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Leo Gervais: a student’s prof

by Archives September 20, 2006

Known to the Journalism department as one of its hardest working professors, Leo Gervais made his mark at Concordia for introducing the innovative tabloid journalism class, simultaneously shaking things up in the department and scoring one with students. We sat down with Leo for a candid chat on tabloid, teaching and tuition.

What was your first class like as a teacher?

I was nervous. I remember standing there and all these people were looking at me and I had this absolute fear. I was thinking “Wow I gotta do this for two hours a week, for 13 weeks? I don’t think I can do it.”

You were a student here in 1986, what has changed for the best at Concordia?

Technology. The very first year I went to school, we had typewriters. I remember a library downtown that was ghastly, you would be working and a rat would run by.

And for the worst?

There’s a big move in the school to go towards less working journalists (as teachers) and more academics. I don’t believe that’s the way to go.

Do you think tuition should go up?

It should.

You know you’ll be unpopular for saying that…

That’s fine. The fees that people pay in Quebec are so low [if you look at other universities of comparable size and quality,] think about it logically if you’re not paying, someone is paying. What happens when that pool of money runs out? I’m not saying it should be $20 000, but I personally think tuition should go higher.

What kind of professor would you say you are, a lecturer, a nurturer or a coach?

Coach, definitely. Genius is spotting the tree in the seed, I’m certainly a far cry from being a genius but I think I can spot the ones who really want to do well. When I have a class and I have really great students and they kinda drift off and their marks aren’t so great, half the time it’s because it’s not challenging enough.

How do you hold students’ attention?

I think a lot of the older profesors struggle with that. It’s not even an age thing as much as it’s a mentality thing. If you have the mentality of ‘I’m standing there, I’m the voice of god and you should listen to me.’ I don’t think that comes across well with students. [My classes] are very hands-on.

What do you think about the new Journalism chairman, Mike Gasher?

I actually don’t know him that well. [But] if you’re looking for all the credentials, no question he’s the man. Out of all the chairmen, he’s probably the best guy we had that’s run the meeting. He’ll get the minutes out within days, which believe me, is a miracle. We disagree on a few things but this is healthy for a school.

Tell me about your baby, tabloid journalism.

It’s five years old. The university introduced it as [ a special interest] class and if no one took it, then they were gonna get rid of it.

Was it difficult for you to get that in the curriculum? Tabloid journalism doesn’t exactly sound legit…

I can tell you it was difficult, and I can tell you there are people who tell me to my face – in and out of the department, that this isn’t a class that should be offered in university. I say any class that enlarges your knowledge base, and especially about something that’s everywhere in the world, is worth teaching. I don’t think it’s as easy as people think it is. Yes, you look at Jerry Springer, yes we have fun in the class – school shouldn’t be just about banging your head against the wall. But you’ve got to do your assignments, your quizzes and you gotta study. At the end of the day [I hope] people say, ‘Hey I got challenged a little bit and I learned something.'”

Do you read the National Enquirer? And watch Jerry Springer?

Oh absolutely!

Are you interested in it?

I enjoy learning. I’ll try to look at it more in depth. I’ll look at the history of it, you know? I read about the Globe, which is a competitor of the National Enquirer and through research I realized that it was actually a paper that was started in Montreal called Midnight, many years ago. Of course I’m like everybody else, if I’m at the checkout counter and I see Brad leaving Angelina, I’ll pick it up and read about it. I think anyone who says they don’t like reading about gossip, in my view, is a liar.

Why do you think people like to read about this stuff?

I think it’s human nature. People are curious about other people. Yes, of course, sometimes it’s salaciousness. Most people have some voyeuristic tendencies. Even if it’s just “Did you see the car the neighbours bought?” Part of it is that our culture is immersed with celebrities.

What do you hope students learn from taking tabloid journalism?

My hopes is that people say ‘Hey there’s a whole bunch of information coming at me from all kinds of directions and I’m just absorbing it, I’m eating it and not really thinking about it.’

In your opinion, what’s teaching all about?

Trying to, through your experience, teach the things you think are important.

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