Crafting is my pedagogical love language – and it works wonders in the college classroom

I’m on a mission to bring joy and play into the college classroom through crafting materials that I manipulate to theoretical relevance, and I’m here to tell you: it works.

Crafting became the key to unleashing students’ stoicism, inspiring them to drop their cool detachment armor. You’ll find us making friendship bracelets in a news writing class to visualize how journalists unravel the thorny issues of supply. At Opinion Media, we make looms out of Cheez-It boxes and Cheerios to tackle writer’s challenges around arguments and evidence. For exam preparation, students write test questions inside origami hearts, which they present to the class.

Crafting is my pedagogical love language. And it’s a reliable way to see what students really look like when they smile and relax – and reveal their vulnerability. When they do, that’s when the learning begins.

Anyone who has experience with students in a college classroom knows they can be a tough crowd. The jokes fall flat. Silence reigns. Students choose to forfeit participation points rather than share their opinions, lest they be “cancelled” or just sound stupid (to their ears). COVID-19 has also shaped classroom dynamics. Given years of Zoom rooms and limited social interaction, it’s no wonder that casual classroom conversations that lead to lasting friendships seem like a thing of the past.

It’s a truism that we learn best if we feel comfortable. But suggestions to build community among college cohorts are either hokey (share your fears!), boring (question the curriculum!), or heavily device-dependent (get to know a classmate over text!).

I prefer the approach of what Ellen Dissanayake, scholar of art and culture, calls “joy of doing», or the joy of doing. In “The pleasure and the meaning of doing“, she writes, “there is something important, even urgent, to be said about the simple pleasure of making something exist that did not exist before, of using one’s own agency, one’s dexterity, one’s feelings and judgment to shape, form, touch, hold and make physical materials.

Back in the pungent-smelling classroom, I remove the melted plastic from the toaster. The purpose of the Shrinky Dinks exercise is to help students visualize the thesis of the book”talk mean: Online incivility and public debate.

The book’s author, media scholar Gina Masullo, argues that deliberation requires metaphorical “heat” to reach consensus. Polystyrene plastic, when exposed to heat, curls, shrinks and thickens into an inflexible object, resulting in a sharper manifestation of its original shape.

Isn’t that symbolic of successful deliberative efforts? Without controlled heat, we cannot have transformation. But too much and we have a dumpster fire with no meaningful trade.

“You go to college and listen to a bunch of lectures,” says a computer science student at the end of class. “But then – turns out you can do Shrinky Dinks too.”

My instructional bucket list includes teaching knitting in a writing-intensive class as a way to conceptualize organization, process, patience, and revel in a tangible outcome. It would do wonders as a substitute for the elusive practice of writing.

“My students assign themes to different threads, creating a visual representation – and memory – of the written work.”Hinda Mandell

After handing out the cereal and snack box looms in my Opinion Media class, an electrical engineering student said, “I thought it was a writing class. I put up skeins of yarn and he says, “I have no idea what’s going on.”

“It’s normal to feel some discomfort,” I say lovingly touching colored textures from my own stash. “It’s a sign that growth is near.”

I have students grab a darning needle, choose a handful of colors, and cut an arm’s length of yarn. I ask them to read a classmate’s essay. Note the themes, I say. They assign themes to different threads, creating a visual representation – and memory – of the written work.

“It causes me anxiety. I’m studying mechanical engineering,” said another student. “I need to know how many threads and what colors to choose.”

Such uncertainty is my favorite part. Watch students react to unexpected class exercises that combine theory and practical application. Each time, the process unfolds in the same way: insecurity eats away at the students. Seeing that I am not joking, that I imbue the craft with magical teaching powers, they begin to relax – they are in good hands. And then they organize themselves and enter “the zone”, a state of collective flow so calm that it is nothing less than spiritual.

“I’m ready to draw my line of weaves,” whispers a photojournalism student in shaded brown acrylic. “It’s hard with those nails,” she says.

The chatter begins. The students ask to put on some music. The classroom is starting to look more like a party space.

My previously guarded students relax while they work. They share stories of side hustle donning tennis rackets, growing up as the only sibling among four sisters, rescuing a cat that ate something out of an embroidery kit. Watching them, I silently salute the 19th century romantics who shunned capitalist ideals in favor of a game undefined by commercial interests. Crafting allows us a break from the demands of the classroom to happily co-create, if only for 15 minutes once a week.

A communications major says his loom looks like the character Plank from the “Ed, Ed and EddyShow. The class hoots and gives him a standing ovation. I don’t care if I’ve never heard of the character or the series. I want my students to bond. I care that the crafted game weaves its magic That’s what it’s all about.Media theorist David Gauntlett of Toronto Metropolitan University writes in his book “Manufacturing is Connecting“This craft allows creators to feel ‘alive in the world, as participants rather than spectators.’

And I say: Amen to that.

Hinda Mandell is a professor at the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology and editor of “Fabricate dissent: Craft as a protest of the American Revolution against the Pussyhats.

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