First year of university, first day of class. Scoping out my fellow students, I would describe the vibe as “wary.” Nobody had actually told us yet that we were Generation X, but when the truth came out, I can’t say we were surprised.
Professor Clements came through the door, moving fast. She introduced herself and gave us a stack of syllabi to pass out and said she wanted to give us a framework for the class. “One way to understand English literature,” she said, “is as the history of an auto-cannibalistic tradition.”
I wrote that down in my brand new notebook – an auto-cannibalistic tradition – and grinned. It turned out she was using the T.S. Eliot essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as a springboard for the course, but once you’ve dropped “cannibal” in your opening line, there’s no need for encores. I never wrote a word in that notebook again.
Professor Clements made teaching the kind of speed-and-precision performance you normally associate with a different kind of job – blackjack dealer, say, or table chef at Benihana – chop-toss-sizzle wow!
If we were country cousins, come up for the first time to the Metropolis of Learning, Dr. Clements taught us how to live in the big city. How to hail a cab, how to chase down an idea, how to make friends with Emily Dickinson (don’t stare) and T.S. Eliot (moody, but worth it.)
I absolutely loved the exhilaration of her class – firecracker conversations in a cab that was always going somewhere amazing.
Though she never made the guys feel unwelcome, she was clearly an energetic and unapologetic feminist. Once, when she alluded obliquely to gender issues in Women in Love, I raised my hand to protest, pointing out that Lawrence was generally sympathetic to the “feminine” - that which is hidden, dark, yielding, receptive and of the earth….
Dr. Clements paused and said, “I guess I don’t particularly want to be commended for being inert.”
Of all people, I guess not.
Looking back, it’s easy to make connections now between her background, her politics, and the way she worked so hard to include us in the conversation. She wanted us to think and talk and get our hands dirty – she made us feel that we had a right to be part of the great conversation of ideas. Maybe a girl growing up in ’50s Saskatchewan learns that grit and forward momentum are good things to have on the journey from Saskatoon to Oxford.
Pat Clements filled generations of students with the confidence that even kids from Edmonton deserved a voice, and that is a gift I will never forget.
Sean Stewart ('86 BA) is a New Media Pioneer and novelist who co-created the world's first alternate reality game.