A Monday Night Seminar & Other Memories of Marshall McLuhan by a Former Student


A McLuhan Monday Night Seminar in 1973

In the Garden with the Guru

Adventures with Marshall McLuhan

By Bob Rodgers   –   January-February 2008

A six-foot-high hedge separated me from the garden next door but not from its voices. It was my first Sunday morning in the house I sublet on Wells Hill Avenue by Casa Loma in Toronto. I couldn’t make out what was being said but one of the voices sounded familiar. I moved closer and parted the hedge just enough for a covert glimpse of my new neighbours. A middle-aged man was lying on his back in a hammock with a book held up vertically above his head as he read aloud. Next to him a young man sat in a deck chair with a book on his lap. The young man said: “Vico’s cycles.” The older man said: “Vicious Circles.” “Viscous cyclones,“ said the young man. I was awestruck. My God, I thought, I must be the only person in the world at this moment listening to what looks like a tag team reading Finnegans Wake. Later I learned I had been witness to a regular occurrence. Eric McLuhan and his father, Marshall, were reading at each other.

I was a teaching fellow completing my graduate degree in English at the University of Toronto. A few weeks after my eavesdropping in the back garden, I found myself entering my new neighbour’s house by the front door for McLuhan’s informal (not-for-credit) Monday night seminar on communications, where I joined two dozen others crammed into the far from capacious front room of the family home. McLuhan’s kids, ranging from 15 on down, kept popping up and disappearing like a colony of gophers. We didn’t look to me much like a graduate seminar.

McLuhan, a stringy but handsome man at six foot two, with a literary moustache, could also have passed for a movie cowboy. He invited us to introduce ourselves. Anthropologist Ted Carpenter, notorious advocate of deinstitutionalized education and a long time cohort of McLuhan, muttered his name and gave a folksy wave. Three beatniks made no response. A sallow young man wearing a guitar gave a drowsy nod. A man in long short pants with knee socks who looked like an Eagle Scout, gave a perky salute and announced he was seeking transformation. Wilfred Watson, the poet and academic, was there, and his wife, Sheila Watson, author of The Double Hook. A dapper little man from an advertising firm reported he had come because he was looking for a fresh idea. A well-known announcer, Stanley Burke, who read the TV news on CBC, was there; also a professional magician wearing a cape, a dark-haired, bespangled fortune teller, an Inuit carver from Igloolik and a popular wrestler called Whipper Billy Watson. I and two others like me wore tweed jackets and ties, the standard garb of graduate students at the time.

McLuhan opened with a riff about movies. “Film is high-definition pictures. You don’t have to fill in the blanks, so you’re detached and can think critically. Radio, telephone—they give you less to go on, and you have to fill out the message with your own story. But they’re still relatively hot. At the far end of the gamut is TV. It’s cool, low definition; you get completely absorbed in processing the bombardment of dots, hypnotized. It’s also non-sequential, like newspapers. Movies flow narratively, sequentially, the way we see. TV throws everything at us holus-bolus like sound. We can see only one thing at a time, but we can hear many things at once, even around corners. That’s why film is an eye medium and TV an ear medium.”

Looking around I noticed eyes widening and perplexity come over some of the faces. What surprised me was that many of the faces glowed with excitement, and I too felt I was hearing something fresh and challenging. Before anyone could butt in too much, McLuhan went on to talk about tools. Fragments of ideas drifted over us like flakes of an early snowfall.

The phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man. The printing press hit him like a hydrogen bomb. Now we’ve been blitzkreiged by TV.

The horseless buggy was the only way people could describe the automobile. Families whose wealth was based on carriages and buggy whips soon went bankrupt. Horsepower moved from animals into cars.

The wheel extends the foot in an automobile. In this way the wheel amplifies the power and speed of the foot, but at the same time it amputates. In the act of pressing the gas peddle, the foot becomes so specialized it no longer performs its original function, which is to walk.

If the wheel is an extension of the foot, then money is an extension of muscle, radio an amplification of the human voice, and the hydrogen bomb an outgrowth of teeth and fingernails.

Why should the sending or receiving of a telegram seem more dramatic than even the ringing of a telephone?

What do you think Hitler meant when he said: “I go my way with the assurance of a sleepwalker?”


This is a much longer Literary Review of Canada essay about Marshall McLuhan and the University of Toronto in the late 1960s. Follow this link to read the rest https://goo.gl/4gE2Zo 

About Bob Rodgers: Bob Rodgers taught English at McGill and the University of Toronto before moving into film and television. As executive producer at the U of T Media Centre he wrote, produced, and/or directed more than 100 educational programs, among them a 30 part series: “The Bible and Literature, a Personal View by Northrop Frye”. Later as a freelance filmmaker, he made documentaries for the NFB (“Fiddlers of James Bay”) and the CBC National Network (“NWT: One-third of Canada”). In 2001 Bob self-published a short story collection, “Secrets From Home”. He has since written two novels: “Hot Ice”, about diamonds, ecology, and caribou in NWT; and “The Devil’s Party”, his take on the 1960s among the fledgling literati of the counter-culture.

Bob Rodgers later incorporated this personal account of attending a McLuhan Monday Night Seminar into a fictionalized account of student life in Toronto in the 1960s titled The Devil’s Party: Who Killed the Sixties? Read a description of the book here https://goo.gl/r3Y2qB

ADDENDUM: Bob Rodgers passed away on January 15, 2017. His Globe & Mail Obituary can be found at https://goo.gl/9Qmheh . “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep”. RIP

2 Responses to “A Monday Night Seminar & Other Memories of Marshall McLuhan by a Former Student”

  1. I was happy to see the post on Bob Rodgers. He was a large part of my working days at the U of T. Sadly I have to say that Bob passed away quietly on Sunday morning, January 15,2017.

    The essay In the Garden with the Guru Adventures with Marshall McLuhan is a wonderful depiction of McLuhan. However, it betrays what I saw of Bob’s feelings towards McLuhan. True Bob was an English Prof who ‘converted to television,’ but in a special way. Undeniably he produced many educational tv shows, NFB documentaries and even had a stint producing Hollywood features working with Bill Marshall (he who started TIFF and then tried to create a McLuhan Festival in 2004/5.) However, Bob was first and foremost driven by the study of literary theory. Most who study McLuhan, as I myself, sooner or later see our affliction for what it is- which if not a self realization, is eagerly doled out by the outsider. Bob’s affliction was with the other guy- Norrie Frye. It’s easy to understand since Bob was studying literature as an undergrad at Wayne State and later PhD study at Toronto when Frye would have been the go to guru.
    It must have been a happy day when Bob Sandler walked in Bob’s Media Centre office to pitch making a series based on Frye’s remarkable course The Bible and Literature. (watch them http://heritage.utoronto.ca/northropfryelectures)

    The two Bobs along with director Bill Somerville (Mr. Television) filmed in the classroom over a few years with Frye’s ever staid posture. They ended up with a format made for TV- 30 half hours. Endless hours of editing making Frye accessible to a new audience. There’s a back story which could be pitched as a ‘making of the bible and literature series’ but that’s for another time.
    I had no part in the making of the series, but later I was fated to sell these shows. Even our home town TVO rejected them though with PBS they got as far as short listed. Frye already in the 80’s was no longer the lit crit darling. Toronto had Linda Hutcheon, if a local hero was required.

    Unfinished Business…

    This is relevant to Rodgers because @ 2005 he along with sidekick Somerville went knocking at the U of T to pitch redoing the series. Rodgers could be that thorn in the side stubborn. He wasn’t the first as Bob Sandler earlier made a similar proposal to fashion something from the originals. Bob Rodgers felt that with newer technology of production and with a world now claimed by new media and the internet, Frye could once again be in the spot light. Actually, I don’t know if he felt it as so much wanted it.
    Bob’s attempt to come to grips with Frye’s words of power in the digital universe once again failed as there were no financial backers. Failure was inevitable. Here we are in digi culture ,Tower of Babel V.2. Yes, the one McLuhan prophesied. Who had need to consider the old one?
    I think Bob’s insistence to the end was that to tame the new babel one must look to Frye’s wisdom of the old babel. Words of Power on the Screen! Oxymoron? McLuhan liked ‘em.


    • Thanks, Michael.I’m so sorry to learn of Bob’s passing. I met him at the Coach House last year and he later attended the Toronto School Conference last October. I recall that he didn’t look very well. I must have crossed path with him unknowingly in my many tears around U of T through 3 degrees and 2 certificates, plus calling on the Book Room as a publisher’s rep.

      May he rest in peace. “We are such stuff
      As dreams are made on; and our little life
      Is rounded with a sleep.”


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