Making the Past Present with Hands-on Humanities

PHoto of several people around a wooden workbench.

Professor Jeffrey Ravel and students work on building a printing press. (Photo by Jonathan Sachs / Jonathan Sachs Graphics, Inc.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

MIT is famous for its hands-on engineering projects that students work on into the wee hours of the night. There are over 40 maker spaces at MIT, where students can design and build to their hearts’ content. During their undergraduate years, students assemble a huge variety of vehicles and devices, from aircraft to ovens, and they make models myriad and sundry.

And it’s not just in engineering classes where these creative energies play out.

Case in point: OCW has just published 21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today. Taught by Professors Anne McCants and Jeffrey Ravel in Spring 2016, the course has three centers of activity: 1) a review of the history of books in Europe from about 1450, when printing was introduced, to the French Revolution, 2) an examination of books made during this period in MIT’s Libraries and the MIT Museum, and 3) the construction of “a functioning, durable printing press based on Early Modern European designs.”

Appreciating the Innovations of the Past

Photo of a wooden printing press in a workshop.

The completed printing press. (Photo by Jeffrey Ravel.)

That’s right. Students built a printing press from scratch, based on Early Modern European designs, under the guidance of Ken Stone, long-time director of the MIT Hobby Shop. Read the complete story of how they created the press from a single, huge wooden beam in the article Mens et Manus in the History Workshop, and this accompanying video:

 

For good measure, the students also made paper from pulped rags.

“One of the values of making something that seems prosaic, especially something that is now as common as paper, is learning that we moderns are not the only clever ones. People in the past were clever too, and they also knew some things we don’t,” observes Professor McCants.

The OCW site has lecture slides and an image gallery in addition to a list of readings and videos.

Insights about Teaching Hands-on Humanities

In their Instructor Insights on their This Course at MIT page, McCants and Ravel explain how they developed the course, used archival materials, assessed the students in their hands-on endeavors, and incorporated an online forum. There are also reflections from students on their experience discovering the past and making it present.

Anyone interested in exploring further the subject of the “print revolution” and its possible parallels to our own digital revolution would be well-served by visiting Professor Ravel’s 21H.418 From Print to Digital: Technologies of the Word, 1450 ̶ Present.

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