The Professor Becomes the Student

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I have conceived of sabbatical as a time to indulge in a scholarly project that, I suppose you could say, manifests my expertise on a particular subject: I am the super-teacher for the object of my research, which is a narrow but wonderful slice of architectural history.  What I did not really think about was how much my well-chosen extracurricular activities would allow me to go back to being a student–and how great that would be.  I have enjoyed, so much, learning about lots of different things–Christopher Wren, Turkish culture, digital humanities, iron forging–from people who know so much more about them than I do.  It’s a mixed bag and that’s part of the fun of it: a diverse journey of exploration that reminds me how being a student was so much fun, especially when there are no tests and the whole world of subject-matter is open for your choosing.  For those of us who turn into professors, probably to some extent because we liked being students, it’s good to return to that state of being an inexperienced amateur.  It’s good for the sake of perspective–seeing my scholarship in a new light, considering what life might be like for my students, and also, it’s just a lot of fun.

I am back after a long Labor Day weekend during which I enrolled in a one-day blacksmithing class at a local creative arts center.  Admittedly, part of my interest in this area was raised by my scholarship and teaching, which revolves around the 19th century.  I’ve read and written and lectured about iron a lot (and I mean: a lot), and I liked the idea of actually working with this material that was kind of a big deal to my period and my architect (more on him in a few days).  But it wasn’t just this hands-on experience with a subject that occupies so much of my brain-space that drove me to the smithy on a super hot, super humid August day.  I miss working with my hands, and the scholarly link with iron was maybe sort of a justifiable excuse to make stuff.  My background is in design and as an architecture major I drew and built all the time: loads of architectural design, watercolor painting, drawing, photography, set design for theatre, jewelry/fine metals.  It was the latter that was most enjoyable–designing these little objects, sawing and filing nickel and copper, firing up acetylene torches, soldering.  At the end of the day you have a pretty little thing to enjoy, or give away for some other person to enjoy.  It’s a great thing to see the fruits of a thought process in concrete form vs. the frustrations of waiting for the payoff from a big research project that comes very, very slowly.  (That’s also one reason I started blogging; it’s a snap to write, publish, and see your work looking super-cool thanks to the programming that other people have done to make all these great templates; probably another reason I cook with somewhat more gusto and purpose than most people–and there the payoff is not just immediate but also usually pretty delicious.)

So, while my big writing project remains the focus of my sabbatical, I am going to be more self-conscious about the opportunities I have to refresh my brain by becoming the student again.  Fueled by my success in metalsmithing, tonight I start another class at the studio (a six-week program in jewelry).  I am hoping to rekindle the skills and enjoy the success I remember having all those years ago at the university, but even if that doesn’t happen, I anticipate that it will be time well spent.  Even though I was not the top student in that metalsmithing class, and even though heat, humidity and schmutz is not something I relish or make a part of my regular life, I still enjoyed it.  I left with a new understanding of and appreciation for the craft, and with two artifacts of my making: objects that I cut, bent, twisted, and hammered from steel that came out of a 1400-degree forge. They’re not terrifically useful things–this wicked-looking and somewhat Xena-esque (but really sort of dull) knife and the hook you see above–although the latter, you must admit, makes one helluva paper weight to decorate a historian’s desk.

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