By Marco Ursi
Having just finished his undergraduate degree in literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, John Cook was ready for a little adventure. So he walked out the front door with only the clothes on his back, and $100 in his pocket. He told his mother he was hitchhiking to Toronto. But he managed to get himself a couple of good lifts to some unexpected places. He wrote a letter to his mother that started, “A funny thing happened on the way to Toronto…” He was in Mexico. When he returned home several months later, he had a single dime in his pocket.
John Cook has never been afraid to take risks.
“I often say that the first step on the road to the palace of wisdom is into the puddle of foolishness,” he says. For 35 years, Cook has not only guided his students at Ryerson through the puddle of foolishness, he has plunged in with them. At the end of this school year, John Cook will take another step forward in his journey towards the palace, when he retires.
The group of first-year journalism students chat noisily before class in 323 East Kerr Hall. Cook goes to the front of the class and sets down a pile of lecture notes on the desk in front of him. He’s wearing a black suit jacket with a blue dress shirt, blue jeans with a brown belt and shoes to match. The class begins to quiet down. He picks up a piece of chalk and writes today’s Toronto Sun headline — Blonde Ambition — on the board. Hands raise and the discussion begins.
“What does this mean?” he asks.
But there are no answers in Cook’s class. Instead, suggestions are made, ideas are raised and students are asked to think about the concepts he’s presenting in different ways.
It’s an introductory lesson to the concept of post-modernism. Cook’s lecture moves seamlessly from tasteless headlines, to 16th century philosopher Michel De Montaigne, to an obscure Italian film called Caro Diario, to Michael Ondaatje’s novel Running in the Family. Cook’s hands rarely fall below his chest and he begins to pace back and forth as the lecture builds. During the entire two-hour lesson, he glances at his notes once.
Cook is a master lecturer. You can hear the passion in his voice as he speaks about the great modern and post-modern writers of the 20th-century.
“I try to bring to my students the life-giving, liberating function of literature,” he says. “Reading to me is not just about adding knowledge — it’s about intensifying life.”
Teaching didn’t always come so naturally to Cook.
“The first time I ever taught, my pantlegs were shaking,” he says. “It was a horrible experience. I talked for what I thought was an hour, but when I looked at my watch, only ten minutes had gone by. I had to fake it for about 50 minutes.”
And teaching was the last thing on Cook’s mind when he returned to Canada after spending a year in England. He was planning to go to the University of Alberta to get his PhD in literature. But while in Toronto briefly, he was called in a last-minute replacement for a teacher on maternity leave. When a job teaching literature became available at Ryerson, Cook took it as a sign.
“Life was telling me something and I listen to what life has to say.”
Though he hadn’t considered a teaching career before the job came up, Cook says he has had a lifelong love affair with education.
“I thrive in an academic environment,” he says. “There’s nothing dry or dull about it for me at all.”
Even though this is his last year as a teacher, Cook is as dedicated to his craft as ever. When I visited his office before our interview, I noticed, amongst his Japanese tea sets and Mexican frog figurines, a brand new copy of Running in the Family. Drop by the Second Cup on Victoria Street any morning and there you’ll find him, with a latte and a book, handwriting his thoughts and ideas in the margins.
Cook tries to impart this love of learning to his students. He says the best way to do this is to allow students to take chances and make mistakes.
“We don’t give enough room in the classroom to be foolish,” he says. “At Ryerson, you can’t risk failure, you can’t risk being wrong. I’m trying to create a climate where people can say and write what they want and not risk their academic career.”
His students feed off his passion for learning, and he’s left quite the impression on some of them.
“He’s the man you would create if you were writing a screenplay about an inspiring, intelligent professor who challenges his students,” says second-year journalism student Victoria Scrozzo. “He gives you room to be creative in your work and interpretations. He’s brilliant.”
Allison Jones, also a second-year journalism student, says, “you can tell that he’s genuinely interested in listening to students’ ideas. He never stops encouraging you to think, to read, and to learn. I will remember him as one of the best professors I’ve had.”
Cook’s passion for education and knowledge is matched only by his passion for travel.
“I like the sense that you can leave behind people’s expectations of you — what other people thought you were. It’s almost as though you can experience the world fresh because you’re not dealing with other people’s preconceptions of you.”
He’s visited Europe many times and a recent trip to Japan affected him so greatly that he plans to live there for a year when he’s done teaching. But like everything else in his life, Cook says the best moments in travel come when he takes a risk.
“I’m not really looking for the things that everybody else thinks are important,” he says. “The best experiences I have are when I lose my map — when you have to go with the flow of the road.”
When discussing his retirement, Cook speaks metaphorically: “When you’re travelling there’s always a great temptation to stay in a place that’s comfortable,” he says. “But I feel now like it’s time to get back out on the road, where new things can happen. Bad things can happen. But good things can happen.”
Cook says retirement is one of the hardest things he’s ever had to contemplate.
“For most of my life I’ve been in school. That September date is going to be a new challenge for me because it’s going to be first time in almost 55 years that I won’t be going to school.”
But despite the challenges that lie ahead, Cook says he is ready to move on to take another risk.
“It’s time to go and get out on the road and see what’s there!”