outlier compared to other people.
Then he gave me the greatest gift no other instructor has: creative freedom. See, while John stuck to “the rules” and handed out essay topics, he also left the door open for other projects. He openly suggested coming up with our own topics (checking with him first, of course). He even suggested thinking outside the box and doing something other than an essay: a presentation, a short film, a short story. He admitted doing this to break up the monotony of reading essay after essay after essay.
I’ll fully admit that my first attempt at my own topic was silly. Being a huge comic book nerd, I wrote an essay comparing Hamlet with Spider-Man. It wasn’t very good and I was marked accordingly (I think a B-, maybe a C). But just the fact that I was allowed to do that was amazing to me!
Later assignments, though, is where my creativity really took off. For Fight Club, I wrote a short story from the point of view of Raymond K. Hessel, the convenience store clerk held at gunpoint by Tyler Durden. Looking back, it’s glorified fan fiction. But John loved it and marked it with an A or A+.
My crowning achievement, though, was my Frankenstein presentation. Thanks to John, Frankenstein became one of my favourite literary works. Inspired by it, I did a monologue in front of the class. I played the monster as if he continued to live until today. Heh, in retrospect, I just soapboxed my own frustrations with the world. I guess John inspired me to rant just like him, too. But John (and the rest of the class) praised it so highly that he invited me to “perform” for his ENG2006 class.
My final assignment, while nowhere nearly as praised, was the real kick-off to my writing career. Inspired by all I’d written and heard in John’s course, I wrote a short novella set in a superhero world. It starred a character called The Farmer, an ex-super villain whose penance was toiling on an isolated farm for the rest of his life. I didn’t know it at the time, but that story was the tiny snowball at the top of the hill. After taking John’s course, I wrote a follow-up novella that introduced a side character: The Armadillo, later named Dilbert Pinkerton. Dill became the star of my own series of pulp-styled adventures. I now have two books in the series published: The City of Smoke & Mirrors and The Dame was a Tad Polish.
If it wasn’t for Dill, I wouldn’t be a published author.
If it wasn’t for that second novella, I wouldn’t have Dill.
If it wasn’t for The Farmer, I wouldn’t have that second novella.
If it wasn’t for John Muise, I wouldn’t have had The Farmer.
In other words, if it wasn’t for John Muise, I wouldn’t have fulfilled one of my greatest dreams. I’ve been writing since the summer after Grade 2, when I wrote short stories in crayon about Gizmo from the movie Gremlins. I’ve met teachers along the way who inspired me, who pushed my creativity, who offered just the right amount of criticism. I can think of less than half a dozen people in my life who filled that role. John Muise is unquestionably one of my greatest influencers, which is why I dedicated my first novel to him, along with those other influencers.
I became not only a better writer, but a better person because of John Muise. He helped me become one of those outside-the-box thinkers. Hell, I don’t think there’s a box that fits me anymore and I’m grateful to John for that.
Going to university is all about opening your mind to new ideas. University is meant to challenge what and how you think. The very idea of St. Thomas University as a Liberal Arts school is, as the website states, “explore controversial and competing ideas in ways that demand informed, careful, and considered judgement.”
Is John Muise controversial? Absolutely. What other instructor brings a blow-up doll while teaching Charles Bukowski’s Love for 17.50? But you can’t open your mind fully if you’re not willing to experience and consider controversial opinions, even if you don’t agree with them.
As much as a kooky, rambling, controversial, rebellious, winter-cycling madman John Muise is, he is the very definition of everything that St. Thomas University stands for. John Muise personifies St. Thomas University. John has taught at St. Thomas for seventeen years. I can’t imagine a St. Thomas University without him and I truly hope I don’t have to. I implore you to reconsider your decision and let John continue to be the kooky, rambling, controversial, rebellious, winter-cycling madman for at least another seventeen years.
“He Who Marches Out Of Step Hears Another Drum.”
– Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
With every ounce of hope to John,
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