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Skill: From to the Medieval Workshop to the Maker Movement

Brown University AMST0150E

Fall 2017

Steven Lubar, Professor, American Studies lubar@brown.edu

Class time and location: Tuesday and Thursday, 10:30-noon, Brown Design Workshop,
Prince Engineering Building 222

Office Hours (Nightingale-Brown House, 357 Benefit Street, 3rd floor): Thursday 1:30-
3:00 (by appointment, click here) or other times by appointment.

Course Description
What does it mean to be skilled? How does a combination of mechanical and material
knowledge, expertise in the use of tools, and physical ability allow someone to make and
repair things? How can we describe the intellectual and embodied knowledge of skills in
words, images, and artifacts? How do personal skills fit into social and cultural settings?
How are skills learned?

In this course, we will learn new skills, like sewing, welding, and lock-picking, and write
about them; observe skilled practitioners in a variety of areas, and try to understand their
expertise; and read the writings of historians, psychologists, skilled craftspeople, and
cultural critics to discover the ways that ideas about the nature of skill has changed
through history.

Course Goals
1. Understand the history, politics, and cultural discourse of skill.
2. Develop a deeper understanding of the physical, social, and cultural nature of
3. Develop the ability to analyze work to determine the skills involved
4. Develop the ability to describe skill and reflect on your learning process by
analyzing your own activities and that of others.
5. Develop the ability to write about your work in a way that helps you analyze it
and that makes it interesting to others

Books available at bookstore (and on reserve at library)

Nina MacLaughlin, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter
Walter Rose, The Village Carpenter
Mike Rose, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker
David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making

Course Schedule
We’ll meet twice a week. In general, the first meeting of the week will be a a discussion
of the readings, the second session a workshop.
Over the first few weeks of the semester, sign up for the training sessions that will allow
you to use the tools in the Brown Design Workshop.

Course Outline
1. Introduction: Thinking about skills

Thursday 9/7
Introductions. About the course. Overview of class. Introduction to the Brown Design
Workshop (Chris Bull). Introduction to writing about skill. About your skills journal.

In-class exercises
Lock-picking. We’ll read and view descriptions of this work, and analyze the knowledge
about mechanics, materials, physical abilities, and understanding of tools and
materials required.

Writing: Continue to practice lock-picking Describe it - what's hard, what's easy, how
you've learned - in a short essay, 200-300. words. Due 9/13 (submit via Canvas, and
bring a copy to class on Thursday). See Advice on Writing about Skills document.
Journal writing: Begin a skills journal. Choose a new skill that you’ll continue to practice
for a few hours a week over the course of the semester, and write about it at least
once a week. Do this as a shared Google doc, and share it with me. Here’s some
advice, and here’s an example from a related field that’s worth a look.

2. Understanding skills

Tuesday 9/12

Thinking about skill. We’ll read parts of two classic books about the nature of
workmanship and discuss and compare them in class.

David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, chapters 1-4
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1962; repr.,

 London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 49-65.

Writing: Short summary of either Pye or Polanyi, or contrast them (300-600 words).
Some things to consider: what kinds of skill are the interested in? How do they think
about the relationship of the physical and mental parts of skills? How practical are
their ideas about skills for someone trying to learn a skill? How will they help you in
learning and thinking about tools? Due 9/18.

Thursday 9/14

In-class exercises
Lock-picking and sewing. Come prepared to talk about what you've learned about lock-
picking (and bring a copy of your writing).

Ted the Tool, The MIT Guide to Lockpicking (pp. 1-22, 48, and whatever else looks
David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making, Prologue and
chapters 1-3 (focus on what he says about carving)

3. Learning skills

Tuesday 9/19

Nina MacLaughlin, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, chapters 1-3
George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop, pp. 1-20, 83-107
Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Directed by David Gelb. Color, 81 min. 2011.

VISIT from Karen Bouchard, library

Thursday, 9/21

Eric Laurier, “Becoming a Barista,” in Aksel Tjora and Graham Scrambler, eds., Café

In-class exercises
Visit to New Harvest Coffee Training Center, 999 Main Street #108 Pawtucket, RI

Writing assignment: 300-600 words. Visit a coffee shop and talk with the barista about
his or her work. Some questions to consider: How did he or she learn to do the work?
How long did it take? What’s easy, what’s hard? How much is technical, how much
social? Is there a way of expressing creativity in the work? Due 9/27 (For help in this
kind of writing, see Putting Ethnographic Writing in Context.

4. Learning skills-2

Tuesday 9/26

Frank Wilson, The Hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture,
chapters 5, 6, and 7.
Douglas Harper, Working Knowledge, pp. 24-40.
“The Welding Operator,” (Vocational Guidance Films, 1942)
“Master Hands,” (Jam Handy, 1936) – watch all 4 parts

Visit from Nora Rabins, welding instructor

Thursday, 9/28

In-class exercises
9-12 Welding lessons. Class at the Steelyard, 27 Sims Ave, Providence. A hands-on
introduction to welding.
NOTE: Longer class session. Details to be determined

Writing: Describe your experience learning to weld: what was difficult, what was easy?
Some things you might address: Think about the sensory part of the work: sight,
smell, touch. Did the work tire you out? Be precise about the muscles that this work
called on. Consider the material you used: what surprised you about the way it
changed as it heated and cooled? (300-600 words) Due 10/4.

5. Using Tools

Tuesday 10/3

NOTE: Class will meet at the CultureLab at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology,
in Manning Hall. Guest lecturer: Pinar Durgin

John Whittaker, Flintknapping: Making and understanding stone tools. Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1994. pp. 1–21

Jan Apel, “Knowledge, know-how and raw material – The production of Late Neolithic
flint daggers in Scandinavia,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 15
(2008): 91–111.

Making an Acheulean handaxe

Thursday 10/5

In-class exercises
Visit from Barry Keegan, flintknapper. We’ll make stone tools.

Writing: Describe your experience learning to flintknap: what was difficult, what was
easy? Some things you might address: Think about the sensory part of the work:
sight, smell, touch. Did the work tire you out? Be precise about the muscles that this
work called on. Consider the material you used: what surprised you it? (300-600
words) Due 10/11.

6. Knowing Materials

Tuesday 10/10
We’ll read four woodworker’s descriptions of their work to see how they understand, and
think about wood, and compare them.

George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop, pp. 23-49
David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making, chaps 4-6
Walter Rose, The Village Carpenter, introduction and chapters 1-3
Nina MacLaughlin, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, chapter 4-end

Thursday 10/12

Erin O’Connor, “Embodied knowledge in glassblowing: the experience of meaning and
the struggle towards proficiency,” Sociological Review, Volume 55, Issue s1
May 2007, pp. 126–141.
Glassblowing (Crafts into Engineering Collection video)

In-class exercises
Visit to RISD glass shop

Your choice: either compare the readings on knowing wood, or write about your visit to
the glass shop, with a focus on the way that the glassblower’s knowledge of

materials shaped their work. Use O’Connor’s article as a guide. (300-600 words)
Due 10/18.

7. Skills in the Workplace

Tuesday 10/17

Mike Rose, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. Skim
most of the book; read one chapter in detail, and be prepared to present it in class.

Thursday, 10/19

In-class exercises
Visit to Brown cafeteria kitchen. Details to be determined.

Writing: Describe the visit to the cafeteria kitchen. Make comparisons to the workplaces
in The Mind at Work. What workplaces are the Brown cafeterias similar to? How so?
How different? What skills did the workers you met have? How did they learn them?
How did they use them? What could you learn about individual and team skills, and
how managerial structure shaped the workplace and the use of skills? (300-600
words) Due 10/25

8. Repair

Tuesday 10/24

Rose, The Village Carpenter, chapters 11 and 13
Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Chapter 7
Julian E. Orr, Talking about machines: An ethnography of a modern job, chapter 7
Tim Dant, “The Work of Repair: Gesture, Emotion and Sensual Knowledge,”
Sociological Research Online, 15 (3) 7

Thursday 10/26

In-class exercises
Trouble-shooting and repairing a broken clock or appliance.

Read through your journal entries to date. Think about the progress you’ve made in your
new skill, and write about it. Some things to consider include: what can you do know
that you couldn’t when you started? What do you know now, about materials and

tools, that you didn’t? How has your ability to describe your skill changed? (300-600
words) Due 11/1.

9. Skills and Creativity

Tuesday 10/31

Peter Dormer, The Art of the Maker: Skill and its Meaning in Art, Craft and Design
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), chapter ?
Leslie Hirst, “Groundwork,” in The Art of Critical Making,” pp. 32-51.

Thursday 11/2

In-class exercises
Visit to the RISD Museum. We’ll tour costume and textile collections looking for the
balance of skill and creativity. Meet at the RISD Museum, 224 Benefit Street.

Describe one object from the RISD Museum, writing about the skills of its maker or
makers. How was it made? What skills did its makers have? 300-600 words. Due

10. The Social Life of Skills

Tuesday 11/7

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Chapter 2
Douglas Harper, Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop, 74-91
Julian E. Orr, Talking about machines: An ethnography of a modern job, chapter 4
Watch The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend (2005)

Writing: Describe the social nature of skills as presented in one of the readings and the
film, or compare them. How much of technical skill is really social? How important
is talking about what you do, either to other workers or to customers? (300-600
words) Due 11/15

Thursday 11/9

In-class exercises
In teams, analyze the Brown Design Workshop as a place where skills have a social life.
How do social skills shape technical skills, and how do technical skills shape social

11. The Politics and Poetics of Skill (15th -18thth century)

Tuesday 11/14

Pamela H. Smith, “In the Workshop of History: Making, Writing, and Meaning,” West
86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, vol. 19
(2012): 431.
Eugene Ferguson, “The Origins of Modern Engineering,” in Engineering and the Mind’s
Eye, 60-74.

Thursday 11/16

In-class exercises
Visit to the John Hay Library to look at technical manuscripts and books, drawings and
designs, and Arts and Crafts movement books. Meet in the Lownes Room, second
floor of the John Hay Library. We’ll look at, among other things, Agricola’s De
Re Metallica, Jacque Besson’s Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum Iacobi
Bessoni Delphinatis.

12. The Politics and Poetics of Skill (19th Century)

Tuesday 11/21

Nina E. Lerman, “’Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life’:
Technological Knowledge and Social Structure in Mid-19th-Century Philadelphia,”
Technology and Culture 38(1) 1997.
Robert Gordon, “Who Turned the Mechanical Ideal into Mechanical Reality?,”
Technology and Culture 29(4) 1988
William Morris, “The Lesser Arts”

Thursday 11/23

NO CLASS! Thanksgiving holiday

13. The Politics and Poetics of Skill (20th century)

Tuesday 11/28

Frederick Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, Introduction and chapter 2
Henry Ford, “Mass Production,” In Encyclopedia Britannica, 1926
Harry Braverman, (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital, chapter 20

Amy Bix, “Creating ‘Chicks Who Fix’: Women, Tool Knowledge, and Home Repair,
1920–2007,” WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, Volume 37, Numbers 1 & 2,
Spring/Summer 2009, pp. 38-60

Thursday 11/30

David Farber, “Self-Invention in the Realm of Production: Craft, Beauty, and Community
in the American Counterculture, 1964–1978,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol.
85 No. 3, August 2016; (pp. 408-442)
Stuart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog, skim, and read introduction. (On reserve at John Hay
Library special collections)
Michele Krugh, “Joy in Labour: The Politicization of Craft from the Arts and Crafts
Movement to Etsy,” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 44 no. 2, 2014, pp.
Evgeny Morozov, “Making It,” The New Yorker, January 13, 2014

Compare ideas about skill in Taylor and Ford (300-600 words) Due 12/6

14. The Politics and Poetics of Skill (21st century)

Tuesday 12/5

Add: Political debate on training for manufacturing skills
The Maker’s Bill of Rights
Mark Frauenfelder, Made by Hand: My Adventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself,
chapter 4
Levine, F. and Heimerl, C. Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design.
Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.
Kimberly M. Sheridan, et al., “Learning in the making: A comparative case study of three
makerspaces,” Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 505-531.

Thursday 12/7

In-class exercises
Visit to AS220 Industries, 131 Washington St. in downtown Providence.

15. Final class

Tuesday 12/12
Reviewing the semester

Read through your journal entries to date. Think about the progress you’ve made in your
new skill, and write about it. Some things to consider include: what can you do know
that you couldn’t when you started? What do you know now, about materials and
tools, that you didn’t? How has your ability to describe your skill changed? (3 pp.)
Due 12/18


Activity Duration Frequency Total

Class time 1.33 28 37.25

Reading 7 13 91
Weekly writing 3 10 30
Skills work in BDW 1 10 10
Skills work, journal writing 21 throughout 21
TOTAL 183.25

Book prices

Required Textbooks
Title Author ISBN Price New/Used
LOST CARVING ESTERLY 9780143124412 $16.00 / $12.00
MIND AT WORK ROSE 9780143035572 $17.00 / $12.75
VILLAGE CARPENTER ROSE 9781610350518 $15.95 / $11.96
Total (New/Used): $64.90 / 48.67

Course policies

Required and Optional Texts and Materials

All of the readings for the course are available either online through Canvas, on reserve at
the Brown University Library, or for purchase at the bookstore. Canvas includes a
range of supplemental readings. Additional readings (including books and articles
considered for the class but not in the syllabus) are available at my Zotero page.
The following books are available at the bookstore:

Student responsibilities
Attendance: Please try to attend every class. Please let me know if you’re not able to
make the class. There will be several out-of-class time workshops, and you should
plan to attend these.
Participation: The class only works if you participate. Please read the readings, read
further in areas of interest, and come to class prepared to discuss what you’ve read
and thought about, and to participate in discussion and undertake the in-class
projects with good will..
Late work and make up: Let me know if you need more time to turn in a paper. I’m
happy to read preliminary drafts of any assignment, or a second, improved, version.
Email or come talk to me if you’d like to discuss your assignments as you’re
working on them, or after you’ve turned them in.

10 short writing assignments, 5 percent of grade each
Choose ten of the assignments listed here. These short writing assignments should
reflect your personal experience. Write them in the first person (“I think….”)
Express opinions. Say what you know, what you don’t, and why. Feel free to use
pictures and illustrations. After you finish, rewrite at least once, making sure that
your introduction and conclusion connect well. Submit your work via Canvas.

Skills journal 20 percent of grade.

Over the course of the semester you’ll work on one skill, and keep a journal
describing your progress. What are you learning? Write in it several times a week.
You don’t need to turn this in, but you will use it in some of the short writing
assignments, and we’ll discuss it in class.

Class participation, 30 percent of grade

Class discussion is evaluated by the thoughtfulness of your comments. Be
constructive: refer to the readings, present new information from your experience
and from outside readings, and suggest new ideas. Participation should be a dialog,

building on my remarks, and other students’ contributions, as part of a conversation.
You should speak up when you have something to say; in general, that should be
more than once in each class.

Participation in class projects is evaluated not by the quality of your work, but by the
quality of your learning experience. You’re not trying to be the best welder, or lock
picker; you’re thinking about what you’re doing—what’s easy, what’s difficult, and
why; what you’re learning, what you need to know; where you’re learning (what’s
physical, what’s mental, what’s social). All of this will be necessary for writing
about your experience.

Lab safety/health
We will be working in the Brown Design Lab and other workshops that can be
dangerous. You are required to meet BDL requirements for use of its space and
tools. Safety first!

Academic honesty
Brown's academic codes can be found here.

WRIT-designated course
This is a WRIT-designated course, which means that you will receive substantive
feedback on your writing. Use this feedback to revise your work or to complete
subsequent writing assignments. Take advantage of the Writing Center for additional
support for writing.

Full inclusion
Brown University is committed to full inclusion of all students. Please inform me
early in the term if you have a disability or other conditions that might require
accommodations or modification of any of these course procedures. You may speak
with me after class or during office hours. For more information, please contact
Student and Employee Accessibility Services at 401-863-
9588 or SEAS@brown.edu. Students in need of short-term academic advice or
support can contact one of the deans in the Dean of the College office.