Last summer I went to London to teach a course at Sir John Cass on
the hydraulic press. I'm planning to be back to do it again this
coming July. I deeply love the UK, lived there briefly during grad
school [in a very different field], and am thrilled at the prospect
of returning soon.
I was saddened but unsurprised by your post. As I got to know my
students and colleagues last summer, I was profoundly struck by the
difference in the jewelry culture between North America and the UK.
Your sense of isolation was expressed to me individually and
collectively by each of these folks. I discovered that the teaching
culture in the UK is fundamentally very different from North
America. The UK situation is further complicated by the migration of
so much of the industry out of the country and the dramatic changes
in the higher education system there in the past 20 years.
Out of 20 or so students I had contact with that week, only one read
Orchid. The others simply did not know it existed. [Hanuman, Ton,
are you listening? a mailing of the new flier, maybe?] By the end of
the week, most of them had started reading regularly and could not
believe what they found in the archives for free.
Pat Waddington's post about difficulties getting tools and materials
reflects the vertical consolidation of the suppliers in the UK and
Europe. I asked my students to bring me every catalog they could,
and I was appalled by the bleak results.
Rio Grande helped to pay for my airfare over and sent along 40
catalogs -- there were pools of drool all over the benches. I was
trading tools to one of my students for a wonderful little
watchmakers' lathe. I asked her if she saw anything in the
pliers/cutters section of the catalog that she wanted and she said
"But there are so many, however could I choose?"
That remark just about stopped this tool hound's heart. [Don't
worry, I sent her gobs of goodies.] In class, I caused huge
consternation by asking about paste flux, which none of my students
knew existed [bringing a case with me this year] yet they were
battling terrible fire scale and overheating problems with sterling.
Rio Grande and many of the other North American suppliers are
delighted to ship orders anywhere in Europe. With the weakness of
the dollar and the generally lower prices [there were gasps when
folks saw HOW LOW the Rio prices are compared to what they were
paying] it makes a great deal of sense, even with duty, to order
from outside suppliers. Go to their web sites and request a
catalog! Sometimes the only way to get a local supplier to pay
attention is to vote with your wallet.
I have never had such a group of ravenous students as I had there.
I managed to shock, overwhelm, and delight all of my group just by
answering every single question they asked me [even if what I said
was "I have no clue, but let's try this...."] for a solid week of
class. I went home hoarse every day but it was such an incredible
experience for all of us. They told me on the last day that they
kept trying to see if they could get me tweaked, or get me to flat
out say I wouldn't share something, especially about my own work,
but it never happened. This was not at all their collective
experience in the higher national diploma classes, sitting for
guilds, or fine arts degree courses in London. I also saw that there
was a dramatic demographic difference between the students and the
teachers: the former were overwhelmingly women, and the later were
overwhelmingly men, usually quite near retirement. This was a marked
source of tension.
Overall, the impression I got of my students was one of
disenfranchisement -- a whole group of talented, kind, intelligent,
skilled people who did not feel a sense of connection to a broader
community. There was also a stark stratification [probably due to
historical reasons involving guilds, education, and so forth]
between who learned what skills and which metals they worked on. Few
students even considered making their own tools or learning to
machine, for instance. Few students ever thought of getting together
with classmates to share ideas or solve problems. Few of them ever
considered banding together to have collective purchasing power for
things like large group orders from outside suppliers or hiring
someone to teach them the skills they wanted to learn in a way they
wanted to learn them.
And I heard "but that's always how it's been done" so often. I love
learning and sharing old skills, rare skills, things that we must
save from dying out. That's Hanuman's mission here, too. But I was
so saddened when I saw "tradition" interfering with curiosity or
evolution -- I think that tradition can be a living, flexible force
in our field, a way of connecting what we learned long ago with what
is now possible and what will become possible if we keep on
exploring. Paradoxically, my London students would cite tradition as
both a good thing -- they knew exactly what to do -- and a bad thing
-- they were stuck with that one technique, tool, or material.
When I was in London as a history grad student all those years ago,
I was struck by how many organizations, large and small, there were
for academics to join so they could share their work. This past
year, in the same city but in a different field, I was struck by the
sense of pervasive isolation and loneliness, the hoarding of scarce
knowledge resources, the intense competition in a very tight market.
It made my heart ache, and still does.
I know that there's a SNAG-like organization in the UK because there
was a cooperative conference a couple of years ago. None of my
students could tell me what it was called and none of them were
members. Why is that? What can be done to fix that?
I apologize if my remarks have in any way offended. It is difficult
to put my outsider's observations into words. If any of the UK
Orchidians would like to get together in London or elsewhere next
July, let's plan something. I'm perfectly happy to scoot around on
the train to a more convenient meeting location. Please just let me
know. I can bring catalogs and all kinds of other good stuff. We
all need to get to know each other better and share what we can for
the good of all.