Teaching American Literature with Arts and Crafts! 1

Arts and Crafts in my American Literature Classroom

Note: I don’t post about teaching much, not because I don’t want to, but because the privacy issues are complex. Today, a fun exception!

This week my American Novel class worked on “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (I know, it’s a stretch to call it a novel, but with Presidents’ Day on Monday, we had a short week, so it seemed to make sense.) I had intended to talk a lot about the nature of work in general, and office work in particular, but was struck by how very foreign the topics of Bartleby were. The type of work that Turkey, Nippers, and Bartleby were expected to do were just so completely outside the realm of my students’ worlds that some kinds of examination became difficult. Bear in mind, this is a generation that, increasingly, is not being taught to write in cursive! I am finding students here and there who can’t read cursive! So even the arts of the modern pen are being lost to them. I asked, and only one had ever written with a pen that needed dipping in an inkwell before. Well then.

Attack of the Craft Closet

It just so happens that whenever I have disposable time, lettering and non-elaborate calligraphy are two of my hobbies. So I have about a dozen stick pens and about twice as many nibs, and a few bottles of ink. I brought them in to class today. We started class in oppositions: I said I wanted first to talk about the ways we might read Bartleby allegorically, and then we would experiment with the nitty-gritty materiality of the action of the text.

Varying reactions

About 1/4 of the students were non-plussed: why make writing harder? And messier? They wrote a few words, put down their pens, and looked around for what was next. Several students struggled to make the thing work–lefties were especially thwarted by the technology. I hadn’t really thought about how much harder it must have been to be left handed in a time that required the use of such pens. I don’t know if there’s research out there, but I do bet there weren’t too many southpaw scribes on 19th Century Wall Street. Another minority was entranced. They wrote and wrote, and copied things. Wrote notes to friends. Two looked up letters and characters from other languages to see what it was like creating, for example, Chinese characters with this writing technology.

And another technological innovation

To round out my look into 19th (and earlier) century writing technologies, I also brought them some sealing wax. Only one had ever seen it before. Without (thankfully) setting off the smoke alarm, we sealed an envelope. We talked a little about sealing, and what the seal meant. Granted, seals don’t play a big role in Bartleby, but it seemed to contribute usefully to the discussion.

And I’d do it again!

I’ve never had an arts and crafts table in an English classroom before. But I do think that, particularly for teaching pre-20th Century works, an attention to paratextuality should maybe even require teaching something about the material world that these works are referencing. Although this course doesn’t touch the medieval period at all, while they were working with the pens I encouraged them to think about those pens in the context of a world without printing presses at all, not just without photocopy machines. A sobering thought, that seemed to be.

Two students tweeted pictures of the tools–one picture is on a locked feed and contains the student’s full names, I’ve included (with permission) the other one!