Hard Lessons

Created by Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado)
transfer of a medical drawing from Grey's Anatomy

Photo by Joyce Hankins on Unsplash

Last year, I set myself up with a sweet schedule available only to those of us lucky enough to have landed on the R1 tenure track. In Spring 2020 I would teach two interrelated workshops: one in our art museum, a first-year seminar, and one in my printing lab, an advanced course on the history of the book. Both classes revolve around an exhibit I and two colleagues planned on the fantastic collection of anatomy atlases held at our med school library. My plan was to teach them both once a week on Wednesdays. Even in my rarified position, this schedule is highly irregular, only possible with lots of permissions, which I got because both classes were hands-on workshops that would benefit from a maximum amount of uninterrupted time. Also, because the classes had different administrators—our first-year seminars are run by the College of Arts and Sciences, not the English Department—nobody was really in charge of granting permission to teach my whole load in one day. This meant almost a full week between classes to skulk off to archives and lots of writing time. I was excited.

This kind of teaching takes a lot of planning. I had envisioned classes that would learn together and teach each other. I was (and am) working with a curator, Hope Saska, and she in turn coordinates with the whole museum staff to make possible the exhibit we had planned to mount in February of 2021. We are also working with a colleague in Pittsburgh, Rebecca Maatta, an expert in the history of medicine, who is planning a parallel exhibit. We spent a year creating classes we’d team teach: a curator, a book historian, a medical humanist. Two cities, two exhibits, resources from five campuses across two states. We met, we talked about space, theory, and books. We researched other exhibits, worked out regimes of borrowing materials, and talked about contemporary artists whose work would complement the great books by Vesalius, Govert Bidloo, John and Charles Bell, and Henry Gray at the center of our exhibit. We read, coordinated and met over, yes, Zoom. We met, wrote proposals, borrowed materials, rounded up speakers, compared syllabi, assembled our schemes.

Of course, Reader, you know the next part of the story: like you, we were sent home in late March. A summer of shrinking budgets, furloughs, retirement incentives and canceled conferences followed. Teaching, some argue, has since then been irrevocably changed. Our excellent campus museum remains closed, which means our exhibit is on hold. Borrowing artwork has become impossible, so the exhibit, when it does launch, will be significantly reduced in scope.

To reverse course for a second, let me say what I think I’m doing when I teach classes like these workshops. The lessons I like best are the ones where students understand first-hand the physical labor that goes into transmitting ideas. I like them to set type till their backs hurt, to roll the etching press so they can actually see the damp paper pushed into the grooves cut by the burin, to cut a pen from a goose feather, to transform iron and oak galls into black ink. I also like the moment when it first dawns on undergraduates that museums are not inert, unchanging bastions of culture: seeing my students see museums as made spaces, seeing them see exhibits as arguments to walk through, purpose-built to make a public learn certain things in certain ways—seeing them see that curators and exhibit builders and design shops and collections managers work hard to make their labor invisible. Those are lessons I want undergraduates to learn.

Traditional recovery projects are important, but they reinforce the same dull round (author-text-reader) that has ruled our hermeneutic work since the Romantic period. And while I appreciate the urge to do so, it’s pretty hard to find nonwhite British oil painters to recover. If we want our humanities to stop being so white and so elite, we should probably start thinking about all that labor that renders itself invisible, sometimes on purpose—as Adrian Johns showed us of printers—and sometimes because workers cannot possibly realize their vital place in your encounter with that painting. How much more equitable would art history look if we started paying attention to the security guard who melts into the background when you look at a painting, or the weavers who made the linen it’s painted on? Women and people of color are everywhere in the ol’ Western Canon. We only need readjust our focus. I hope my students’ embodied awareness of the labor involved in making sanctioned cultural works like painting and poetry helps them appreciate more vividly the variety of minds and bodies that go into the making of the culture we all enjoy.

But, returning to our current predicament, what to do? My lab is too small to accommodate more than one student at a time under COVID measures. The museum shuttered its study room for similar reasons. Still, I think I am mostly managing to teach what I was hoping to get across. The museum staff repurposed an entire gallery into a cavernous classroom, which solved one of my space problems. Sadly, we will have no lesson on the Edinburgh Stereoscope Atlas of Anatomy, because we can’t properly sanitize the museum’s antique stereoscope. Students can’t leaf through Vesalius or crowd around Charles Bell’s System of Dissections. Instead they stand before a table one at a time—at a distance of six feet—while we, The Classroom Authorities, turn the pages for them. I did manage scaled-down book history lessons while the weather was still warm. I set up outside, with type sticks and cases and a small proof press inked only with carbon paper. We did not spend hours making attempts at Romantic-era methods of sending words through time and space. No paper was marbled. No bindings were sewn. No ink was made. (We did cut quills at a distance, hand-sanitizer at the ready.) There were instead the usual digital tools. I video-recorded an anatomy-of-the-book demonstration from inside the lab, but mostly we watched on screens as actual professionals did the engraving or printing or binding. I petitioned for emergency teaching funds so I could buy each student a cheap hand-press-era book to dissect/research/reverse-engineer. They will have to cut their books apart in the privacy of their own homes, though, using tutorials about imposition and binding found on YouTube. Screens will have to replace sitting on the floor with sheets of paper, helping each other fold and refold until the duodecimo comes out the way it looks in Gaskell. Instead of printing woodcuts and intaglio themselves, they see the difference via pixels—because I used the research money I thought I’d be spending on travel to archives to buy a good document camera.

I say I’m mostly teaching what I hoped to get across because I’m telling the material rather than asking students to use their bodies to practice and learn. Much as I love the sound of my own voice, I very much doubt its lessons stick half as well as those learned through experience. Of course, I’m taking opportunities to remind my classes that digital mediation, too, is filled with invisible labor, that they get to “be their own authors” or “self-curators,” as various social media platforms would have it, only at the expense of low-wage workers in server farms and the enslaved children mining the minerals that make their digital world go. Still. Way too much talking. If teaching has in fact changed irrevocably, I am going to have to do some serious thinking about my own labor. It took a lot of research in pedagogy, a lot of grant writing, a lot of sweat, and quite a few bloody knuckles to come up with what has proven to be an effective strategy for teaching Romantic-era mediation. Unsurprisingly, teaching the history of mediation on a digital screen comes up just about as short as teaching it out of a book. I’m not convinced retooling this machine is going to work.

Submitted by Romantic.Circl… on