The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Michael John DiSanto



I have been meaning to write this letter for about eight years. Like most academic institutions, Brock University has a policy whereby students are asked to complete anonymous evaluations of professors at the end of a course. Professor Brian Crick has refused to submit to this procedure of anonymous judgment. Instead, he asks his students to write an open letter to him with whatever comments or judgments they have to make about his course. I know of only one student that ever wrote a letter during my time at Brock. I did not because I felt unsure of how to articulate my thoughts. I write mine now because I am publishing in this issue an essay by Brian Crick, an essay that was rejected by a journal in the United States several years ago for being too lively and argumentative and not sufficiently professional or politically correct.


When I arrived as an undergraduate at Brock University the idea of studying English literature never crossed my mind. That was something I had left along with high school. A conflict in my course calendar caused me to change one of my classes. I did not have many options and went to the English department, asking the secretary whether there was any room still available in any of the first-year English courses. Shirley was very helpful. Looking at my calendar she suggested that there was one English course that would fit my timetable. I had to decide between Sociology, Psychology, and English. I made the choice according to the most important question for any first-year student: which of the three didn’t have Friday classes. And so the next week I attended my first lecture in English 1F99: Language and Thought taught by Professor Brian Crick.


On September 12, 1995, Crick began his lecture by writing several statements on the blackboard. He made an argument about the care and deliberation that goes into the writing of literature as opposed to how we select words in everyday conversation. He challenged our proud assumptions that we could interpret literature any way we wanted. He then asked us to have respect for the language in which any work of literature is written.


None of this may sound any different from any other introductory lecture in any other university. Yet when I walked out of the room I felt sick. My chest felt empty and hollow. Nothing would ever make it feel whole again. Everything he said was terrible and wonderful and perplexing in the extreme. The experience was utterly strange. And the experience was repeated week after week through four years.


I took every course that Crick taught and then some. When I wasn’t in class I was a fixture in his doorway asking questions. Sometimes I would walk with him through the hallways.


When I needed one more course in order to graduate at the end of my fourth year he gave me a reading course in the living room of his home. We sat in two antique chairs underneath stained glass windows. The sun would shine through the windows as it set at the end of every spring day. Beams of sunlight would cast rainbows across the walls at the far end of the room. I would like to say that we had conversations but really he spoke and I listened. I listened with all the care and deliberation that I could muster feeling that I had been granted a rare opportunity.


Brian Crick secured me a place in the graduate program at Dalhousie twice. He is the only reason I went to graduate school. My dissertation grows out of an argument he made once in the last lecture of a course on the English novel.


I returned to Brock University as a teaching assistant a few months ago. Crick asked me to assist him with his course on Shakespeare’s tragedies. I had not heard him lecture in four years. I was astonished when after a few minutes of his opening lecture my chest began to feel empty and hollow.


He is the only professor I know whose students still attend his lectures years after they have graduated, sometimes taking time from work to do so. Some students come back twenty years after leaving Brock.


Before meeting Professor Crick, I had no critical judgment. I had no understanding of the importance of language and thought. I had never heard of literary criticism. I had no knowledge of English literature. I had no sense of tradition or history. I did not enjoy reading. I could not make an argument. He taught me all of these things.


His courses always exemplified his ideal that real criticism occurs in conversations. His lectures were opportunities for students to overhear the conversations he had with the authors of the books he read and judged to be important. He enabled us to overhear conversations between authors who sometimes lived and wrote hundreds of years apart. Every lecture might have been expanded into several doctoral dissertations. He never gives the same lecture twice; instead he plays on questions and problems as if he were a fine jazz musician. His seminars always exemplified the liberty of thought and discussion that should characterize the university. During his classes the ideal of the university is a reality.


I still have every note I wrote in his classes. They are records of arguments about language and literature that are absolutely distinct. Crick’s lectures could never be mistaken. I have never heard anyone so fearless. Unfortunately my notes capture neither the seriousness nor the humorousness of the lectures. Nor do they convey the dynamic nature of the man as he thought aloud for us to listen.


I have never seen the same level of teaching from any other professor. He was always looking for an argument but we rarely gave him one. He was always thinking about problems but we rarely broke from our habit of thinking there are no problems. We rarely met his standards for critical thought. Very few do.


Whatever the advertising campaign slogans for Brock University promise, careers do not begin in Brian Crick’s lectures and seminars. But that problem will become no problem for the university soon. Professor Crick will be retiring at the end of the 2004-2005 academic year.






DiSanto, Michael John. “Editorial.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <>