Early Thoughts on DIY Pedagogy and Praxis, or Knit One, Teach Too

Queer reading is serendipitous reading. So I consider it serendipity of the highest order that today, in between sections of my intro to women’s studies in which students were teaching themselves and each other to finger knit, I discovered The Craft Reader on the desk of a colleague. It’s full of tons of great essays and excerpts (and more than its share of typos [yes, I’m that person]), and has brief, useful introductions for each of the authors. At some point I’ll have to check it out in full, but for now I plundered it for a couple of essays using my office’s gorgeous new photocopier (which I’m courting in earnest). To give you a snapshot of my headspace right now, these essays include: Esther Leslie’s “Walter Benjamin: Traces of Craft”, Martin Heidegger’s “The Thing” (no, he’s not describing your favorite sci-fi flick), Robert Morris’ “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated”, and (my personal favorite of the bunch so far) Lucy Lippard’s “Making Something from Nothing (Toward a Definition of Women’s ‘Hobby Art’)”, originally published in Heresies in 1978. Encountering Lippard’s classic essay for the first time, I was excited to think back on a day of teaching and realize that my students articulated some of her points about the relationships between craft, class, gender, markets, and museums.

In the discussion preceding the finger knitting workshop, I show my students a tote bag my paternal grandmother quilted for me last fall, emptying it of the yarn, needles, and hooks I brought with me before passing it around. I ask if they know how quilting works and point out how the tote subtly incorporates the layering and stitching together of squares of fabric typical of quilting. Then I ask them to share their crafting stories and associations, and familiar narratives emerge. Students knit or crochet, or know people who do, out of stress or in order to procrastinate, or with a kind of obsessiveness to the point that they have to leave their supplies at home during the semester; they craft as a hobby or associate crafting with people who have a lot of, or too much, spare time; they’ve encountered people who ask them why they’re into “old lady” things or why they’re being such a “grandma”; they tend to think of craft objects as tacky (think doilies), or even unwanted yet heartfelt handmade gifts; they think of women who donate baby blankets to hospitals and churches, or make hats for cancer patients; their friends, relatives, and roommates try to learn these crafts but give up, saying that they’re “just not that kind of person” or “not that kind of girl”; they know people with tons of beautiful yet unused yarn hoards with unfathomably high price tags, or they know people who scour thrift stores and bargain bins to get their yarn fix; they made their dolls’ clothes because their mothers couldn’t afford to buy them, and then they started making their own clothes for the same reason; they have crafted artifacts that have been handed down for generations. Their responses run the gamut of class, gender, age, and race consciousness, mirroring Lippard’s survey of the cultural and economic landscape of hobby art.

After a productive discussion of craftsmanship and taste, the art that is displayed in museums and the art that is not, and the global distribution of cultural products, I pass out yarn culled from unfinished projects, garage sales, and Value Village (which, at a distance of a mile and a half from a campus that tries to barricade itself from “bad neighborhoods,” barely registers on most of these students’ radar). Then I ask them to huddle around each others’ laptops and tablets and investigate finger knitting through YouTube tutorials, a genre with which they’re quite familiar. A dozen different voices rise from their machines. A student offers her extra pair of headphones to anyone who wants to take her up on them. Hands full of yarn, they get their classmates to pause, rewind, or slowly click through the videos while their gaze shifts from their fingers to their screens and back again (I make a point of telling them that fingers are the original digital tools). They give up on useless or overly complicated tutorials quickly, and find the videos that are geared towards kids in camp or preschool (those in the room who have been camp counselors have experience, and they step up as peer educators). They reach across each others’ desks to tug on the yarn on someone’s hand. They untangle the yarn repeatedly in frustration or share their creations triumphantly with the person sitting next to them. They start telling stories, and I hear the simultaneous exclamation that they don’t know what they’re making and that they think they remember doing it before. If they’re having trouble, they move on to things that might be more familiar: friendship bracelets, macrame, boy scout knots, braiding, and I explicitly give them permission to do so.

I let them go at it for about twenty minutes before showing them Olek on Wall Street, Allyson Mitchell’s “Micro-Maxi Pad Cinemas” and “fat crafts”, Sheila Pepe’s public installations and museum exhibitions, and Faith Ringgold’s story quilts, some of which are currently on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (one of the few museums not closed because of the government shutdown. Why? Because the government doesn’t fund it! Why does it matter? My students are required to visit two museums, including the NMWA, in order to design their own museum exhibitions and understand how different kinds of museums affect the status of women’s art*). We talk about how yarn bombing or guerrilla knitting is different from graffiti and the ways in which each of these differently inserts or inscribes itself into public space, attendant with distinct forms of social punishment or capital.

Finally, I ask my students why I had them do this activity, because I love making them explain my pedagogical decisions. One of the few young men in the room says, “To frustrate us.” I tell him he’s exactly right–the activity is partially about the failure that accompanies all creative practice and learning. Many of them do not think of themselves as creative, and when I give them creative license in their assignments they often willfully reject the possibility that they might have something artistic to offer. The are afraid to try because they are afraid to fail, preferring instead to churn out cookie-cutter research papers because at least (they think) they know how they will evaluated. The activity, like my zine workshops later in the semester, is about lowering the stakes, because other than tangling themselves and the yarn up, there’s not much at risk in finger knitting. Instead, students have everything to gain: the opportunity to be self-directed learners and to learn from the skill sets of their peers, the chance to play and practice failing while also having fun, engagement with their hands and with physical abilities they haven’t utilized since childhood, and the recognition that the classroom should be a place where we get to exercise curiosity together, a curiosity that they should be bringing to other settings. They take their oddly textured creations (or pull them apart) and leave the classroom with my secret wish that they yarn bomb campus, hopefully to find the vibrant examples of yarn bombing that are already there in the process.

When I tried this activity last semester, it was the best kind of fluke. I grabbed a bag full of scrap yarn out of the desperate lack of energy to thoroughly lesson plan that inevitably strikes mid-semester, thinking my students wouldn’t want to participate and that they would sit there futzing on their laptops, bored. Instead, they audibly cooed over the small artifact of personal history I brought with me and the image it conjured of my grandmother making me the tote with a bunch of her friends. One student used up an entire skein of yarn finger knitting a scarf for a prominent statue of our campus mascot, a picture of which she joyfully shared with me. Another student, a guy, told me with surprise and wonder that he had done macrame before and at some point had stopped, meanwhile yarn bombing a small stool in our classroom. The kind of haptic occupation the activity required provided an avenue into memory and reflection, enabling students to connect to their gendered, racial, and classed experiences in a way that was anything but abstract. I’m sure this would work in a classroom at any level of education.

I’m convinced that more workshops like this are how we are going to peak students’ interest and keep them engaged, and I’m trying to make them a fundamental part of what I think of as DIY pedagogy. For me, DIY pedagogy is about cultivating the skills and strategies of autodidacts: reflection on process, use of a wide variety of resources scavenged from wherever possible, reliance on a network of formal and informal educators, ravenous curiosity, self-discipline and perseverance, and a philosophy of “making do” or even doing/making, and perhaps most importantly an inspiration or an earnest desire to creatively contribute something. My task now is to map to the confluences between DIY pedagogy and the kinds of pedagogy coming out of “maker movements” and digital humanities workshops, unconferences, and centers. What I find valuable about these recent and not so recent developments is the recognition of a multiplicity of knowledges, and by extension a multiplicity of social worlds. Such a recognition can distribute or decenter what we know as “learning” from universities and their systems of evaluation.

Love, n4vlg4zr.

*The museum assignment is gratefully adapted from an assignment in Dr. Katie King’s Spring 2012 Women, Art, and Culture.