It was a similar sweltering sunny afternoon when I walked downtown to meet John Muise two years ago, but a lot has changed since then.
At that time, I was beginning to delve into the world of journalism and Muise was about to become my first interviewee. I was told he was an “eccentric” professor who “wears short shorts” and “bikes uphill to work — even in the winter.” My interest was peaked, so I trekked downtown to grab coffee with him.
Fast-forward to this year and we’re sitting in the very same bright red chairs outside a local coffee shop in downtown Fredericton. Even though he’s no longer a professor at St. Thomas University, he still wears his soft green t-shirt with “St. Thomas University” written in white.
He tells me the same thing he said two years ago: “I felt extremely fortunate when I started teaching at STU in 2000.”
But this time the sentence has a completely different connotation.
In March, Muise, who taught mostly first-year English classes, was dismissed from his teaching appointment due to the reallocation of English classes.
“I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t have a plan B,” he said.
The university cut the number of English classes from 10 to seven last year because of a downward trend in class sizes. This decision left Muise without a course to teach, since the first-year English classes were given to professors with more seniority.
“It’s weird … This is the first time in 17 years that I haven’t been taking students outside to talk about Fight Club, Greek tragedy … It’s hard to fill in those blanks, those gaps, those big holes in my life,” Muise said.
Before teaching at STU, Muise worked several odd jobs including digging up sewer lines and tutoring at the university’s writing centre.
When he got the position as a professor at the university, he felt as though he’d found a home for his eccentric personality.
“I felt, as an eccentric, if there’s one place an eccentric is welcome, it’s a liberal arts institution. So I felt — with my cut-off shorts and strange practices — I felt at home at STU. When that ceased to exist, as Wallace Shawn says in The Princess Bride, it was ‘inconceivable,’” Muise said, imitating the voice of the actor.
“I always felt wanted … needed at STU … It’s a place I felt was home and now I don’t feel it’s home anymore.”
Since his dismissal, Muise said he’s applied for for so many jobs, he couldn’t put an exact number on it.
“I could say over 100 and it would probably be true,” he said.
He’s applied for jobs at Mount Allison University, University of Prince Edward Island and Cineplex Cinemas, among many other places.
“Having a job at the Cineplex is a noble job, but when you’ve taught 17 years altogether and you’ve got diplomas and degrees as long as a telephone line from here to B.C. and you can’t get a job at the Cineplex, you can’t count on anything anymore,” he said.
During the summer he applied to teach several courses at STU, including introductory English in the Aquinas program and an introductory Shakespeare course, but he was rejected and deemed “unqualified” to teach those courses.
Jeffrey Carleton, associate vice-president communications at STU, wrote in an email that Muise’s “eligibility to teach [is] covered by the standards and procedures established in the Collective Agreements, the allocation of courses and professor Muise’s employment situation with the university.”
Muise is now teaching a course at the University of New Brunswick on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, tutoring on Tuesdays and teaching at the College of Extended Learning in the evenings.
“I’m grateful for it. It keeps the lights on,” he said in regard to his new jobs.
He’s not bitter or spiteful, but he misses the work and “of course, the students.”
“It was a religious experience for me … It wasn’t just a job,” said Muise.
Students from across the country have contacted him since March, expressing their sorrow about his dismissal, including published author Nick Piers, who wrote a letter to the editor in The Aquinian last March.
“I became not only a better writer, but a better person because of John Muise,” Piers wrote.
“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.”
As for me, if I hadn’t met Muise two years ago, I’m not sure I’d be pursuing journalism with the same fervor I am today.
Muise taught me that despite the shitty things that have happened to you and will happen to you, you can still go places. And the key to getting to those places is to be absolutely, gloriously, unconventionally you — even if that means wearing short shorts and biking uphill in the winter.
And in the end, I think that’s what any qualified professor should do: educate and inspire you.
“I’ve said to a lot of students, ‘I’m sure you would have been fine without me, but I’m glad I was a part of it.’”