If All You Have is a Hammer . . .

OCU Campus Legends

Mallet

The first day of our Liberal Arts Seminar I said Cardinal Newman’s philosophy of liberal learning boiled down to one thing: his concern that if all we have is a hammer everything will look like a nail.

To make this lesson memorably multimodal I passed around one of my own hammers from home. OK, it wasn’t really a hammer; it was a heavy rubber mallet. (Seemed less freaky for a first day of class.)

As a hardcore do-it-myselfer I get a lot of use from that mallet so I confess I had mixed feelings presenting it as a symbol of limited imagination. In truth, I have done some fairly creative problem-solving with that mallet.

Here’s the thing: if all you have is a hammer, you can potentially become extremely skilled with the hammer. You might hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, building up your 10,000 hours with…

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A Pause Before Diving Back into the Blog

The academic year resumed and I dropped off-blog. I need to spend the next week or so catching up with the comments and reintegrating this writing into my day-to-day life. (Easier done once final grades are in.)

I’m wrapping up a spring first-year writing course with the theme “Genius” in which I attempted to establish a flexible space for exploring connections between academic writing, reflection, and the kinds of ingenuity that inspire us. I hoped that such an approach would enable my students and me to explore deeper and more diverse ways that a liberal arts education can help us tap our own creative potential.

As the years pass–I’ve now been teaching at this institution over 8 years–I find myself more committed than ever to the principle that what we do in first-year courses absolutely must include stimulating the creativity of our students. Some who share my commitment call it “critical thinking” rather than creativity. So be it. I’m using the word creativity right now because I need to emphasize a kind of openness, resourcefulness, ingenuity . . . playfulness too. These things aren’t always encompassed in definitions or discussions about “critical” thinking. What I’m looking for includes joyful discovery and an expectation of/faith in serendipity.

We don’t have time to wait for other people to be creative. We have diseases that need to be cured, an environment to heal, life-spans to extend, cycles of ignorance and brutality to halt and transform. We can’t think of ourselves as “not creative” for doing so just perpetuates our own mediocrity. This all seems so obvious to me and yet all around me I see people who may, at best, purchase tickets to a performance or watch a nifty video on YouTube. Art-integration is approached too passively, if at all. People keep missing the connection between art and personal agency. They miss opportunities to pay closer attention to what they see and how it might connect to their own lives and work and vision for the world.

There are so many things I would do differently with the “Genius” course next time around.

One thing that nags me is the sense that I didn’t do a good enough job of fostering ways for students to make meaningful connections between the creatives they admired and their own lives. We spent too much time wrestling with the notion of what “genius” is and looks like, not enough time doing things that would enable them to experiment with their own ways of knowing.

I keep thinking about that TED.com video about the use of origami by engineers.

What’s leading me back to it, I think, is my current situation: the semester is ending; I’m planning to take more art classes over the summer. One in design, another in sculpture, probably some more weaving. I’m exposing myself to as many media and techniques as possible so that during the school year, when any art-making must come from my own time and talent (such as it is) I’ll be better able to realize my vision.  There are things I need to make, compositions in 3D that have been calling me and that I just need to complete–get them out of my head and here on the table. But my skill set is limited. Heh. Not as limited as it was last year, though!

What studio artists and artisans have that everyday people don’t is this: an ability to conceive of copious, diverse uses for things beyond the customary ones. I’ve discussed this before elsewhere. The resourcefulness thing. Into that category of artists and artisans I would like to add engineers, mechanics, chemists, nurses, cooks . . . people who do problem-solving in three dimensions. I emphasize artists because they are trained to think imaginatively at a level that most others aren’t. It’s their job to create something astonishing out of nothing. It’s an intensification of creative purpose, almost an urgency. Musicians don’t just make sounds; they make music. It’s OK for them to just make nice music. But to some degree the musician won’t feel like she’s really doing her job if all the music she ever makes is merely nice or merely an accurate reproduction of the notes in an arrangement.

As someone who works with first-year college students every year within a liberal arts institution–the kind of place intended above all others to cultivate intellectual versatility for the betterment of our world–I can’t ignore the opportunity (heck, the civic responsibility) to develop courses that do their share to construct the scaffolding needed for further creative inquiry. My field, rhetoric and composition, is rooted in the western academic heritage. And yet I still worry about appearing to neglect the teaching of writing in order to do the teaching of thinking. I want to do a better job of teachings style and grammar–but those things aren’t all that I teach. I’m not teaching functional literacy; if anything, I’m teaching academic literacy. Academic literacy is about knowing why you are researching something, why you are writing about it, how it could matter (or not) and to whom. It’s also about preparing yourself to do consequential work as a researcher and writer–learning how to draw upon what’s known and make something new or different from it, and to generate more worth knowing.

In Defense of Underwater Basket Weaving

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So today one of the weavers brought some baskets into the studio. In addition to her work at the loom she’s a basket-weaver and recently returned from a workshop in Branson, MO (of course!) with two remarkable artifacts.

I’m struggling to articulate my new respect for functional handicrafts. I’ve always been an at-best marginally socially conscious consumer, viewing objects such as dishcloths and baskets–even scarves and rugs–as products among products among products. As a former Nordstrom scarf lady and occasional overseas traveller I’ve been much more respectful of the artistry of the latter. But baskets are things you buy half-price around Christmas time to hold gifts or dinner rolls and dish cloths are things you don’t even think about except perhaps when moving into a new apartment and wanting something fresh rather than tattered in your kitchen to wipe down countertops–and you purchase them for a few bucks as an afterthought.
As I observed the structure of the baskets, their materials, their combination of textures and hues (hand dyed), I also had to think about all the other basket-makers in the world. These objects aren’t made by machine but by people. Women and children and old men making things of beauty, so lightweight, so cheap; how many must fit into a commercial shipping container?
But that’s not what I logged on to say.
I logged on to observe that basket weaving is done wet. The reeds are softened (as clarinet players know) with moisture. Many types of basket weaving must be done with water. Perhaps not “under water” but as a former SCUBA diver I have no problem visualizing the aesthetic possibilities and, for that matter, the fun challenge of weaving a basket under water.  I have easy access to a swimming pool. I can rent the gear. I might just try it. I’d need to take a few basket-weaving lessons, though.
I’m not kidding.
Here’s the thing: in this time of economic constraint when I am so blessed as to be taking a sabbatical that permits me to explore widely and deeply the intersections of art and writing, I find myself moving ever more zealously toward activities that are “impractical” because I find that the closer I get to those activities the more I discover their fundamental practicality–no, their essential practicality, perhaps their transcendent practicality. (Emerson would be right on board with this.)
What is more practical than cloth, than vessels?
What makes these things impractical is not the objects themselves but the assumption that a person like me has no practical need to make them myself, nor to study how they are made. I’m an American university professor in suburbia. My job is to teach writing to college students–people who are already functionally literate, which means my job is not to “teach writing” so much as to teach “good” writing or better writing or writing that enables them to gather information, analyze it, and communicate it in ways that deepen their critical thinking and advance their facility with research and writing for now and for the future. That’s my job. OK. And I guess my retort (another favorite metaphor but since this isn’t my writing-and-laboratory-science sabbatical I won’t elaborate) is that as soon as we move from the teaching of functional literacy (something that, frankly, I’m not trained to teach) into the realm of teaching-for-resourcefulness-and-ingenuity we’ve moved into a realm where it matters for someone like me to understand such bedrock cultural practices and connections as the composition of functional crafts and the crafting of functional compositions.
And I don’t just mean metaphorically.
This arts-immersion experience is not just about metaphors; it’s a leap of faith, really. I know there’s more to learn about the materiality of language through the materiality of handicrafts.
That’s what I’m after.
And in that vein, I’m seeking connections to that other “impractical” thing: the liberal arts education. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the phrase “underwater basket weaving” seemed to be the standard joke regarding the liberal arts curriculum–the path that prepared you for everything by preparing you for nothing in particular through explorations of whatever the heck struck your fancy in a loose confederation of seemingly arbitrary categories.
(I need to find that scene from Addams Family Values with the liberal arts joke. Here it is.)
When you study fiber materials (ex: viscous materials pounded and strands twisted or interlaced or chained to achieve strength and flexibility) and weave structures you’re dealing with chemistry, botany, physics, architecture, mathematics . . . it’s all so obvious. It would take so little to parse out every discipline represented in the process of weaving a basket–and the delightful problem-solving dimension achieved by doing so under water. (Not to mention kineseology or phys ed.)
This may be the perfect course.  If only I were qualified to teach it.

 

Image source: Advocacy Project

Note that the basket is composed of tightly wound newspapers:

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