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Crafting is my pedagogical love language — and it works wonders in the college classroom

One professor’s mission to bring joy and play — and to boost learning — with Shrinky Dinks, friendship bracelets, and cereal box looms.

"Crafting allows us a respite from the demands of the classroom to co-create joyously, if only for 15 minutes once a week."Hinda Mandell

When my $37 toaster oven from Amazon begins to emit noxious fumes, my professional demeanor melts.

A more potent version of “crap” escapes my lips as I grab my oven mitts. The last thing I need in my classroom of the Liberal Arts building, with the deans’ office one floor below, is to trigger the fire alarm.

Especially since the smoking culprits in my Technology-Mediated Communication course are Shrinky Dinks.

I’m on a mission to bring joy and play into the university classroom through craft materials that I manipulate to theoretical relevance, and I am here to tell you: It’s working.

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Crafts have become the key to unlocking students’ stoicism, prompting them to drop their armor of cool detachment. You will find us making friendship bracelets in a newswriting class to visualize how reporters untangle knotty issues of sourcing. In Opinion Media, we fashion looms from Cheez-It and Cheerios boxes to work through writer’s-block challenges around argument and evidence. When it comes to exam prep, students write test questions inside origami hearts, which they present to the class.

Crafting is my pedagogical love language. And it’s a reliable way to see what students actually look like when they smile and relax — and reveal their vulnerable selves. When they do, that’s when the learning begins.

Anyone who has experience with students in a college classroom knows they can be a tough crowd. Jokes fall flat. Silence reigns. Students opt to forgo participation points rather than share their opinions, lest they get “canceled” or just sound dumb (to their ears). COVID-19 has also shaped classroom dynamics. Given years of Zoom rooms and limited social interactions, it’s no wonder that casual classroom conversations that lead to sustained friendships feel like a thing of the past.

It’s a truism that we learn better if we feel comfortable. But suggestions for building community among college cohorts are either hokey (share your fears!), boring (quiz yourself on the syllabus!), or rely heavily on devices (get to know a classmate via text messaging!).

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I prefer the approach of what Ellen Dissanayake, a scholar of art and culture, calls “joie de faire,” or the joy of making. In “The Pleasure and Meaning of Making,” she writes, “There is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something exist that didn’t exist before, of using one’s own agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold and craft physical materials.”

Back in the acrid-smelling classroom, I pull the melted plastic from the toaster. The purpose of the Shrinky Dinks exercise is to help students visualize the thesis from the book “Nasty Talk: Online Incivility and Public Debate.”

The book’s author, media scholar Gina Masullo, argues that deliberation requires metaphorical “heat” in order to arrive at consensus. Polystyrene plastic, when exposed to heat, curls, shrinks, and thickens into an unbendable object, resulting in a sharper manifestation of its original form.

Is this not symbolic of successful deliberative efforts? Without controlled heat we can’t have transformation. But too much and we have a dumpster fire without meaningful exchange.

“You go to college and listen to a bunch of lectures,” says a computer science major at the end of class. “But then — it turns out — you can also make Shrinky Dinks.”

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My pedagogical bucket list includes teaching knitting in a writing-intensive class as a way to conceptualize organization, process, patience, and reveling in a touchable outcome. It would work wonders as a stand-in for the elusive practice of writing.

"My students assign themes to different yarns, creating a visual representation — and keepsake — of written work."Hinda Mandell

After I distribute the cereal- and snack-box looms in my Opinion Media class, an electrical engineering major says, “I thought this was a writing class.” I set up skeins of yarn, and he says, “I have no idea what is going on.”

“It’s OK to feel discomfort,” I say, lovingly touching colorful textures from my own stash. “It’s a sign that growth is nigh.”

I instruct students to grab a darning needle, choose a handful of colors, and cut an arm’s length of yarn. I task them with reading a classmate’s essay. Jot down themes, I say. They assign themes to different yarns, creating a visual representation — and keepsake — of written work.

“This causes me anxiety. I’m a mechanical engineering major,” another student says. “I need to know how many threads and which colors to choose.”

Such uncertainty is my favorite part. Watching students react to unexpected class exercises that mesh theory with hands-on application. Every time, the process plays out in the same way: Insecurity roils the students. Seeing that I am not joking, that I imbue crafting with magic pedagogical powers, they begin to relax — they are in safe hands. And then they get organized and enter “the zone,” a state of collective flow so calm it’s nothing short of spiritual.

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“I’m ready to design my line of weavings,” whispers a photojournalism student with maroon ombré acrylics. “It’s hard with these nails,” she says.

Chitchat commences. Students ask to put on music. The classroom begins to feel more like a party space.

My previously guarded students relax as they work. They share stories of side hustles stringing tennis rackets, of growing up an only brother among four sisters, of saving a cat that ate something out of an embroidery kit. As I observe them, I silently high-five the 19th century Romantics who shirked capitalist ideals in favor of play not defined by commercial interests. Crafting allows us a respite from the demands of the classroom to co-create joyously, if only for 15 minutes once a week.

A communication major says that his loom looks like the character Plank from the “Ed, Edd n Eddy” show. The class hoots and gives him a standing ovation. I don’t care that I have never heard of the character or the show. I care that my students are bonding. I care that craft play is weaving its magic. This is what it’s all about. Media theorist David Gauntlett, of Toronto Metropolitan University, writes in his book “Making is Connecting” that craft lets makers feel “alive in the world, as participants rather than as viewers.”

And I say: Amen to that.

Hinda Mandell is a professor in the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology and editor of “Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats.”

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