The Singing Professor

The Singing Professor

Lindsay Kines

(Vancouver Sun Observer, Saturday, July 5,
2003, excerpts reprinted with permission)

VICTORIA-It’s a sunny Friday morning at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel and the man voted a favorite professor by this year’s graduating class at Harvard University seems happy to be home. Brian Little, sixty-two (1995 3M Teaching Fellow, Carleton University), will be wearing a sweltering, blue and gold doctoral gown later in the day for his class reunion at the University of Victoria. But right now the former Empress Hotel page boy looks cool and relaxed in shorts and a golf shirt, a patio umbrella overhead, the ocean stretching out behind him.

“This is home,” he says. “It really is home.” He grew up just steps from here in the house his father built with his own hands-“everything except the electrical work”-the house where his family gathered around the piano each night, singing and laughing.

It was there, perhaps, that the young performer first emerged. Brian Little, boy soprano, began singing on stage at age two and, even though puberty eventually stole his voice and left him with an “utterly mediocre baritone,” he’s still wooing university crowds all these years later.

Last year, seventy undergraduates took his course and gave him a perfect 5.0 rating.

“The topic that I teach is personality psychology,” Little says. “It’s very hard not to be a good teacher of that, because it’s so intrinsically interesting: Why are we like we are?” His students think there’s more to it than that. “Brian Little is the most engaging, entertaining, and caring professor I have ever encountered,” Adam Grant, who nominated Little as one of Harvard Yearbook’s Favorite Professors, wrote recently.

“Working with him has been the most rewarding experience I have had at Harvard; I cannot even begin to explain the myriad ways in which he has positively affected my life.”

That Brian Little is at Harvard at all, let alone winning raves from students, is a testament to the influence of his father, who never graduated from high school.

“He never pushed,” Brian recalls. “He just took great delight in any academic success and it was always important to him.

“To him, education was something to be cherished.”

His son learned that lesson well. Brian Little loved school, got shivers of excitement from new knowledge and insights into the world around him.

Once, in junior high, a science teacher came into class and said: “Here’s today’s question, why are there more Joneses than Smiths in the Victoria telephone directory? You tell me tomorrow.”

The next day, when the teacher asked for answers, Little put up his hand and volunteered a theory. So did another student, and another. Until, finally, the teacher said: “Okay, first lesson of science: There aren’t more Joneses than Smiths in the Victoria telephone directory.”

Little followed his passion for science to Victoria College, which became the University of Victoria, where he graduated with the first class in 1964. There, the future professor got a rare opportunity to study in a small, intimate setting, “one where professors really cared, knew their students, and cared deeply about them personally.”

“Professors are a little bit like different kinds of wine,” he says. “Students need to appreciate that there can be tart, chippy little wines and there can be rich, aromatic, deep wines, and that each, in its own way, can be delightful and edifying.”

From one professor, a classicist who taught Greek history with tears running down his cheeks, Little learned the importance of passion. Though “In retrospect, he also chain-smoked, so I may totally have misinterpreted what was happening,” Little says, laughing.

From psychology professor Bill Gaddes, Little discovered the power of enthusiasm. Gaddes, he says, was so enthusiastic about his work that students couldn’t wait to get to class to find out what he couldn’t wait to tell them.

And he cares deeply about his students. He estimates that he spends two hours answering erriails from his students; his wife figures it’s closer to three. He came up with the idea of getting his students to keep a research journal, where they can express what is really on their minds and which counts for marks in the course. “I think that until I developed the notion of everybody being able to do a journal .. . I was probably missing some students who were too shy to speak up in class.”

The emails and journal entries help fuel the “matters arising” component of Little’s lectures, where he discusses issues raised by the students. “That way they feel as if it is truly a dialogue-even though there are 250 students in there-and they are participating. I think you can do that with a class of 1,000, frankly.”

It’s in class that Little truly shines, in large part because, although the voice may be gone, he is blessed with impeccable comedic timing, Grant says. “He reminded me a lot of Robin Williams; I think he gets that a lot.”

The humour, Little says, builds up credit with the students which then allows him to be deadly serious on other matters that touch the hearts of his students.

“It’s like a symphony,” he says. “There’s a slow movement and there’s an allegro movement. You can be allegro vivace for three lectures and then largo.”

After a lecture, he often escapes to a washroom, where he finds an empty cubicle, sits down, pulls up his feet so nobody can find him, and takes a long moment to reflect. The washroom retreats bring momentary peace and restore Little’s true nature.

He once explained this to Peter Gzowski on CBC’s Morningside, telling the famous radio host: “After a talk, I’m in cubicle nine.” Gzowski confessed, “After a show, I’m in cubicle eight.”

“If you find out what your core projects are, what deeply matters to you, what you have committed to, then I’m in a really good position to help shape or understand the shaping of your life,” he says. “Because for me, one’s personal projects are what are crucial to human flourishing.”

The concept puts a different twist on understanding personality, he says. People may be born introverts or extroverts. A four-month-old introvert will move away from a loud hand clap; an extrovert would turn toward it, and that same characteristic would be found in personality studies of the same children twenty years later at university.

But one’s personal projects can make you act out of character, he says. ” One project for me is to profess with passion … so that, as a professor, I am ‘on’ as a pseudo-extrovert.”

This does not make it wrong or phony, he says. But it does help to understand what is occurring, so that you can take time to re-balance and reduce the risk of burnout.

People, he says, go against their natures for all kinds of personal projects- love for their spouse, their children, their job.

“Those are what I call ‘free traits’ and the ‘free-trait agreement’ is that I will act out of character in the service of that which I cherish if you will afford me a restorative niche every now and then which will allow me to regain my first nature.

“And it doesn’t mean I don’t love you, that I want to be off by myself in Ladysmith for a weekend.

“But I might better love you, even more, when I get back restored.”

The one sad note in all this is that Little’s father never lived to see his son play Harvard. Richard Little died in 1992 at the age of ninety-three. But there is little doubt that he was already immensely proud of his boy.

Once, a few years before his death, he said to Brian: “You’ve done well,Son.”

“Thank you, Dad,” Brian replied.

“I always knew education was important.”

“I know, thank you.”

“And your Morri, too.”

“Yes.”

“You went to Berkeley.”

“Yes.”

“You taught at Oxford.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“You never went to Harvard, did you?”

Brian Little doubles over with laughter, recalling this conversation.

“It wasn’t as if he was saying, ‘Oh yeah, but you haven’t gone to Harvard.’ He genuinely couldn’t remember whether I had gone there or not. He was ninety! But this became the family great story, ‘This is my Uncle Brian. He’s never been to Harvard.”‘