McNutt an 'inspiration' – in research, activism & spirit

McNutt an 'inspiration' – in research, activism & spirit

Overcoming physical challenges, James McNutt receives second master’s degree, his fourth degree overall.

By Wanda Praamsma

June 14, 2016


“The power of language,” James McNutt says, is the thread looping its way through all of his work.

To explain, he quotes English poet John Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

James McNutt (M.Ed.'16) celebrates after successfully defending his master's thesis this spring. Mr. McNutt has been active on campus regarding accessibility issues, and he won the Steve Cutway Accessibility Award this past year. (Supplied photo)

“I think he’s saying that just by thinking, you make it so. I would argue it’s beyond thinking – it’s writing, and putting it into language,” says Mr. McNutt (M.Ed.’16). “That’s what creates impressions and meaning.”

Creating impressions and meaning through the written word has been a big focus of the Queen’s scholar’s life. Mr. McNutt, who has cerebral palsy and has worked through significant physical challenges during his lifetime, successfully defended his second master’s thesis this spring. The Education degree delving into the curriculum of the Queen’s medical school between 1880 and 1910, is his third Queen’s degree, and his fourth degree overall (he has a master’s in history from the University of Toronto).

And not only is he intent on creating meaningful written works himself, but he’s always curious about what various different written materials contain and how they inform those reading them.

“I love the late 19th to early 20th century. It’s my favourite period, because they still have the old ideals but they are learning how to be modern,” says Mr. McNutt. “I love looking at the old publications and the way they used language. The Victorians really knew how to write a sentence.”

A novel approach to studying university history

For his most recent master’s, supervised by Theodore Christou (Education) and Jacalyn Duffin (History of Medicine), Mr. McNutt studied medical teaching at Queen’s by looking at the textbooks of the time. “I used the textbooks as a surrogate for curriculum, because from 1880-1910, there are no notes and syllabi to look at. I did look at a few diaries, but there are not many.”

It’s a novel approach, as far as he knows, to studying university life and teaching. “When looking at the history of a university, the focus is usually on the facilities and buildings, and the financials. There’s a little about the professors, but the histories usually don’t talk about what was taught. It’s hard to get at what was taught,” says Mr. McNutt.

Specifically, in this thesis, Mr. McNutt wanted to examine how science and gender played into the curriculum at that time. Queen’s had opened a women’s medical college in 1883 after disgruntled male students forced women out of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Kingston, an early incarnation of Queen's Faculty of Medicine. The women’s college closed in 1894 due to insufficient enrolment and women were not admitted again to Queen’s medical studies until 1943. Mr. McNutt, in his research, compared the textbooks of the women’s college with the ones used strictly by male students.

“The only tentative conclusion I was able to make was that the women’s textbooks, in general, were longer and more detailed than the men’s books,” says Mr. McNutt. “In my thesis, I speculate that the instructors may have wanted to place more emphasis on the textbooks, rather than in-class instruction. I was able to find a diary from a female student, who wrote that her instructor only provided 15 minutes of in-class lecture.”

On the science side, he looked at innovation and technological changes – the X-ray, in particular, and its limitations – at that time. He discussed his findings on uses of the X-ray at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary earlier this month.

“I was very successful with the science part, and not so much the gender question,” he explains. “For the gender part, I would need more eyewitness accounts of how they were taught. That was a challenge for me, because I had to let the literature tell me what it wanted to tell me, instead of looking for what I wanted.”

An inspiration to the Queen’s community

Milton’s quote about making a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven, is undoubtedly a philosophy that permeates Mr. McNutt’s entire life.

“James is an inspiration to all of us – the entire Queen’s community of faculty, staff and students,” says Dr. Duffin. “Over the last two years, he has bravely contended with illness. The fact that he worked through that and got on with it to produce an excellent thesis – and one about the history of Queen’s at that – is an incredible achievement.”

Duncan McDowall, University Historian  and Adjunct Professor (History), sat on Mr. McNutt’s examination committee, and echoes Dr. Duffin’s comments.

“Mr. McNutt is an impressive person. He goes beyond all expectations. He writes very well, and produced a very good thesis,” says Dr. McDowall. “In addition, he has a tremendous spirit, and confronts any and every challenge head-on.”

In addition to his studies, Mr. McNutt has worked hard on accessibility issues on campus. This past year, he was awarded the Steve Cutway Accessibility Award for his “Accessibility Audit,” a project that used video to share and bring to light accessibility challenges on campus.

“I’ve been really grateful to be recognized. My hope now is that it motivates people to act and continue making change,” he says.

And what’s next for Mr. McNutt?

He is taking a break, especially after much preparation for the conference in Calgary. But, indeed, he is “shopping around for PhDs.”