I recently finished Matthew Crawford’s excellent Shop Class as Soul Craft, a defense of the manual trades as something which both makes the practitioner more independent and which binds him more closely to reality, and to his fellow man.
But as someone who is neither a tradesman nor (strictly speaking) an office worker, I caught myself wondering how Crawford’s analysis of work applied to me. At times, his description of cubicle life aligned with my job. At times, his description of the trades applied to my work: in particular, its challenges.
Towards the beginning of his book, Crawford writes:
The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may life in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs.
A repairman . . . puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding . . . The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.
One challenge I feel particularly acutely this spring is meeting students where they are as learners. I have trouble getting them to understand the skills the class is designed to teach, such as explaining the theme of a poem. Or I have trouble getting them to do the things in class I think would help them learn, like participate in discussion. Or I have trouble getting them even to understand a poem in the first place.
In my head, the students know these things, or they pick them up easily. In my head, students learn to interpret literature easily. Yet in reality, they don’t. And so I find myself in the same place as Crawford’s repairman, grappling with a world that isn’t working the way I envision it.
If I forget that the students in front of me are not the ones in my head, I respond with frustration. This has happened too much this semester. The other day in class, we were reading John Milton’s poem, “On His Blindness.” My students struggled to paraphrase the poem as a whole. We backed up, and tried to paraphrase the first line. They struggled with that. And I brought my hand down on the desk and paraphrased it for them: “He’s going blind!” I shouted.
When I was in college, even high school, I had no problem with Milton’s poem. When I taught Intro to Literature last year, my students had no problem with the poem. And so in my head, this years’ crop of students also had no problem when they did; when reality turned out differently than I imagined, I was frustrated. This is not a good way for a teacher to respond.
And so I have been seeking to respond to my students the way that Crawford’s repairman treats the washing machine.
As the repairman grants the external reality of the washing machine, I need to grant my students’ reality independent of my class and my plans for them. And like the repairman studies the broken washer, I need to listen to my students to see what is wrong, and put myself in their service, for them to learn.
But honestly, we teachers can get caught up in planning the ideal classes and forget to treat our students as real people. I love Milton, so why wouldn’t my students love him as well? When I first started teaching, I recall way overloading my students with homework , because at that point, content was more important to me than the students; the students existed (to me) to learn the content, not the content to help the students. And I know from experience I am not the only teacher to make this error.
Or we conflate the students last year with the ones this year. Obviously, we know the difference consciously. But subconsciously, we expect them to be the same. My students last year loved discussion. My students last year didn’t bat an eye at the Milton poem. And so I expect that this year, my students will love discussion and handle Milton well – and then when they don’t, I’m surprised.
What our students need most of all is to be recognized as real people, with real lives. They are not there in the service of my content, nor are they the students I had last year. And to understand these students, who they are and how they learn, I need to listen, and put myself in their service.
None of this is exactly new to me as a teacher. The connection to Crawford is new; the idea that I as a teacher am there to serve my students is not. And so I’ve been experimenting with ways to listen to this semester’s crop of students, to put myself in their service.
I’ve assigned fewer poems and more short stories, for one. Sniff.
I’ve walked them through more examples of good literary interpretation, and required fewer lengthy discussions.
I’ve added more scaffolding in.
But Crawford’s washer repairman is a good analogy, a visual for what my relationship with my students should be like, a reminder to get out of my head, out of all my grand imaginations, and deal with the world as I find it. If I don’t deal with my students as they actually exist, if I don’t put myself in their service and listen to them, they’ll never learn.