Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Whose problem is it?

I encourage my students to knit in class ... or crochet, or play with Play-Doh, or sketch, or make rubber band balls, or whatever they want to do with their hands that doesn't involve language.  That means no surfing the net, no texting, no writing poetry.

The sight of someone knitting in class can be surprising to some people.  They may even be disturbed by it.  They may think that knitting means not paying attention.  From what students who knit in other classes tell me, most instructors have no problem with it; they're focused on performance, not appearances, and as long as the students demonstrate clearly that they are engaged and learning, they give their blessing.

But other students in their classes might feel differently. An outstanding student of mine told me about a classmate of hers in a major seminar who found her knitting difficult to take.  He made numerous references on Facebook to "the crazy girl who knits," exclaiming: "I fb and text in class but knitting?!"

I hope I don't even have to point out the craziness of that claim of crazy.  This guy believes that chatting on Facebook and carrying on text conversations on his phone is his God-given right as a red-blooded student.  Maybe he knows that the professor wouldn't exactly like it if it were waved in his face, but playing on your phone is as American as apple pie; you can't really expect someone not to do it.  Knitting, though?  That's just nuts.

Now, doing anything in class that is unexpected or unconventional draws attention.  People wonder if it's okay.  They worry that you're setting a bad example, and they suspect that you're getting away with something.  My question is whether that is your problem or theirs.  If your performance is not being affected -- maybe even is being improved -- is there a reason to be disturbed?  Maybe there's concern that others around the knitter are finding it disruptive.  My worry is that disruptiveness is a vague idea that has historically been used to keep all kinds of diversity of learning styles, teaching styles, and even student and faculty demographic segments from making an appearance in the classroom.

Knitting in class isn't just a practical act.  Taking such an activity out of the sphere to which it's been relegated -- the domestic, private sphere -- and into the larger world is a political act.  It's a statement about gender, about the material world, about the body, about value.  Is there any reason not to make the classroom safe for knitting?  I haven't yet seen the evidence against it, and I can muster several rooms full of outstanding students who will vouch for it.

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