Some thoughts on learning together

Most of what I’ve learned about both cooking and woodworking I’ve learned on my own, from books, from the internet, occasionally from television, and from experimentation. There’s been a lot of what I’d not uncharitably call hacking. Much of it has worked. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of direct instruction, and by direct I mean in-person, physical instruction. There are questions you can’t ask of a book and answers you can’t get without physical presence.

Here’s an example. I learned to cut pretty good dovetails by watching Roy Underhill on television and reading his books, and then by practicing. But when he opened his Woodwright’s School I jumped at the chance to take a basic joinery class, because by then, fifteen years into my haphazard and frequently interrupted pursuit of hand-tool woodworking, I had a pretty good sense of what I wasn’t figuring out on my own. I knew how the tools worked, what the process was, and what the result should look like, and I could replicate all that decently, but something was missing.

So I took a class on what I supposedly already knew how to do. When Roy stopped by the bench to check on my progress, I knew what I wanted to know: How do you stand in relation to the work? Where do your feet go and where do they point? How can I best use my hands and fingers to guide the chisel when I’m paring? It’s elementary stuff, the kind of thing you get on day one in a face-to-face class or an apprenticeship, but it’s hard to see on video and harder to interpret from books. As I said last week about the difficulty of learning from cookbooks, this isn’t a limitation of the authors or directors, but of the medium. Woodworking is a physical craft; you learn it best from physical presence! While it can be reduced to a process, a procedure, an algorithm, doing so… reduces it. The physical, bodily aspect is lost, and the bodily aspect, of course, is the one that matters most.

Anyway, I got what I needed from that class. What I had been doing sort of jangled around, getting decent results but never feeling right and eventually stalling on a plateau; now my work slipped into a groove where I could keep improving. I’ve made a few adjustments since, but they’re gradual improvements or experiments from a solid foundation. I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

What to do about that is the question, and I don’t know how to answer it, except to say more community. (I was going to say that I can’t imagine how traditional woodworking could have been revived without technologically mediated communication — television, internet, radio maybe not so much. But of course if we didn’t have technologically mediated communication, we might still have something more like traditional community in which it was easier to work together, literally together. So I was imagining our society as it presently is without some of the things that made it what it is but that also provide us a means of navigating it, which is nightmarishly dystopian but not very realistic. So never mind that.)

Learning and the immediacy of correction

illustration from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, not because mistakes are always funny. (Image courtesy of The British Library.)

I want to follow up on what I said in my previous post about the importance of errors in learning a craft, and think about what kind of errors are useful — because not every mistake is a “learning opportunity,” or at least some are more opportune than others. Certainly learning any sort of skill or craft is not a linear process of instruction and emulation. Here’s philosopher Richard Sennett, whose The Craftsman is an excellent exploration of the process of learning a craft:

To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Erratic is a apt word, I think. It’s a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but some kinds of errors are better teachers than others. The more immediate that feedback is, the better — especially when what’s being learned involves bodily work. The wrong note on the violin, for example, corrects the learner immediately, while she still remembers quite clearly what she did to produce it. For a teacher to come by half an hour later and say “Very good, but you were flat on that eighth-note G-sharp in the twenty-third measure,” would only draw the student’s attention again to what she should have done, not to what she did and therefore how to correct the error. Continue reading “Learning and the immediacy of correction”

16. Sore muscles

For sore muscles that justify the sabbath to the restless mind. My mind, when tired, only races faster, careering from slippery thought to slippery thought, finding no purchase, until at last it stumbles weary into some rocky oblivion, and wakes still restive. The body, wiser, simply flags and quits. Enough, it says, and the mind acquiesces. A well-warranted pillow awaits. Tomorrow both should get some rest.

A lifetime’s work


A lifetime’s work reduced by lifetimes since
To a pile of stones in a ferny wood, grown o’er
With moss and vines, and gently hid to all
But those who wish to see. A gift from him
Who dwelt here once, to be now so effaced
From a hillside once his own — for now it may
Be mine, or anyone’s. Would that we
Were half so generous.

Old news

On Monday I sheet-composted a rocky and shallow part of the garden, laid down newspapers to kill the weeds and spread old bedding from the duck pen on top. There is something deeply satisfying about heaping shit onto last week’s (now last year’s) news. A new dictator in North Korea? Shit on him. Elizabeth Dole endorses Mitt Romney? Shit on them both. Unemployment, debt, foreclosures, indefinite detentions? Pile it on! It’s old news. Most days the newspaper isn’t good for much, but it makes good drop cloths and weed barriers, and if politicians’ faces can crumble into next spring’s carrots, then they’re good for something too. Twenty-eleven is old news now as well, a year that seemed for me to brim over with crap, but amazingly fertile crap, as it all is, or ought to be. Old truths and new ideas spring from disillusionment. A finished book grows from the compost of a lost job. Bury last year deep, sheet compost the old bastard and baptize the new with mud. And a happy new year to us all.

Incidental lumberjack

Mid-afternoon a tree fell in the yard. No wind, no rain, only the slow crescendoing crack of something gone very very wrong and then a rustle and — wait for the thud, but no thud. The tree hung over the yard, balanced precariously in the crotch of a low shrub and, twenty feet higher, a branch of a poplar. From the house its support was invisible and the angle of its pause impossible, as if it had thought better of its fall once begun. A heavy tree, dead for some time but unrotted and still solid, and if it was coming down soon enough one way or another I preferred it not fall on the dog’s head or on mine, so I dragged out the chain saw and trudged through the underbrush. I had to cut the tree on the upstroke, the saw at the height of my head, to keep it from crushing the fence when it fell, but it split neatly and the two logs fell on either side of the fence, one only slightly bending the wire. We need to rebuild a couple of our garden beds if we intend to use them again and now we have logs to bound them, and the work made me feel sufficiently useful that I felt justified in having a Manhattan, with two cherries, before dinner.