On Craft (2)

 
January 1 st 2003

At Comment, we are convinced that work (or cultivation or craft or skill or "formative power") is essential to all of human life and basic to all spheres of human action other than marriage, family, and friendship. So we want to lean our journal increasingly toward the inclusion of more pieces that reflect on the work/cultivation/craft/skill aspect of various fields of endeavour, from poetry to management, from physics to mothering, from retail sales to market gardening.

In this issue, we are delighted to publish the craft reflections of an English teacher, an architect, a sheep farmer, a violin teacher, and a newspaper editor.


The Craft of Teaching English

by Emeth Hesed Smith

Noun, verb, gerund, subjunctive, infinitive, future progressive, comparative, superlative, past participle, auxiliary verb. In Japan, children are deluged with such words when they start to study English. No wonder, then, so few people in Japan speak English, even college graduates who have studied it for at least 10 years. In all Asia, only three nations have lower TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores than Japan: Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Internationally, it ranks fourteenth from the bottom out of 88 countries.

When I am on the train, I often see students holding little books trying to memorize lists of English words. Needless to say, that is no way to learn a language. Many Japanese have memorized thousands of words and the first dictionary definition of each word. Many have a better knowledge of grammar than most Americans, but all to no avail. When they speak, their sentences are often a string of words in an incomprehensible order. Typically, Japanese schools force-feed innumerable rules of grammar and list after list of words, but do not teach how to interrelate and communicate words or ideas. (See www.engrish.com for examples of the kind of English used all over Japan.)

One of the most difficult things when teaching English, even to small children, is to break through cultural barriers and thinking habits. Teaching English in Japan is as much about showing students a new worldview as it is about the language itself. In this rigidly hierarchical society, the relationship between a teacher and a student, as with all other relationships, has strictly defined boundaries. Though that is not something wrong in itself, it does not work when trying to teach a language, especially to children.

I have been tutoring and teaching English for the past eight years in homes and private English schools. Though I have been teaching adults, too, most of my students have been children. When I teach, I try to gain the children's trust and friendship. I try to be a friend or sister while I teach. Most children come to understand and enjoy this less formal relationship, but some are not able to handle such familiarity and quit my classes.

When children first start coming to class, we do a lot of chanting, clapping, and singing so they can learn words and sentences in rhythm without consciously trying to commit anything to memory. Once my students get to the point of being able to speak some English, I simply keep correcting their mistakes as they speak with very little or no explanation, as a mother does with her own children.

Using correct grammar should be an unconscious habit, like breathing. I do not want my students to have to think about or struggle with grammar. I want them to be able to think and feel in English before they worry about terms and rules.

The pictures that words draw look different in each language, even when saying the same thing. Just as each country has its own music and art, each language has its own rhythm and shades of meaning.

Children do not need to know any grammatical terms to be able to speak a language. When mothers teach their babies how to speak, they do not use any terminology.

What I do explain carefully and correct meticulously are phonics, spelling, punctuation, and handwriting, but, like grammar, I try to help them learn to write correctly by sheer force of habit. When children turn in homework with mistaken punctuation or with handwriting that is anything less than their very best, they know I will make them correct every mistake. The passing score for every page of homework is 100 per cent. Anything less is not acceptable. (This is something I learned from my mother.)

Phonics is easier to understand than English grammar. If children learn the 26 letters of the alphabet, about 50 letter combinations, and about 25 spelling rules, they should be able to read and spell more than 95 per cent of English words. It is simple compared to the two Japanese alphabets, which are 50 characters each, and the 2,000 standard written characters almost all of which can be read in several ways.

I usually allow my students to decide how much homework they are going to do. I recommend a certain amount, but if they want more or less, it is up to them. However much they decide to do, I hold them to their commitment. Of course, there are always children that refuse to do any and I have to assign them work, but my goal is to make children so eager about studying that they beg for homework. Most of the time, this works, and I have to hold them back from doing too much.


The Craft of Architecture

by Benjamin Kaufmann

An architect has very little expertise. This may come as a surprise given the impressive list of geniuses who have claimed the profession. But most architects succeed when they effectively lead a team of experts. These experts include structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers, interior designers, telecommunications consultants, code consultants, contractors, and subcontractors for a vast array of trades and services. Though I have no real expertise of my own, I coordinate those that do.

The craft of architecture is the ability to accommodate and manage the several forces that shape the construction of a building. I am the one who must see how the various forces might conflict or come together nicely. These forces fall into three categories.

The first are market forces. Only a handful of buildings are spared the influence of market forces. Most buildings have an owner who wants to maximize rentable square footage. These forces can only be compromised by one of the following two sets of forces.

The second set of forces are the laws of the land. Zoning laws govern the size and shape of buildings. Codes govern materials suitable for fire protection, clearances for handicapped accessibility, and dimensions required for egress corridors, among a thousand other regulations. Inspectors review drawings and inspect the finished building to ensure compliance. These forces can only be compromised by a variance authorized by the building department.

The third set of forces are the laws of nature. Supporting columns must be a certain size and a certain distance from each other. Fans on the roof must have enough capacity to allow the building to breathe. Pumps in the basement must have enough power to provide water. And horizontal ducts in a ceiling must avoid lights recessed into the same ceiling. These forces cannot be compromised, no matter what either of the first two sets of forces may tell you.

Once a project gets going, a big fight starts between these three forces. I spend the better part of my day discovering and resolving areas where this fight is happening. In the early planning stages, I try to predict areas of conflict and resolve them ahead of time. During construction, problems no one could have predicted show up and must be solved to the satisfaction of all three forces.

In a recent project for a new hotel in San Francisco, I solved one problem only to create three others. The client wants to change the plans to subdivide two big rooms into three smaller rooms.

My first task is to redraw the rooms, adding a room with enough space to conform to the client's hotel standards for small rooms. This additional room needs a new entrance with proper clearances around the door to satisfy local building codes.

Then I need to add a bathroom, which requires a call to the plumbing engineer to ensure that the plumbing system can handle the additional load. Sure it can, but it turns out that the new pipes must go near a concrete column where steel reinforcing will be cast into the slab.

So I call the structural engineer to discuss exactly how close to the column I am allowed to puncture the slab with a drain pipe. Pretty close actually, but keep the bathroom exhaust vents away from my columns, he says. I forgot how much space foul air requires. The slab opening required is so big that it interferes with the steel reinforcing. So I go back to my plan and try to move the toilet exhaust.

I have cursed the structural slab (called "flat slab") in this job, but it comes from a very powerful force that is shaping this building. Local zoning laws in downtown San Francisco, and in all municipalities, have height limitations. In San Francisco they even have a shadow plane limitation which requires direct sunlight on a certain percentage of the neighbouring buildings for a certain percentage of the day.

By burying the structure within the slab, thus eliminating beams, our floors are only six inches thick. This allows us to squeeze a whole extra floor of hotel rooms below the maximum height allowed. Naturally, this delighted the owner.

The pleasure of the craft of architecture is often found in coordinating the various forces and successfully solving the problems. The dizzying array of possible problems is like a great, living puzzle. A project dynamically responds to any decision by setting off a chain of consequences to that decision.

The best way to keep track of those consequences is for me to actually see what is happening. So I must draw whatever I want to see. A drawing becomes a tool that enables this dynamic process.

How often have I assured an engineer that his specified equipment would work just fine only to discover a conflict later when drawing it. To draw is to engage the project as immediately as possible without the physical building constructed yet. To draw is to discover solutions. To draw is to think.

To draw is also to do what I am hired to do. Architects are hired to produce a set of documents.

There was a pre-modern time when architects were hired to produce buildings, but those days are gone. Today, our contracts call for drawings and a written specification which details every product and procedure involved in the building's construction. It is true that contracts normally call for a small amount of construction administration where we work closely with the builder during construction. But the bulk of our task is to produce documents.

These documents become the basis for a contract between owner and builder, so their primary function is to make sure owner and builder can agree on a cost for construction. So we produce documents that become legally binding. One may think that an architect's primary task is to design a building that is construct-able, but I sometimes draw portions of a building that are not exactly construct-able just to get money into the job, assuring myself that the builder will discover a better way to build the thing.

To draw a building, I use a computer. But to have a drawing reviewed by others in my office, I print what I have drawn on big sheets of paper. A colleague then takes a red pencil and marks corrections, drawing little sketches off to the side or right on top of the printed drawing.

These marked-up drawings are often the most engaging documents I use in the office. They represent the struggle to get the building drawn correctly, and they also give me a glimpse of the knowledge of those more experienced than I am.

I enjoy returning to my desk and revising the drawing. Sometimes I send drawings to the mechanical engineer, telecommunications consultant, or to the client, and they return them marked-up. These mark-ups then become the basis for a phone call to someone else, for surely I have spotted a conflict, and their wishes cannot be accommodated so easily. . . .


The Craft of Sheep Herding

by John Bell

Sheep are not, as commonly believed, stupid. They just have a very narrow view of the world with a correspondingly narrow set of priorities. Among things that rate highly are food, water, open space, staying with the group, and breeding in the proper season. Among things that rate low in the sheep scheme of things are being chased, walking into enclosed spaces, being separated from the flock, and, of course, being injected, sheared, and treated with medicine shot down their mouths with metal syringes. The craft of sheep husbandry involves getting sheep to cooperate in some very un-sheep-like situations.

The great complication in all this is the sheep's instinctive reaction to major disturbances, captured in the phrase, "When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout." This makes more survival sense than it would at first appear. A sheep doesn't need to outrun a coyote; it just needs to outrun the other sheep closest to the coyote. Accordingly, a flock in full panic has a tendency to split into groups and scatter. If you are old enough to remember when mercury was still allowed in children's toys, the process of moving a group of sheep into a pen is like nothing so much as trying to get all the little drops of mercury together into one blob and rolling that blob to the centre of the maze.

Successful sheep herding calls for a delicate balance of bribery, intimidation, and reliance on carefully ingrained habit. Our flock spends most of its time on pasture, but when we do feed them, we do it in the barnyard pen where we also do the work that, from a sheep's perspective, is less pleasant. Fortunately, in the sheep scheme of things, the memory of food will usually win out over the memory of vaccination. Even during summer months we will give supplemental food often enough that the habit of coming in the pen stays with them.

Habit and bribery with food are useful but not always sufficient. The lucky farmer has a trained sheep dog to apply the extra measure of intimidation to convince the satisfied, the baffled, and the independent minds among the flock to get with the program. Less fortunate farmers like us send the whole family out, which sometimes works well, sometimes not. (Go back to that image of little blobs of mercury scattering everywhere.)

As we get more experience the process gets easier. Over the years a certain tacit knowledge soaks in. You know where to stand, when to move, to get a flock to react. You begin to know when you can work a particular group of sheep alone, and when it is time to call out not only the rest of the family, but every friend and neighbour you can lay a hand on. You begin, in spite of yourself, to think like a sheep.

I have learned a new respect for the traditional tools of the trade. A sheep crook always appeared to me as an affectation in this century, something you would hang on a wall, until I had to convince a group of restless ewes to stay put until the gate was closed. Having a five-foot extension to your right arm sometimes makes the difference between a job well done and a day spent swearing in fruitless pursuit of fleeing sheep. The curved end, to my surprise, actually worked as advertised, allowing me, with a quick movement, to pick out one sheep from a milling pen full of animals. My family still regards me as a threat to all life and property around when I use it, but I find it invaluable.

I have found that the most valuable tools, though, are inward. Patience works. Anger does not. Sympathy with one's wooly charges and a tacit understanding of sheep, work. Strict logic and discursive reasoning, usually, do not. My off-farm employment as a prosecuting attorney requires a very different set of skills, most of which are not transferable. Sheep are not impressed by verbal ability or diplomas. There is a different kind of intelligence required, a knowing that goes beyond the verbal.

Sheep are more resistant than most animals to the "rationalization" of factory farming. They do not thrive well being forced to be anything other than themselves. Being confronted every day with a reality with which I cannot argue, which I cannot finesse or ignore, provides a perspective which I do not always get from the practice of law. Farming requires a certain humility before realities outside oneself. It is hard to be a solipsist and work as a shepherd. The density of creation presses in on one daily and demands a respect for the created that is perhaps at least a step on the road to wisdom.


The Craft of Teaching Violin

by Rachel Eyre

The night before I taught my first violin lesson was a restless one. My mind was filled with anxiety and uncertainty. From the moment I had begun to play the instrument myself, a longing had grown inside me to teach. It seemed unbelievable that my dream was coming true: I prayed that it wouldn't become a nightmare.

I began the lesson as I remember my old teachers beginning—by requesting that my new student perform for me. As she played, I began to relax; thoughts came to my mind on how to help her improve the piece. I encouraged my student to play the music not merely as a series of notes fit within measures, but to truly make it into a song. Speaking in metaphors, I made an effort to open my student's eyes to the mood of the song. In a crescendo, there is a wave overtaking the sand. The music softens, and the water recedes again. I wanted to illustrate to her the power and passion of music.

We dug deeper into the basic techniques of violin playing. We experimented with different bowing styles; I showed my student the various sounds each would produce. A healthy tension began to grow in each of us; she started to grasp a greater understanding of the music, and we both sensed it. At the conclusion of the lesson, I wrote comments and assignments in a notebook to guide her practice work throughout the week. I felt that I was able to offer my student a gift that I had been given.

I ask my new students two questions: "Whose choice was it for you to begin taking lessons?" and, "What would you like to accomplish with your violin playing?" A student taking lessons from me by their own will is likely to practice more faithfully and be more receptive while I am teaching. Likewise, a student who has set high goals is likely to have greater musical potential. Their answers help me to prepare for the challenges or advantages I will encounter. It's important to know how stable or shaky the foundation is as it will dictate the next step to take.

Once a week, I teach five young students in a classroom setting. They are all beginners who need a great deal of attention and simple instruction. I love to see them smile in anticipation of the day that they will be able to make beautiful music. I show empathy for them when they grow weary of the same struggles. Sometimes a student looks up at me in desperation, telling me that he or she is completely lost. Other times, my students will all become so excited with their progress that it's hard to quiet them down. I hear a scale coming from one student, while another scratches out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." I have to raise my voice to get them back to earth again. It tries my patience, but I feel my excitement growing for them at the same time. I encourage my students to learn to listen to each other as they play. I regularly take an exercise from their music books and give them each one or two measures to play. One student will play directly after the previous one; this teaches them the full value of a beat as they strive to play a smooth, steady tempo. I love to feel the beat pulsing through all our bodies when finally we play a piece in unison.

I often find challenges in the classroom. One student forgets to bring the music book, while another has completely neglected to tighten his bowstrings before playing. I'm called upon as the teacher who makes everything right—"I forgot my rosin again" or "Could you please tune up my violin? It sounds awful!" are common pleas for assistance. Often, students who are less motivated will begin to daydream if I'm working with another student at the time. Keeping them on their toes, I call out their names and assign them an exercise to play. One of my students considers herself more advanced than the rest of the class and takes creative liberties because of her self-confidence. I remind her that learning to play with other musicians is one of the most important skills to master.

As the end of the hour approaches, I glance every now and then at the clock. I find a way to quickly wrap up the class, knowing there's so much more to work on but that it will have to wait until next week. Music stands are pushed back into the corner, the folding chairs stacked away. I hear the clicks of violin cases being fastened and a soft rustling of sheet music as my students pack up, running out the door to their next class.


The Craft of Newspaper Making

by Doug Koop

I'm a space man. When I was approached to write this article, the first thing I asked was, "How many words?" This tells you something about what matters to a newspaper manager. We think a lot about space. Not outer space, of course, but limited space. We live in a world measured in column inches that we carefully dole out in word counts.

The next edition of a newspaper is a hole to be filled, empty space begging for the news, features, commentary, and advertisements it takes to fill its gaping maw. It is the editor's job to mediate between the many interests jostling to get in. Editors set the priorities and make the decisions that select one story and reject another, choose one photo and not the other. We decide when to drop an article for a late-arriving ad, or tell the advertiser it's too late, the space is already gone. Deadlines and space are the stuff of our lives.

There isn't room enough here to tell you all the elements that go into making newspaper publishing a viable business operation. I won't be telling you how you get to know your readers well and target the material (including the ads) to meet their needs and demands. Nor will I get into how you cultivate sustainable ways of gathering reliable information or develop efficient design and production services.

There aren't enough blank pages to talk about relating to content suppliers (writers), or about the complexities of buying and producing just the right amount of material to fill the available space at the deadline, or hiring the right people and training them well, or buying the right equipment and using it well, or keeping pace with technology without being railroaded by it.

There are countless headaches to endure in these processes. But these things are the concern of every small business, in one way or another. They certainly are not unique to the craft of newspaper making.

Instead, let me talk about my first love.

The "content" side of the business—not administration, management, production, marketing or sales—is where I come alive in my vocation. The content is the reason for the enterprise. Writers look for publishing space because we believe we have something to say, and we covet the opportunity to say it well.

But like a preacher who discovers that delivering the Sunday sermon is but a wee portion of his job, an editor soon learns that his task list includes much more than pontificating from the editorial page. Those who come into the trade for the joys of writing soon find themselves encumbered with the minutiae of copyediting, proofreading, assigning and jostling for space in a thousand different ways each week.

Alas for one of my disposition, the actual creation of fine words is only a minor element in the grand task of bringing substance to print. It's but a small part of the job, but small in the same way that sex is but a small part of marriage. Small, perhaps, in terms of actual time engaged in the activity. But small does not mean unimportant. For the writing, like the sex, brings necessary zest to the relationship. It is vitally important for the fruitfulness and intimacy it allows, for the exclusiveness it affords, and for the connections it fosters between publishers and reader. Like sex, good writing offers growth potential—growth in readers, growth in knowledge, growth in craft.

So what is it like to be an editor?

An editor is like a butler who answers the doorbell and assesses which callers to present to the master. We determine which ones are worthy, and work to make them presentable before they're granted an audience. Readers—especially if they are paid subscribers—are the ultimate masters. (Although in some cases it's the advertisers or a special interest agenda, but that's a topic for another time.)

An editor is a lot like a traffic cop. A police officer regulating traffic at a busy intersection determines which stream of traffic is allowed to flow and which must stop. Decisions are based on a number of factors, including the relative demand from the major streets and basic principles of fairness that allow everyone to pass within a reasonable time period. Adjustments are made for emergency vehicles, funerals, or special occasions of a more joyous sort.

The task of editing a national newspaper is somewhat analogous. An enormous flow of information must be filtered. Certain stories are obviously in the mainstream of religious interest and public comment. Others must be sought out and given a profile, a passage they might not otherwise have. In the meantime, particular personalities and special events insinuate themselves into the stream.

But these are fairly passive descriptions of the editorial task. The reality is—and this is a hard lesson for a timid and deferential soul like myself to acknowledge—that most good editors are more active. The job is about more than just answering the door or regulating the flow. There's a seek and discover factor as well.

And so it happens that editors can be a lot like restaurant reviewers. They taste a lot of things and pass judgment so as to serve their readers with a diet both nourishing and tasty. Nourishing in this metaphor means something substantive, while tasty means that it comes in a satisfying format. Just as a good meal is an enjoyable way to meet our body's requirement of food, good editing will cause a reader to enjoy the information he or she needs to ingest.

The point is that they go out looking: they look for substance and for style; they look for zest, good taste, nourishment. This sounds like a great job, but it may also mean they have to chew through a lot of sub-standard fare.

And being an editor is a lot like being the pastor of a church. We must pay a lot of attention to planning. Like a good worship service, a good issue of the paper will have an underlying structure, a good quantity of well-prepared, substantive material, and enough flexibility to allow for anything of importance, even if it is late-breaking.

Like pastors, editors must learn to listen. We are better at our jobs if we understand the broader culture as well as our core constituency and become effective at mediating them to each other.

Sometimes editors play a more overt priestly role. People open up to writers. We call and show interest; we speak to people in their vulnerable moments. This is a trust.

Both editors and pastors are in the business of spotting potential and helping to develop it. Like pastors, Christian editors have spiritual responsibilities to interact and lead. Both groups spend a lot of time giving guidance. The things we talk about matter to others. We help set the agenda.

At our best, we fill the space entrusted to us with meaning.

Topics: Vocation