Pens and Needles

December 7, 2020

Yvonne Gay

Students write with quill pens in class.
Students write with quill pens in a critical maker lab.
Photo credit: Danielle Skeehan

Students in Associate Professor Danielle Skeehan’s Early American Media and Identity course aren’t just bringing laptops and books to class. Required materials include Band-Aids, scissors, needle threaders, and kitchen sponges.

Inside the King Building seminar classroom earlier this semester, Skeehan’s students took long white feathers, removed plumage, and snipped nibs to fashion quill pens. On another day, embroidery hoops and colored floss were used for needlepoint projects. 

Critical making labs that bring reading material to life has always been essential to how Skeehan’s Early American Media course theorizes cultures and traditions. This course explores the complex relationships among gender, race, and media in the Americas before 1865. Class discussions center on how early Americans conceived of race and gender; how race and gender structured one’s relationship to various kinds of media; and what genres and media people of different backgrounds used to record their lives and why.

A girl looks at a needlepoint project in class.
Critical Making needlepoint lab. Photo credit: Danielle Skeehan

Labs also introduced students to faculty, spaces, and opportunities across campus. This semester, weekly visitors from the college‘s Special Collections, Letterpress Studio, Print Lab, and Allen Memorial Art Museum have all shared their expertise and presented visual aids. 

’’This class required us to think deeply about how much more energy was required when creating media in Early America,’’ explains Lena Golia ’23. ‘‘To be able to hold a handcrafted watch band made out of human hair from the 1800s made me recognize how deeply personal the things we were reading about were.

‘‘When we were actually tasked with recreating and experimenting with different forms of media, such as embroidery or quill making, it helped me gain a deeper level of understanding,’’ she says. ‘‘I found the quill making lab especially interesting because along with learning the process of creating our own pen, we also learned that many writers made their own ink. Because of this, we were able to use ink made specifically following the recipes of certain historical authors such as Jane Austen.”

A student looks at a handmade journal on a table.
A student refers to a handmade journal. Photo credit: Danielle Skeehan

Ezra Loeb ’20, a comparative American studies major with minors in anthropology, linguistics, and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, found the weekly guest visits equally essential to the learning process. 

"It was simultaneously fascinating and haunting to see a death mask in person rather than printed; the degree of separation between us and the deceased person was dramatically less than just viewing a photograph since the mask was actually cast on the corpse itself,” says Loeb. ‘‘That lab really drove home the point about how various media work differently to produce distinct forms of connection between people, depending on its structure and use.’’

With class attendance optional this semester due to the pandemic, and with all students taking classes over Zoom for the later part of the semester, Skeehan's labs served an additional purpose. 

‘‘I wanted to create a space where students could engage in tactile and hands-on learning experiences,’’ she says. ‘‘We all now know the reality that is Zoom fatigue. Privileging the material over the digital world created an environment that helped combat that fatigue as well as the sense of distance from the material culture and tactile media traditions we have been studying.”

View more Critical Making Lab photos from the class on Oberlin’s Flickr page.

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