Rose_VocabularyOfCarpentry - 66 Jr THE MIND AT WORK for...

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Unformatted text preview: 66 Jr THE MIND AT WORK for. “I know these boys don’t like to handle dirty toilets,” he ob- serves one day after we’ve returned to school, “so there’s got to be something there that gives them pride in what they’ve been able to do.” Some of the boys, he continues, “had very rarely been success- ful at things. Probably it’s the first thing they've finished in a long time.” If this is true, then one can only imagine the twinge of possi- bility they feel as they see something they made work, as they gain respect from adults whom they respect, as they begin to imagine— tentatively, amciously—a difi‘erent kind of life for themselves, fash- ioned through hand and brain. And what might happen, I wonder, if we began to experiment with our own thinking about young people like Terry and Dwayne, and, more broadly, about the revelation of mind in the work they’re doing. Ion Guthier’s unexpected metaphor of the library can help us here. and take us beyond the typical discussion of vocational students. How might it productively unsettle our thinking about intelligence, social class, and education to consider the foregoing account in terms of libraries and aesthetics, of differential diagno- sis, of conceptualizing, planning, and problem solving, of the inti- mate connection between respectfiil human relation and cognitive display? My hope is that such shifts in perception would have con- sequences for the way we teach Terry and Dwayne, for the subse- quent work we create for them, for how we talk to flaem and about them, and for the words we use to describe what they do. Rose, Mite. 2004. “A Vocabulary of Carpentry.” The Mind at Work: Valuing the Indigent? cfflae Amer/ism: War/her: New York: Viking Penguin: 67-99. H ‘1' Li [Z] A VOCABULARY 0F CARPENTRY From the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, mechan- ics and engineers developed a variety of picture books, charts, and model displays that classified and illustrated basic mechanisms and mechanical movements: gear assemblies, for example, or ratch- ets. or levers and pullies. (Diderot’s Encyclopedia contains a number of such illustrations, and we see descendants of them in vocational textbooks and on wall displays in trade school classrooms.) Read- ing about the history of these mechanical aids, I was curious about the way mechanisms were classified and the role such illustrated classification might play in developing a visual storehouse of de— vices (think here of Ion Gumier’s library). And I was captivated by the names given to these aids: “theaters of machines” and “me- chanical alphabet.” The mechanical alphabet, especially, got me to think firrther, beyond the models to the words and metaphors we use, how much we could benefit from a richer alphabet, a vocabu- lary broad enough to accurately render physical work. Looking at the old plates, thinking in terms of alphabets, ways to spell and depict, I wonder how many aspects of workplace in— telligent behavior are underappreciated, or go unnoticed, because our occupational vocabularies are reductive or because we don’t have a category for such behaviors in standard measures of intelli- gence. What testing vocabulary do we have, for example, to discern the making of judgments from the feel of things, or the strate- gic use of tool and body, or the rhythmic Spacing of tasks, or the t671~ 68 ~L THE MIND AT WORK coordination of effort and material toward the construction of a complex object? I: The display case sits in the back of the workshop like a monument. Lustrous oak, glass shelves and doors, interior lights. Students walk by it, run a hand over it, comment to visitors on its appear- ance. At the end of every day, they cover it with brown wrapping pa- per, forming the paper into a protective cowl. At least half of the students in Jerry Devries’s Wood construction class have worked on the display case over the semester; it is now about a week or two from completion. A time of finishing touches. Mr. Devries’s workshop is one huge room, fifty feet by one hun- dred. If you started at the display case and slowly walked toward the front of the room, looking about, you’d see wood and metal workstations and 01d and new power tools: a band saw, a radial arm saw, a circular saw, a j ointer, a belt sander as well as an edge- bander, a panel router, and a router controlled by computer. Vari- ous vent pipes rise overhead, and yellow air compressor hoses coil down from the ceiling. Against the middle of the west wall sits a large open cabinet with neat rows of Chisels and gouges, files, mal- lets, bit braces, awls, planes, spokeshaves, handsaws. Generation upon generation ofwoodworker’s tools. This is the environment in which skill develops. Along the walls and resting above storage cabinets are models (a house frame, a chest of drawers) and dis- plays of drawer guides, miniature sliding cabinet doors, miter joints, and post and panel assemblies. At the very front of the room you'll find twenty-four student desks along with Mr. Devries‘s OWn cluttered desk and podium. There is a blackboard covered with projects and the students assigned to them (“Wall Cabinet: Felipe, Jesus, Gloria”), various sketches of these projects, some dimen- sions and calculations, and assorted announcements: “Habitat for A Vocabulary of Carpentry ~b 69 Humanity job site visit Aug. I.” The board extends around to a side wall by the door where the lists continue. and there is a space where students write comments drawn from the chatter and events of the day: “To sand or not to sand, that is the question.” Mr. Devries stands behind his podium, inching his index finger down a roster. He is 5'3“, a solid man in his midforfies with thin- ning red-brown hair. He is an experienced cabinetrnaker who has taught for twenty years, many of them here at john Marshall High School in Northeast Los Angeles. Alternating between comedy and drama as he finishes taking roll, he secures parental permission slips for that visit to the Habitat for Humanity construction site (where the class volunteers their labor) and dispatches with the many microadrrfinistrative tasks of the high school teacher. His stu- dents, twenty-three boys and one girl, with one exception all Latino, are a mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. They sit postured in the angles and half-turns of variable attention, doodling at arm's length, looking, in pairs, through fantasy art magazines, watching Mr. Devries. In the rear corner seat, Louie, the class clown, cracks a fairly audible joke about a guy chewing gum laced with Viagra. Mr. Devries finishes up, closes his roll book, and with rising voice says, “OK, let’s get to work.” And, in movement that is fluid, almost gentle, the students slide out of repose, up and out of their seats, and stream across the floor to stations around the room: to the worktable by the radial arm saw, to the tool cabinet, to the panel router, to wall racks in the far corner where they don aprons and safety glasses. Within minutes the room is vibrant with the slam of boards laid out to measure, the screech of the circular saw, the acrid smell of blade on wood. Some of the work the students do maintains the shop itself. They clean machinery, cut and store wood stock, and make simple tools like sanding blockswflthe same activity you would have found in a nineteenth-century workshop. This work goes on continually, 7O ,1. THE MIND AT WORK in between or during the primary projects the students undertake. They can work on individual projects—a table or cabinet or book- case for their homes—or work in teams on projects that flow into the shop. After so many years of recognized achievement, Ierry De- vries's classes get requests from within the school and throughout the district to bid on larger projects: storage cabinets, quantities of podiums, secretaries’ stations, computer tables, the majestic dis- play case. The majority of students. particularly at the sophomore and ju- nior levels, choose the team effort on these larger projects. Mr. Devries will select an older student to supervise, thus providing extended experience in planning and delegating—and with the dele— gating comes a good deal of teaching, peer to peer. For younger or less-experienced students, the team affords an apprenticing struc- ture in which to further develop the basic skills of woodworking and some guided opportunity to plan, calculate, and think through a project. As you look around the classroom, then, you’ll see clusters of four and five students at various workstations, and an occasional lone student measuring, cutting stock, or assembling—though even there, you’ll often see someone assisting, for a cooperative spirit pervades the room. I follow one of the sophomore boys back to the display case. Paul is a handsome kid whose usual dress is a black T-shirt adorned with bright and elaborate fantasy art—cyborgs, aliens, cartoon char- acters, the sultry, exaggerated women of car detailing—and baggy jeans cut at the cuff to form a floppy cover over running shoes. He smiles, sometimes laughs out loud, at the antics of the older, ram- bunctious boys—hooting at Louie’s Viagra joke—but tends toward a more serious demeanor. He sits sidesaddle in his desk against the west wall, looking out onto his dassmates, looking across the room to Jerry Devries. It’s common that Paul will be the first at his workstation once Mr. Devries releases the class from the prelimi— A Vocabulary of Carpentry J» 71 nary business of the day. It is this blend of adolescent sociability and focus that caught my eye—this boy who is laughing with every- one else while tying his apron or reaching for a tape measure. He talks readily about the “integrity” of working with wood. . Paul enlists another boy to help him remove the paper covering from the display case. Then he grabs a framing square (an L~shaped metal ruler) ofl~ of a nearby table, pulls a stool over to the back of the display case, and begins the task assigned to him by Mr. De- vries. Boards for support still need to be fastened to the back of the case, one along the top and one along the bottom. Paul’s job is to draw the lines on the case that will mark the placement of the sup- ports. Paul steps onto the stool, framing square in hand, pencil be- hind ear. He begins. I watch him for a long time. Because the framing square is two feet long, Paul has to draw the lines in increments, steadying the framing square against sev- eral reference points, checking and double-checking each segment of each line. He has to be sure that each line is so many inches from the top or bottom and that each segment of each line is aligned with the other, and that the twin lines (across the top and across the bottom) are aligned. Paul is cautious. Every time he slides the framing square from one increment of the line to another, he checks it at several points, his face turned slightly, eye close to the wood. Then he runs his pencil slowly along the rule, pulls his head back, and checks it again. This is a pretty basic task: Paul is using some fundamental measurement arithmetic and gaining practice with the framing square, aligning it on a Surface, reading it. But he is also learning something, I think, about attending, summoning one’s powers of concentration in the service of precision. We saw the role of atten- tion in the waitress’s work. Here we see it in a different context, and in a way that calls forth William Iames’s classic discussion of attention: “Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its Law amazmmm _. may“. mm. “‘J-fillljnLl‘rj' 72 Jr THE FUN!) AT WORK essence." The exact placement of the supports matters, and it is one of the last tasks in the long life of this valued project. Paul fo- cuses his efforts to get it right. I am drawn by his deliberateness, its development manifest in this task. When we think about problem solving, creativity, acts of the mind, we tend to think of the grand moment, the clarifying in- sight, the breakthrough, the tough nut cracked. Fair enough. Such moments are worthy of acknowledgment. But I think it is also worth dwelling on the commonplace, ordinary expressions of mind that every day, a thousand times over, enable the work of the world to get done, and that, more than we think, are critical in solv- ing the less common, more dramatic problems that face us. In his study of creativity, The Mind’s Best Work, psychologist D. N. Perkins The more time I spend in Jerry Devries's workshop, the more I notice the various ways this mix of attention and perception, knowledge of the field, and values plays out in the day-to-day rou- tines of working with wood. Consider, for example, the sharpening of the senses that develops in the woodworking environment. “Use the eyes to test straightness, squareness, and symmetry,” writes the author of an early-twentieth—century pedagogical tract, “before applying any other testing instruments.” Ierry, like other expert carpenters I observed, is able to estimate length at a glance. He can eyeball a structure for misalignment, an angle that’s ofl', gaps, bows, sags in an assembly. He troubleshoots the cause of problems through the look of things. He has an eye, and a touch, for texture. A Vocabulary of Carpentry Jr 73 He scans for flaws, spotting a place high up on the interior wall of the display case where a screw has barely broken through the wood. This ability has been characterized by several cognitive re- searchers as disciplined perception—and we saw it in another kind of work with the hairstylists. It is disciplined because it emerges from one’s training and depends on—and helps constitute—4 body of knowledge. And what is perceived is connected to system- atic action; here perception has meaning and consequence for as- sembly and repair. The woodworker’s visual skill is so much a part of the work that it’s easy to miss its special quality. Thus it was through a sense less identified with carpentry that the importance of disciplined percep- tion first struck me. We were at the Habitat for Humanity job site, Jerry and I talking. About fifteen yards away, a group of students was drilling holes in fence posts. Jerry suddenly turned around. “Hey,” he yelled, “don’t burn the motor out!” The students stopped, and he walked over. “Go slow,” he said, and showed them how to handle the drill with more finesse. Earlier that day, another crew of Jerry’s students had been cutting stock to length for the fence, and, this time, it was the sound of the saw that caught Jerry’s car. He made his way to the place where the students had set up the power miter box they were using—they had placed the tool on a sheet of plywood that rested on two sawhorses—and he moved the two sawhorses closer to- gether. The weight of the miter box was causing the plywood to bend, and thus the stock that the students were cutting was bowing slightly, causing the saw to grab or bind into the wood. Jerry turned to Louie, of Viagra fame. “What’d I just do?” Louie explained the principle behind the action, using his hands to illustrate. As jerry walked away, Louie leaned toward me and nodded at his teacher’s retreating figure: “Interesting, huh?” Then, louder, for the benefit of his peers, he said, “Devries tactics,” a phrase the students use 74 '1' THE HIND AT WORK to label one of Mr. Devries’s tricks of the trade, adjustments or techniques. , As I walk around Jerry Devries’s classroom or the Habitat for Humanity job site, I too hear a range of sounds: the pounding of hammers, the squeal of power saws, the harsh router. But it’s ca- cophonous, gross distinctions at best. I ask Ierry about the keen- ness of his ear. He laughs and says that he doesn’t think he hears with particular acuity, that, in fact, he sometimes has trouble hear— ing what his students are saying. But he clearly has developed an ear for the sounds of trouble related to the use of power tools. In the first vignette with the drill, he hears a motor being pushed close to its limits. In the second, he hears something in the sound of the cut that suggests that the saw blade is binding into the wood l-hs is an ear trained to hear trouble, to perceive it amid all the other sounds of the workplace. This heightened perception en— ables him to protect against error or damage, and it also has peda— gogic value, enabling him to intervene right at a strategic, teachable moment. As with many work-related abilities, it’s hard to trace specifically how this skill develops, other than to say that it develops with ex- penence, over time, and with certain motives and incentives—dike protecting tools and teaching their proper use. But though diffi- cultto trace, you can see moments of its development. Paul, whom we ]ust metmeasuring the display case, is running a piece of stock through the jointer, to plane smooth its edge. He runs the board through three or four times, occasionally leaning back to look under the machine to see the shavings coming off. I ask him why he runs it through multiple times, and he explains that he had determined that it had a bow in the middle. (To check the evenness of the surface of an edge, Mr. Devries had shown the students how to set a board on the flat metal surface of the machine, then hunch dew and look to see if any light comes through.) I then ask Paul A Vocabulary of Carpentry ~b 75 how he decides on the number of times to put the board through—~— since he isn’t stopping after every pass to perform the light test, and he explains that you can hear when the board is even, for the sound will continue Without interruption, the blade will not be hit- ting any gaps in the surface of the wood. Paul seems to be on his way to developing the kind of trained ear that Ierry Devries has, an ear attuned to variation in the sound of a power tool on wood, and the potential meaning that sound may have. I have been discussing the individual senses, but die integrated use of multiple senses—a long-standing curiosity to psychologists of perception—is also commonplace in the shops I visited. I watched, for example, an auto mechanic use all of his senses but taste while repairing an engine-often using the senses in combi- nation to “give [him] more information” or “to check one against the other.” A fascinating variation of this sensory integration is when a tradesperson uses one sense as a substitute for another, as when the plumber Ion Guthier reached up inside a wall to “help [him] see” the condition of the pipes hidden within. Here touch is used as a visualizing mechanism, to interpretive, diagnostic ends. [1 This focusing of attention and refinement of the senses occurs in the service of assembly and repair, so they are intimately linked to the use of tools. And tools, of course, would be a key element in any vocabulary of work. The development of skill with tools in- volves, at the least, knowledge of a tool’s purpose and function and competent use of the body: grip, stance, leverage, the efficient transfer of force. This attunement of body and tool is less foreign to me than Ierry’s and Paul’s refined ear. It was during one of my uncle Frank’s visits to Los Angeles—the railroad had laid peo— ple off again, and he was looking out West for world—that he helped me build a storage box. I was hammering a panel onto the ,. is i , ran-Wm”- 76 vb THE MIND AT WORK frame when he stopped me, moved my hand down to the base of the handle—I was “choking” it—and showed me how to swing the tool in a way that “let the hammer do the work.” What struck me, I remember, was the surprise of the feel: the hammer seemed more powerful and my swing—from shoulder through vvrist— increasingly fluid. And I got better at driving a nail. Looking across Jerry Devries's workshop with a focus on move- ment, attending to biomechanics, I see a range of physical skill with a variety of tools and tasks: from one of the youngest boys struggling with the saw in a miter box, his strokes wobbly and un- even, to Louie on one knee, his torso turned into the tight spa...
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