Our Educational Labors: on "Artisinal Teaching"

August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Poetry has power to illuminate, allowing us to see the commonplace or everyday anew.  While the ninth graders I teach have varying feelings about matters poetic, they respond impressively when asked to untangle a few lines.  When presented as a mystery to be understood, a code to be unlocked — as opposed to august and distant monuments of learning, cobbled from oblique literary terms — poems speak to the pattern makers in all of us.  Often, I will set a poem beside one chapter from a novel, using it as a fulcrum to elicit discussion on a theme, or to cast new light on the arc of a particular character’s journey.  Conversations gain additional depth as the students follow a thread into the labyrinth, emerging with wisdom otherwise obscured.

So it was with interest that I read the rather clever and unexpected explication of Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking” in Marjorie Pryce’s recent essay “Artisinal Teaching”.   Pryce’s thesis is, in essence, that we commodify education at our peril, and that there is still a vibrant role for the small and local in informing that most crucial transaction of the enterprise — the dialogue of student and teacher.   Using the poem, and some well placed musings on her strivings as a would-be pickle entrepreneur, Pryce unlocks the truth that in our rush towards standardization and MOOC-ification, we risk, “Becoming mere sorters and graders as the students come rumbling down the cellar bin, some inevitably falling and failing ‘as of no worth.'”   

Better, truly, to seek the dignity of labor that Frost so eloquently evokes in his poetry.  Of course, readers of Frost know of his propensity for fooling (“Spring is the Mischief in me”), so it is tempting, but misguided, to oversimplify the “meaning” of “After Apple Picking,” or any other Frost poem, for that matter.  One need look no further than the ambiguity introduced in the final lines to see the apparent dream-state of the speaker becoming destabilized, uncertain.

One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep. 

What sort of sleep is it?  Who can tell?  Is it death, as some (in particular, those who occupy the seats in my classroom, and go in heavily for this sort of metaphorical interpretation) have speculated?  Frost, the old mischief maker, consigns the truth to the woodchuck–an unlikely font of wisdom, and an absent presence in the poem.  The “or” of the final line is a further obfuscation, leaving us with possibilities, but no definition — the sort of trick that frustrates a developing reader of poetry to no end.  (“What do you mean there isn’t a meaning!”)

Others have written far more insightfully on the poem than I can in this condensed space, but I find some value in pairing the poem with some of Frost’s other meditations on dreams and labor, particularly the “whispering scythe” of “Mowing” and its wisdom that, “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”   Search all you want, but you might never find a more useful truth than an earthly one.  I have always read “Apple Picking” as a rebuke of obtuse dreaming and striving after lofty ideals, a startlingly true, if seemingly paradoxical, assertion that work can be both exhausting and revelatory, because of its very earthliness.  I don’t read the poem, as Pryce seems to, as a warning about the dangers of mechanizing labor, though those modern tensions were certainly eroding the fabric of the hill farm culture of Frost’s time.  Rather, Frost quite honesty portrays this picker at the end of his harvest season, one in a very long sequence of harvest seasons (“ten thousand thousand” apples long).   Yet, one must view the work not in isolation, but as part of a system, just as the aspirant flowers of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” are doomed to the cycle of death and decay.  Implicit in the fatigue is the promise of a coming harvest, and another season of labor.  Another chance, perhaps, to approach what elusive mysteries are available to the terrestrial soul.

The world of education needs more champions of the dignity of labor.   As Matthew Crawford (Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work) argues in a 2006 The New Atlantis essay of the same name,

“The physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction, but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life. This is the stoic ideal.”

By all means, there is room for craftsmanship in the liberal arts, as Crawford himself allows.  At the core of the concept of craftsmanship is the belief that pride and labor are interlinked, whether the craftsman is hard at work on an essay, a proof, an engine, or an Adirondack chair.  I can’t say enough to know that scale of the sort that Pryce decries and craftsmanship of the sort that Crawford espouses are mutually exclusive.  Perhaps “Artisinal” is a choice that saps the force of the argument, as comically misapplied as this term is now in the world of chain restaurant entrees and other areas of mass commerce masquerading as local production (see Jen Doll’s pieces in The Atlantic on the death and startlingly undead career of the word “Artisinal”).   Perhaps that is why I murmured enough while reading Pryce’s piece to provoke this blog post.  There may be a better label out there: “slow teaching”?

Whatever the case, I hope that there is room in Pryce’s definition of “Artisinal Teaching” to allow for some authentic learning as well.  I take comfort in the exhortations to “cherish” our students, and not to “bruise” them, but I wonder if that is a possibility allowed by the ultimate pragmatism of Frost.  Like our apple picking speaker, how do we resolve the tension between avocation and vocation, particularly for “products” that must be brought to market, no matter how lovingly cultivated for harvest?

Like Frost, I offer no answers, only complications — A guide “Who only has at heart your getting lost.”   We sense that there is value in the study of the liberal arts, in the relationships made possible by brick-and-mortar institutions, but how do we use these edifices as bulwarks against the rising tide of market forces?  What’s more, isn’t there a certain kind of elitism bound up in “Artisinal” methods of production?  How do we keep the “artisinal” model from being subsumed into the perception of so many products emerging from a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, the epicenter of all things “artisinal”? If “artisinal” is elite, limited, handcrafted and therefore more expensive (or used as a justification for expense), is there a more egalitarian way of envisioning the educational landscape we seek for our students and teachers?  As an independent school teacher, this question of equity and inequality has been one I feel rather acutely.

So to close, let’s ask, with the Frost of Mending Wall, when embarking on our labors,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Off again to my tasks, and to yours.  If you’re like me, you feel the relentless beat of the season, and the need to make preparations for our own peculiar calendar of sowing and harvest– that unique pursuit of facts and dreams that keeps us coming back to a life in schools, season after season. 


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