Stories from the Makers Lab – Learning to Knit as a Lesson in Humility and Empathy

This is a guest post by Jim Munson, UCSF Library Operations and Finance Director

It never ceases to amaze me how many different lessons can be learned through making. Several weeks ago as part of the first year med student ARCH week, I led a session on beginning knitting, along with my trusty partners in crime, Dylan Romero & Patty Nason. I have to admit I went in with some trepidation, worried that we weren’t offering something of sufficient value, and that the students would see our session as just one more hoop for them to jump through, one more obstacle to get past on their seemingly endless journey to becoming doctors.

I began by noting that you can actually learn a lot from knitting, including hand-eye coordination, tactile literacy, and how to let go of those pesky perfectionist tendencies that inhibit so many of us. We began with a rudimentary YouTube video by a woman named Judy who is, let’s say, well into her golden years.

Judy starts her video by assuring the viewer that she is going to go very, very slo-o-o-o-wly. At this point, the students in the room burst into laughter as if to say “Hey, we’re a pretty smart bunch. Feel free to pick up the pace.” The students very carefully followed her almost comically slow instructions, and in less than 15 seconds, the majority of them were totally lost. So – we rebooted, and played the video again. And again. And again. Each time, there was laughter, but the tone gradually shifted – from “Oh, isn’t this slow, old lady amusing?” to “Whoa, I can’t believe I keep messing up!” They went from laughing at Judy to laughing at themselves. Patty and I roamed the room, offering individual instruction as best we could. Students would try – and fail – again and again. Their struggle to do this “simple” activity that many of their grandmothers could probably do in their sleep was palpable.

staff teaching student how to knit

Over the course of the hour, and with much repetition and persistence, most of the students did eventually grasp the basics. It was heartening to see their gradual attainment of skill, and to witness their emotional journey from “Haha! I got this!” to “Uh oh, this is going to be trickier than I thought” to “I am NOT getting this“ to “Wow, I totally suck at this” To “Hey, I almost got it for a nanosecond” to “Um, my knitting may not look pretty, but at least I’m sort of doing it” to “Hey, I’ve sort of got this” to “Look what I just made!” – all within the space of 60 minutes. It was inspiring to witness the collective struggle of this roomful of students, most of whom likely grew up as the “smartest kid in the class.”

students learning how to knit

As I observed, it gradually dawned on me that the most valuable lesson they were learning was about humility and empathy – about how it feels to not be good at something and how to relate to folks who do struggle in this world. I’m hopeful that on some level they will take that lesson with them as they become health care practitioners because it is key to being a great doctor. And it’s significant that they learned the lesson by experiencing it themselves, by feeling it before intellectualizing it. Those are the kinds of lessons you never forget.

This activity was part of “ARCH” week, which is an acronym for Assessment, Reflection, Coaching, and Health. Its goals include getting students to reflect on their relative strengths and weaknesses and to engage in “activities that promote resilience, reconnection, community, recovery.” Based on what we saw happen at this simple knitting session, I would say those goals were met.

Visit the Makers Lab in the UCSF Library on Parnassus Monday – Friday (10am – 6pm) to start your own knitting project. Even if you have never knit before, the Makers Lab has the supplies and resources to get started!

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