Oration honouring Linda Hutcheon
Friday, Oct. 19, 2007
The American poet Marge Piercey tells us that
“Nothing living moves in straight lines/ … but we take a little here and give a little there/… And we change” (“I Saw Her Dancing”).
Those lines, read during the president’s inaugural address at the 2000 Modern Languages Association (MLA) meeting, were meant to speak to the state of literature and language studies. Today we read them and the occasion on which they were spoken as the measure of the woman who now stands upon this stage both to receive and to honour our degree. With that address Linda Hutcheon became the first Canadian woman to hold the MLA presidency. But it is not only for the eminence of the post that we honour her; it is also for the nature of the person, a nature best exemplified by the fact that her presidential address was not a solo, individually-focussed performance. That address was delivered by three people: Dr. Hutcheon and her two rivals for the presidency. This is a striking example of her generosity of spirit and of the imaginative approach she takes to her professional life as well as to her research and to her teaching.
Her area, comparative literature, is a kind of academic orphan in most universities: recognized but not always respected. For her this meant a long period of marginalization as a sessional instructor before she received a full-time appointment. But she was a sessional with a major study already published, who, with five more books in the subsequent six years, established herself as one of the world’s leading commentators on postmodernism. No straight lines there. And they became less straight as she moved from considerations of narrative, to parody, to irony, to adaptation. By then the lines were running skywards: she was appointed University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto in 1988, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1990 and awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1992. Then, a decade ago, with her penchant for bending clichés and building on what she wryly calls a “convenience of marriage,” she began publishing on opera with her physician-husband, Michael Hutcheon. She/they, in the sort of self-reflexive narrative that is so characteristic of pedagogical omphaloscopy, has described their working relationship as a “polyphonic, monovocal synthesis.” Now you ask what this means? It means that while they come at their topic from quite different disciplines and personalities (the polyphonic aspect), they achieve a common voice in what they write and in that lies the monovocal synthesis. She does note that this, of course, “isn’t half as sexy [treating] collaboration as some sort of erotic entanglement.” However, Vice-Chancellor, on that side of the matter the public orator was discreet enough to defer further enquiry.
She takes this creative approach into her work with her students giving them the fullest opportunities for their own development. They get her complete attention all the time and become collaborators with her in her own research. And what has this wrought? Forty-seven graduate students with completed PhDs and 22 candidates underway a testament to her success as much as to theirs. It should not surprise us that she was given Toronto’s highest accolade for teaching, the Northrop Frye Award. Today we would place her in company with Frye, he who founded her Department of Comparative Literature at Toronto, who was her predecessor as president of the Modern Languages Association and one whom we proudly number among our honorary graduates. Vice-Chancellor, in asking you to write her name with his in our register, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, this extraordinary scholar-teacher, Linda Hutcheon.