Calligraphy class with incarcerated scholars

Week One:

I just got back from teaching my first calligraphy class at the prison, and since so many colleagues have expressed interest in hearing how it goes, I wanted to put down a few quick thoughts:

-Applications: There are a lot of useful applications for teaching calligraphy in a college-level class (either within a prison or not). The main one for me in today’s discussions was using it as an additional way to help the men contextualize and find relevancy in historical documents and time periods. By gaining skills to understand how the letters were made, they are able to think about the process of sharing and creating information, and in so doing think about the impact that has on society.

-Tools: We used an affordable starter set of items, including graph paper pads for practice, plastic rulers, no. 2 pencils, and chisel-edged markers (much easier to bring in than a pile of nibs and pens. Cheaper, too). The men get to keep their supplies so that they can practice. For next week, we’ll be using slightly heavier-weight paper (we’re using sketch paper) to do projects.
N.B.: bring your calligraphy inks to class in plastic jars, not glass, if you do want to do a demo with nibs and ink. I’ll be doing a demo with ink next week…

-I structured today’s class to focus on learning the basics of calligraphy (pen angle/pen width, using ductus, etc.) so the men could focus on getting started with practicing right away and have lots of time to experiment and ask me questions. This seemed like a good approach, since everyone wanted to try all three hands I hoped to teach them, and having so many questions and answers helped everyone learn and improve more quickly than they may have if I just talked at them. You can find the materials I’m using for these classes in the ‘art instruction’ folder, which has the handouts and three ductus sheets I made.

-The handouts I made cover two main areas: the history of calligraphy, and how to do calligraphy. Next week, we’ll be discussing the history stuff while we work on creative projects using the letterforms we’ve learned, which will be helpful for contextualizing what they’ve been practicing.

-Today’s class reiterated some critical points about this kind of instructional work, which I mentioned in an earlier blog post: namely, keep the format loose (I bring in the ‘bones’ of the class and we build on those bones together based on students’ needs and interests), be flexible, have a sense of humor, and leave a lot of space for informal discussion and brainstorming.

-One thing I’ll add is to be encouraging (without being overwhelming) as well as encouraging experimentation and making mistakes. Calligraphy is a skill that no one learns overnight, and all our first attempts at new letterforms look sloppy. That can be defeating if you’re on your own, but in a supportive and curiosity-focused classroom space, that can be a fun challenge (at least for a lot of folks!)

-For designing these classes, one of my focal points is simple basic techniques and low-cost materials. That makes the class scaleable for me if I decide to do more such classes later, keeps it fun and engaging (and challenging, but not defeating) for students, and offers ideas for creative skill sets that are accessible. Calligraphy is great because the tools can be flexible (markers instead of nibs, etc) and once you have the skill down for making letterforms, there is a lot you can do with it. We’re brainstorming about future classes next time, but my suggestion will be something to do with zine making and collage.

Week Two:

-I had an amazing second week working with the guys–they practiced the letterforms quite a bit and came back with fantastic examples and great questions. We spend the second session as another work session, where we talked more in depth about materials and where I helped them troubleshoot their letterform construction. I brought them each a piece of Arches hot press paper (which is the standard in a lot of my calligraphy classes for either final projects or for solid draft pieces) so they could use it for an art project, if they so desired, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

-One of my big goals for the second session was to incorporate a brainstorming session where we would decide what to cover in our next session(s) together. I had the idea for a zine making and collage session, as I mentioned above, but prior to doing that they wanted some grounding in composition and design. So our next class together will probably be a design fundamentals + composition course, which will be great both for them as artists and to give them a good head start on a marketable skill to bring to employers when they are released.

Thanks as always to Common Good for bringing me in to teach–it is consistently a joy and an honor. And thanks to my mentor and friend Cheryl Jacobsen for endless hours of calligraphy instruction, as well as support and advice as I designed this class. To close, I’ll point you to this Instagram post, which may be one of my favorite teaching moments ever.


Calligraphy instruction resources

I’m referring to November as ‘calligraphy month’ this year, thanks to a very strong theme of making pretty letters in various settings.

If you missed it last week, I did a calligraphy demonstration at work, but you still have a chance to catch me doing calligraphy demos (and to try it yourself, if you so desire) at this month’s Curiosity Club.

The next two weeks I also will be heading back to work with Common Good, this time doing a couple calligraphy classes for the incarcerated scholars in the prison classroom. I’ll post interesting take-aways that might help other instructors once I do the sessions, but for now wanted to make a note that I added the handouts I’ll be using to my Dropbox folder of instructional resources. I’ve also organized it by subfolder for different audiences and types of outreach activities.
You’ll notice that the handout has a space for the ductus for three calligraphic hands, but does not  have the ductus (yet!) That’s because I’m redoing those worksheets this weekend, and will be scanning and adding them to the folder next week. But, if you do use the handout (or an iteration of it) you will at least have a sense of where I plan to put them. These are among my first publicly-shared ductus sheets, so if you have feedback I would be interested to hear it!

Interview up on Hack Library School!

I’m so excited to have the chance to go back to Hack Library School for a minute to talk with Stefanie about my experiences bringing rare books to the prison classroom, advocating for work with underserved communities, and what I’m hoping for the future.

You can read the article here!

Rare books and archives instruction resources

Today one of my colleagues asked for resources on teaching book history and teaching with rare books in university classrooms. This is one of my favorite things to do (and something our outreach archivist, JoyEllen, and I do very regularly), and her listserv post got me thinking about our approach to instruction.

When the two of us started, we had enjoyable and (hopefully) useful instruction models to work with, but were concerned about two things: First of all, that our sessions seemed to not fully engage students. It was a lot of talking and show and tell, and not that much hands-on experience or critical engagement with concepts. Second, was that we felt like we were coming in and showing students ‘cool stuff’ but not making it relevant to their lives and scholastic careers.
This was particularly an issue for our freshman seminars, where we felt that having two separate tours and talks (one for archives and one for rare books) could feel boring and repetitive, and didn’t give students the opportunity to synthesize an understanding of what primary sources are and why they matter. To address this, we developed a new freshman seminar instruction model that combined the two, and gave students some experience identifying and working with primary sources, while also thinking about when those sources could be used in their own research.

We also developed a second module for other courses, based largely on my background with book arts and book history, and my experience thinking of the book as a technology. One thing that I think is very important when working with rare books is not to simply think of them in terms of their contents, but to also consider their structure, traces of use (marginalia, etc.–also fun fact, ‘traces of use’ is my favorite term on the planet), and what these tell us about the book’s intended vs. actual function. To do this, we talk students through the development of the book as a technology with a focus on how technological innovation can help or hinder information access, and how that access (or lack thereof) might have broader societal implications.
Both instruction session types are highly flexible–we have a basic idea of what we want to cover, but we adjust what materials we bring and some of what we cover based on a particular course (e.g. spending time at the end to talk about book art for a design course, vs. spending time talking about the publishing history of a given author for a literature course). Both types also include a hands-on component: Our materials were purchased with the intent to be used by students, researchers, and community members, so it’s exciting to get them out of the stacks and into people’s hands.

For the most part, I’ve done these kinds of presentations (particularly the second one) from memory, and have not written down much of my process. Today’s Exlibris thread, however, inspired me to write it down and share it with colleagues. To help more folks who are designing instruction sessions, I’ve put what I have in this Dropbox folder. It includes:

  • Two in-depth handouts covering the history of the book. These were made for my instruction sessions with Common Good’s prison education initiative this spring, and are too detailed for most classes, but I find them valuable to pull from to make smaller, more focused handouts as needed.
  • An outline document giving a step-by-step of how we run our classes for 1101 classes (freshman seminars) and for our technology of the book sessions.
  • Two handouts that JoyEllen brought in to our 1101 sessions for students to use in analyzing primary sources.

I hope these are helpful for colleagues–and if you use our materials, I would love to hear how they work for you! I am always evaluating our instructional offerings to make sure we’re teaching the best classes we can, so knowing what works and doesn’t elsewhere is a huge help.
Next up I’ll be making a standardized handout for our book as technology sessions that I can add to as needed: It will be a timeline that maps the specific artifacts we use to larger historical contexts. I’ll add it to the same folder when it’s ready!

A very old pie

The kind folks from FoodStuff came by recently so we could make an apple pie recipe from the 1600s and talk a bit about the history of cookbooks, recipe layout, and more (remember the Modernizing Markham project I did years ago? This recipe is from there). You can see the video on YouTube or their Facebook page, as well as link out to their full podcast on the history of apple pie.

I brought a copy of The English Housewife along to show them (before my hands were covered in flour), and it was exciting to do a food history thing to go along with my most recent hospitality industry collaborations, which have been beverage-oriented. Enjoy!

Bringing rare books to a prison classroom

Just like I did for my recent rare book and beer pairing event, I wanted to share a few quick thoughts about the work I’ve been doing with incarcerated scholars in the hopes that it’s helpful for other rare books/museums folks who want to include prisons in their outreach iniatives. I have a million other thoughts about how amazing and challenging it is, but this post is just for quick outreach take-aways.

Why do this?

By now it’s no secret that my goal in life is to bring rare books (and museum artifacts in general) to people who want to learn from them but have never been given the opportunity (serving underserved populations, if you want to use field lingo). When I think about a population that is underserved in pretty much every possible way, I think of people who are incarcerated. Many current and former prisoners can’t vote, have limited access to educational resources in prison, and have trouble finding work or funding for an education once they are released. This is in addition to the fact that few prisons offer meaningful programming that discourages recidivism, even though such programs (like Common Good, or like this rehabilitation work) are effective and badly wanted by prisoners.

One of the books I used in my presentation. Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems, 1641.


Continue reading “Bringing rare books to a prison classroom”

Not so rare any more: Reaching new special collections audiences through unlikely collaborations

I just finished giving a presentation for NFAIS on building expanding audiences and empowering community members through unlikely collaborations. The audience, as well as Marcie who was the moderator/cat wrangler/problem solver, were all fantastic and I had a great time chatting with them. I wanted to offer a few highlights from the talk for folks who weren’t able to attend but who are thinking about their own outreach programs.

NB: I focused on rare books since that’s the area I work in, BUT these guidelines could be used for outreach with all sorts of artifacts across many cultural heritage institutions.

Why talk about this? Because outreach is critical for increased access and community empowerment

  • Special collections historically very exclusive
    • Often limited to those doing research or in academic/special library settings
    • Historically excludes those without access to education and other resources
    • Often we do not reach beyond these walls, meaning most potential visitors are not aware of what we have to offer.
  • Physical access is also an issue (e.g. can someone get to campus? Do they need a certain ID or enrollment/employment status to use your services?)
  • Even for those who have access, perceived access may be a totally different matter. Special collections often feel intimidating for the uninitiated, and concerns about whether one has access or what expectations are in a special collections environment can overshadow the desire to engage with collections and programs.  

Continue reading “Not so rare any more: Reaching new special collections audiences through unlikely collaborations”