The Highs and Lows of Pottery: Weeks 2 and 3

Proud Potter

Proud Potter

Walking out of last week’s class felt great! I had made two cylinders that I felt proud to present. I figured I had the hang of it. I had been very careful at every single step, and called over my instructor before proceeding a few times so I wouldn’t ruin the piece. When she was helping other students, I waited rather impatiently. In that very moment I was feeling frustrated I was also imagining what my students may feel sometimes. I just needed her attention for one minute only before I felt I could relatively confidently proceed without mangling the clay. I imagine this can be tough enough to manage in a class of 8 novice hobby potters with an hour to work with. For me, 600 students a term means just that one minute of attention per student equals an impossible 10h each week (and forget timing-as-needed). When it was my turn for her attention, she helped me verbally review the next step, and once she even pushed down on my hands so I could feel the force she meant. I don’t know how I would have learned that feeling on my own. The entire class period I focused on nothing else. The sun was shining, I could centre clay, and I made two cylinders! Hooray! Please, admire my work:

Practice Makes Perfect

“Practice Makes Perfect”





This morning I spent an hour clearing out my email inbox before class. I left home in a fluster, rushing the whole way and thinking about upcoming travel and the things I needed to do this afternoon. I arrived and quickly checked on my pieces from last week, all looked great, and I quickly prepared them for the next phase. I share this information not to simply recall my morning, but to highlight the state of mind I entered class. It seems to have been incompatible with pottery.

My goal was to create two more pieces today. I quickly failed. The first piece centred* surprisingly easily (and I know it was decently centred because of later disaster), so I went for it. I was the first person to start making my cylinder. Everything was going great for about 2 minutes, until the entire piece of clay had come off in my left hand, leaving only the disc of a base spinning on the wheel. Apparently I had made the wall too thin right there. I chuckled as it dawned on me that it was fully destroyed. Then I was furious. I had to start over from scratch. I would not make two pieces. I might not even make one. Scrape off the clay blob, clean the wheel, knead a new piece of clay, and start centering all over again. Ok. Except it wouldn’t centre! I tried and tried and got more and more frustrated and it got more and more wobbly! After almost half an hour of trying I almost gave up. Instead, enter teacher. I looked up and there she was. I asked for help and she was there. (Again, just the right moment. How can I ever do that?) She made a suggestion and reminded me it was ok—it’s only clay. I was a breath away from quitting. Instead, I kept going. The resulting pot looks like crap. The walls are so thin that when I went to take it off the wheel I almost crushed it into another grey blob. I finished it. This is my ugly, misshapen masterpiece. I title it: Persistence.

Persistence. Upper right and bottom left are still on the wheel. Opposite corners: what I salvaged post-removal.

“Persistence.” Upper right and bottom left are still on the wheel. Opposite corners: what I salvaged post-removal.

* The second step to pottery on the wheel—after sort of kneading it to get air bubbles out—is to get it “centred” which means that as it spins around it’s actually in the centre of the wheel and it doesn’t wobble. If it wobbles, it could spin off or have a bubble in it or otherwise not be sturdy in later phases. Centering can be a time consuming endeavor involving lots of bringing the clay up to a cone shape, then squishing it back down to an anthill. If you rush it, you will probably pay a price later in a weird or collapsed or cracked piece. Patience!

Adventures in Being a Complete Novice

Yesterday I failed miserably. I was frustrated, a tiny bit embarrassed, and delighted. I was delighted because one of my personal goals for my sabbatical is to learn something completely new from scratch. I want to feel like a complete novice, so I can improve my empathy for what my students may be going through when they join my class. The phenomenon called the hindsight bias or curse of knowledge basically means that once we know something it’s really difficult to imagine what it’s like to not know that thing. Imagine not knowing what the traffic lights or temperature mean. Imagine not knowing how to decode what these letters that form this sentence mean. Weird, eh? The challenge is, it’s my job as a teacher to imagine what it’s like to not know about psychology (or some aspect of it), and then try to teach that topic to people who actually do not know (as much) about it. What makes this action trickier is that the longer I do my job, the more I know about psychology, which makes it harder and harder to imagine what it’s like to be in my students’ chairs. I try to get around this challenge in a few ways, including talking with my students about their thoughts. But let’s be honest: it’s been a while since I’ve had a pure experience of complete and utter lack of understanding.

Enter: Pottery class.

Yesterday morning I wandered down to a studio I’ve passed a million times but never entered. I was excited to embark on a new learning adventure! I was going to create something! It might not be beautiful, but I could create! I was the second person to arrive, out of a class of 10. I met my teacher, she used our names to introduce us to each other. I felt welcome. Someone said she had done this before and I didn’t think much of it until later. (For the record, my only foray into art was a single class in high school that was half history, and included zero pottery.) The teacher showed us around the facility. I was trying to absorb all the information. The keywords I remember, in no particular order, include: kiln, bisque firing (as opposed to another kind of firing I forget), plug, glaze, members only shelf, don’t touch, student shelf, slip, washroom, clay, silicate, wheel, clean, wedge, centering. Soon, my brain was full of terms, but I was still excited. Read: without some sort of handout or way to take notes, jargon became a jumbled mass quickly… but maybe that’s ok as I don’t really need to know all this right.

It felt like an eternity until we finally got our clay! Read: all I wanted to do was *DO* the discipline of pottery, which made it difficult for me to concentrate fully on the orientation. The teacher demonstrated wedging, which is kind of like kneading dough and is essential for a strong final product. I measured exactly 2 pounds of clay from my large block (instant success!). My wedged clay looked reasonably good for a first try. Great! With confidence I prepared my wheel station. I watched the teacher’s demonstrations carefully, and tried to emulate her precise hand and body actions. Things were going reasonably well until suddenly half my clay came off in my hand! I made do for a while, and then I tried to make a cylinder, carefully watching the steps and trying to follow with a half portion of clay. After trying to be so careful with it, my cylinder fully collapsed in on itself. It was such a disappointment. I suddenly felt frustrated, especially when I looked over at the person who had done it before. Hers looked just like the teacher’s. Read: social comparison framed my feeling of disappointment and pushed it into failure, but also motivation to make another one.

I stayed an extra half an hour because of a fierce desire to make SOMETHING, ANYTHING that didn’t resemble a pile of grey mush. I tried three times and couldn’t even get the clay to stick to the wheel. It kept slipping off! That most fundamental starting point eluded me, despite the careful attention I had paid to the demonstration, despite the fact that I’d successfully done it just an hour before when my teacher was there. Frustrating! I gave up — but only because I realized I had actual work I had to do and couldn’t just spend the rest of the day on pottery. Reluctantly, I left. All the way home I was frustrated and annoyed because I couldn’t get it. Slowly, I began to laugh at myself. I had taken one single class in a completely unfamiliar discipline and somehow I wasn’t a magical unicorn prodigy in pottery so I was frustrated by it. Ha! Later, I actually uttered the words, laughing, “Turns out I’m not a great potter!” and they made me pause. Really? Is it true that I don’t think I’m a great potter because I got one lesson and couldn’t make something? Of course not. Read: This reaction is consistent with something I’ve suspected for a long time. I tend to have a fixed mindset, and correct to growth when I notice it. I’m reminded of when my statistics students say “I’m no good at math” and I try to convince them otherwise. It takes time and practice and willingness to fail but not feel like a failure.

Scorecard: Pottery definitely won the day. I won insight about failing and a pile of clay covered in mud (called slip) that looked kind of like this (actually this is nicer than mine was):

When I searched for “Pottery cylinder collapse” this image from “Fine Mess Pottery” came up, in a post aptly titled “To that beginning student.”  Apparently I’m not alone.

Officially on Sabbatical!

As of 1 July 2016 I’m officially on Sabbatical! Instead of heading to the classroom this Fall, I’ll be on an extended summer until September 2017. Sabbatical is an amazing opportunity to spend a year working on big picture projects and deep thinking that don’t fit well in the hectic pace of the regular teaching terms. It’s also a chance to catch up on sleep, well-being, time with family and friends, and some travel.

Some projects I’ll be working on include a few papers to submit for publication to journals (3 of which already partially exist but need deep work), the International Program for the Scholarship of Educational Leadership: UBC Certificate on Curriculum and Pedagogy in Higher Education (, overhauling my Psyc 101 and 102 courses, continuing to work on curriculum renewal for the BA Psychology degree, and a few other things here and there. I’m working on developing habits to keep me productive enough on these projects while also spending lots of time resting and re-energizing.

If you’re trying to reach me during this time, I’m generally going to be pretty terrible on email. I really hate email. It saps my life energy, which means it cannot be a priority for me during this sabbatical time. If you really need to reach me urgently, try a Tweet (@cdrawn) to grab my attention.

On Communicating Science

The amazing team at the Human Early Learning Partnership, led by Kim Shonert-Reichl spent the morning thinking about Knowledge Translation from various perspectives, and invited me to weigh in. To prepare, I pondered questions like “How can we use what we know about knowledge and memory in the effort to make social change?” Here’s the PowerPoint supplement to what I came up with. What would you say?


On Using Peer Assessments

Jenny Wong and Jason Myers at Arts ISIT interviewed me about my TLEF-funded project and general use of peer assessment in my classes. Here’s what I had to say: IMHO the most interesting idea was this:

The more we move towards peer anything, the university is going to have to collectively rethink the message that we send to students regarding who holds knowledge, who’s allowed to hold knowledge and who holds the most valuable knowledge and that’s not always the professor.

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This work by Catherine Rawn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada.