Tom Henighan as Teacher

Most of what follows derives from a report prepared on my teaching career by some former students who were eager to see me get an academic teaching award. Perhaps they were too optimistic, since despite the fact that every word of their brief is quite accurate (!) no award was forthcoming. Which is a very good reason, perhaps, for setting the record straight here.

Summary of Brief

Tom Henighan is an outstanding teacher as well as a dedicated and gifted academic whose career has made a great impact on a large number and wide variety of students over a period of some forty years, most of which he has spent at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Here are some typical excerpts from student written comments on his courses:

“I would do better in all my classes if I were this motivated and excited as I am by this one.” (Myth and Symbol)

“I can’t remember when I learned more in just one class; nor can I remember the last time I enjoyed learning more thoroughly.” (Myth and Symbol)

“Tom is a great teacher because he cares about writing and is very respectful of people.” (Fiction Writing Workshop)

“Tom Henighan is an intelligent, well-read, liberal-minded, wonderfully articulate instructor. His lectures easily transcend the context of the texts we study, appealing to and affecting our everyday and most profound personal experiences.” (Myth and Symbol)

“Professor Henighan showed exceptional willingness to spend time with students, to the point of making himself available on weekends, and distributing his phone number to the class.” (Fiction Writing Workshop)

“I found the information and synthesis offered by the professor to be very eclectic, i.e., there was some history, psychology, religion, as well as English literature. This has spurred me on to take more courses at Carleton. Which is the point of a good instructor–he makes you want to know more.” (Myth and Symbol).

“Professor Henighan did an excellent job of teaching the class on short notice . . . He really seems to love a lot of what he makes us read.” (Replacing an ailing colleague in an undergraduate lecture course in Romanticism)

“Your lectures put me in touch with the substance of life, and I am forever grateful.” (Myth and Symbol)

“There should be more courses like Tom Henighan’s fiction workshop. He’s restored my faith in the philosophy that we are here to learn and grow as writers. I’ve never had such support in something I enjoy so much.” (Fiction writing workshop)

“Another terrific Henighan course–interesting, compelling lectures and another diverse and enlightening reading list. I grew some more, thanks again!” (Literature of the Self)

“His superior way of conducting seminars invites a myriad of views without losing sight of a unifying concept. Everyone feels encouraged & welcome to participate. To attend was to learn with delight.” (Graduate seminar in Romanticism)

“Very approachable professor who is fair in every way. Worked at rapid speed but looking back I can’t believe what I have accomplished and learnt.” (First-year English honours course)

“A super course–you gave us insight into the connected-ness of many kinds of literature, inspiration to read all the recommended books and more, and stirred our imaginations. Thank you for your enthusiasm & knowledge–shared with us.” (Myth and Symbol)

Tom Henighan is one of the most popular classroom lecturers ever to teach at Carleton University. His lectures on modern fiction, on Romantic literature, and on myth and symbol, have been particularly successful. The last course, largely his creation, has for more than a decade attracted yearly enrollments in the hundreds from all disciplines. But all Henighan’s courses have elicited numerous testimonials, submitted spontaneously as part of the teaching evaluation process. A survey of several hundred of these impromptu comments shows a virtually universal applause for his classroom performances, and the comments, although drawn from students of various backgrounds over a period of many years, show a remarkable consistency. Again and again we read that Professor Henighan–to quote the actual uncorrected and almost randomly chosen student language–has “a vast amount of information at his fingertips,” “explains everything to the fullest and always makes the class amusing,” “treats everyone equally and with the respect of an equal, not as an inferior person,” “the way that the prof presents the material makes it so clear that the information seems to stick,” “Mr. Henighan is very learned, intelligent, humorous and effective,” “he was an excellent teacher who brought humor and excitement into each of his lectures.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Professor Henighan’s record is its combination of versatility, quality, and sustained commitment to the art of teaching throughout a career marked also by much impressive research, writing, and outreach to the community.

In his 35-year career at Carleton University, Professor Henighan has taught some 27 different graduate and undergraduate courses in three different disciplines. He has supervised no fewer than 38 successful M.A. students, a departmental record. (Carleton English has no Ph.d.) Several of Professor Henighan’s M.A. students, including the last two examined before his retirement, have achieved “distinctions” for exceptional theses. On at least 30 occasions Professor Henighan has served as outside examiner and/or visiting lecturer in other departments and at other universities. He conceived and helped execute two major academic conferences and was instrumental in creating a third–all of which were outstanding vehicles of public education, since they brought together academic specialists, notable intellectual and creative figures, and a wide cross-section of the community. Professor Henighan has also been a pioneer in media education. In addition, he has either created or helped to shape some of his department’s most enduring and successful courses for majors and honours. Above all, he has never shirked a teaching challenge but has always been willing to take on extra work and to attempt to rescue students who were having problems elsewhere. At the same time he has retained contact with many of his students who have achieved very successful careers of their own, and they continue to draw inspiration and encouragement from his expertise and example.


Course Creation and Innovation

Professor Henighan has been a remarkable teacher and innovator at the undergraduate level. When he came to Carleton University in 1965, almost no 20th century texts were taught to first-year students. Professor Henighan first created English 102, which combined modern and traditional texts, then co-created English 162, which has remained for several decades the department’s entry-level course to the honours program. Not only did he supervise the various sections of this course for several years but enriched his own syllabus by introducing classics of world literature and works of popular culture to his first-year students. A complete section on Writers in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s proved one of the most popular of his first-year innovations.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Henighan taught a course that explored the relationship between literature and ecology, using an anthology of some 500 pages compiled by himself. The quality of this unpublished compilation was attested to by no less an authority than the ecologist René Dubos, a fact that suggests the attention to detail that informs most of the material Professor Henighan prepares for his classrooms. During the 1970s, Professor Henighan taught romantic literature. One of his main innovations here was to challenge his classes to prepare multimedia seminars on important aspects of Romanticism. This involved extra research, special student meetings, script writing, and the location of appropriate visual and audio material by students, as well as the final presentation of a collective seminar on some aspect of romanticism. Subjects such as women in romanticism, romantic nature, and romanticism and revolution were the focus of classes still recalled with excitement by some of the students who took part in them. Professor Henighan turned his science fiction course of the 1970s (one of the first such university courses in Canada) into an ambitious and very successful exercise in public education, as described below. He later created television discussions to explore aspects of the sciences and social sciences connected with the course texts.

During the 1980s and 1990s, he taught a course in myth and symbol, which included many great classics, several introduced into Carleton English Studies for the first time by Professor Henighan. These include The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, the Tao te Ching and Tristan and Iseult, as well as significant modern world writing by Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Par Lagerkvist, and Mikhail Bulgakov. This course inventively mixes such texts with genre fiction by Raymond Chandler, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Bram Stoker, and others, and includes lectures on shamanism, goddess culture, witchcraft, fairy tales, and UFOs. In the research assignments sometimes connected with this course, Professor Henighan has challenged students to investigate actual religious or cult groups and to report on them. Long before it became academically fashionable, Professor Henighan was advocating cultural studies, including popular culture; he made two separate proposals for courses in this field as early as the 1970s. He was also the first to make a formal proposal for a Humanities program at Carleton. He also created the fiction writing workshop at Carleton and has taught it with great success over a ten-year period.

As a result of Professor Henighan’s work in first-year and second-year classrooms, many students were drawn into English studies or for the first time perceived literature as an exciting vehicle through which their understanding of society, history, and the individual could be expanded and enriched.


Television Teaching

Professor Henighan began his television teaching career with a “University of the Air” series, which ran nationally on CTV for several years beginning in 1976 and was the first coast-to-coast academic presentation on science fiction in Canada. He also produced some striking audio visual segments to go with these shows. These programs were so successful that the local CTV station invited Professor Henighan to serve as an arts commentator, which he did for a few months in 1977-78. In 1980-81 Professor Henighan conceived and hosted a forty-eight- program series on science fiction and society for Carleton television. This required a new script of over 600 pages, authored by Henighan, one that included dramatic components, as well as a complete Telidon program, challenging the student to explore an unknown planet and to make decisions in cyberspace about the physical and social nature of the world encountered. Professor Henighan’s constant studio innovations impressed the producer, who called his invention “unfailing,” while at the heart of the programs were interviews with experts in many fields, designed to cast light on the issues raised by the books. Later, when the university administration threatened to cut back on television production, Professor Henighan wrote a twenty-four-page memo on the production of his course, defending television education. In 1993 Professor Henighan served on a three-person Instructional Television Teaching Committee that offered one of the first local overall evaluations of the positive and negative aspects of presenting classes on television. In the most recent version of his science fiction course, Professor Henighan has used the World Wide Web, audio material from the classic radio era, as well as a wide variety of video material, to explore the interrelationships among science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror narrative.


Student Response

Professor Henighan’s Myth and Symbol lectures in particular have reached the Ottawa community, and have resulted in an amazing number of grateful responses from casual viewers. Professor Henighan has more than once been stopped in the street and congratulated on bringing depth and quality to local television; and he is perhaps the only local professor whose course has been publicly recommended at a rock concert! It should also be noted that Professor Henighan’s Myth and Symbol course, although a designated second-year offering, had a very large upper-year enrollment. His lectures have also been watched and appreciated by graduate students and colleagues who have found many challenges there. The Myth and Symbol course was also chosen as the introductory English course for the Carleton Humanities Program, a group composed exclusively of extremely gifted students.

In fact, what makes Professor Henighan’s lectures special is his rather rare combination of qualities, including clarity of presentation, mastery of text and sources and, above all, the ability to make learning a vital experience for a very broad spectrum of his students. As the testimonials invariably declare, a Henighan classroom is an exciting place, and many students acknowledge that it was under Henighan’s tutelage that they first understood the creative relationship that specific books and ideas might have to their life quests. Indeed it is clear that for many, the very sense of life as an adventure in self-education first took shape in a Henighan classroom.

As good as he is in the large classroom, Professor Henighan is perhaps equally renowned and successful as a teacher of creative writing, which involves working intensively with small groups of students under conditions where sensitivity and the ability to find and develop individual student strengths must be paramount. Professor Henighan’s workshops have turned out some very successful writers, and his students have achieved book publication (Joanna Goodman, Gillian Johnson and Christian Bok), magazine publication (at least a dozen), Canada Council grants (Riri Shen, Ted Sands and Kim Brunhuber) and have won significant literary contests (Kim Brunhuber).

In the workshops Professor Henighan is always direct and forthright in his critiques, yet considerate. Time and again he has inspired beginning writers to reach higher standards, while even those who will never become professional writers have found the workshops to be a wonderful training ground for creative reading and for close analysis of all kinds of written texts.

A Henighan fiction workshop will most often intentionally include both young and old, as well as students from all backgrounds, yet the resulting mix has led both to stimulating exchanges and to lasting connections among students and between students and teacher. Almost every Henighan writing workshop over the past decade has continued beyond the end of the course, carried on spontaneously by the student participants, an indication of the good learning atmosphere generated within the group.


Graduate Supervision

While many M.A. students have sought Professor Henighan as a supervisor simply because of his good reputation, he is especially noted as one willing to “rescue” students encountering difficulties of one kind or another. In more than one case, graduate supervisors have enlisted him to see through a thesis project that seemed destined to drag out beyond every available time limit. He has taken over theses supervisions abandoned by departing faculty, and on at least one occasion has been asked to salvage the work of an excellent student who had reached an impasse with her supervisor. To a greater extent than any of his colleagues in English, he has served as examiner for other departments, including Anthropology, Religion, Political Science and Psychology. While the range of subjects supervised by Professor Henighan at the graduate level is impressive, the level of quality has also been high, and several of his students have gone on to achieve further academic success.


Articulating the Challenge to the Teacher

On several occasions Professor Henighan has written incisively about the art of teaching itself. His brief of November 3, 1970, at the very beginning of the era of mathematical/statistical evaluation of university teaching, argued that precise measurement of teaching ability and of the teacher’s effectiveness in the forms proposed was impossible. Using the example of the symphonic conductor, he pointed to the individual nature of the creative act of teaching and suggested that a good teacher could only be judged on the basis of criteria not easily reduced to measurable quantities. In 1981 he delivered an address on “The Arts Faculty and the Manipulated Environment” (reprinted in the CAUT Bulletin and in the Athabasca University Magazine) in which he predicted that new pressures arising from social and technological change would negatively affect university teaching of the humanities, and suggested some responses. In 1996, in his much-discussed book The Presumption of Culture, he devoted a chapter to the problems and opportunities of conveying knowledge of the arts in our schools and universities.

A University Teacher in the Community

One quality of a very good teacher is the ability to communicate with all ages and levels of education. Through the years Professor Henighan has enthusiastically shared his knowledge with high school and grade school students. He created appropriate and intriguing courses in creative writing, mythology, and science fiction for gifted high school students and taught them with great success for several years in Carleton’s spring “mini-course” program. He visited numerous high schools and elementary schools in the Ottawa area to speak about literature and creative writing, almost never refusing an invitation even at his busiest times. On several occasions he served as fiction contest judge of the Carleton student newspaper and during 1992-1997 he evaluated nearly 500 high school short stories in connection with the Carleton English Department fiction awards. In 2001, he visited 19 schools in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, presenting a “Viking Road Show” in connection with his recent young adult novel, Viking Quest. In this blitzkrieg, he did 38 presentations to Grades Four, Five and Six within a few weeks and always riveted the attention of his young audiences. At the same time, some of Professor Henighan’s most successful teaching has been with mature matriculants. It was this that led him to be chosen as one of the two Carleton professors who inaugurated the “University at Noon” Program, in which credit courses were made available in downtown Ottawa at the lunch hour.

As conference organizer, Professor Henighan conceived and executed two ambitious and successful exercises in public education and played a key role in a third. The 1978 Carleton Conference on Science, Literature, and Contemporary Culture brought scientists, scholars, writers, and artists into a dialogue that was remarkably free-ranging, with full participation by students and by the Ottawa community. Among those participating were Gerhard Herzberg, David Suzuki, John H. Chapman, Frank Herbert, John Brunner, and Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, as well as musicians and visual artists. At this conference, where each of the four evening sessions were attended by some six or seven hundred persons, and by many media representatives, issues such as genetic manipulation, perceptions and misperceptions of science, and the quest for moral values in a scientific society formed part of the agenda. Here, many students and members of the public got their first glimpse of the complex issues raised by bio-technology, space travel, and the communication of values in science and art. There were also more specialized presentations on science and literature, Marxism and the social sciences, and on racial stereotyping in science fiction. Professor Henighan not only conceived and set the whole agenda but, along with the student union’s program director, Judith Gallagher, administered the entire conference.

Professor Henighan also played an important part in organizing the 1978 Shaping the Future Conference at the University of Ottawa. For these meetings he enlisted the participation of creative spirits such as Glenn Gould and Buckminster Fuller, and invited scientists and broadcasters, artists and psychologists, to dialogue with students and a wide public. He also organized the first Canadian production of Karel Capek’s robot play RUR for this event.

Professor Henighan also conceived and executed (in collaboration with a colleague) the David Bohm Conference at Carleton in 1982. This meeting, which centred on the work of the late scientist-philosopher, was also strongly interdisciplinary in character and attracted wide student and public interest. The newsletter This Week at Carleton commented that “probably no University-sponsored symposium in recent memory has attracted such a large group of diverse persons as the ‘Dialogues with David Bohm` symposium held at Carleton May 12-14. The 200 or more participants represented a broad range of disciplines; among them were poets, philosophers, artists, literary scholars, theologians and musicians, as well as physicists, neuro-surgeons, biologists, engineers, anthropologists, economists, chemists, mathematicians, psychologists and specialists in meditation . . . President William Beckel summed up the feeling of most when he observed that the discussions were ‘what a university is all about.`”

These activities–indeed his whole career–make clear that Professor Henighan has never accepted the idea of a boundaried or “ivory tower” classroom.


3 Responses to Teaching

  1. Jerrod Edson says:

    I was in Tom’s Creative Writing Workshop at Carleton back in 1998-99. Tom was a straight-shooter who gave me that kick in the arse my writing needed…My single biggest learning curve came that year…I’ve now got four published novels–I even made the Relit Shortlist this year…Thanks, Tom, for your knowledge and guidance, your honesty, and your passion for the written word.
    Jerrod Edson

  2. James Botte says:

    I was recently reading an article on how the universe may have spontaneously formed that relied on David Bohm’s reformulation of quantum theory (the article is here if you are so inclined: https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog/a-mathematical-proof-that-the-universe-could-have-formed-spontaneously-from-nothing-ed7ed0f304a3). I wanted to share the link with Prof. Bruce Campbell of the physics department at Carleton and did an Internet search to remember when it was Bohm gave his lectures at Carleton University. Your blog is one of the only places that seems to have that information. Indeed, I was unaware until I stumbled on it today that it was you who was responsible for organizing the event. To that end, I feel I owe you a very large thank you! I played hooky from high school to attend those lectures and they had a huge impact on me. While I grasped at most about 5% of what was presented, and then only tenuously, it set me on a course that led me to Carleton University and to attempt a degree in physics. To make a very long story short as possible, after high school I ended up getting sucked into the high tech industry and was there (working internationally) until a few years ago when my work visa was running out in the US and I decided to come back to Ottawa (where I am from) and finally get the degree in physics I had always wanted. So, because of those lectures, as I write this I am currently a mature full-time student in the undergraduate theoretical physics program at Carleton University (thus my statement above that I was “attempting” to get a degree… it is a work in progress). One’s work leaves ripples in the oddest places, isn’t that so? Also for what it’s worth, I know you from one of my projects a few decades back… CAN-CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature (which was revived a few years ago when I returned to Ottawa, but is now finally being run by a new generation of enthusiasts and local writers… a great success to have been able to hand it off to people who “get it”).

    • tomottawa says:

      Hello James Botte! Thanks for this fascinating feedback on my Bohm efforts of long ago. I’m so glad that you have carried on and continue to be inspired by Bohm. Two friends of mine, David Peat and Paul Buckley, amazing scientists themselves, urged me to organize the conference. Peat’s biography of Bohm is well worth reading and Peat-Buckley also did a series of interviews with some great scientists (the book is available still, I think, from University of Toronto Press)–it’s a book that connects with Bohm in various ways. I must say it was quite an effort to get that 1983 conference going–David Bohm was not an easy man to set up a conference with. Nonetheless, he greatly appreciated our efforts and asked for a special meeting with my wife and me some months later, in order to properly thank us. We were thrilled. The conference included, besides Bohm, experts in various fields–Zazep Rinpoche, Charles Laughlin, William Kuhns, Lesley Ivan, John Dourley, Gerhard Herzberg, Houston Smith, Randal Marlin, R. Murray Schafer, Robert Zend, Robert Richard, and many others who deserve a mention. My colleague Kenneth Hardy was my co-organizer. When I tried to get more information and records from Carleton on this event I was disappointed to hear that they (the Carleton library and archives) had nothing. It’s all the more delightful to hear about your youthful connection with our conference and its influence on your future! Best of luck with your studies. And you’re right! One never knows what is stirred up in others by such events–I’ve had some unexpected inquiries recently, based on my own activities in the far past and on events that seemed to have vanished into the void! Thanks again for your comments and information!

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