This paper was written as an assignment for Social Anthropology class by Heather Graber while she was a student in ceramics class.
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The World Of Ceramics

Heather Graber
Self-As-Informant Paper
February 2, 1998

Welcome to Goshen College! The college offers a class in ceramics each semester, which you are to take part in. Although a bit confusing and intimidating at first, it is an exciting course that will get your adrenaline flowing. As you have already taken a course in the basics of ceramics elsewhere, you are enrolled in the advanced class. Here in the United States, ceramics (or pottery) is considered a very old art and "natural", as the materials are found naturally in certain types of soils. However, we do not need to go out and find such types of soil. We live in a society of interdependence, where jobs are broken down. Someone else has already found what we need to make clay with, and packaged it for us. I do not know who did this, but it is irrelevant. The college buys these packaged materials, so we do not need to worry about it. In ceramics, we practice making various types of vessels and sculpture, which I will explain in more detail later.

The Ceramics Lab

The ceramics lab is the only place where you will go to practice this art. Remember, ceramics is an art, not a craft. If you refer to it as a "craft" other people will get quite upset with you. At Goshen College, we try and avoid conflict, or people getting upset, whenever possible. Anyway, the ceramics lab is located in the lower level of the Visual Arts building. This is an old building, and very crowded, as you can see from the diagram. Please refer to this diagram as you read the following description. There are several entrances to the building. Since you will be biking, you should use the side entrance by the bike rack, where you will want to place your bicycle. It is advisable to lock your bike, as sometimes people will "borrow" your bicycle and may "forget" to return it. Although such people may need a bike, we do not care and do not like them. In the afternoon the bike rack may be full. Do not remove someone else's bike in order to place yours there; this is considered very rude. You may leave it parked nearby on the wood chips, or lock it to the outside of the rack. You may not lock your bike anything else (such as a tree) on campus other than a bike rack.

Once your bike is parked, you will enter the white door to your left. This door pushes open, unlike most doors in this nation. You have to push the door hard to open it. You will enter the jewelry lab; you may hear loud music and see people hitting small objects with larger ones. Do not worry about them. Enter quickly, so as to not let any cold air in the door, or the people hitting the small objects will get upset with you. You may smile at the people and say "hi", but do not talk to them unless you are already know them. Continue down the cement ramp. I believe the ramp exists so that large amounts of heavy materials may be wheeled down on a little cart with wheels. Straight ahead, there will be the sculpture room. There may be students in this room, touching heads or bodies made of plaster. Do not worry, the forms are not real, nor are they idols. Do not enter this room, unless no one else is around and your curiosity gets the better of you, but don't touch anything!

To your right is a coat rack, where you may hang up your coat. Push open the door (again, this door is different than most) and enter the women's restroom. You may only enter this room, and not the one across the hall that says "Men". In this little room, you must change into your costume for the ceramics ritual. We put on this costume because we get very dirty, and we like to keep our "good" clothes clean. You may leave your costume here when you finish, for the next time you come, but use only your clothes and not others'. This room is a good place for informal conversation, but it must be done casually. If talking to other women in the restroom, you must be doing something, such as relieving yourself (I assume you know how toilets function) or washing your hands. Change into your costume in the middle of the room, as the stalls are very small and your clothing may fall into the toilet. Do not stare at anyone else changing clothes; this is considered very rude.

Once changed, go out the way you came in. Passing the sculpture room, you will enter the clay-mixing room. There may be lots of noise and students doing the clay-mixing ritual (more on this later). Again, do not worry but continue through the next set of doors. The activities in this larger room are dependent upon the time of day. If in the morning, there will likely not be many students in the room, as they either have classes or are still sleeping. The cleaning lady usually is in the room at this time, watering the floor with a bucket and a large stick with pieces of cloth on it, called a mop. She keeps the place clean, as students are not expected to clean the floor. Be nice to the woman, as she has keys which open doors that only she can open. She can open a door and give you things if you ask her, such as garbage bags and masking tape (but only ask for things if you really need them). Keys are important in our society. They symbolize power. The more keys one has, either the more stuff or the more power the person has. You may talk to the woman, but do not ask her personal questions, such as her age or how much money she makes. Again, this is considered information that is private, which people do not like to tell.

In the afternoon, there are often other students present. You may talk with them, regardless of gender or whether you know the person or not. People are generally friendly in the ceramics lab, although there is an unwritten hierarchy that ought to be respected. Those students with lots of experience, and much knowledge in the area of ceramics, are at the top of the hierarchy (often even above the professor) and may be identified as such in a number of ways. (Although not a rule, these people in past years have been males, with a few exceptions).

  • Other students may direct their questions toward these people.
  • If you inconspicuously observe other students making their pots, those who quickly form more complicated pots have more experience.
  • When no one else is around, look at the shelves. Those shelves which have the most pieces, preferably larger than most others, belong to students who are at the top of this hierarchy. Note the name written below the shelf. Most often, the students at the top of the hierarchy have the largest shelves, I guess because they claim these shelves first.
As a lower-level advanced student, you must respect these people, but feel free to ask them for advice. Most of them do not mind telling you what they already know. Likewise, answer any questions the beginning students may ask you, but only if you know the answer. If you lie, you will end up looking very foolish. Do not ask a beginning student a question on the mechanics of making a pot, unless the person obviously has had previous experience.

The ceramics lab in the evening is busier than other times of the day. Your class will meet one evening a week; you will receive your schedule in campus mail. Class is held in the same large workroom. On evenings when there is not class, you may work in the lab. Avoid evenings when the beginning class is having their supervised lab time. If there is room, you may be permitted to work, but I would avoid this unless absolutely necessary. The beginning students are quite messy and it is difficult to work around them.

Late nights are a good time to work in the lab, provided you can sleep in the next morning or take a nap later in the day. Often, loud obnoxious music is played at night. There are few people working past 10 PM, so you may take up lots of space. At this time, you may get angry with your pots and mutter words which you hear other people use when they are mad, but use these words no more than two or three at a time, and not too many in a row. These Forbidden Words are inappropriate for this paper, so you will have to learn what they are on your own. This is also a good time to get into a philosophical discussion with other students who are working. You may talk about the music that is currently playing, or some controversial issue (keep your ears open to those issues which are controversial). Remember, we discuss, not argue, in order to avoid open conflict. Do not yell or mutter the Forbidden Words at someone else, even if that person is a beginning student.

Late nights are a good time for practical jokes. This takes time, as you need time to discover which students like to try and be funny. Never pull a joke on someone while she/he is working or if the person appears to be deeply concentrating. You make do things such as smear clay on someone. Again, be sure you know this person fairly well, and expect retaliation. It is never funny to hide someone's tools or pots. Personal items are highly valued, and messing with any of these things is risky.

Relations With Students From Other Departments

Generally speaking, we like students from other departments, such as painting or jewelry. Sometimes, we must trade items (such as scissors) which may be missing in other departments. With part of your major in art, you will likely know many of the other students in the building, and will take other classes with them later. Treat these people with respect, as they can help you find things and people. Occasionally, a student may come to borrow a radio, as the ceramics lab has at least two available at all times. You may allow the student to borrow the item, but if the radio is not returned by the next day, you may take it back without asking. You may hear yelling from upstairs late at night; they, too, may be frustrated with their work. You may look at others' work, and ask a few questions, but do not stay more than five minutes.


Professors are people who you pay to teach you. You do not pay the professor directly, and must never talk with him/her about it. You will find more about the process of payment through campus mail. The ceramics professor with be one of two older men. Both of these men are kind souls, and like to talk with students. You may address the professor by his first name. You must respect them as they have lots of keys to all the cabinets in the room. They also know a good deal about what goes on, both at Goshen and in the larger world of art. You may ask the professor questions, and must laugh at their jokes (even if you don't understand them).

Security Guards

After 11 PM, the security guard will come around. You will know who he is by his blue uniform. He keeps the buildings locked at night, so people who are not students do not enter. They may be people who are homeless, but we send them elsewhere. Here in the U.S., we are afraid that people may take our things when it gets late. The security guard might ask you if you have a late pass. This is a piece of purple paper that the professor will give you if you request one. You may place this on your shelf. You must tell the security guard you have this; he may ask you to retrieve it for him. He will not steal it from you, he just wants to verify that you have permission to work late. If you do not have a pass, you may lie, although your conscious must bother you every time you see a security guard, any security guard. The same goes for stealing someone else's pass who is not currently present. You may claim you are on someone else's pass who is also in the lab. It is best to ask this person before, around 10:30 PM, so as to avoid conflict and/or looking foolish. If someone else does not have a pass and says so, it is polite to tell him/her to write "and friend" on your pass, you that person may stay. In the event the security guard makes you leave or does anything else you do not like, you may not use the Forbidden Words, even though it is after 10 PM. You must be nice to the security guard; he has more keys than the professor or the cleaning lady.

Mixing Clay

To begin making pots, you will need clay. In the advanced class, we make our own clay, either alone or with someone else. It is usually more interesting to make clay with someone else. You may either ask someone in the ceramics lab or after class. Ask only those people in your class or in the beginning class to mix clay with you. If the person refuses, do not be offended; they probably already have enough clay. Mixing clay is a rather complex ritual. You must take a barrel of mushy clay sitting right inside the double doors and remove the water with any available vessel. Scoop the clay out of the barrel with your hands and put it into the big machine, called the mixer. We use our hands so we can feel any "foreign objects" such as tools which may be in the clay. You must remove these items; you may claim anything you find, even though it's not really yours. This is the only time at which you may take a tool that is not yours. This is because the tool is not supposed to be in the mushy clay; since you risked getting cut with the tool in there, you "earned" it. You must read the recipe on the wall, and use the scale to determine how much of each ingredient you need. The ingredients are in big bags on the floor. Do not eat the ingredients; they are not edible. Try not to inhale large quantities of dust as this will make you cough and your eyes sting. Be especially careful if wearing contacts. I would advise working with an advanced student first, as he/she can show you how to do everything properly. Beginning students usually have not learned such things. In any case, you would look "stupid" if asking a beginning student how to mix clay.

Turning on the machine is quite the process, although men from the college have supposedly fixed the machine. In any case, the button "on" may not make the machine go. If this occurs, you may pound on the machine, kick it, and yell at it. The males in the class for some reason have had better success with getting the machine to start. This is the only time you may kick anything and/or scream. You may even use your native language, if you prefer. This is the ONLY time at which you may yell one or two of the Forbidden Words. In the event the mixer will not start, remove all the clay. Otherwise, it will dry and people may call YOU a Forbidden Word (the ultimate insult). After completing the clay-mixing process, you may divide the clay between yourself and whomever helped you mix the clay. You should claim an empty barrel between the tables in the center of the room, find some paper and a pen, and write your name on it. You may stick the paper onto the barrel with some mushy clay. You may not remove anyone else's clay from their barrel.

Reading Directions

You ought to read the directions for mixing clay and anything posted on the doors. You may read anything posted on the chalkboard, as well. Many of the papers posted are quite old; you need not read them or you would not get anything done. It would be good to read the rules of the lab, but do so casually, so as to not appear a "nerd", or someone who does exactly as told. Of course, you need to follow my directions, but not necessarily anyone else's concerning the lab. Do not take any papers down, even if they are dated five years ago. That is not your job, and you do not want to do something that is not your responsibility. In the U.S., we get paid for anything extra we do. This is not necessarily a good virtue, but that is how things work. At Goshen College, we are trying to change this idea, but you do not need to put it into practice yet.

Production of Vessels, Sculpture, etc.

As you already know the basics of clay, you may begin to make whatever object or form you wish. The professor will give you a list of what items, and how many, you are to make. The professor may be somewhere in the building; if you cannot locate him anywhere, you may call his house, preferably before 9 p.m. Older people generally go to bed earlier than college students, so do not call too late in the evening. If calling in the evening, introduce yourself, then apologize for interrupting him at home. In our society, private life is regarded as a sacred thing, and intrusions are not taken lightly. However, the professor likes his students and would rather you call him than simply give up. I would suggest first calling another student if you have a question, preferably the student assistant. This person is introduced in the first class period, and is often a member of the class. In the past few years, this person has been a male, with nearly as much (if not more) knowledge of how things work in the lab as the professor himself.

The Telephone

The telephone is located right outside the door leading to the ramp and the restroom. It is in a little room with a ladder in it. The ladder has nothing to do with the telephone; it is simply a convenient place to store it. I am assuming you already know how to use the telephone. Here at the college, you must dial "9" before calling anyone who does not have a number beginning with 535. This means the person lives "off-campus", meaning they save money by not paying the college to live in a big building with lots of other students. Students who are under the age of 22 are required to live "on-campus". This is because it is assumed that younger students are not capable of handling the responsibilities of living on their own (and the college has to make extra money somehow!). Anyway, the numbers for other students are in a yellow booklet by the phone. You must know their last name in order to look up their number, as they are arranged alphabetically by last name. You may also look at the wall, and try and find someone's number written there. Just remember that lots of names have been written on the wall over the years, so be fairly certain you have the right person. This is the only wall that I am aware of that you are permitted to write on. After 9PM, you may call WGCS, the Goshen College radio station, to request a song you would like to hear. Call only if you are listening to WGCS (91.1 FM; I assume you know how to use a radio). If you want to create a mild controversy with the radio people and the students listening to the radio in the ceramics lab, request something like Spice Girls or Def Leppard. They sing songs with lyrics that aren't "politically correct", meaning they do not talk nicely about everyone. At Goshen College, we try very hard to be politically correct (otherwise known as PC). If you don't feel like trying to be funny, ask for Dar Williams, Indigo Girls, or U2. These groups respect people; their lyrics are PC.

The Kiln

After making a vessel, you will want to trim it on the trimming table. Someone can show you how if you don't already know. Allow the pot to completely dry on your shelf only. Place only your pieces on your shelf; do not take other people's pots. After the pot has dried, you must offer it to the bisque kiln (pronounced "bisk kill") at the back of the room. We take turns loading the pots. Listen and watch to figure out how to load it. The professor will not organize people to load the kiln at the advanced level. Everyone knows how to operate it, so when the shelves are full, anyone who is around may load it. Some people are either lazy or are afraid of the kiln and never load it; you do not want to be considered as either of these, so be sure and offer pots to the kiln at least once during the semester. The kiln may use one of your pieces as a sacrifice (usually your best piece); you will find remains of it later. Do not take this personally. If you are not the one who loaded the kiln, secretly blame whoever did. Never blame yourself for bad construction of a pot. The glaze kiln is located outside. Use the south door to get to the kiln. The glazes are located in buckets on the floor. As you already know how to glaze pots, you may proceed after your pots have been in the bisque kiln. You may mix up your own glaze using the recipe file across from the back table or a recipe you find in a book. Use the special powders along the south wall to mix the glazes. Unlike cooking, you never want to substitute one ingredient for another. Check to see if all the powders you need are available, and that there is enough. If not, give up or try and locate the professor and ask if there is more available. Some recipes require powders that are locked up in a cabinet along the east wall. This means they are very expensive. You must have permission to use such powders, and only someone with a key may open it. You may see other students obtaining the powders by other methods, but you should not do so.

After glazing, you must place the lid back on the bucket, so the glaze will not dry out. Sometimes the lids will be lying on the floor. Blame the beginning students for such things. The professor will organize people and times for loading the glaze kiln; you will learn more about this in class.

Cleaning Up

As mentioned earlier, you are not responsible for cleaning the floor. However, you should clean everything you use so it looks better than when you found it. Sometimes the beginning students do not clean very well. Do not get angry as they may not yet know all the rules of the lab. If you see such a student, set an example by elaborately cleaning up your mess. Make a big deal about this, muttering under your breath about how dirty the lab is. If this doesn't work, you do not need to directly say anything to the student. We like to avoid confrontation, so that nobody feels bad. Do not tell the professor, either, as that would be childish. Rather, make comments to other students in the presence of the messy student about how dirty the lab is (be sure not to blame the cleaning lady). If the messy student is going to use an area after you, do not clean it very well.


Initially, the rather simple process of producing a pot seems like a very complex one. However, you will soon become familiar with the process. I still do not know everything, either, so you will learn much more than what I have taught you. The process of making a vessel from start to finish is quite exciting, as is unlike most processes done in this country. As a pessimist of government in general, you should take pleasure in producing something "naturally". To continue this process, anything you sell must be priced fairly. The professor will address this issue later in the semester. Be open to new experiences, and be willing to share anything you know with others who request such information. Have fun and good luck!

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