Teaching Today

I Teach, Therefore I Essay

Being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher, argues Caitlin McGill.

April 18, 2017
 
iStock/skynesher
 

For past few years, I’ve been trying to convince students that I write essays “for fun.” Only recently, however, while arguing that writing essays can be fun for students, too, did I realize that I don’t only enjoy the essay form but also depend on it -- in and out of the classroom. For me, being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher.

When I first attempted to organize my thoughts on this topic, I hadn’t consciously embraced that notion.

I had no idea where to begin. For several days, I thought about starting, but I kept finding papers to grade or assignments to design or an essay to revise. I put it off. After plenty of procrastination that I now recognize afforded me necessary time to think, I realized that I needed to begin as I do all of my work, that I needed to employ the very arguments I’m attempting to make now. I needed to essay: to attempt, to test, to try out, to examine.

Once I realized this, most of the pressure I’d been putting on myself disappeared. Of course, I thought. I should’ve known. After all, the act of essaying leads nearly all of my work.

Just as writing these thoughts into an essay relieved pressure, viewing teaching as an act of essaying also relieves much of the pressure of stepping onstage before students. Not long ago, I realized that I could approach teaching like I could an essay: sure, I always have some knowledge when walking into the course, but I don’t have to know exactly where the class will lead us or where it will end. With a few goals in mind, I can wander and question and fumble in the dark with my students, just as I do as the essayist on the page.

Essays offer the freedom to ponder an issue that can’t be proven one way or another, and that’s what I want to happen in the classroom. I want to elicit free and open discussion. I want to create a place to test out ideas -- to care and be conscientious of others but also to allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely without fear of condemnation -- knowing that we might not necessarily prove a theory but can start to unravel our ideas together.

When I began to view teaching as essaying, I remembered that some of my most exciting teaching moments were unplanned, unexpected gifts that my students and I discovered together after meandering down uncertain paths. Those moments of unrehearsed discovery are, for me, among the most exciting parts of teaching.

Perhaps, then, we should view the class period itself as an essay. We enter with several ideas of where we want the class to go, hoping our students have done the necessary homework to inform themselves on the subjects up for discussion. But once discussion begins, we allow ourselves to wind up somewhere new, somewhere we couldn’t have planned. And, in fact, we hope that we do, knowing that as we fumble we can manage to stay on a path, however obscure.

I admit this approach might not always work. Some classes will yield more fruitful conversation and discovery than others. And that’s OK. Sometimes my own essays find themselves knotted up and incomprehensible and just plain old unremarkable. But usually that means I’ll be back on a new writing path soon, maybe two or three drafts down the road. And so, too, a class can get back on track. We -- teachers, students, essayists -- are not perfect. And I would argue that our form demands such imperfection.

I often begin my first-year writing courses with a cliché: I discuss the etymology of the word “essay.” I realize that is far from novel and that many other instructors make this move, too, but it feels absolutely necessary this early in the semester. Can it be clichéd to students if they’ve never heard it before?

I tell my students that one writes an essay to try to figure something out. And then I tell them the part that is often hardest to sell: we don’t always find an answer after the essay is written. Sometimes we find new questions, or something we hadn’t been looking for. And when I tell them that is the beauty of the essay, of essaying, I’m reminding myself, too.

When discussing research, I return to clichés again. I offer older, broader definitions: to seek out, to search, to go about, to wander. I stress that our research will certainly include scholarly, library research, but it will also necessarily include interaction with the world. I make the case, as many other instructors do, too, that research extends beyond searching databases from a windowless room to walking outside and experiencing our subjects. Just as many of my colleagues and I try to dismantle students’ assumptions about the essay, I attempt to dismantle students’ preconceived notions about research. I attempt to infuse our research with the act of essaying -- that willingness to test out, to try, to embrace uncertainty.

An essay often demands that its narrator embody an authentic persona. So, too, should research. Thus, I attempt to excavate students’ genuine interests -- not just as academics, but also as human beings. I ask the students to make a list of topics that make their hearts race or blood boil, that make them stop what they’re doing and call a friend, text a sibling or write a long-winded rant on Facebook. Then they pick one item and write a scene of a specific moment when they realized that this thing, whatever it might be, is of interest to them. In doing so, I’m modeling my writing process, which begs that my work begin with genuine interest, with authenticity.

Afterward, students read their scenes aloud and respond to each other’s work. Though I didn’t realize it initially, that write-read-respond format models the writing workshop. During my time as a M.F.A. student, we devoted the first week of writing workshops to in-class writing and sharing. And it was this writing -- with pen and paper instead of a computer, in a room full of writers instead of alone at home, with only 20 minutes to scribble instead of a seemingly endless morning of writing ahead -- that often led to my most honest, urgent discoveries.

Now, I realize that my allegiance to essaying in teaching encouraged me to employ this model. If essaying demands authentic personae on the page, then it demands we listen to and act on our genuine instincts in teaching, too. One’s teaching philosophy, then, is a representation of one’s self.

I don’t expect my students to proclaim that what they’re doing is akin to essaying. But I do expect that my allegiance to essaying will ignite a curiosity that they sustain beyond our course. That whether they declare themselves essayists or not, they will wander through the world more vulnerable and curious, less anxious about the unknown, and more excited for what they might uncover. “Get lost and take risks,” I tell them, myself and my fellow teachers. “Embrace missteps instead of fearing them.”

Bio

Caitlin McGill teaches writing and literature at Emerson College and MCPHS University. Currently, she is working on a memoir in essays about trauma, survival, race and her journey to uncover her family’s hidden past and to reveal her own. One of the essays in that upcoming book was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016. Her website is caitlinmcgill.com.

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