Tools, Materials, and Skills

When I talk about the “inframethodology” of the “craft of research” I’m trying to draw attention to aspects of the work that are much more obvious in skilled trades, i.e., in the work of craftsmen, artisans. Carpenters and electricians practice very tangible crafts and their competence is explicitly tied to a set of tools and a class of materials. They are also matter-of-factly “professionals” about their work: they have a job to do and must do it within clear limitations; they have to “deliver” something of particular quality by a particular date. All of these features of craftsmanship have analogues in academic work, though we sometimes forget it.

It’s something I spend a lot of my time talking to students about. They are often mystified by the competence we are trying to get them to acquire, especially when it comes to their assignments. They don’t know what they are supposed to do or when they have done it right. This, naturally, makes it very difficult for them to learn.

The metaphor I like to use is that of a joiner’s apprentice learning how to make a table. Imagine the master putting a pile of wood before the student and a box of tools. “Make an 80 x 120 cm dining room table,” she says. “Use only this wood and these tools. You have three hours.” Those are obviously not ideal conditions. But solving this problem will force the student to make decisions and the wisdom of these decisions will reveal his competence. There’s also some knowledge involved since the height of a dining room table is a matter of convention (76 cm, I’m told) and the master apparently assumes the student knows this. All the student can do now is get to work and build the best table he knows how. Future lessons can proceed from there.

This exercise is a lot like giving a student three hours to write a three-page essay on the basis of a case framed by a specific theory. The student is being asked to make a conventionally defined thing out of a given set of materials using a specific set of tools. The teacher has presumably chosen the materials and the tools with the course’s learning objectives in mind. In fact, the task is set up to make it easy for the teacher to determine whether the students have learned what the teacher has tried to teach them. The teacher is perhaps expecting something like a five-paragraph essay: a clear line of argument that can be read in about five minutes; five claims that are supported, elaborated or defended as needed.

Compare the master joiner who is faced with the task of evaluating the table. This would require little more than a quick visual inspection, perhaps a few measurements (though the master could no doubt easily “eyeball” the dimensions), and a bit of “stress testing”. The master might pick the table up and put it down again, jostling it back and forth a little, perhaps sitting on it. There is no mystery about what a good dining room table is. The trick here is to make sure the student didn’t just find one or get a 3D printer to make one. By specifying what tools and materials to use, the master has set a problem that constitutes a meaningful test of skill. The student must select the best materials and the best tools for the job.

Mastery here is revealed not just in a facility with the tools but in a sensitivity to the quality of the materials provided. Which pieces of wood should be used and which should be left out? Which should be used for the tabletop and which should be used for the legs? Which hammer is right for one task and which saw is right for another? In some cases, the time constraint plays into these decisions. The best tool for a three-hour table may not be the best for a table you have the whole week to make. Etc.

I think we overthink the difficulty of academic writing sometimes. I certainly think we overthink the individual assignment. We expect too much of it, in one sense, but we are also satisfied with an output that is too imprecise an indication of skill. It doesn’t indicate any “particular set of skills,” we might say, to quote that famous movie. It doesn’t allow us to measure competence very exactly. As a result, I’m sure students work way too hard on their assignments too.

In fact, they work too hard on their assignments and not smartly enough on their studies. They should recognize that they are training their facility and sensitivity. They should take a small problem and solve it well every day. They should become familiar with how the tools feel in their hands, how the materials respond to their attempts to work them into shape. Slow and steady does it. Then, when the exam question is assigned, they should make some decisions and get to work, knowing exactly what they’ve been asked to do and how best to demonstrate that they can.

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