Monday, March 5, 2012

Sticking to your knitting

Becoming a knitter six years ago has focused my attention on craft in a way that I've never experienced before. The relationship and frequent disconnect between technique and creativity is thrown into sharp relief by learning a new skill, and working to become better at it.  I am intimately obsessed with the details of executing a craft discipline.  I am often mystified by the ability of its master practitioners to internalize those details so thoroughly that they can imagine a world rendered through that set of motions, or see the world to be filled with the raw material that this craft transforms.

This afternoon I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about a sushi chef of 70 years experience who runs a ten-seat restaurant tucked into a hallway corner in the Tokyo subway underground. His creativity and perfectionism is so famous that people wait months or years for a reservation, and the minimum bill is 30,000 yen or about $350. The unprepossessing stall has three Michelin stars.

Much of the documentary focuses on the repetitive discipline of getting that good at something. Years of practice are required -- apprenticeships lasting most of a lifetime. Jiro, his sons and apprentices, and his adoring customers state over and over again that the key is to do only one thing. To do it every day, to aspire to reach ever new levels of achievement in that one solitary thing.

Years ago I might have found this intriguing but unrealistic. Most of our jobs require that we acquire many skills, and master few or none. But now, after thinking through the nature of craft with two seminar classes, I think there are ways for most people to take this as a challenge. How many of us develop an ability to perform in some area, and then expect that we will use this skill in a cruise control or autopilot mode while we advance ourselves in other ways?  I wonder if teaching is like this for many academics. We learn to teach, we get reasonably good at it, and then we take that knife ou of the drawer and wield it whenever the occasion arises, without feeling we need to continue deepening our appreciation or understanding of that activity. We can do it, so we do it, and if we are still learning skills they are likely to be in areas related by professional affiliation but not necessarily by methodology or material, like administration, writing, research. It's a well-known fact that most academics consider the appropriate wage for teaching to be fewer and fewer assignments to teach as the years go on. Is such a system --- are such ambitions -- likely to produce great educators?

No one would expect a knitter to become a master of his craft, to reach the highest levels of skill, by doing something other than knitting. No one would expect an athlete to become a champion by doing something other than practicing her sport. Performing one's craft and reflecting on one's craft are the only two activities associated with honing one's craft. In how many areas of our culture do we expect, for some odd reason, perfection to be achieved by diffusion of effort rather than concentration?

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