The third concern that informs my pedagogy is an insistence that we understand the materiality of knowledge and the material circumstances of learning. Again, in part this is related to having spent a career in engineering institutions where the focus of most students is on the capabilities of things, on designing material assemblages that function in the world. Often those studying literature and philosophy lose sight of the fundamental importance of material circumstances, even in the study of what seems airy abstraction. There has developed in the past decade a fairly extensive corpus of writing --sociological, philosophical, and popular--on the complex relationship between what we (in the academy) generally distinguish as knowledge work and simple craft or skill. Of course this is not the place to work through the intricacies of these arguments. I would simply note that in a broad range of disciplines (most notably in cognitive science), the question of the relation between abstract knowledge, skill, and materiality has emerged as both fundamental and profound. That question has informed much of my research and my teaching in the past years, and I have learned how important it is to press such a question in any class, from freshman composition up to a senior seminar. I still remember the dismay expressed by my students in a course on postmodernism when I required that they write out their research papers in pencil. Part of the course was an examination about how different media form possibilities of both thought and expression. As they had grown up the computer era, I knew that none of them had ever written any extended work by hand. Of course they complained, but, later, a good number stopped by to discuss exactly how the medium informed their thinking.
In a number of courses I have attempted to bring specific materiality and understanding of skill into the intellectual project of the class. All the way from a rather notorious class where my roll book was a 6x6 beam and the students had to hammer a nail beside their name to indicate their presence, to a course on process philosophy where they had to engage in a material practice that required following (and critiquing) directions. There I had people following recipes, assembling furniture, and even building boats. My most recent effort to draw together directly the material and the abstract was an Honors Seminar also detailed in the teaching efficacy section, where we studied Henry David Thoreau, philosophy and cognitive science on skill acquisition, timber-framing manuals, and in close detail, the grain and heft of wood--specifically the trees we felled and squared with hand-tools in order to build the frame of Thoreau's house in the same manner as he did. It was not clear to me from the beginning exactly what of note we would learn. I set the course up as a problem for the students: they needed to build the timber frame with nineteenth-century tools, to make a film documentary of their work, and to disseminate their findings on a regular basis. Then I turned them loose. They self-organized, determined what they needed to learn and when they needed to disseminate. They designed the house (Thoreau left no clear plans), and they designed the course. All in all, it was a pretty remarkable experience, and it was the embodiment of the pedagogical principles articulated above. Of necessity, we needed on-the-fly flexibility. After all, we had to deal with weather, injury, recalcitrant timbers, and very sharp axes. All along we kept our focus on service learning, trying to devise ways for the structure and what we learned building it to be accessible and helpful to k-12 classes (we already have had some success with Skyped distance learning, and plan to distribute the documentary widely). Finally, and for this project, most importantly, was the understanding we developed regarding the relationship between Thoreau, his work, and nineteenth-century material practices. To put it simply, the Thoreau we all came to admire was a lot different from the Thoreau most students study. He was not (just) a somewhat eccentric transcendentalist; he was also someone very much engaged in a minute and complex practical