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Robert Morrison: Reviving words of the past

Transforming Solo Scholarship into Dynamic Teaching

One of the most important relationships in every academic’s professional life is the one between research and teaching. Research will invariably influence what a professor does in the classroom, since the breadth and quality of their scholarship is what makes the professor an authority in the eyes of his or her peers and students. But the relationship can also work the other way, as when a perceptive or offbeat question by a student leads a professor on an entirely new research path.

Here, we introduce two Queen’s National Scholars – Robert Morrison, who’s been at Queen’s for a while, and Armand Ruffo, who’s new to the university. Both are celebrated scholars of literature. Both have unique ways of employing their research in their teaching. But perhaps their biggest similarity is one they share with every successful academic – a passion for their subject that motivates their research and inspires their teaching.

[Robert Morrison]Thomas De Quincey was an English essayist whose literary career started in the early 1800s. His most famous book, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), chronicles the author’s experiences with laudanum, a drink consisting of opium dissolved in alcohol. At the time, it was a commonly used medicine. De Quincey became hooked, and the Opium Eater’s vivid language describes the soaring highs and crippling lows he experienced when he took the drug and when he tried to kick the habit. The work brought him great fame – and notoriety.

Thirty years ago, De Quincey was a mere footnote in English literature. One reason he has risen to greater prominence has much to do with Robert Morrison, a professor of 19th-century British literature at Queen’s. In the mid-1980s, when Morrison was a graduate student at Oxford University in England, his tutor was Jonathan Wordsworth, a great-great-great nephew of the legendary English poet, William Wordsworth. At one point Morrison had to write four essays for Wordsworth, a sharp, acerbic critic who plainly told his student that three of the essays weren’t up to scratch. The fourth one, however, showed some promise. Its subject was Thomas De Quincey.

”I figured that if Jonathan Wordsworth told me it was okay, I better keep pursuing the subject,” recalls Morrison, who went on to become a world-renowned authority on De Quincey. Morrison penned the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics version of the Opium Eater, and has published scholarly examinations of several other De Quincey essays and lesser-known works. Morrison wrote the definitive De Quincey biography, which provided the basis of a best-selling crime novel, Murder as a Fine Art. Its author, David Morrell (who also wrote First Blood, the novel that inspired the Rambo movies), co-dedicated the book to Morrison.

Morrison spends much of his working life outside Queen’s in his book-lined study in his home, a former rectory north of Kingston. The walls of his house are adorned with engravings of De Quincey and other titans of literature such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Jane Austen. When Morrison speaks, his breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. He becomes animated when speaking of De Quincey’s seminal influence on later generations of writers including Edgar Allan Poe, William Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, Aleister Crowley, and others known for writing about their experiences with drugs.

Morrison also spends countless hours in great English libraries, poring over obscure texts to shed further light on aspects of De Quincey’s life and work. This is his research. He simply reads and writes a lot. It is solitary, painstaking labour, and obviously it informs his work in the classroom. Still, he regards teaching as a separate scholarly activity.

“I once had a teacher who told me that the scholar has two roles,” says Morrison. “He is both a monk and an actor. The monk is the scholar when he’s doing research, the actor is when he’s in the classroom, teaching.”

Apparently, Morrison is an excellent actor. He’s won several teaching accolades at Queen’s, including (three times) the Frank Knox Award for Excellence in Teaching, whose recipient is chosen annually by students. But to call Morrison’s classroom performances “acting” is to give them short shrift. Acting is faking. Morrison does not fake his passion for his subject. It is entirely, brilliantly, intensely real. And students obviously appreciate what he is trying to accomplish with them.

“I’m just trying to open their minds and get them to think,” he says. “I want to have a discussion with them about what’s happening in the world, about social justice, about civil society, about philosophy, theory and literature and about why poetry matters. About why poetry mattered then and matters even more now. I don’t use notes. I just talk about stuff I think is interesting. I never know what’s going to be on the final exam until I sit down to write it. I think students sometimes find this a little disconcerting, but that’s just how I operate. As I research, I grow and learn more. I change my opinions. If you’re not constantly learning and growing, you’ll become stagnant and lose your ability and credibility as a teacher.”

Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014

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Dr. Morrison's research