Monday, June 8, 2009

Required reading: Shop Class as Soulcraft

I have added one more title to my book list for AMST 498Q (Craft and Production). It is Matthew B. Crawford's "Shop Class as Soulcraft", previewed in the NY Times Magazine on May 24. (Thanks, Jacob!) Crawford also appeared on the Diane Rehm show last week, which finally got me down to the local book store. He's a motorcycle mechanic with a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and he's written an engrossing and mind-bending examination of the value of manual labor. So far me only quibble is that he focuses on male-dominated trades, begging the question of the value of manual labor when it is "women's work". But that's really a small quibble; he is doing what all writers are told to do -- write about what you know -- and so far it's a marvelous book.

I spent a day last week volunteering in a museum costume collection, working with my hands and with a large group (most of them women). Crawford is quite right in his argument that handwork can involve the brain in very intricate ways, defying the modern dichotomy between "manual labor" and "knowledge work". Each object presented a unique problem to solve -- imagine trying to vacuum the dust (and insect casings!) off a child's parasol made of very fragile silk, then describing the object and carefully labeling it and preparing it for storage. Not only did we need to use our wits, we relied on each other, for expertise or suggestions or just an extra hand. The women I worked with that day were my special new friends the rest of the week!


Seis Manos said...

That's some of the coolest-sounding volunteer work I can imagine....I'm envious!

Jo said...

It really was a special day. The Costume Society of America does it every year as part of their national symposium. It's called the Angels Project, and the next one will be in Kansas City next May. There may be a museum near you in search of loving hands.