Professor Norman Cornett

We all remember that special teacher from whom we learned the most, who encouraged us to do better or who inspired us to do more. For almost everyone that took his class at McGill University, Professor Cornett was that teacher.

After exam pressure pushed one of his students to have a breakdown, Dr. Norman Cornett drastically reinvented his teaching tactics to eliminate fear and awaken the joy of learning. Fuelled by a love of teaching, he trains his students to find their own intellectual and moral compasses using dialogue, mandatory field trips, and stream-of-consciousness journals. Cornett incorporates controversial panel discussions into his curriculum to cover ethically complex issues like Judaism and anti-Zionism, the relationship between music and medicine, First Nations issues, death and dying, and media and genocide. Among his guest speakers: former prime minister Paul Martin, jazzman Oliver Jones, modern dance artist and choreographer Mariko Tanabe and Canada’s leading aboriginal filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin.

However, Cornett’s disregard for conventional teaching methods and indifferent attitude towards administration eventually leads to his dismissal from McGill after 15 years. But without a reason for the termination of his contract, Cornett is devastated and unwilling to give up a fight for reinstatement.

In an unusual step, Obomsawin turns the camera on a non-aboriginal subject to produce Professor Norman Cornett: “Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?” The first half of the documentary shows Cornett in action, engaging his students in all of the above as he calls each of them by a name of their own choosing. His students provide testimonials about the effectiveness of his methods and friends talk about his passion for teaching.

The second half of the film takes on a melancholy tone as Cornett is unceremoniously terminated. His wife worries about the effect it will have on him, while he worries about his wife’s health after her cancer returns. His students create a petition, he writes letters with no response and lawyers return with insulting monetary offers. In the end, even the labour board cannot provide Cornett with a satisfactory solution. The only conclusion can be regret for denying students such an enriched learning experience for petty politics.

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