In 2017, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Parker J. Palmer’s provocative book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life in which he eloquently reminds us that teaching is a mutually transformative act, one that requires self reflection and courage. Teaching is an act of hope, an act that demands courage because no matter how we might try to distance ourselves from its formulas, it is inevitably a surrendering to the embrace of the imagination and the heart.
Cythnia Ozick offers us a similar insight when reflecting on the act of putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, as one might. She writes that “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.” I think often about these lines, sometimes printing them at the top of my syllabi, sometimes whispering them to myself when I face my own blank page and simply cannot muster the coherence I long for. Even after more than a decade in the writing classroom, most often encountering first year students who bring a bit of trepidation to the world of academic writing, I sometimes feel that I am only beginning to effectively enter into this confluence of courage that is the writing classroom. And it has, as most authentic learning experiences do, invited me into an embrace of my own vulnerabilities and uncertainties.
Nancy Sommers’s essay, “I Stand Here Writing” was originally published in an academic journal, College Writing, and yet it is a compelling example of how genres are never authentic vacuums, that the notion that we can sever our personal selves from the act of putting words down, and I would add, entering the space of a classroom, is indeed grounded on false pretense. What is brilliant about this essay is that it enacts the very argument that it articulates. It eloquently curates the author’s family history against her own educational history, invoking canonical giants like Emerson while making just as strong a case for the textual power of a daughter’s refrigerator hieroglyphics and a mother’s four-leaf clovers in a greeting card. For a first year student who is often negotiating how and why she will have a place in the mysterious world of the academic essay, Nancy Sommers’s essay reminds her that she has always had a voice, has been sustained by multiple forms of texts, and that a writing life happens well beyond the page.
The essay begins by anchoring the reader to her senses: “I stand in my kitchen, wiping the cardamom, coriander, and cayenne off my fingers. My head is abuzz with words, with bits and pieces of conversation.” I open a class discussion with this line, asking students what they know of these spices, how it could be that the work of writing happens above a steaming pot heated by the fire of a kitchen stove. One student tells me she immediately connected to this because the scent of cardamom reminds her of her father’s morning mug of chai, aromas of his home. Another student pauses and asks if this is sort of like figuring out a paper idea on the cross-country trail? And we are off to work through a philosophically astute engagement with questions of language, cultural history, and human imperfection. But it is also an essay about the cost of a writing life, about the risks of the unknown. In the same opening lines that create an image of fingers stained not with ink but with the vibrant colors of fiery spices, the author is grappling with her memory of a line about the radical loss of certainty, a theme that ripples as an undercurrent throughout the essay.
I bring this essay to students because it reminds them that there is context to how they relate to words, to learning, to themselves, that even an academic such as Sommers, brings a process to uncovering what she has to say and how she will say it. Our relationship with ideas has a history that ebbs and flows with time and that sometimes in looking for answers we might be missing the point. In so doing, the essay invites students into research as an unpredictable act of curiosity: “I know that I can walk into text after text, source after source, and they will give me insight, but not answers. I have learned too that my sources can surprise me.” Each time I teach this essay, it strikes me that Sommers’s description of research could as easily have been of the pedagogical impulse, one steeped in past lives and open to surprises.
At its core, this essay is about how writing and research happen, though it doesn’t try to lull students into the delusions that there is some mysterious formula that will yield the same result for each of us. What it offers students is a sense of agency as writers, as researchers. Sommers writes:
“If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to seem themselves as Emerson’s transparent eyeball, all that they have read and experienced—the dictionaries of their lives—circulating through them.”
In these lines she grants students the permission for ambiguity, and in fact argues for the necessity of their uncertainty in moving toward the creation of meaning, of bringing the “dictionaries of their lives” to an audience. By bringing this essay, one likely created for an academic audience of writing scholars, to an undergraduate classroom, I can begin a conversation with them about how their stories matter, about how sometimes we have to navigate the personal to create meaning from the academic. Sommers writes: “Being personal means bringing their judgments and interpretations to bear on what they read and write, learning that they never leave themselves behind even when they write academic essays.” This can be a liberating piece of knowledge for an undergraduate writing student, to think that there is a place for their voice in the conversation of ideas and that in grappling with what this will mean for themselves they are a part of a larger human experience of listening for their words.
If I am honest, I love teaching this essay because of what it reveals for my students, but also because of how it sustains me.
“With writing and with teaching, as well as with love, we don’t know how the sentence will begin and, rarely ever, how it will end. Having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt, we can walk into all of those fields of writing, knowing that we will find volumes upon volumes bidding us enter.”
I return to Sommers’s eloquent lines on days when I pause at the classroom door, unsure if I have anything to offer my students, when I close my eyes to the sight of a blank screen, when I am in need of an invitation, of a voice to remind me that it is in entering into the ambiguous dance of teaching/writing that we find one another: teacher, student, writer, human.
Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (20th Edition), 2017.
Sommers, Nance. “I Stand Here Writing” College English, Vol. 55, No. 4. (Apr., 1993), pp. 420-428. [Find Sommers’s essay online, here.]
Christine Cusick lives in the foothills of the Laurel Highland mountains of western Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the intersections of ecology, story, and memory. She has published numerous ecocritical studies of contemporary literature and has been nationally recognized for creative nonfiction. Her most recent book is a coedited essay collection, Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment. She is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Seton Hill University.