A case for working with your hands

Today, I taught four women how to knit with two colors at once — a technique known as stranded knitting. The elephant hat above was our class project, though they all rebelled and did their hats with other motifs. (Three Longhorns and one Gryffindor crest. That’s Austin for you.)

I came home feeling elated, and it made me think about my two teaching lives. By day, I teach history to college undergraduates. By night, I teach knitting to people of all ages. They both have their own great rewards. But I felt something different today, and I realized it was that I felt a special satisfaction from teaching something that I really, really know.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t go through six years of graduate education and a decade of teaching just to confess that I know nothing about history. The funny thing is, though, that with ideas you never know when you have reached the bottom. To a certain extent, you always feel like a fraud — someday someone will expose that you don’t really know that much about the Thirty Years War or some such nonsense.

I recently read with my first-year seminar students an essay called “A Case for Working with Your Hands.” The author, Matthew Crawford, is best known for his book Shop as Soulcraft. He has a PhD in political philosophy but now repairs motorcycles for a living. When he’s working in his shop, he says, he either fixes the motorcycle or he doesn’t. (As Yoda would say, “Do or do not. There is no try.”) In Crawford’s earlier office jobs, however, failure could always be re-packaged as success.

I felt a special thrill today when I watched these four women begin to knit their own stranded garments. For once I really, really felt like I knew what I was talking about. This is how you do it. There are other ways, but this is one, and it works. It’s that simple.

4 thoughts on “A case for working with your hands

  1. Well put. I love teaching people to knit. I have a degree in history, but don’t teach otherwise. The satisfaction of a student who has a finished mitten (or hat or whatever) of his or her own creation is a reward in itself. (But I still take the money…)

  2. So true! I’m trying to ‘sell’ myself as a language and literature academic / teacher, and I have a doctorate to ‘prove’ that I know what I’m talking about, but I’m more confident that I can say: this is how to knit, to purl, to sew, to create something physical and real that you can take home 🙂

  3. This is so right on–I recently had the same feeling of being back in an area of real expertise and certainty. While it was a nice feeling, it was also nice to realize that meant I’d genuine been stretching myself by working in areas where I felt less certain. You’re not sitting on your laurels, and that’s great!

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