Getting crafty

As this blog’s banner says, CELT supports “the art, science, and craft of teaching at King’s College.” Teaching is an art insofar as it requires knowledge and interpersonal skills that can be put to creative use. As the enormous volume of scholarship of teaching and learning indicates, teaching is a science, too: it can be studied systematically to determine more effective approaches to teaching. Academics are at home speaking in terms of arts and sciences. “Craft” is a more alien term. What does it mean to say that teaching is a craft?

The sociologist Richard Sennett, in his 2009 book The Craftsman, explores work ethics derived from craft work, including drafting, brickmaking, and medicine. To him, craftsmanship is less about native ability than it is about the cultivation of skills over time. It entails “the desire to do a job well for its own sake” and a devotion to process and product over profit. Craft work is about managing obsessiveness, not perfectionism. It recognizes that the craft workers’ tools–including their bodies–are imperfect, yet what they produce can be both useful and beautiful.

Sennett finds commitment to craft in some unexpected places, such as online communities of Linux programmers. The coders’ anonymity means that egos are never spared for the sake of politeness; all that matters is their ability to resolve a bug. They work collaboratively, even if not in physical proximity. Their commitment to craft means that the code is never finished. They resolve a bug, expanding the bounds of the program’s capabilities, but in expanding, the program encounters new bugs, which the community then sets out to resolve, and so on.

The programmers’ commitment to a shared goal is admirable. For them, the work is all that matters. They perhaps do not present the best ideal of collegiality, however. And while one’s ego can certainly get in the way of being an effective teacher, teaching cannot be completely depersonalized, either. Linux work is abstract, while we teach, ultimately, with our bodies, every bit as much as a sculptor uses her body in her craft.

The analogy between teaching and craft work raises other questions. What is the teacher’s “product”? The course itself? The student? If the student, then there would seem to be serious limitations on our ability to shape our “product.” Linux code doesn’t get tired or have a lacrosse tournament over the weekend.

Another recent book that advocates an ethic informed by craft work is Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford, a Chicago Ph.D. who now operates a small motorcycle-repair shop, writes of the virtues required to practice stochastic arts of repairing “things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable.” One can get better at such arts, but

[t]he practitioner of a stochastic art, such as motorcycle repair, experiences failure on a daily basis… Not only do things tend to go to hell, but your own actions contribute inevitably to that process.

This seems true of teaching. Our success depends on others’ response to our actions. The best teachers fail every day; if Sennett and Crawford are right, then failure may be essential to what makes them masters of the teaching craft.

How else can thinking of teaching in terms of craft work help college faculty become more effective as teachers and find more satisfaction in our work? What are the limits of thinking in these terms? How have your mistakes helped you develop as a teacher?

Photo by stock.xchng user GERAS / Creative Commons licensed.

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