Dear Prospective Book Arts Collaborative Students

This week we’re launching our blog with a post by our founder, Dr. Rai Peterson, who is responding to this question from the Department of English: “Do colleges subtly discriminate against poor and first-generation students?”

Book Arts Collaborative is an immersive learning model that welcomes students from all backgrounds and at all economic levels.  We provide all of the tools and materials necessary to learn book binding and letter press printing. We offer a sound professionalizing experience at less the cost than the average course with more required text books.

Our students run a business.  They teach letter press printing and book binding skills, lead shop tours, design and deliver classroom experiences, and conduct field trip workshops for local schools.  We deal with the public on a daily basis, and we work on professional levels at all times.  Our business is student-managed, and work-team organized.  It operates exactly like post-graduation employment, but with a safety net.  Because we are a for-credit experience, no one gets fired at Book Arts Collaborative, has their pay docked, or loses the chance for advancement based upon an honest mistake or lack of understanding.  And everyone, regardless of socio-economic status or family background, has the same chance at a management position here.

Our primary mission is to preserve and teach the apprentice-taught skills of letter press printing and hand-sewn book binding, skills which provide the major underpinning to today’s automated book production and digital design and printing fields.  We also hold two founding values dear: we want to provide well-designed products and thoughtful instruction to students and community members, and we resist becoming laborers who must crank out work based upon someone else’s vision.

The formation of these values began in Iowa in the nineteen seventies.  I was a first-generation college student, a scholarship girl.  My tuition and room and board were paid in full.  I had to buy my own books and school supplies as well as hygiene essentials, snacks, and meals on Saturdays when the dining hall was closed.  At the beginning of each school  year, I took out a National Direct Student Loan in the amount of one thousand dollars, and I budgeted it nine ways to cover my expenses.

My school was a small private college, and most of the students there came from upper middle class families.  When I began my freshman year, my father was liquidating our family business, a small town drive-in restaurant, and my mother was looking for work in the midst of their divorce.  My parents wanted me at home to babysit, help divide up the family’s belongings, and listen to their endless complaints about one another.  They were not in a situation to support me financially or otherwise.  But armed with my scholarship and such credit as student loans afford, I left home.

I did my best to enthusiastically congratulate roommates and residence hall neighbors who received care packages from home containing everything from peanut butter to pretty clothing.  My college friends went on school-sponsored interim trips like scuba diving in Belize or cathedral hopping across Europe while I found, and I sincerely mean this, equal satisfaction in service projects close to home.  I took advantage of opportunities to work closely with professors and local agencies instead of gaining professional experience through travel or unpaid internships in distant cities.

Pitching in to bring a children’s theatre project to a small town or working on the (gulp) John Anderson campaign, I found that people genuinely valued me, my ideas, and my youthful enthusiasm for the cause.  They could not pay me, so, naturally, they did not fault me for having no money.  Volunteering was a nice atmosphere.  Because everyone was working on a shoestring budget, thrift and ingenuity were as valuable as trust funds.

Book Arts Collaborative recreates that sense of community, exercising creativity and job loyalty, to pull together and make something nice for the common cause.  Yes, we make hand-sewn journals and greeting cards and broadsides and such, but we make something more: a place where earnest hard work and good ideas win the day. We invent and create the products we sell, working together over long tables and composing benches, every day.  We work with community members of all ages, and we enjoy sharing ideas and interrupting with “What if?”

By selling the products we make on consignment through retailers, we make the money to replenish our shop supplies and challenge ourselves to earn new equipment and better quality materials to continue our exciting cycle of invention and creation.  Demand for our product gives us the opportunity to continuously practice and upgrade our skills so that we become qualified to teach one another and the public.  All of the supplies and tools in our shop are there because we and the students who came before this semester’s group earned them.  Our rent is currently paid by a Provost’s Immersive Grant from Ball State University, but we buy the contents of our shelves and cabinets through the products we seemingly magically pull from them every day.

Our egalitarian mission does not end with welcoming students into a hands-on immersive experience without extra fees.  We sell the items we make at barely above cost so that our customers in East Central Indiana can own hand-made objects for the same price as foreign or machine made ones.  Buying an item made in the Madjax building by Book Arts Collaborative students supports immersive learning opportunities at Ball State, but it also provides the buyer with a one of a kind, hand-made item that is available nowhere else.

Teaching an immersive learning seminar gives me the opportunity to pay it forward like my professors did when they encouraged me to look around and find productive uses for my ideas and energies within walking distance of my campus.  The (free to students) MITS bus stops three blocks from our door, and our current students who ride it are among the most creative and valued members of our team.  It doesn’t matter how you get here.

Clearly, I was a headstrong mess when I started undergraduate school.  If I had it all to do again, I’d make some changes, but I’d still jump into immersive learning with both feet, hands, ears, and eyes.  However, I’d have campaigned for Jimmy Carter instead.