I always hope that APHA conference sessions will reveal not just the ‘what’ and ‘how,’ but the ‘why’ of printing history and the allied arts, moving conversations beyond technical applications alone—always a deep well for practitioners—into the realms of significance.
For college and university students, arriving at the ‘why’ of their studies is realized, at least traditionally, by way of lectures, readings, and class discussions. In the past, proving mastery in a subject was performed though rote memorization and writing research papers. Of course, the success of these approaches relied on certain academic preparation. More and more, instructors are building in opportunities for students to develop cognitive skills that may be falsely presumed, namely the abilities to know, comprehend, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate complex information. Innovative pedagogies or methods of teaching now aim to reach course goals in ways that are active and immersive. There is a greater emphasis on direct learning to foster connections and facilitate a range of reading, writing, presentation, and project-based assignments. Being an administrator of a special collections and archives department with a growing teaching collection in fine printing and the graphic arts, I am keen to know how our materials, which are readymade for in-person encounters, can enhance the curriculum, inspire new teaching strategies, and promote learning in ways that go beyond their subjects.
In this panel, I was pleased to find Katherine M. Ruffin and Jae Jennifer Rossman demonstrate that inspired teaching around paper and printing has been alive and well at Yale University, at least since Carl P. Rollins revolutionized hands-on bibliographic training in the 1920s.
In her biographical talk, Printing & Papermaking in the Ivory Tower: Carl P. Rollins & the Origins of the Bibliographic Press Movement in America, Ruffin introduced us to Carl Purington Rollins (1880–1960), a highly motivated individual who began printing on a Golding press at age 12. He gained further experience as a job printer at Harvard and the Heintzemann Press in Boston, and printed at New Clairvaux, a monastic-centered Arts and Crafts community in Montague, Massachusetts before touring and bicycling through Europe. Upon his return to America, he bought the Dyke Mill and founded the Montague Press in 1908, promising the three E’s of printing Equipment, Experience, and Enthusiasm. As demand for letterpress job printing began to wane, he took more steady employment at the Yale University Press in 1918, where he remained with administrative support until 1948. During this long period of influence and activity, Rollins became the “Printer to Yale University,” produced a whopping 8,000 pieces of ephemera and 2,000 volumes, created scholarly conventions we know today (i.e., the design of bibliographies and footnotes), won an AIGA Medal, brought the Arts and Crafts movement ethos (applied learning and collaboration) into the university, and founded the Bibliographical Press, which gave those studying bibliography a “running start” in their understanding of how books were made. Ruffin made a compelling case that bibliographic teaching presses owe their existence to Rollins, whose influence and style set the course for bibliographic presses that followed, like Hannah French’s press at Wellesley College, and helped write through example Philip Gaskell’s definition of a bibliographic press found in his seminal manual.
One wonders, would fine letterpress printing, the book arts, and artists’ books have flourished in quite the same way in the twentieth century without these presses providing a site for the exploration and execution of printing? Would academic librarians and curators who are critical to continued collecting and instrumental in advancing fruitful collaborations around printed works exist as they do today? Would the students of bibliographic presses have cared as much about paper, type, design, and the value of partnership without Rollins? It seems he should be credited for an ongoing ecosystem as well as a movement.
In her presentation, Paper as Lens: Using the Medium’s Cultural Significance to Introduce Freshmen to Higher Education Concepts, Jae Jennifer Rossman brought us into the twenty-first century, outlining a comprehensive, seminar-style model for teaching undergraduates that could be adapted to other materials and collections, and would work particularly well in towns or cities large enough to support offsite trips or “resource visits.” With almost 5,000 undergraduates at Yale University, it is by lottery that first-year students win the chance to take this in-depth course led by art faculty Elana Herzog (a lecturer in sculpture) who collaborated with Rossman and other staff members across campus. On why paper was selected as the focus, Herzog has said that, “paper offers the opportunity to expand.” It is intimate, generic, academic, clerical, narrative, social, formal, human, industrial, and has global reach. From the handmade to the mechanized, paper is everywhere, and it is both a medium and ground in contemporary art practice. Since students are attracted to the physical nature of paper, which is familiar and accessible, it is an ideal medium to challenge assumptions, invite abstraction and risk taking, and introduce major concepts like chance and intentionality. Specific learning objectives were connected to a host of thinking, talking, and making assignments of various types and lengths (blogs, blog responses, a research paper, a class presentation, and studio projects). These assignments were supported by artist interviews, readings, film screenings, a workshop on papermaking, and a number of thematic site visits across the Yale campus.
To start, the class took a wide-ranging view of the history of paper, its impact on culture, the way it is used in the Arts, and “the relationship between things made by hand and scholarly research.” Ideas explored included the preciousness of unique objects, the goal of control, the notion of the artist-as-genius, dominant cultural narratives (the way history is written, taught, and learned), and how historical narratives are constructed to reflect or support certain points of view. Next, students took a field trip to the conservation lab at the Yale Center for British Art for an introduction to different types of paper, their origins, evolutions, and uses. This was followed by a visit to the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library to look at artist-made books and hand papermaking. Students were asked to answer: “Is this a book? Why or why not?” “What part of the book/object is created with handmade paper? How do you know the paper is made by hand?” “What is the subject of the book/object? What clues gave you this information?” and “Does the book/object leave you with questions? If so, what are they?” The class also made two site visits to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library where students looked at examples of paper as material object/ object of cultural and material exchange, and as examples of artist/poet collaborations. Ideas about redemption, devotion, slavery, and the creative process were investigated. Finally, the class twice visited Yale University Art Gallery to look at the printmaking of Josef and Anni Albers, among others, and instances where paper was used not just as a substrate, but to build up surfaces.
Tapping the wealth of resources at hand at Yale is clearly what makes this thorough course such an exceptional experiential success. But it is compelling to think that in the right iteration, humble paper, in all its purposes and forms, could work at any institution, whether teaching solo or working with enthusiastic collaborators.
I am reminded of a cartoon image from Ruffin’s presentation showing Carl P. Rollins as a towering, shirtless, “Super-power”—an amusing reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, no doubt. Like a Hindu God, Rollins possesses six arms, each hand holding, clockwise, an Albion hand press, an ink-ball, an ax, a rock, a composing stick, and a bow saw. While it exaggerates Rollins’ prowess and command, it illustrates how we must employ many tools to grapple with the complexity of a topic and transform understanding, whether teaching through the lens of bibliography or paper.