Teaching Skill

In the Fall semester, I taught a new course, a seminar for first-year students: “Skills: From the Medieval Workshop to the Maker Movement.” It was historical and hands-on: I wanted students to understand skills by reading and writing as well as by doing. We read history, psychology, and anthropology; manifestos, manuals, and memoirs.

The Brown Design Workshop
Tools and how-tos at the Brown Design Workshop

We also got out into the shop — we met in the Brown Design Workshop, a new School of Engineering space equipped with woodworking and metalworking tools and machines, as well as high-tech laser cutters and 3D printers—and made things. If a question about skill, materials, or tools come up in our readings, we could try to answer it, right then and there. Throughout, students wrote about their work, using ideas and models from the class readings. (You can see the course syllabus here.)

The course has been a success, I think. The students (13 first-years, 8 men and 5 women, of diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests) certainly enjoyed it. They liked the hands-on part best. Learning to weld or make stone tools is fun! But they also appreciated the opportunity to work on a single skill over the course of the semester, journaling about it to understand how they were learning. They participated in lively discussions about, for example, the ways in which the maker movement is similar to the Arts and Crafts movement of a century earlier, the best ways to describe woodworking skills, the changing ways that high schools and colleges teach vocational skills, science, and engineering.

While it’s hard to know how much of the anthropology, history and sociology they learned will stick with them, two aspects of their learning were, I believe, significant for them. They all reflected deeply on the process of learning something new, an essential skill for a first-year college student. And their writing improved greatly over the course of the semester. They learned to observe, to determine the important aspects of a project, to tell good stories; their writing became more concrete, more coherent, and more interesting.

Class discussion

The course began with lock-picking and sewing. I chose those because they seem to capture two fundamentally different kinds of skills. Lock-picking requires understanding a mechanism and dexterity. To pick a lock, you need a mental image of its workings — pins, tumblers — and then the ability to manipulate them. It has other advantages, too. Few students know how to do it, it’s easy to teach, and at the end of the first class, or with a few hours of practice, students can pick simple padlocks. A good trick, and not a bad triumph for the first week of school!

Kenna Libes teaching sewing

Sewing, the second skill students tried, offers different lessons. While, like lock-picking, it demands dexterity, it’s about materials, not mechanisms. It requires planning. Students used a simple running stitch to make a small pouch: another triumph for the beginning of the semester. Sewing is also, traditionally, gendered female; I wanted to make clear throughout the course the way that the notion of skill has been culturally defined, and to push back against those traditions.

The first readings for the class, short selections from David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship on the “workmanship of risk” and the “workmanship of certainty,” and from Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge on “tacit knowledge” and “know-how” set the tone for what followed. Pye and Polanyi are both very analytical writers, with strong points of view. They analyze actual skills in some detail. Their insights would shape students’ writing for the rest of the semester.

At the Steelyard

One goal of the course was getting students off campus and exposing them to a wider range of experiences than is typical for first-year students. Students spent a morning at Providence’s Steelyard learning to weld, after reading about the history of welding and watching World War II era films on welding.

At New Harvest Coffee Roasters

They visited New Harvest Coffee’s barista training center in Pawtucket, after reading both an anthropologist’s take on the work and coffee industry trade journals, and then interviewed baristas about their work. A visit to the Rhode Island School of Design’s glass shop for a demonstration of glass blowing provided the opportunity to discuss the way that knowing materials is an essential element of skill.

Artifacts reveal the skills of their makers, and so we visited museums to find skills frozen in things. At the RISD Museum of Art, costume and textile curator Kate Irvin helped us look closely at the way that a wide range of garments were made, helping us understand the skills of their makers, and the relationship of creativity and skill. At the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology archaeology graduate student Pinar Durgun helped the students examine stone tools in preparation for their attempt to make them later that week. At the John Hay Library, librarians Karen Bouchard and Bill Monroe showed off medieval manuscripts and Arts and Crafts printing (oh! that Kelmscott Chaucer) as well as how-to manuals from the Renaissance to the present.

At the RISD Museum (left) and the John Hay Library

The best class meetings were those that combined discussion of readings and hands-on work in the Brown Design Workshop. When we read Polyanyi on tacit knowledge, we went into the shop to hammer nails; Pye led to consider hand drills and drill presses, scissors and shears. When we read historical analyses debating the skills of the workmen who made interchangeable parts for muskets in the American industrial revolution, we went out into the shop to see how hard accurate filing of metal parts might be. Students compared working with wood, steel, and aluminum when they discussed materials. Brian Corkum, the Design Workshop’s senior technical assistant, demonstrated the skills he used to keep machines in repair. Not every class lent itself to this kind of work — I’m still trying to invent a hands-on activity to bring alive the changing ideas about skills in the scientific management and assembly line work of the early twentieth-century — and not all of our visits into the shop were successful. It’s something I’ll prepare better for the next time I teach the course.

Writing was an essential piece of the course. There was a short paper (300–600 words) due every week, a reflection on the skills and reading done that week. The prompts for papers that addressed hands-on work asked for details:

Describe your experience learning to flint-knap: what was difficult, what was easy? Some things you might address: Think about the sensory part of the work: sight, smell, touch. Did the work tire you out? Be precise about the muscles that this work called on. Consider the material you used: what surprised you it?

Prompts for papers based on the readings tried to bridge the readings and student skills, or to connect beyond school:

Describe work you’ve done, that family members do, or that of someone you observe and talk to, in the style of Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work. Compare the work you describe with that described in The Mind at Work. How is it similar, how different? What skills did the workers you’re describing have? How did they learn them? How did they use them? What could you learn about individual and team skills, and how managerial structure shaped the workplace and the use of skills?

Readings for the course included memoirs and reflections by craftspeople, to serve as models for writing. For a class on the ways that understanding materials is a part of skilled workmanship, for example, students read woodworkers who wrote about their trade: George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop, David Esterly’s The Lost Carving, Walter Rose’s The Village Carpenter, and Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter. (Nina MacLaughlin, who lives not too far away, visited the class to talk about writing this kind of book.) The writing assignment for that week was to compare these readings.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing these assignments produced. It was unlikely that any student had written this kind of thing in high school, and I wasn’t sure, in writing the prompts, whether they would know how to approach this kind of essay. But for the most part, once students got over their first instinct to offer sweeping theoretical conclusions and focused instead on the details of their reading, interviews, and hands-on work, they did an excellent job. The essays they wrote were thoughtful, offered good examples to make their case, and told coherent stories. They were a pleasure to read.

The final piece of writing was a reflection on the semester-long process of learning a new skill. Each student had to choose a skill — a physical skill, with a product to show — practice it a few hours a week, and journal about the process. Students took up embroidery, crocheting, knitting, whittling, and welding, among other skills. The goal was not the perfecting of a skill, but rather, to think about the process of learning. They kept their journal as a shared Google document, so I could keep an eye on it, and reviewed the journal in a written paper halfway through the course, and at the end. I was very pleased with their products, and their process; some of the skills journals showed great insight that built on class readings and discussions. The students were pleased with their new skills, too. They found the hands-on materiality of this kind of work a useful break from the stresses of the first semester in college, and many of them plan to continue at their new hobbies. I believe that reflective practice like this — thinking about how they learn — will help them in their more academic subjects as well.

On the last day of class the students proudly showed off their work. A crocheted hat, a whittled pig, and sharpened ice skates were among the practical results of a semester spent learning a skill, and learning about skill. But they were only the physical manifestation of the learning the students did, a reminder, I hope, of the skills of reading, discussion, and writing that they learned as they learned their practical skills.

With thanks to the students of AMST0150E, and to students, staff, faculty, and others who helped out:

Harry August, Raghvi Batthia, Rachel Berwick, Hunter Blackwell, Karen Bouchard, Chris Bull, Brian Corkum, Pinar Durgun, Nicholas Friesner, Kate Irvin, TJ Kalaitzidis, Anna Rose Keefe, Barry Keegan, Nina Lerman, Kenna Libes, Nina MacLaughlin, Bill Monroe, Josephine Natrasevschi, Nora Rabins, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Sophie Short

And with appreciation to the Office of the Dean of the College for providing the funding that made this course possible.