On Teaching

Teaching is the most important thing that happens at a university. Doing it well, however, is not easy. It wasn’t easy before COVID-19, and it isn’t easy now. And, yet, regardless of the format or setting, there are several guidelines that I’ve found to be particularly useful for clarifying my purpose as a teacher. These may not work for everyone, but they have helped me to make teaching a more deeply gratifying part of my professional life.

I’ve grouped my guidelines into principles, goals, and course design. Principles are the bedrock ideas on which all of my teaching is built. Goals refer to the core purpose of any given teaching endeavor, whether it be a course, workshop, independent study, or so on. Course Design includes several guideposts that ward me away from bad tendencies when devising syllabi.

Principles

1. Teaching is making.

When we teach, we make things with our students, always. We build relationships. We form questions. We devise frameworks and habits that allow us to understand one another. Sometimes we even make things that are useful for our schools, for strangers, for our neighbors. The durability of these things, and their persistence beyond the classroom, is the measure of good teaching. Making students aware, early on, of this active making—and their stake in it—increases the likelihood that the things we make together will last.

2. Teach people, not courses.

Every course is a conversation among people, and because the people are always different, so are the conversations. I am responsible for hosting thoughtful conversations wherein everyone can participate. That responsibility does not give me license, however, to compel students with mobility challenges to endure endless fieldwork, or to retraumatize people who may have sought out my classroom as a refuge from trauma. Regardless of what the business of education would have us believe, we teach people, not courses, and so wherever possible, I will query students about the feasibility of various learning possibilities BEFORE designing a course.

3. Modeling inquiry, NOT delivering information, should be the chief aim of teaching.

My value as a teacher is not bound up with what I know so much as it is an index of how I respond to the much larger universe of things that I do not know. In this regard, all teachers always model inquiry. Responding to the unknown with fear and derision (e.g. feigning expertise, belittling other ways of knowing, ignoring the moment) models habits of mind that reinforce privilege and exclusivity. Beginning rather with what we don’t know, and marshaling what tools we have to explore it, models habits of mind that promote calm, kindness, and confidence in times of uncertainty.

4. Teaching is the curation of experience.

A good course is an intentional sequence of discrete experiences (e.g. reading, lectures, discussions, assignments, encounters, trips, etc.) that reveal to each student new knowledge about themselves and about the topic they’ve chosen to study. My capacity to teach well resides not primarily in my content expertise, important though that is, but rather in my ability to pick, choose, and create learning experiences that together are greater than the sum of their parts. I am a deejay, and I succeed so long as my students keep dancing.

5. Assume the best.

In almost every instance, teachers must take students at their word, no questions asked. It is true that, from time to time, we will be deceived. It may be that a student misses class or performs poorly or acts out for reasons that we cannot or need not know. And that’s o.k., SO LONG AS:

    • the student is not in danger or endangering others;
    • the student’s actions are not intended to exploit the vulnerabilities of others; and,
    • the teacher has created a learning experience wherein fairness of evaluation does not require that everyone perform equally in all instances.

Teaching is hard. Learning is hard. Life is hard. We can’t ever expect to know or understand all the challenges our students confront. I pledge to be a teacher, not a gatekeeper. Confusing the two promotes fear, misunderstanding, and inequity.

Goals

1. Promote wonder.

Wonder is the wellspring of learning. In order to learn, we must first believe in the possibility of being amazed by ourselves, by others, and by the world around us. A good course provides all of its students with the tools necessary to harness wonder, and to witness it in ourselves. This is to say, a good course should change each student AND provide each student with the tools necessary to recognize how they have changed.

2. Slow down.

Coverage is a myth of profit. The notion that there are a particular number of topics, or themes, or decades, or datum that must be “covered” during any given course is born of the tendency to standardize education, to mechanize it so that its costs and profits can be routinized. Yes, I have learning goals. Yes, some courses are conceived of primarily as surveys. Yes, our time is valuable. And yet, because every course is different, so is its relationship to time. Wherever possible, I will set our pace according to the particularities of the topic, the needs of my students, and the exigencies of the moment. In all cases, it is my goal to slow down and protect students from the contrivances of time and profit.

3. Resist the classroom.

A learning space, such as a classroom and all of its contents, constitutes a theory of education. It is an organizing principle that silently maps onto us ideas about learning that often originate in the ledger sheets of corporate architects, furniture manufacturers, paint vendors, courseware firms, and no end of others for whom education is secondary to profit. In all instances, I will resist the classroom’s tendency to define my pedagogy. My capacity to teach well need not reside in a lectern or within any other topography of power. We will insist that ideas be our guide even when—especially when—those ideas conflict with what we are encouraged to accept as the normal landscape of learning.

4. Learn about by learning how.

Course expectations are too frequently infused with the veiled language of productivity and privilege. Formulations such as skills training, vocational education, hard/soft skills, life of the mind, and theory/practice all serve to reinforce the notion that thinking and doing exist on either end of a spectrum along which humans must stake their identity. My pedagogy is committed to demonstrating that thinking and doing are, in fact, one in the same. By jettisoning the old binaries, we learn to discover nuance where none seemed to exist. I aim to learn how to do something new, with my students, each time I teach.

5. Create safety; encourage risk.

To the best of my ability, I will strive to create learning spaces wherein it is possible for everyone to grapple with big ideas free of the anxieties associated with economic pressure, time pressure, corporate learning outcomes, health concerns, or fear that others might insist that any single characteristic of one’s self be forced to stand in for one’s whole self. I will rarely succeed in achieving this goal fully, but constantly challenging myself to do so will ensure that I always value all of my students, above all, as humans. By working together to create a safe learning space, we will empower ourselves to take intellectual risks.

6. Revel in ourselves; respect our neighbors.

In learning together we discover strength in difference. It is the mingling of our various identities, beliefs, goals, and aspirations that promotes self-awareness and sparks discovery. In learning, then, we celebrate ourselves. And yet, we must not forget that we learn together in the presence of everyone whose lives intersect in our lessons, including our neighbors and the multitudes of people whose labor makes this moment possible. We will strive to honor them by making our time together serve others beyond ourselves.

Course Design

1. Ideas, not lectures

Organize each class session around the exploration of an idea. Devise several experiences, but not too many, that prompt students to consider the idea from different perspectives. My “lecture” is the narration that binds those experiences together and that provides just enough context to make them meaningful. Imagine that each session yields a sentence, and that by stringing each sentence together over the course of a semester, I will have written a paragraph that reveals to readers a new way of knowing.

2. Intentionality

Every aspect of teaching is meaningful insomuch as students infer meaning from everything a teacher does, even if it is not intentional. It is therefore necessary to be honest and forthright in all instances about teaching goals, expectations, and the rationale underlying every class session. Assigning work that is not immediately relevant to the purpose at hand undermines credibility. Recycling ideas and experiences from previous courses without regard to the exigencies of the moment undermines credibility. Be present; be intentional.

3. Course correction

A course is called a “course” because it promises passage through a sequence of ideas. Don’t mistake a course for a map. Maps are fixed. Courses shift to accommodate obstacles and opportunities. My syllabus, therefore, though it must be clear about the duration of the voyage and its goals, need not guarantee any particular route. Set a course at the outset, but don’t be afraid to correct it early and often, and—most importantly—in conversation with your crew.

4. Accretion

Strive always to make students aware of their accumulation of knowledge over time. Create assignments, for instance, that are iterative over the entire semester, wherein one idea leads to another, and for which each accomplishment is a necessary precondition for the next. Reveal to students how knowledge accretes through successive and purposeful acts of learning. Allow my evaluation of their success to also accrete over time.

5. Maximize feedback; minimize grades.

Chicken eggs are graded. Cuts of meat are graded. Lumber, steel, and plastics are graded. Grading is a technology devised to establish hierarchies among objects for which physical characteristics determine value. Students are humans. Grading humans is unethical. Presuming that grading a student’s work is somehow different than grading the student constitutes a category mistake (see Goal 4). When required to assign grades to students, I will do so primarily by gauging the completeness of a student’s body of work. Students will receive the real substance of my evaluation by way of written and spoken feedback, and in conversation with peers and project partners who will all have a hand in helping us understand the value of our work together.

Boston National Historical Park Administrative History Final Presentation

During 2016-2020, I researched and wrote an administrative history of the Boston National Historical Park, sponsored by the Organization of American Historians – National Park Service Collaboration. Click here for a series of videos wherein I reflect on the project and my findings toward helping NPS staff imagine new possibilities for doing history in Boston. Topics include urban renewal, heritage tourism, histories of race and power, the economics of American nationalism after World War II, and the contrivance of Revolutionary memory during the twentieth century. Enjoy!

What to do About the Philadelphia History Museum?

The Philadelphia History Museum’s story is a complicated one, more so than I can even begin to know. There are, however, a few things I do know for sure:

* Any museum–even a bad one–can survive so long as it has enough expertise, passion, and money. That the PHM is failing indicates that it is deficient in one or more of those areas.

* The city is bound, partially by law and entirely by tradition, to ensure that the PHM has enough expertise, passion, and money. PHM’s failure indicates that the city has decided not to hold up its end of the deal. Mayor Kenney owns that decision.

* PHM’s demise is no surprise. Its struggles during the last decade are well known among Philadelphia’s museum set. That others are only now getting the message, evidenced for instance by the Inquirer’s July 2 editorial, is an unfortunate index of how little most of us know about Philadelphia’s nonprofit cultural institutions and their struggles.

The possibility of PHM’s collapse worries me a great deal. Fussy though they may be, Philadelphia’s cultural institutions–especially those like PHM that steward collections– together constitute a fragile ecosystem (as Ken Finkel put it in another recent Inquirer editorial). Just one rotten leaf can signal trouble at the root. I worry about the PHM because I worry about what its fate portends for the rest of us.

Consider for a moment that the PHM is lacking expertise, money, and/or passion in a city that:

* Is home to scads of top-shelf historians, and no less than three world-class university programs in public history, museum studies, and museum leadership. Philadelphia has plenty of expertise.

* Is home to museums, historic sites, and exhibit designers that have, in recent years, won some of the most prestigious awards in our field. Our city is an incubator for the most innovative public history practice in the country. Philadelphia has plenty of passion.

* Is home to donors, philanthropists, and grant makers who pay out millions of dollars to all manner of public and private (though mostly private) historical endeavors. Philadelphia has plenty of money.

It seems that the PHM is starving in the pantry. How is it possible? Why is it that the city can’t connect its history museum with resources that are literally at PHM’s doorstep? How can it be that this inexpensive museum struggles along while massive new multi-million-dollar museums—the National Museum of American Jewish History (2010), the new Barnes Foundation gallery (2012), the Museum of the American Revolution (2017)—grab headlines. The Museum of the American Revolution alone cost $120 million. The PHM runs Philadelphia about $300,000 a year.

Much of the problem, of course, owes to the flow of capital. Amid decades-long declines in public funding for arts and culture, museums that can’t tap deep pockets must endure the crushing rhythm of annual grant cycles. Getting grants is hard, and eats into the core resources needed to keep a small museum on its feet. And yet, tapping deep pockets might be even more limiting insomuch as it requires doing history that rich folks get excited about. We know what museums that follow this path are like: big buildings, pricey tickets, privileged vacationers strolling the exhibits, working people of color relegated to custodial crews and café registers. This is not the kind of heritage infrastructure that does justice to Philadelphia’s rich and difficult past.

I am sure that other private-money schemes for PHM are already being bandied about now that the Temple deal has collapsed. My greatest fear is that one of these will work, and that the public face of Philadelphia’s past will get tied up in private interests. Private funding doesn’t guarantee bad history, but it usually guarantees limited perspective and it most certainly will undermine any legitimate efforts among PHM staff to share curatorial authority with the people who actually make Philadelphia history: Philadelphians.

That said, as it’s unfolding right now, the conversation regarding PHM is run through with privilege and unexamined assumptions about power and entitlement. I want the Mayor to keep PHM alive, but I also want us to think hard about how history can be deployed in the service of all Philadelphians. I’m reminded of the Philadelphia Moving Past Project, sponsored in 1982 by Penn’s Philadelphia Social History Project, which sought amid the celebratory hubbub of the city’s tercentennial to equip Philadelphians with the historical skills necessary to resist detrimental policies right here in our own neighborhoods. Imagine a PHM retooled for that purpose today: a public training space for active citizenship, staffed by a rotating network of passionate experts drawn from all across the city. Here is where we and the Mayor could come for historical crib notes on all the key issues facing Philadelphians today: immigration, police violence, homelessness, etc., and etc. and etc. Private museums won’t provide that service, at least not for everyone equally. Universities are too concerned with stadiums and prestige.

Mayor Kenney, however, has the power to make PHM a vital third space. It will take expertise, passion, and money. We’ve got all of that in Philly. But do we have the leadership?

Speaking of Sneakboxes

As I wrote previously, the LESLEY Documentation Project was born in part of my desire to revisit the kind of fieldwork that got me excited about doing history in the first place.  What I didn’t know when the idea first got legs, however, was that LESLEY is a sneakbox.  Sneakboxes are funny little boats, perfected a century and a half ago by waterfowlers tired of mucking about in the New Jersey Pine Barrens’ marshy littoral.  Although LESLEY is much larger and much more refined than its work-a-day cousins, its bulbous hull and crowned deck recall the type perfectly.

It also happens that I absolutely love sneakboxes.  For me they recall the summer I interned at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture (the summer before I first visited the Independence Seaport Museum, for those of you following this thread).  It was a transformative time, one that I’ve described here as priming me for the culture wars.  But it was also the summer that I first met the sneakbox.

My charge at the AFC was to create a finding aid for researchers seeking collections related to boatbuilding.  The American Folklife Preservation Act (1976), which created the AFC, had generated considerable support for ethnographic folklife projects all over the continent.  Thousands of hours of audio recordings poured in from everywhere.  There were interviews with  Apalachicola watermen, Rhode Island quahog diggers, Georgia fishermen, and of course, New Jersey sneakbox builders.  I listed to them all that summer, sitting in the AFC, headphones on, half asleep and half mesmerized by the hypnotic normalcy of people describing their daily lives.

By the end of it, I had worked up a pretty good guide to all the AFC’s various bits and pieces of audio that had anything at all to do with boatbuilding.  It was the bits about sneakboxes, though, that fascinated me most.  I had never heard of a  sneakbox before, but the idea of a tiny boat that could sail anywhere–even over ice–captivated me.  And there was something too about the sneakbox recordings.  Narrators like Theodore “Ted” VonBosse spoke about these boats with a powerful fondness, as if speaking about home, or recalling an old friend:

Much to my surprise, it turns out that all of the recordings I picked through that summer have recently been digitized, by an entire corps of AFC interns no doubt.  What a sensation to encounter these voices again.  They take me back to the AFC during those days before digital audio gear.  Back when the Enola Gay was ground zero.  Back before I had any inkling that a summer internship could turn out to be so valuable.

On Boats and Ideas and Stepping Away

There is a framed black-and-white photograph in my office that depicts Tim White, a former head of the Workshop on the Water at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, fitting a centerboard case into a wooden boat under construction in his shop. I took the photo myself way back in 1995 while doing field research for my undergraduate thesis project. It captures at least two moments. One is evidentiary: a simple act of boatbuilding. The other is more oblique: a young photographer in a strange city, excited by ideas, fascinated by boats, and emboldened by the documentarian’s gaze.

Tim White in the Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995.

It was that second moment—not the first—that I went hunting around for in my old field notes sometime toward the end of my first year on the tenure track. I had come full circle, landing back in Philadelphia after years away. And yet, life and work in the university hadn’t turned out to be quite what I hoped for. Despite some bright spots, I found myself pretty quickly surrounded by unclear expectations, combative colleagues, and worse than crippling bureaucracies. Disciplinary orthodoxies turned out to be far more entrenched than I had suspected. More broadly, the in-crowd hierarchies that prevail across academia wore deeply on me, and still do. I found it harder and harder to recall what it was like to be excited by ideas, to be fascinated by anything, to be bold.

The photo of the boat shop, I hoped, would be a reminder, encouragement to revisit the things and places that had put me on this course years ago. And so it was. Before long I had reacquainted myself with the Seaport Museum, finding there colleagues who remain today among my most valued. I even dusted off some old boat research and found a few new projects along the way.

But the most important memories buried within that old photo had less to do with WHAT ideas excited me back then, than with HOW I got excited about ideas in the first place. I thought about the museums that thrilled me when I was a kid. I thought about how much I loved woodshop in high school. I thought about learning to do field research at the American Folklife Center and with the National Park Service. And I thought about professors I had respected for abandoning the classroom whenever it made more sense to show students how things work than to tell them.

Since then I’ve sought in my teaching to flee campus, or at least to get out of the classroom, whenever possible. I’ve tried it all: fieldtrips, outreach, partnerships, scavenger hunts, bus rides, walking tours, digital meet-ups, throwing pots, really whatever it takes. This semester I’m pushing further by staging an entire semester of course meetings at, where else, the Independence Seaport Museum. More than two decades since taking that photo of Tim White in his shop, I’m returning to the same spot with my own students to stage the LESLEY Documentation Project. Tim’s not there any more, but the boats are, and so is the shop, and amid all of it we’re getting excited about ideas that are all but impossible to conjure in the stubborn fixity of a seminar room.

The modern American university is a difficult place, run through with contradictions and inequity. Much that is good remains there, but I’ve become convinced that to find it we must step away as often as we can. Doing so, in my case anyway, amounts to an act of self-preservation. And for my students, especially in this age of anger and anxiety, learning to preserve ourselves may just be the most important lesson.

Seth Bruggeman interviews Tim White, Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995. Photo by Chad Mahood.

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A bibliography of the rise, fall, and rise of my excitement about maritime pasts:

Adrien Segal: On Skill

AdrienWeb1Adrien Segal is a data sculptor, which means precisely what it suggests. In her hands, commonplace climate measurements yield sumptuous forms, often in carved plywood, which conveys in its figurative stratigraphy the ebb and flow of nature. The digital sophistication of her process, wherein Segal translates large data sets into contour lines that are then mapped onto and cut from plywood, can nettle traditional wood artists. As Segal explains it, they think that “you just push a button and it cuts it out for you.” And yet, as she points out, one need look no further than Auguste Rodin to discover that the mathematical extrapolation of data points onto sculptural molds is a time-honored tradition. It’s just one in an arsenal of skills that Segal deploys toward making art that matters. “Data [is] just a resource,” Segal explains, “for … creating narratives about the time and place in which we live.”

Segal’s path to data sculpture began in the furniture program at the California College of the Arts. While there, she was captivated by the ruins of Sutra Baths, built over a century before along the beach beneath San Francisco’s famous Cliff House resort. She was also inspired by data visualization pioneer, Edward Tufte, whose work encouraged her to imagine how the tidal action at Sutra Baths might be rendered in wood. Segal pored over Bay Area tide charts and replicated their data patterns in ribbons of bent steel arrayed across a walnut table. The result was Segal’s thesis project which, as she recalls, was “really well received,” and sold soon thereafter to a collector.

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[Click here to hear Segal discuss nature and process.]

The economic calamities of 2008, however, conspired against aspiring wood artists. Segal scraped together a living variously making cabinets and waiting tables. Internships, artist residencies, and work trades sustained her along the way, and introduced her to Oakland’s Crucible industrial arts school where she’s currently headquartered. Her fascination with data sculpture flourished all the while. In 2012, Segal exhibited in Marfa, Texas along with other prominent data artists. The show earned her national attention and brought Segal into a small circle of fellow travelers, including Loren Madsen, who pioneered data sculpture during the 1970s. Madsen identifies Segal as one of a very few young data artists working today in three dimensions.

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[Click here to hear Segal discuss skill.]

And yet, Segal is quick to assert that she’s not interested in art for art’s sake. “What is the point,” she asks, “of making art that doesn’t question bigger ideas about our time?” The idea that Segal is most concerned to question is the tendency in science to conceive of humans and nature as distinct. According to her, “we are a part of the environment and intrinsically tied to it.” Segal’s distinctive digital technique therefore aims to blur the line between our experience of nature and nature itself. But digitization is “just another tool,” according to Segal. “You have to … keep learning new skills.” Segal’s quest for skill speaks to the difficulty of her work, and the rigor of her vision. It also betrays a furniture maker’s pragmatism: “you can always rely on those skills,” she reminds us, ”to make functional things.”

Zina Manesā-Burloiu: On Risk

zinaweb1If we accept David Pye’s oft-stated claim that risk is an index of workmanship, then Zina Manesā-Burloiu easily ranks among the most accomplished of wood artists. The dazzling swirls of hand-chipped facets and micro perforations that characterize her work epitomize Pye’s notion that risk inheres in the abandonment of guides and other tools of standardization. And yet, Manesā-Burloiu has risked considerably more than imprecision on her path to becoming an internationally known wood artist. Coming up amid the twilight of Romanian Communism created unique opportunities for the artist, but also confronted her with considerable challenges. Through it all, Manesā-Burloiu has kept close her faith in destiny and a love for wood and tradition imparted by her family.

Manesā-Burloiu first encountered wood carving as a young girl in rural Romania, where she carved intricate geometrical patterns into the soft bark of tender walnut shoots. Though mere “play,” in her words, passing time this way amid the slow pace and scarcity of Communist-era village life honed her attention to detail. “Tradition,” she recalls,”was more important because of the way of life.” A traditional agrarian life, however, was not what Manesā-Burloiu wanted for herself. Mechanically inclined and with a talent for math, she left home at age thirteen to study engineering in the city. Manesā-Burloiu supported herself through high school and, later, university, by working mornings in a truck factory and studying by night. It was in the factory, in fact, where Manesā-Burloiu learned to make edged tools like the carving knives she uses today. It was one step toward a career she had not yet imagined.

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[Click here to hear Manesā-Burloiu discuss her work.]

And then came 1989. Romania’s leaders succumbed that year to the wave of revolution that would topple Communism throughout much of the world. Manesā-Burloiu reached out to an uncle who had spent decades imprisoned by the old regime. He had mastered traditional Romanian wood carving techniques while in prison and, after the revolution, Manesā-Burloiu became fascinated by his work. “I fell in love with his house and his carving,” she recalls, “I wanted to do that too.” Her uncle chafed at first, resisting the notion that women should carve. But soon Manesā-Burloiu was helping him with his work and, in turn, learning her art from a master craftsman.

Manesā-Burloiu began showing her work—including spoons, cups, egg holders, and candle sticks—at Romanian craft fairs, though a corrupt jury system and relentless traditionalism frustrated her. ”I was almost at the point [of] giving up wood carving.” And then, in 1997, destiny intervened. Albert LeCoff had been searching for traditional Romanian wood turners and discovered Manesā-Burloiu’s uncle through an acquaintance. LeCoff invited him to visit the United States on behalf of the Center for Art in Wood, and to bring Manesā-Burloiu along as a translator. When the two arrived, however, LeCoff was surprised to discover that neither were actually wood turners. And yet, their work was so impressive, LeCoff sponsored their participation in a host of events. Before long, Manesā-Burloiu was in conversation with the nation’s leading wood artists, and developing a reputation of her own. “It was a mistake,” she says, “that changed my life.”

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[Click here to hear Manesā-Burloiu discuss her method.]

It was not, however, a change without risk. In 2001, despite the vagaries of Romania’s fragile economy, Manesā-Burloiu left her factory job to pursue wood art full time. “Making a living from [wood carving] is my dream,” she says, “but when you live it, it is not so easy.” The market for wood art in Romania, for instance, forces Manesā-Burloiu to be more stylistically traditional than she’d like. Travel presents challenges too. Manesā-Burloiu had planned on being in residence at the Center during 2013, but was delayed for two years by a visa mishap. Now that she’s here, Manesā-Burloiu admits that “Philadelphia is the love of my life!” For her, the city is a place of inspiration and transformation. And the ITE residency, she explains, ensures both.

For more, see David Pye, “The Workmanship of Risk and the Workmanship of Certainty,” in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Julia Harrison: On Looking

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Click here to hear Harrison discuss imagery in her work.

Look long enough at Julia Harrison’s work and you may feel like you’re staring. That is, in fact, precisely the point. Harrison explains that “the act of looking really hard at another person to try to figure out what the hell they are thinking or feeling or talking about is a universal thing.” It’s a theme most immediately evident in the pursed lips and oblique eyes that appear specimen-like in Harrison’s hand-carved brooches and wall sculptures. Though these pieces invite our gaze, the ambiguity of their expressions unsettle us into considering what it means to look and to be looked at. “The specifics are different,” she adds, but “the grasping for understanding is everywhere.”

The playful reflexivity of Harrison’s fanciful body parts reveals a mingling of art and anthropology. Professionally, Harrison wears both hats. She was inspired early on to study the anthropology of craft, but was frustrated by the tendency of ethnographers to ignore processes by which objects get made. A two-year stint studying traditional needlework among Minnesota’s Hmong refugees allowed Harrison to explore linkages between craft technique and the rhythms of daily life. The experience was formative, and it encouraged Harrison to turn her anthropological lens on another favorite topic: sweets. In recent years, she has blogged, mapped, and exhibited research into the complex web of cultural forces that sustain our global appetite for sugary foods and fantastic confections.

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Click here to hear Harrison discuss looking.

Looking also figured prominently in Harrison’s path to wood art. Although formally trained as a metal artist, Harrison warmed to carving wood while studying conservation science in England. Previous experiences with basswood had been unsatisfying, but carving small objects from aged boxwood was different: “I could get it to hold all of these tiny details.” Harrison next traveled to Japan, boxwood in tow, and acquired tools suitable for working in a small apartment. She recalls being surrounded by Japanese wood art. “My first teacher was just going and looking at things … and trying to imagine, if this is what the carving looks like now, what kind of shaped block would it have come out of.” Learning by looking enabled Harrison to engage Japanese artisans through careful acts of observation.

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Click here to hear Harrison discuss materials.

Years of travel explain the prevalence of small objects in Harrison’s body of work. “I had to have things that were really really small, really durable [and] I had to figure out ways of making things more engineered than they look.” Even more significantly, Harrison explains, she had to learn to work “subtractively.” “Even if I was having a bad day … I could look at those wood chips and think … at the very least it’s getting more portable.” The press of travel, however, has preserved within Harrison’s work a material record of the artist’s journey. Bits of wood gathered here and there “become part of the story,” she says. And new places invite new techniques. Turned paintbrushes and miniature dirigibles highlight Harrison’s run with the lathe in Philadelphia. New directions for an artist who is always looking.