By Marco Ursi
A journalist’s world can be a scary place. There’s plenty to be afraid of: Approaching strangers, not asking the right questions, deadlines. It can be even scarier for a student journalist, where inexperience and the pressure of getting good grades come into play.Stuart McLean considers helping students overcome these fears the greatest accomplishment of his 20-year career as a broadcast journalism instructor at Ryerson.
Teaching has only been one part of McLean’s long and illustrious career; he has been the host of the CBC’s The Vinyl Caf? for more than a decade, and the best-selling author of six books, making him something of a national celebrity. With plans to push his works in the American and British markets and an increasingly busy Vinyl Cafe tour schedule,
McLean, 56, left teaching in December. Future aspiring journalists will have to look elsewhere for guidance through the intimidating world of news reports and documentaries.
Student and Teacher
McLean’s former students can be heard, seen and read across the Canadian media landscape. He recalls the story of Tom Perry, a student with great potential, but no belief in himself. Perry was struggling with a documentary on the Eaton Centre’s fountain and McLean pushed him to continue working on it.
“I said to him: ‘Go and do it again. Go and do it again. Make it better. Make it better.’ And he made it great,” McLean says. “He just didn’t know what great work he was capable of and I showed him what great work he could do. I think that’s the job of a teacher.”
It was a transitional moment for Perry, now a national reporter for CBC Radio. “I think about that every time I hear him on the radio now,” McLean says. McLean’s desire to help his students overcome their fears comes partly from his own experience.
Describing himself as nervous, insecure and frightened throughout his childhood and teenage years, McLean says his world shifted during a social science course at Montreal’s Concordia University.
The class was researching group behaviour by studying themselves. McLean was given the chance to speak and able to voice his fears for the first time. When he spoke, the other students shrugged it off as if it were nothing.
“I felt the fear disappear. It was like butterflies had flown away from me.” From that moment on, McLean felt he could take on anything. He’s now one of Canada’s best known and most beloved journalists and authors, consistently filling theatres across the country with fans that come to hear his funny, folksy tales of small-town families and everyday modern Canadian life.
McLean the performer is a far different person from McLean the instructor. On stage he’s known for his clear, calming voice, charming stage presence and animated gestures; in the classroom he’s far more likely to be sitting on the desk at the front of the room, feet dangling and eyes closed as he explains journalistic principles to his pupils in a tone far more subdued than that of his onstage alter-ego.
McLean’s teaching career began in 1983, when he was hired by Ryerson to head the journalism school’s broadcast stream, which was still in its infancy. McLean had a key role in developing the program, student admissions, hiring teachers and buying equipment were all part of his responsibilities. But his greatest satisfaction came from his work in the classroom, where he had the strongest impact on his students.
In recent years, with McLean forced to miss several classes due to touring commitments, some students expressed frustration with McLean’s absences and in a 2003 Globe and Mail profile, a colleague who didn’t want to be named called McLean “irresponsible and unreliable” for missing several staff meetings. Taking The Vinyl Cafe on the road in 1997 made it difficult to keep up with the hectic double-life of celebrity radio host and journalism instructor.
“I don’t think I’ve been able to spend as much time with people as I’d want to. I was there but I wasn’t there.” McLean says he was aware that his outside work was affecting his teaching and this weighed heavily in his decision to leave. “It was getting to the point where I felt that I was not being my best self at Ryerson or in my outside career,” he says. “There was just so much happening that something had to give.”
Life After Ryerson
The next few months will be among the busiest of McLean’s career. David Amer, his producer of 10 years, recently retired, so McLean hired two former students who he says will bring fresh energy to his radio program.
McLean says the only thing he will miss about Ryerson is the students, particularly the thrill of seeing a student have a “breakthrough moment” such as Perry’s, but has no doubts that his decision toleave is the right one.
However, he’s certain he will return to the classroom one day.
“I gave a lot to Ryerson and Ryerson gave a lot to me and now it’s over. But I’ve got new adventures. Maybe I’ll miss teaching some days. But when I miss it too much, I’ll go back.”