Synthesis (more thoughts on writing as craft)

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My arts-immersion sabbatical concludes this weekend with a final digital photography workshop. Though my project continues I wanted to pause here to synthesize some of the important points I’ve discovered (or re-discovered) for framing an academic writing course as a course in wordcraft:

My Context
The principles I’m assembling are intended to be portable. Even though for now I’m approaching this work mainly as a way to enrich my own classroom experiences, I’m hoping to share what I’m learning with other teachers in the future. I realize that my teaching style tends to be much more hands-on and improvisational–an approach that has been supported by fairly privileged circumstances: most of my college teaching has been done at small, private universities where my administrators have been highly supportive of [responsible] experimentation, community-engagement, and arts-integration, and where my classes have been relatively small: 16 to 22 students.
I also periodically teach courses at an overseas institution with larger enrollments (now around 30 per class) and numerous restrictions (logistical and otherwise), but I’ve managed to retain my core approach there while also getting a “reality check” about how much of this stuff one can do as a normal, busy teacher with lots of writing students and not much time or help.
Right now I’m concentrating on incorporating this approach into a first-year composition course that meets in a conventional face-to-face classroom, supplemented by a web-based course site. But I’m also interested in adapting some of this work to my web-based teaching and as time goes by will discuss that in more detail.
Some Components of Craft
Here I should also mention that I’m deliberately culling these principles from sources outside the “craft of writing” genre. I have a stack of those books–some read long ago, others waiting for me to finish this stage of my work before cracking the covers. But I opted to ignore them temporarily in order to give myself as fresh a perspective as possible during my mostly-non-verbal sabbatical. In other words, I wanted to see what artisans in other fields had to say about learning their craft(s), ruminating on that to see where it would take me before reading likely-analogous observations by writers. This seemed especially important because as a word-person I’m so accustomed to turning everything into a metaphor for writing. It happens automatically. I needed to breathe in a different space.
So to the extent that I can isolate or sort of universalize the notion of craft, here’s what I found:
Craft has these components:
  1. Heritage
  2. Materials, Tools, and Instruments
  3. Rituals and Routines
  4. Techniques and Strategies
  5. A Community of Peers, Mentors, Apprenticeship, and Heroes
  6. A Making-Based Learning Structure
  7. Models, Counter-Models, and Radical Innovation
  8. Dispositions
  9. Habits of Mind
  10. Lots and lots of practice
Heritage
The craft has a history. Even though individuals may discover a particular craft on their own (ex: a child whittling a stick or banging a pot like a drum) the activity itself has a heritage, often one that crosses many cultures and regions. Over time, the fortunate craftsperson encounters more and more of the lore and traditions connecting her work to that of many generations. This background also helps her understand why others did the work–for what purposes and audiences, and with what consequences.
Materials, Tools, and Instruments
Customary materials, tools, or instruments are associated with the craft. The craftsperson may work with alternative materials, tools, or instruments as well, but her craft is built on or enriched by experience in and with the fundamentals (as when a laptop-habituated writer learns to use a notebook and pencil for anywhere, anytime writing).
Rituals and Routines
Whether self-taught or required by mentors, certain processes are essential to work done well. Most often these processes are related to the preparation of the craftsperson herself and her workspace, particularly when sharing a space, tools, or materials with others. Sometimes the materials and tools themselves necessitate the ritual or routine (as in the grinding of ink for oriental calligraphy or spinning yarn for knitting or weaving or the tuning of a guitar). The quality of these preparations is manifested in the completed work.
Techniques and Strategies
The craft has its “best practices”–tried and true ways of working with the materials. Here as elsewhere, the innovative and “original” craftsperson is likely to have mastered the customary approaches as well as and prior to developing her alternative techniques and strategies.
A Community of Peers, Mentors, Apprenticeship, and Heroes
At some point the fortunate craftsperson encounters colleagues–historically in the artisan-apprenticeship arrangement or by birth into a family of craftspeople, today also in school, local organizations, or on the Web. This group becomes the craftsperson’s first creative circle or network, expanding over time, and it contains fellow novices with varying degrees of expertise as well as masters who become mentors. Some form of mentorship or apprenticeship enables the novice to be guided as she develops her skills, knowledge, and identification with the craft and its culture. Through this experience the craftsperson gains exposure to exemplary people and/or their works.
A Making-Based Learning Structure
Learning by doing. That is the heart of craftsmanship, whether learned alone or as part of a community. In either case, experimentation, trial-and-error, are key to improvement and understanding. When learning is done as part of a community or mentorship, the basic structure is likely to follow this process: demonstration and/or explanation, hands-on work or practice, critique by mentors and peers. Work is visible to others, often simply because they are sharing the space. Casual observation and feedback as well as more formal critique are habitual experiences that enable the craftsperson to benefit from other perspectives before, during, and after the creation of each work.
Models, Counter-Models, and Radical Innovation
Often done by the Heroes (see above), particular works serve as sources of inspiration for craftspeople. Novices learn by replicating the originals and experimenting with alternatives. The most conventional and revolutionary ideas often become the basis for a dialogue or dialectic regarding the nature, contexts, and significance of the craft itself.
Dispositions
Within the craftperson herself are three basic dispositional categories important both in terms of what she brings to the work and in terms of what her mentors will attempt to cultivate. (I culled the following directly from the book Studio Thinking by Lois Hetland et al. and will post a more complete citation later. Their work concentrates on visual artists working within a studio environment but translates well to other craft scenarios.) (1) abilities (both in handling tools/materials and in handling the planning and decision-making components of the work); (2) the craftperson’s intrisinsic and extrinsic inclination to use her abilities; (3) her alertness to opportunities for employing these abilities.
Habits of Mind
This component involves the craftperson’s approach to learning in general and to the craft in particular. It’s a collection of ways of engaging the world. Like everything else on this page, the habits overlap with and are influenced by one another and with the other 10 components. The following list is a synthesis from a variety of sources–interestingly, many of these can be found as characteristics of active learning in K-12 education–but the sources most influential to my current version of the list are: Lincoln Center Institute’s “Capacities for Imaginative Learning,” Hetland et al’s Studio Thinking (which uses the term “Habits of Mind”), Donald Schon’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner, and Keri Smith’s How to Be an Explorer of the World.
(Note: This is a very rough draft. I’ll need to return and re-synthesize this list to reduce its length and perhaps to separate those that are specifically about craftsmanship vs about the creative learning in general.)

Identifying with your work: approaching each project as an experience in which you are intentionally developing a craft and your own craftmanship.

Noticing deeply: making it a practice to observe your surroundings closely, expecting to see things worth seeing and when choosing something to observe, devoting substantial time to the experience, and returning to the site or object repeatedly to observe it from different perspectives noting new details.

Using all your senses: being open to your embodied experience of any source of inspiration, both in terms of how it affects you (ex: a delightful fragrance, a painful emotion) and in terms of how you can use your body to experience it more fully (ex: representing your experience through movement or using senses other than your eyes to encounter additional dimensions of it.

Questioning and dialogue: continuously questioning what something is what else it might be, being attentive to the ways it responds to your questions as well as to other sources of potential questions and responses.

Persistence and resourcefulness

Identifying patterns and making connections

Experimenting / envisioning possibilities

Experiencing, using, and exhibiting empathy: Seeing your work as having consequences for someone other than yourself—as a representation of social conditions, as an object to be used and/or enjoyed, as a product dependent on shared resources, as a touchstone for dialogue, etc.—and composing your work in a way that is responsible, ethical, and compassionate.

Synthesizing / making meaning

Taking action / expressing your insights and experiences

Reflecting and self-assessing

Contextualizing: Working in a way that is mindful of how your exploration and creation connect to works done by others and to sources of inspiration kindred to those informing or inspiring your own work.

Lots and Lots of Practice
Malcolm Gladwell explains it best in Outliers, but you’ll find the same criterion in numerous other sources: the baseline for mastery of anything is 10,000 hours of practice (around 4 hours per day, 5 days a week, for 10 years). One semester of college coursework is a drop in the bucket, but it’s also potentially 300+ hours of practice.
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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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What Weaving is Teaching/Reminding Me About Writing

JacquardLoom

That timidity is never rewarded in any art form. When I try to avoid tangles, I get tangles. When my beat is too cautious my threads don’t cohere well–so I overcompensate with extra beats that still aren’t as good as a single firm one would have been. When I give in to worry my rhythm falls off.
That beauty comes from practice and repetition.
That the art is in the process.
That there is no single product; instead, there is a body of work, which includes an array of output, some of which is made public but all of which teaches and illustrates our craft.
That everything hangs on something, even if we cannot see it.
That preparation is at least 50% of creation.
Weaving is also getting me to think more vividly about patterns. Visually, I’m paying attention to weave structures–these are the algorithms designed by experts for novices like me to follow, but also the way those algorithms play out once I’ve made use of them, which includes everything from my choice of palette, weight, and sources of yarn to how I set up the loom and how I manage the work of making the cloth. To the extent an analogy might be useful, I suppose the syntax of the cloth is the warp and its grammar the weft, which would leave us to call the rest of the variables its narrative style.
All of this can be programmed ahead of time and generated mechanistically–even the most elaborate tapestries. (Which we all learn in Software Programming 101 with the history of the Jacquard Loom–punched cards serving as the precursor to Babbage’s computing machines.) So why bother making any of this stuff by hand? Likewise, why bother learning to write in college when you’re already literate enough to get into college, able to read and mimic existing documents for any given task?
Because at some point the creators of algorithms die and others must take their place and create new algorithms, new patterns, or new ways of working with the old in order to preserve our ability to make cloth when the machines crash and in order to help us generate cloth that can serve and delight us.
Because at some point the people with interesting and important things to say die and others must take their place and create new arguments, or new ways working with old arguments, in order to preserve our ability to know, think, communicate, and do things essential to our survival and happiness.
Because textiles [and texts] are a fundamental component of the human experience. Someone will always make them. Making them ourselves connects us with those on whom we depend. Having made them ourselves empowers us to choose self-sufficiency or interdependence.
Because there’s so much more to express. And because our imaginations should never be constrained by ignorance about what properly constitutes media or message.
Image source: Jeremy Butler

Critical Reflection in 3D

For several years I’ve using Stephen Brookfield‘s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (CIQ) in my writing classes to get a clearer perspective on what my students experience in our classroom each week and also to help all of us (my students and me) become more critically reflective, collaborative learners. I’ve been joined in this work by research partners at other institutions and by a variety of predecessors who shared our interest in making this tool work best in their own classrooms and practices. In the language of pedagogical theory, what we’re doing is good ole student-centered constructivist teaching and learning: we view knowledge as something constructed by all those participating in the experience, and the CIQs (and/or portfolios, 1-minute papers, etc.) record that collective process of meaning-making.

With so much of my scholarly and creative trajectory evolving through hands-on craft-work I find myself wondering what my constructivist pedagogy would look like if I took that term literally. What if “constructing knowledge” involved observable construction of stuff instead of (or perhaps in addition to) recording in words what we remember of what we learned. Or what would happen if reflection happened nonverbally? What if we built something to represent that week’s insight or pitfall?
When I visualize a 3D alternative to the CIQ, even if done in a rotation with the usual verbal CIQ, I worry that my students would consider the process too kindergartenish and that I’d find the experience too time-consuming, given all the word work to be done.
But then again, 3D reflection might include words . . . transverbal compositions.
Or am I just restless? Am I just bored with the CIQ and seeking a novel alternative? Yes, that too.
But I do need to change something.
What the CIQ Does Consistently Well
As a quick, weekly-ish activity, the anonymous questionnaire gives me a glimpse into my students’ perceptions of what that week’s learning was about, and how well I (and they) facilitated the learning.
As a collection of responses, the students’ carbon copies of the questionnaire give them a way to identify patterns in their own likes and dislikes, successes and pitfalls as learners. They can then use this collection as a source of data for analyzing their own learning experience at the end of the semester. By the same token, the responses give me a way to observe overall patterns useful for refining my pedagogy and curriculum over time.
 
What the CIQ Doesn’t Much Accomplish
The act of completing the weekly-ish questionnaires doesn’t teach students to become better reflective writers or critical thinkers. If I choose to devote additional class time to the teaching of critically reflective thinking and writing, the CIQs can be a useful artifact. But that utility greatly depends on my skill at integrating the responses into the curriculum and conversations of the course, and the students’ perception of that work as being a meaningful component of the course. And because many students pragmatically equate “meaningful” with “graded” I risk attaching some sort of grade to some sort of document that draws upon their anonymous responses. At any rate, the CIQ itself is not a means of teaching thinking or writing–at best it’s a tool for other activities that attempt to teach those things.
The CIQ responses don’t much assess whether students’ writing is improving as a result of the course experience. Nor is it assessing the students’ grasp of other course content. In conventional terms, a formative assessment instrument assesses what students are learning. Depending on the wording of the questions, the CIQ might assess the students’ perceptions of the teacher’s effectiveness, and it might somewhat assess the students’ perceptions of their own learning, but for the most part any formative assessment being done is of the teacher rather than of the learner.
In these ways the CIQ is sort of a handmaiden to teaching and learning assessment, but will always require some other instrument or activity to make use of it.
 
Why I’m Tempted to Experiment with a 3D Version
By 3D I mean a version that would somehow transform the CIQ from a flat questionnaire to something that challenged students to draw upon other cognitive, verbal, and visual resources to compose their impressions. What tempts me is the fact that I’m increasingly using multimodal and aesthetic pedagogies and projects in my courses and it seems fitting that my assessment methods be similarly multi-dimensional.
And yet often the simple tool is best. And CIQs are fairly simple.
Of course, complicating the tool is not the only way to bring the CIQ into another classroom dimension. A simpler solution would be to add this component: discussion. I could do a better job of reserving class time for CIQ-prompted discussions and of [co-]facilitating those discussions.
Imagine the best possible CIQ-prompted discussion: does it constitute critical reflection? does it teach critical reflection? Perhaps. Sometimes. It can fairly reliably serve as a way to teach meta-analysis. It brings us a step closer to overtly teaching critical thinking.
At her CCCC presentation last March Anne Beaufort discussed the pitfalls of prompting students to articulate their learning in “teacher talk” terms such as “reflection.” If we make it clear their task is to demonstrate they’ve learned X they’ll generate anecdotes or assertions accordingly–but doing so is less likely to be an act of “mindful thinking” or of critical reflection about the specific realities of their learning experience. Instead, it may be more of a “fill in the blank” response, no matter how earnestly expressed.

Self-reporting successes in terms of X is a time-honored method of assessment at many institutions, especially in the absence of more dependable ways of demonstrating the learning of complex content within a single semester.

 

So What Do I Want that’s Different?

This is really a two-fold question. What I need is an assessment method that demonstrates the extent to which my students have actually learned what I attempted to teach them. (This is Assessment 101–the thing every teacher everywhere needs.) What I additionally want is an assessment method that helps me do a better job of teaching during the semester, so I can respond to my students’ needs, interests, and inspirations. (This is what that imperfect instrument the CIQ gives me.) And beyond that I also really want some sort of assessment method that helps my students and me learn more mindfully, drill more deeply into the course content that intrigues us most, and to articulate where we are in the process of coming to know better. Furthermore, I want a way to gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogical experimentation. Finally, I want to teach my students to approach research and researched writing (in any chosen discip
line) as a critically reflective and potentially reflexive enterprise.

Is that all?
For now.

Dishcloths and Meaningful Living

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My short time at the loom is changing the way I experience much of the stuff of everyday living. After my first class it seemed only natural that I would begin to look more closely at textiles: cloth napkins, hand-knotted rugs. I became interested in the way bath towels are made, and found myself wondering who threads the looms in giant factories. Humans. Ultimately everywhere it’s still humans putting things in place before the buttons get pushed. Some things are still very much dependent on small hands. More than we might think.

But something else is happening to me: I’m asking myself how life might be different if ordinary objects were things I’d made myself. Would I toss my clothes on the floor if I’d hand-loomed the fabric and cut and sewn the garment myself?  Would I darn my socks?
One wall of my weaving classroom is hung with handmade dishcloths in different colors and patterns–model projects for beginners like me. After I complete my sampler I can proceed to design a simple object: a scarf, a purse, a bookmark, a dishcloth. The first time I saw the dishcloths I thought I could imagine nothing more boring and pointless than to devote hours and hours to the weaving of dishtowels. At best, my design would be something I could purchase more cheaply at a store and get a product I wouldn’t be worried about staining and laundering and eventually discarding. And, get real: who “designs” a dishcloth, anyway?
I had to ask myself, though: what might it mean to make something as well as I could, knowing that it would need to withstand a lot of wear and tear?  And what might it mean to use something that deserved to be treated well even as it did my dirty work?
So I will weave dishcloths and vow to use them because doing so will make me a better person. I wonder what else this will teach me.
Image source: luckywhitegirl