23 March 2006

On craftsmanship

While in Madison, Wisconsin, my friend Peter and I visited the superb Capitol building with the fourth-largest dome in the world, according to the guide. But Peter drew my attention to the superb inlaid floors in different kinds of stone, laid with such precision, and (being about 90 years old) with the benefit of only what we would regard as very crude technology. I was reminded of this piece, which I wrote a few weeks ago, but did not upload because something else came up that day:

I've just caught, while channel-surfing, another of Fred Dibnah's wonderful programmes about the industrial revolution, which appear happily to be re-circulating on digital channels. Apart from having met Fred casually a couple of times at charity fund-raising events in Bolton Market Square and seeing his LandRover around when we lived in Bolton, I'm a great admirer on two levels;
  • his infectious enthusiasm for sheer craftsmanship in the Victorian age in particular, when engineering depended so much on the direct personal skills of craftsmen. (Pardon the implict sexism; women were also very skilled in operating the mchines, but the transience of their contributions is part of the point of this reflection.)
  • his skill in communicating it.
So I started thinking about our shared (if I may be so presumptuous) admiration for craftsmanship, and I realised that his is largely about the craft of product. He bubbles with admiration for a steam-engine or a mill, but of course—given that he was making a film about it—he could point to the product, and invite us to admire it, and by implication the skill of those who designed and made it.

There's another kind of craft; that of process. It is by definition ephemeral. It leaves only indirect "products", and we need to infer what went into their making.

Teaching is such a process skill. Its products may be evident, but indirect. Its proof, as a skill, is in ephemeral, moment-to-moment interaction, rather than in the product of the "successful student", because there are so many other factors which influence that "successful" outcome.

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