Last night, I read an article in Utne Reader talking about a new book by sociologist Richard Sennett. The book is called Craftsman, and it’s basic premise is that people (societies, governments, corporations) can learn a great deal from the traditions of craftsmanship. He defines craftsmanship as “the desire to do a job well for its own sake,” a definition I really like. He goes on to say:

The modern economy privileges pure profit, momentary transactions, and rapid fluidity. Part of a craft’s anchoring role is that it helps to slow down labor. It is not about quick transactions or easy victories. That slow tempo of craftwork, of taking the time you need to do something well, is profoundly stabilizing for individuals.
When people are forced to do things quickly it becomes a type of triage. In the process of working very fast, we don’t have the time for reflection and being self-critical. We tend to go into autopilot and mistakes increased. Self-critical faculties decrease with speed, and the brain does a better job of processing when it goes slowly than when it goes rapidly.

Amen to that!! This desire to take the time I need “to do something well” is one of the reasons I left full-time community college teaching – I never felt like I was doing anything well; I really did feel like it was triage. And I know many, many of my colleagues felt/feel the same way. How sad for a tradition that can only thrive on contemplative advances. Right now, education is riding on the backs of overworked, underthinking professors who are, often, just doing their best to survive, not to excel. That’s sad.

Unfortunately, we also press our students into this frenzied activity urging them that they can take a full course load, can work full time, and can raise a family at the same time. The truth is that they may be able to do it, but they will not do any of those things well. I hope that the bulk of their energy is going to their families, especially if they have children, but if what I sometimes see in class – work shot off at the last minute, complex questions of ethics or purpose shallowly considered, reading done with only the eyes and not the mind – if that method translates across their homes and their workplaces, well, we’re going to have some major trouble in a few years when all of this shoddy effort comes to fruition.

I am sure this lack of craftmanship appears in other professions, too, where people work 60 hours a week, never to feel finished with anything. But education is the field I know best, so this is where I see the problem most often.

I don’t know what the answer is – maybe when I read Sennett’s book, I’ll get more answers. For now, I only know that I can “be the change,” so I am . . . it means less pay (sadly) for better work, but it means I am sane most days. My chest doesn’t ache anymore; my students are getting a better teacher; my reading is more meaningful; my writing, well, it actually happens.

Lately, in the evenings, I’ve been back to handwork – cross-stitch, crochet – and this kind of craftmanship, the kind women (and some men) have been doing for centuries gives me great pleasure. I can move at my own pace; I can pull out my work when it’s not up to my standards; I can finish something and be proud of it because it is good. Here is the joy of doing something well for its own sake. Hallelujah for that.

A Scarf I MadeOne of my Scarves