I have the easiest job in the room today because its my task to celebrate the career of Geoff Smith at Queen’s by telling a few funny stories.
My challenge is, of course, to choose the right one, from a bountiful harvest. I’m fond of the story Roberta Hamilton has committed to print, about how Geoff found her when they were separated in an airport once by barking like Tuborg the Dog. (someone many of us remember fondly). “How did you know it was me and not some other dog?” Geoff is alleged to have said as Roberta made her way through the crowd towards him.
I’ve known Geoff Smith since the mid 1980s, when I was a PhD student here. I commuted to Kingston from Ottawa in those years, and I used to occasionally get a ride from one of my teachers, Professor Roberta Hamilton. Once, we were accompanied by another history professor, a man I didn’t know, her boyfriend, Geoff Smith. While we were driving somehow the topic of a big lecture Roberta had given the year before came up, an annual high profile thing called The Webster Lecture. In the ancient era of the 1980s at Queen’s, a woman giving a named scholarly lecture was a big deal, almost unimaginable if the woman was a feminist. So stories of Roberta’s hard-hitting, controversial Webster lecture had made the rounds among the grad students, and while this event had happened before my time here, I thought I knew all about it. “Oh, your Webster Lecture,” I said. “I heard that was where some jerk in the audience stood up and asked you if you still believed in romantic love.”
At that point the man in the passenger seat turned around, smiling, and held out his hands. “That was me,” he said. “You may hit me.”
And at that moment, sometime in the autumn of 1985, I realized two things about Geoff. This was someone to be reckoned with, someone with whom I was probably going to have a relationship for some time to come. And it would not be easy.
Geoff Smith is one complicated individual, and I think that’s what I have come to cherish most about him. By almost any measure, he is a winner of the global sweepstakes of privilege. White, male, bourgeois, straight, athletic, born at the right time, the baby boom, and the right place, California. What comforts this constellation of identities bestow! Yet Geoff clings tenaciously to the increasingly antiquated notion that privileges are to be shared, indeed, dismantled, not horded. His teaching, his scholarship, and his prodigious activism, at Queen’s and elsewhere, all start from the premise that generosity, inclusivity and cooperation are preferable to isolated self-interest. At Queen’s we are recently being encouraged to “engage with” the world. I’d say Geoff Smith is about 30 years ahead of this curve, for he’s been “embracing the world” since he came here.
And it hasn’t been easy. Geoff has made a home for himself at Queen’s and in Kingston but in general neither of these places completely share his values or his culture. I have had the privilege of fighting many a losing battle with Geoff in the History Department, and occasionally a winning one. I hardly need tell you that winning was more fun, but we developed a pattern of losing which had its own charms: dinners with plenty of good food, wine, good company and especially good humour. Our colleague Ian McKay reminded me of another typical Geoff story, an extremely tense History Department hiring meeting of some years back, where knives and tempers were sharpened and at the ready, into which Geoff walked armed with a box of donuts which he proceeded to share with his grumpy colleagues. To survive in opposition for as long as Geoff has, a person needs a few inner resources, and Geoff has taught many of us the value of humour, and rising to fight another day.
But here’s the real Iconic Geoff Smith moment I want to leave you with. It takes place, as it should, in a classroom. The date is September 12, 2001. Professor Smith was teaching his perennially popular course “Dissent and Conspiracy in US History” that term. You can perhaps imagine the atmosphere of the lecture theatre in Dunning Hall as several hundred students and hangers-on assembled to hear what Professor Smith was going to say about US history and foreign policy the day after the attacks in New York and Washington. What I saw for a couple hours in that lecture theatre was simply the best teaching moment I have ever witnessed. Geoff delivered a brilliant lecture on the history of US/Middle East relations, the rise of religious fundamentalism, the history of the CIA in Afganistan, the concept of “blowback,” the paradoxes of capitalist globalization. All in a nice 30 minute package. And then he opened the mikes, and an extraordinary parade of students spoke their mind, truly as wide a spectrum as we have at Queen’s: Muslims, Jews, pro corporate Commerce kids, anti corporate Development studies kids, and a whole bunch of students with no particular affiliation but a ton of questions and a lot of anguish. The space that was created, in that huge lecture theatre, for questions, uncertainties, anxieties, differing opinions and of course, as always, good humour, was amazing. That is the Geoff Smith I will always remember, and that’s the Geoff Smith that Queen’s will miss the most.
Originally from San Franciso, Geoff Smith has been in sunny Kingston since 1969, and in the past thirty seven years, has taught courses at Queen’s in topics ranging from American Foreign Relations, History of Sport, Sport Sociology, History of Latin America, Drug Wars and Drug Cultures, and many more. He has been involved at all levels of university life, always a voice on behalf of undergraduate students, or at a varsity game; he has also been the head basketball coach, on many boards of directors, editorial boards, and frequently appears as a speaker on a panel discussions in and around campus. He has won several of teaching awards, notably the Frank Knox award in 2004, the most prestigious teaching award at Queen’s in 2004. His books and articles are published widely, in journals, as chapters, in editorials. One of his earlier books was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and with several in between the next is set to be published in January of 2007. In short, because there is much more, he does it all. Geoff escaped the History department to join the PHE faculty in the late 90s, and it hasn’t been the same since.
Upon hearing the news just last week that it was “official” and Dr. Smith is retiring, we put the word out to students, both past and present, to share some stories or anecdotes to illustrate the type of professor and person that he is, to share with all of you tonight. While some people highlighted particular funny or memorable times, the theme that permeates the following excerpts tend to be more about his impact beyond what was taught in a classroom. One student simply said, “He's undoubtedly been the biggest influence on my university life.”
Geoff is interested in students, which makes them interested in him. There is always a line outside of PEC 215 during his office hours, and I know at least for myself that 10% of the time is spent on the reason you are there, the rest is him exploring what it is that you are about, what makes you tick, so he can figure out the best way to get the most out of you.
I have been lucky enough to get to know Dr. Smith during my time here, and while he has done many things for me over the years, what I can thank him most for is an appreciation for a liberal arts education. As a science student, who would never have taken a second term of sport sociology had I not heard that he was a prof you simply had to experience. I gained an appreciation for the value of the broad educational opportunities at Queen’s, and developed an understanding of how to fit arts and sciences together synergistically, as opposed to being distinct from one another. In that way, it is not simply his courses or guidance that have helped me, but they have changed the way I’ve approached my education since. As a result, both directly and indirectly, because of Geoff I am a better writer, a critical thinker, and chances are, a better person.
I can remember first seeing Geoff Smith. It was during my inaugural Queen's basketball home game when I couldn't help but notice a very loud, large, silver haired man in a big black turtle neck, screaming and shaking his fist at the crowd to show their appreciation for their home team. I knew, from that experience, that enrolling myself in two of his classes the next year would prove to be an entertaining experience at the very least.
Only one of many entertaining experiences occurred during a particular HLTH 239 lecture. After his usual material Geoff dimmed the lights...lit large candles...and to the shock of the crowd, partially undressed to reveal an over sized tie-died shirt underneath his usual collared shirt. Geoff proceeded to emphatically deliver Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Needless to say, he left the students after that lecture with much to talk about.
Upon receiving a less than satisfactory mark on my term paper for that same class, I sought to speak with Geoff in hopes of him reconsidering my grade. What I thought would be a simple task turned out to be much more than I expected. He picked apart every little spelling and grammar mistake that I had made, and told me quite bluntly that, these mistakes were not acceptable for an "A" paper. After our first meeting I felt beleaguered and shocked. How could such a groovy prof be such a square when it came to spelling and grammar? It wasn't until some time afterwards that I came to realize that Geoff was only pushing me to be a better student and writer, and to not accept within myself even the smallest of seemingly inconsequential mistakes.
Because I have had Geoff Smith as prof in the past, I thought I knew what to expect when I enrolled in Drug Wars this year. I knew about his enthusiasm, and his ability to fully engage his students in the classroom.
However, I did not anticipate the amount of genuine care he showed for his students. Once during a visit to his office I was discussing some of my future goals. He immediately picked up the phone and began calling a number of people on my behalf. I found his proactive approach to be both touching and inspiring. I truly feel sorry for the students coming after us who will not get to experience passion and vibrancy.
Two years ago during the support staff strike many classes were cancelled due to professors unwillingness to cross the picket line, while other “scabs” went on business as usual. Dr. Smith’s dilemma was not wanting to lose class time, but also being sympathetic to the striking employees. He informed us in class, that for every hour he taught, he would spend an hour on the picket line. First and foremost a teacher, yet also supportive of civil disobedience, here was a professor who was taking a difficult route in order to practice what he preached.
In the class room however, he keeps people guessing…
He showed up for our second class of the year in a UCLA bball jersey (I'm pretty sure there was a pizza stain on it), carrying a ghetto blaster playing the Bruins' fight song...and singing right along.
Geoff agreed to let Ahmed Kayssi do a campaign speech in front of our history of sport class when he was running for Rector (he always allowed people to do speeches in his class, on the condition that they had to answer one pointed question from the man himself). While Kayssi talked, Geoff paced all around the front of the lecture hall behind him. Eventually he pulled up a chair behind Kayssi, stood up on it and - arms raised - gave his best "frankenstein-upon-innocent-prey" impression. Kayssi had no idea what the class was howling at.
In Geoff's Sports in Society class 2 years ago he was giving a lecture when he interrupted himself to inform the class that i had the greatest smile in western...and eastern...civilization. As a male student who isn’t homophobic but we were talking about gender issues…well, from many profs this would have been either creepy or sexual assault, but because it was Geoff it just seemed...appropriate (not because I think I have the greatest smile ever, that distinction belongs to Jann Arden), but because of the way he tries to engage every person in his class when he teaches.
|I had Geoff Smith for one class, Drug Wars and Cultures. On the first day of class he apologized for the fact that one of the classes every week was from 4-5:30 on Friday afternoon. He said that they had given him this time slot because if anyone could "make it work", he could. To everyone, it was apparent that this was true even before he told the story. Not only did I attend Friday classes, but each week there were inevitably a few extra students who weren't even in the class, but had come just to see Prof. Smith lecture! Anyone who has ever had class on a Friday afternoon can appreciate that this is truly a remarkable feat by a remarkable prof. Professor Smith's lectures were epic and I feel sorry for anyone who never had the chance to take part in one of his classes.|
Geoff Smith may be the only prof on campus who can draw a decent crowd to a Friday afternoon lecture. And what a treat it was. I don't think any of us thought we would ever look forward to Friday afternoon classes, but I can honestly say that Geoff changed our minds. As a teacher he is brilliant and passionate and always surprising. In his class, I feel less like a student and more like a member of a privileged audience.
|More than any other professor of mine, Geoff could make connections. He is so well read (and written) on such wide-reaching and varying topics that he could find intersections between issues and topics that most would never consider. If you challenged him to go from the Russian Revolution to OJ Simpson in four moves, he would do it. In three.|
|Geoff cares about his students in two major ways:|
|First he wanted to make sure you were doing okay on a PERSONAL level. If you ever came into his office or bumped into him on the street, he would never jump straight to business. It was always, "How are YOU? How are you feeling? Are you doing well? Make sure you're getting some exercise, okay?"||Secondly, he wanted his students to think critically and to write well (for Geoff this meant following his mantra: FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS and Edit Edit Edit). It's a tool that you carry with you in life, no matter what area you end up working in.|
|On the last day of his classes, Professor Smith often took a few minutes to provide some general advice for his students – tips for surviving academic life as I remember. The year I took PHED 241 the concluding tip – the climax of his discussion – seemed somewhat curious: “always remember to floss.” While it’s possible Professor Smith was simply vigilant about dental hygiene, I took this comment to mean much more. On one level, this very specific piece of advice had a wider significance, representing a plea to ‘never forget the little things,’ whether it be in academics, athletics, social life, personal health, or somewhere else. On another level, this advice was suggestive of Professor Smith’s genuine concern for his students. His classes were as much about life as they were history, sociology, politics, or sport, and Professor Smith kept everyone attentive by weaving various anecdotes from his life with his extensive knowledge on these topics. For me, no visit to his office was complete without providing assurance that I was indeed sleeping right, eating right, and generally enjoying my time at Queen’s, and I always found this uplifting in an academic world that is bound by course readings, exam cramming, and seemingly endless deadlines. Perhaps Professor Smith was speaking literally when he implored us to look after our teeth, but for me this comment meant more about the importance of enjoying, rather than just ‘getting through’ school, and spoke to his very sincere commitment and concern for each of his students.|
I can't remember ever actually being excited to go to a class until I had him as a prof. And if you haven't heard him give his speech during his final class of each semester then you are missing out. Some people may think he is off the wall or a little crazy, but just listening to him speak during that class you will see that he is not only a brilliant person, but easily the most impassioned and dedicated teacher I have ever had. I'll always remember his message: to make sure to find something to do in life that you love, just like he has, because happiness is the most important thing in life. And to always see the world through the eyes of a 3 year old, who sees hope, who sees newness.
I enjoyed Geoff’s class more than others. He did not just put up a power point and talk at you, he involved his students in his class. He shared his vast life experiences as they applied and usually recalling them with enthusiasm, vigour and a little acting. He would dress up as subjects from the lecture, read their works, (I’ll never experience Ginsberg the same way again), show movie clips, audio samples, to put students right in the lecture, not just leave them as spectators. During class he would challenge students asking them to “come at me,” “fight me” pushing his students to reach beyond what they might know. Geoff stressed writing in his students. “If nothing else, I’m going to make damn good writers out of you,” he announced at the beginning of the class, letting the students in on what was to come. A prolific writer himself, Geoff has published works in a wide variety of publications from the small PHE newspaper Coach’s Corner to his own books and articles. Geoff inspires learning in his students and he is the reason that I have decided to further pursue my education at the university level, and hope to go into teaching as well. It’s safe to say that without Geoff, the school of PHE will not be the same, so much so that we might as well change the name of the school to something like Kinesiology. I’m sure that this is not the last we hear from Geoff, but on behalf on the students and staff of the school of PHE, I wish Geoff all the best in his further adventures. I have no doubt that they will be eventful to say the least.