What Learning Feels Like


David Savage delivered a fire-and-brimstone lecture to the students in his Rowden workshop on the business of the craft during tea one morning and then left the bench room with a flourish.

One of the students turned to me and asked: “Are all British craftsmen this eccentric?”

I didn’t know how to reply at first. Later that day, however, the answer came to me: Actually, all really good instructors are like that.

During my two weeks at Rowden in the deepest, darkest Devon, I got to interact with a type of woodworking student that is rare these days: the long-term pupil who wants to make a living at the craft and has invested his or her last cent to pay for the instruction.

You might expect them to be 100-percent joyful to get to work under such expert tutelage for six days a week over 12 months. But that’s not exactly what I encountered.

Instead I saw the same wariness, skepticism and frustration that I experienced while training as a newspaper journalist at Northwestern University. During my four years, I nearly despised my instructors and still call my torturers by name 25 years later. Roger Boye. David Nelson. Richard Schwarzlose. Leland “Buck” Ryan.

They seemed to delight in trashing my work, telling me I should drop out and never offering a word of praise during four hard years.

As it turns out, they were giving me an education that I couldn’t appreciate until I’d left the school and worked professionally. They knew something: The writing business chews people up, and the only way to survive is to be the best – both technically and ethically.

You can’t deliver those sorts of lessons to hobbyists during a one-week class. It’s a miracle that my students had the drive to work 50 hours straight on some mind-bending piece of woodwork. I couldn’t beat them up because I was just so grateful that they cared enough to attend.

So what about the hard lessons? Who will deliver them?

In my shop, it’s me. Nothing is good enough unless it’s better than what I’ve done before. I sharpen my eye for good work by visiting museums and furniture exhibitions. So I have to raise my own bar and jump over it.

Most days I wish David Nelson were in my shop telling me my work was like a puddle of dog urine. I could then seethe and fantasize about putting Nair in his jockstrap.

But those sorts of fantasies aren’t so healthy when you are both the torturer and the victim.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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18 Responses to What Learning Feels Like

  1. jonathanszczepanski says:

    The best pieces of advice I got from my design professor:
    “You can either own the floor or mop it. It’s your choice. ”
    “Sometimes you don’t know what to do, but you do it anyway. “

  2. paul6000000 says:

    ….when you are both the torturer and the victim.

    Yeesh. You just decribed my life.

  3. duckfarmer27 says:

    Chris –

    You are so right. The best profs in college or high school teachers – were the ones who pushed you to do what they realized you were capable of. Actually anyone who really cares about teaching you to be the best you can be, no matter what the venue.

    Same goes for the carpenter who trained me summers when I worked for him. Helping several brothers in law frame a garage for one of them today brought back lessons from 50 years ago. It better be square and plumb – and he was the old guy who demanded the 10 hour days with the only break for lunch. And I still work to those standards – smiled a couple times today when wrestling an uncooperative 2 by . But now on this end of life I would not trade any day I had with any of those great teachers.

    As one of my good smart bosses used to say – you (or the organization you lead) are either getting better or worse, there is no status quo.


  4. Dan G says:

    The best instructors are always the most demanding ones. But yes, hobbyists will not tolerate a hardnosed instructor. Demanding yes, rude and unsympathetic no. On the other hand, you wouldn’t normally get someone who wasn’t truly interested in learning at a one-week class (or am I naive about that?). You get them all the time in the university environment where there is huge pressure to get the degree regardless of how much you learn. If I was on a woodworking-as-a-career track I would want tough demanding instructors but if I’m taking weekend classes, I would rather have a knowledgeable and diligent instructor who doesn’t push too hard.

  5. Rachael Boyd says:

    I tell my students, make it so well that you would put your name on it for all to see from this day to hundreds of years from now. if you did it well it will last that long. make your children’s children prod to say my great great grand parent made that.
    you don’t need be hard on them let them be hard on themselves .

  6. Justin Williams says:


    Although I’m not a woodworking teacher, nor a woodworking professional, I do teach at the university level. I wanted to add the following to the conversation.

    You make a valuable observation about the merit of constructive criticism and the fact that we tend to encounter too little of it. But – and this is a big “but” – we needn’t “trash” the work of our pupils to offer valuable feedback to them. There’s a real danger in romanticizing the kind of hard-nosed – and, it should be said, hyper-masculine – criticism that it sounds like your instructors gave you as a journalism student. Sure: we all need to know that our turds are not so special. But as a student, it’s also important to know what we’re doing well in addition to what we’re doing poorly, to grow toward excellence rather than to achieve it. Ego-crushing criticism is probably useful for some students – it sounds like you’re one of them – but it’s simply makes the activity unbearable and elitist for others.

    Again, I take your point that criticism is important, especially for those professional students about whom this post was written. I just want to make sure that we temper that criticism with an understanding of where students are at and what they’re capable of – whether those students are professionals or hobbyists. Ultimately, as a teacher, I’m more interested in the growth and learning of my students than a particular standard of excellence that many students will never achieve.

    • skilledno says:

      It would appear that you need to be a certain type of student to be taught, one that’s not a complete wet rag.

      • Blue Wren says:

        I’m not sure what you are trying to say here Skilledno. Are you saying that anyone who can’t take outright abuse from an instructor is a wet rag and therefore is unteachable? From my perspective I have always sought constructive criticism in any and every venture and in fact avidly seek it. I don’t want anyone pissing in my pocket telling me how incredible my work is when I can see that there is room for improvement. However, if some jerk is yelling abuse at me I’m more likely to say “Eff you” and leave. I don’t care how skilled they are or how much knowledge they have to impart because I know that for every crotchety abuser out there, there is at least one other teacher who can give me the same knowledge without beating me up. Criticism, yes please, abuse no – I’m no one’s doormat.

    • David Carson says:

      Justin hits the nail on the head. It’s easy to conflate the method of communication with its content.

      • LostArtPress says:

        I think the method of communication is very important. Otherwise I wouldn’t spend all this time publishing printed books.

      • David Carson says:

        Method as in the way an idea is communicated, not the medium. Some people are very aggressive and seem to enjoy embarrassing and ridiculing their students in the guise that they are separating the wheat from the chaff. I’m suggesting that this is not necessary, and I believe it is suboptimal. While it may work on some, I’m sure throwing fresh and warm poo on some would work on a select few as well.

        For example, a critique in front of a class like, “You call this a dovetail, you Ian McFarty? My dog can piss a dovetail out of his butt in the form of a truffle better than that!” While humorous and maybe fondly remembered, it is mean-spirited and not necessarily.

        Top level instruction and being a curr are not mutually inclusive.

  7. Brian Clites says:

    Admonismhment takes courage and skill. What would this apprentice you mention have learned, and how would they have felt, had David waited two weeks then sent him an e-mail describing the mistake?

    I hear a lot of “What doesn’t kill you,” in this post and the comments. But it is equally true that a student cannot learn unless their mentor communicates effectively. Someone who is unable to reprimand a mistake in real time is difficult to learn from and impossible to please.

  8. I found history professors at Northwestern to be way less yelly. Pretty sure they felt bad for sending us out into such a low paying career.

    • LostArtPress says:

      At least you guys got tweed jackets with patches on the elbows! Lucy and I qualified for food stamps at our first newspaper job.

      • tsstahl says:

        I’ve always wondered where those jackets come from. Never occurred to me that there is some sort of history student pro shop out there somewhere.

        I figured that when a history prof was awarded a chair, the jacket was already draped over the back of it from the last possessor. 🙂

      • I am actually a librarian now, so I had to exchange the tweed jacket for a cardigan. I also subscribe the the theory that you should make less money with each career switch.

    • Brian Clites says:

      As someone who taught American Religious History in the NU history department before, THANKS LANCE!!

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