I began teaching a memoir workshop which will meet online every Monday for eight weeks. I like to spend the first session of a new class setting a foundation for what the class will be. We began with a conversation about Jennifer Chang‘s essay “Statement of Purpose,” which appears in the anthology The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. I told my students that I assigned the essay because I relate to it, such as when Chang says, “One thing I’ve learned while teaching is that you have to accept the murkiness of moral ambiguity and critical inquiry and hope that your students will know what to do next.” This idea in particular helps me feel less afraid, as a teacher on the first day of class: that my students and I will find our way through the murk together. I invited them to think of all of us as co-teachers. I have a lot to learn from them.
In her essay, Chang uses Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” to discuss the ways in which we constitute and are constituted by a place. We make the writing workshop; the writing workshop makes us. We exist in the world of our writing, alone, crafting the text to our pleasure; then we share it with another person, they enter our text, and remake it. In their reading, it is another world entirely. Chang says, “I can’t decide if that jar in Tennessee—an object, human-made, cultural, social—intrudes on the landscape or simply refashions it.” We talked about ways to respond to one another’s work that offer alternatives to colonialist and patriarchal practices of domination.
Our writing is also the jar. “I placed a jar in Tennessee,” Stevens begins. The jar breaks apart, organizes, intrudes upon, dominates the peaceful landscape. It is, he concludes, like nothing else.