Learning From Experience (Part 3)

Notice: Originally published April 28, 2016 at Teaching Out Loud.

In my last post I talked about turning experience into learning. We designed assignments to make that happen for Amos Kennedy’s visit to Dartmouth. Students prepared themselves to treat the visit as a learning experience. They reflected on their learning goals along the way. They connected their experience to a larger learning trajectory. And they did great!

I say “they.” But students weren’t the only ones doing the assignments. As part of our Experiential Learning Initiative grant proposal, I promised to do those assignments too. Now it’s time to report what I learned from the experience.

I learned a lot!

But let’s begin with a confession. I didn’t know much about Amos Kennedy at the start of this adventure. When Sarah Smith in Dartmouth’s Book Arts Workshop suggested bringing Amos Kennedy in, I saw his work for the first time. It’s stunning. Somehow he goes from simple chipboard and a few ink colors to complex and colorful political posters in almost no time at all.

Questions immediately leaped into my head. How does he go from constraint to creativity so quickly? Does that process apply to other kinds of writing and formats? How could we draw connections between constraints on letterpress printing and constraints on, say, Twitter or Snapchat?

At a more practical level, I wondered if I could learn to print like that. I’ve done basic letterpress typesetting and printing, but never multi-layered poster printing. Seeing his work made me eager to try out backgrounds, staggered text, and really anything I could get away with.

Not long before the visit, I watched the documentary Proceed and Be Bold! It surprised me. Sure, I expected his dedication to craft. I already appreciated his commitment to making art that’s accessible to everyone. And I had already learned about his resistance to labels like “artist” or “fine art.”

What I didn’t know was that Amos Kennedy changed his entire life to do something he loved to do. He had a great job at a large multinational corporation. Most people would probably see his corporate success as a great achievement. But he walked away. Seeing someone do that inspired me to think hard about what I love to do, and about how my life is organized.

So when our first class rolled around (that’s a printing press joke), I expected to learn more about printing. But I also expected to learn about setting goals, identifying what you want, and pursuing dreams. Such great expectations!

What did I actually learn from our first session?

Well, I learned a few things about printing. For example, I learned not to accidentally nudge the lever that lifts the print rollers. It turns out that you can’t print if the ink rollers don’t touch the type. I did this after students invited me to take a turn. Embarrassing! But it’s good for students to know that the prof can mess up. I tell them, but now they’ve experienced it.

I also learned about some great examples of letterpress propaganda broadsides from 1968 Paris activism. Amos Kennedy knows an immense amount about printing history, from machines to type to people to designs. After class, we chatted about my students’ upcoming assignments, and he gave some great leads on inspirational examples.

But mostly I learned to think of “errors” as opportunities. More than anyone I’ve met, Amos Kennedy creates through experiment. Will it work? Who knows? Let’s try it! I messed up! No you didn’t, you made something you didn’t expect. Is this the wrong way? Only if you didn’t make something!

Ever since that first session, I keep asking myself: What happens when we treat learning as a creative process? Not trial and error, but trying, and trying again?

The second session continued many lessons from the first session. Like the students, I set some new goals. I worried that some students hadn’t seen the setup across the crowded workshop space, or that they hadn’t turned the crank on a Vandercook press yet. So I worked with Sarah and Amos ahead of time to make sure we were prepared for the students to meet their own learning goals.

It went great! Amos picked two phrases to print onto posters. One actually came from a student exercise earlier in the course. Another came from a TV show. One was already locked in, the other he set up live so that students who missed it last time could see the process. We gave ourselves plenty of time to run the presses against a variety of backgrounds. Everyone got to print and experiment. We printed so many posters!

(Seriously, so many. Want one?)

After sending the students on their way, posters in hand, I reflected on the second session, and on the overall experience.

From the second session I learned that even small differences in backgrounds can make a huge difference to the final product, even with the same type and words. Every poster we printed turned out different. But every one had something beautiful about it.

That’s an important printing lesson. It’s also a great reminder about how we learn.

We all bring different backgrounds to the learning experience. Those differences don’t seem very big sometimes. But they can make a huge difference in what we end up learning, even when we’re reading the same books, doing the same assignments, and hearing the same words.

That seems kind of deep and profound, I know. I didn’t expect letterpress printing to get me thinking about things that way. But that’s what happened.

I’m grateful for what I learned about creativity. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay not to do as much, or even what you thought you would do when you started. Give yourself time. Make something good. Try something new.

But if I had to pick one thing I’ll carry forward in my teaching, it’s that we’re always creating, always making, always doing. Whether we succeed or fail by someone else’s measure isn’t important. What matters is how we learn from that experience.

Michael S. Evans

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019