Cameron Nickels shared scholarship
By Scott Hamilton Suter ('85)
Originally published in Spring 2004, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.
Scott Hamilton Suter ('85) and professor Cameron Nickels
I remember well the first day that I met English professor Cameron Nickels. It was not among the offices of Keezell Hall; it wasn't even on the JMU campus. I encountered him at the annual fiddlers' convention held in Galax, Va. I recall noticing an energetic fellow musician at many of the same jam sessions that weekend and wondering, "who is that unkempt guy in a red Seba Smith T-shirt?" I believe he wore that shirt the entire weekend. As we parted ways at the end of the festival, I responded to his inquiry about what I did when not playing banjo, proudly stating that I was about to enter the University of Virginia to study English. His reply to this impudent high school graduate continues to bring a smile: "Really? I'm a professor of English at JMU." I did go off to U.Va. at the end of that summer, but that chance meeting with Cameron Nickels stuck with me. Three semesters later, I was a student in the English department at JMU.
Looking back from the perspective of 22 years it is easy to see the influence that this special professor has held over me. I quickly became immersed in his American literature courses and found — like many students, I imagine — that Dr. Nickels' humorous demeanor both in and out of class certainly did not mean that he failed to take teaching seriously. His courses were challenging and demanding. If your writing was not precise, you were asked — no, required — to rewrite, and the reading of assignments before class was expected, not an option. However, if class members lived up to those expectations, they would invariably be treated to a present from Dr. Nickels' bag of humorous treats. For instance, he may deliver his original Rapping Raven (Poe's The Raven delivered at a rapper's pace) or spin tales of his imaginary deer-hunting season, when hunters were obliged to strangle their prey ("Deer Hunter Injured in Strangling Episode" was one of Dr. Nickels' invented headlines). The humor in his courses was a reflection of his scholarly interests. While I was a student at JMU, he was at work on the manuscript of New England Humor, which was published in 1993. I learned only then that the Seba Smith of his T-shirt was a 19th-century New England humorist. His excellence in teaching and scholarship led to his selection as both a Madison Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar.
Those of us who enrolled in his courses learned not only about American literature, but about American culture as well. My interest in this cultural approach grew quickly, and I decided to obtain a Ph.D. in American studies. Dr. Nickels introduced me to the idea and then helped me achieve it. From ushering me through my first academic conference to entrusting me to copy-edit his book manuscript, his interest in my career spurred my confidence and encouraged me to persevere in earning the degree toward which his courses had first lured me.
Dr. Nickels' interest in his students, both academically and otherwise, encouraged students to want to learn more about literature and culture. Now, as assistant professor of English at Bridgewater College, I try to engender the level of interest in my students' minds that Dr. Nickels created in his students. My goal is to rouse my students, as Dr. Nickels did for his many students, to an appreciation of a life spent thinking about the literature, culture and daily life around them.
Cameron Nickels retired in 2003 after 32 years of teaching at JMU. In those years, he surely inspired others besides me to achieve their goals. I like to think that, although he will no longer hold forth at JMU, a portion of his enthusiasm for teaching and sharing scholarship will be carried forward in my classroom. The love of learning is strong in Cameron Nickels; so is the love of teaching. The value of those two facts to his many students is preserved across the country in many different classrooms, in many different homes.
About the professor
Cameron Nickels taught English at JMU for 32 years and retired in May 2003. He also edited the academic journal on American humor, To Wit. In 1993 he published New England Humor: From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War and is currently working on a book about Civil War humor. Nickels was the first male elected to an office in JMU's Faculty Women's Caucus.
About the author
Scott Hamilton Suter ('85) is an English professor at Bridgewater College. In 2003, he published Images of America, Harrisonburg, a photographic history containing 200 rare vintage images of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.