The Best Pedagogical Way

Saturday, January 15, 2022

 “...the primary danger makes a mockery of all caution.”

—Franz Kafka, “Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines”


He’ll ask if I want to have sex. In the morning, we’ll spoon his arthritic dog. The following week, he’ll say he wants to see me again but not if I’m searching for anything serious, not if I like monogamy.

I get tired of reading about pregnancy and birth and philosophy, so I pick up a book of short stories by a man about men masturbating where they shouldn’t, but I get tired of that, too. Mostly, I am tired, and I can’t sleep. You don’t learn anything about a person by passing the hospital where they were born. You may see windows, or the name of a saint, or a cross. I, too, was born on a beltway. 

It’s something about the word “searching” that strikes me. More restrained than “longing,” but not so casual as “looking” or “wanting,” and, of course, more active than “hoping.” Search committee, job search, search and rescue, search engine. And in this context “search” has a distinctly future-oriented quality. It means that he understands that I understand this is the long-term goal, not something I expect in the intermediary. And these semantic considerations give me solace. 


All last winter I read flat-pack table assembly instruction manuals. Decontextualized, the figures are serene to the point of melancholy. And though the simple line drawings don’t include pupils, or lips, or the finer contours of a face, in one illustration a tiny wedding band is visible on the left hand of the assembler. I search for (and long to find) Kafka's wood-planing machine essay. I want to see how they draw the hands. And suddenly there they are and so much worse than anything I could have imagined: so stark, so plain. 

Again and again my students want to know: Is this right, is it good? Is this right, is it good?


The cover of Hai Hsin Huang’s book, SINGLE, features three straight lines, suggesting the corner of an empty room[2]. In the book, the artist re-imagines scenes from IKEA flat-pack assembly instruction manuals. The originals all feature two people working together– in Huang’s drawings, however, a single person struggles to accomplish the task of assembly alone. The book is filled with absurd and painful contortions: in one scene, a character uses their teeth to stabilize the top of a wardrobe, another character holds a sort of vertical split, another grows an arm twice the length of their body, and so on.

It's not just furniture that comes flat-packed. Since 2015 the social enterprise A Better Shelter has been distributing flat-packed refugee shelters all over the world. They come in two boxes, and “with the exception of a ground anchoring system that requires the use of tools, each unit is held together with pressure fittings that can be tightened by hand.”[3] I search for the assembly instruction manuals. Mostly I watch time-lapse videos depicting teams of happy people in matching tee-shirts assembling them indoors beneath bright, white lights. These videos lack the concreteness and clarity of technical illustrations but yes—I see the boxes, and the hands, and the process. And in the end, something exists that did not exist before. Except it did exist and will exist, again and again, a perfect replica of itself, stacked into infinity, all because of these instructions.

I send a PDF of the Kafka essay to a friend who looks at the pictures first. He replies,


Bloodlessness aside, the inclusion of illustrations in Kafka’s “Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines” was innovative for the genre and publication.[4] It is easy enough to see how an illustration aids in comprehending the difference between a cylindrical shaft and a square shaft, but the words “several finger joints or even entire fingers are severed” scarcely need illustrating. In fact, it is hard to read them without vivid, involuntary visualization. And yet there they are, rendered with what Kate Zambreno describes as “clinical horror,”[5] and what my students might call Pathos! Pathos! Pathos! 


In a 2011 Financial Times interview, Paul Zimmerdahl, an IKEA assembly manual instruction designer, offers a more contemporary perspective on technical illustrations: “We don't use any text – only pictures. This allows the same instructions to be used around the world, without having to be translated into different languages.”  He goes on to explain the process: “We start off with the physical product in front of us and work out the way of putting it together in the best pedagogical way.” [6] The men next door tell me they wept with frustration all weekend struggling to assemble a flat-pack bed. When the box arrived, one of them stood on the porch, nudged it with his foot, and asked, “How flat is a flat-pack?”

Later, he stands in my bedroom doorway with a cup of coffee and tells me the word “manual” comes from “manus,” which is the Latin word for hand. He reads a draft of this essay and says, “You need more hands.”

“More hands?”

“Yes, more hand imagery, especially towards the end.”


chicken bone, and she understood, nodding gravely, as if this is what she was expecting to hear, as if this is what everyone says. And then she put the car in park and turned to face me and said with very little affect aside from the hint of restrained pleasure of imparting a piece of gossip, “when Tilikum the whale killed his trainer, he kept her body in his mouth for hours.”

In the months following the incident I would always hasten to add, during the many occasions when I recounted the story, that it was less like getting bitten by an animal and more like getting my hand caught in a machine (and somehow, to my pre-Kafka self, the former seemed less disturbing than the latter). They discharged me with a few sheets of care instructions, each page headed with the words “ANIMAL BITE, ADULT.” The first sheet, which now hangs beside my bathroom mirror, describes animal bites as if they were an abstract concept, impossible to visualize, and as if the cause, diagnosis, and symptoms were not obvious. Under the list of possible symptoms, one bullet reads: “a tearing away of the skin or part of the body.”

At the beginning of the semester a student says, regarding the day’s assigned text: “I think we’re reading into it too much.” And a for a moment I feel a thrill of embarrassment, entertaining the possibility that he might be right, until I remember that this is a writing class.


The key to reading Where the Red Fern Grows, explains the man with the Winnie-The-Pooh tattoo, is to stop after the first two thirds and protect oneself from the agony of the ending; the ending is unnecessarily gutting, just gutting. He’s on my porch now, with a bowl of honeycomb cereal in his lap. He’s taken off his shoes and is resting his feet on top of them, curling and uncurling his toes inside his socks. “They didn’t need to kill off the beagles,” he says, “they could have ended it there” (they were Redbone Coonhounds, not Beagles, but this isn’t the point).

 And I want to put those instructions in conversation with these other instructions on how to not get hurt. Or maybe, more simply, I want these sorts of instructions to exist at all. But it isn’t working, not really. Though Kafka’s essay is technical, it is more argumentative than instructional. I can’t tell if he cares about the carpenters—if he cares about their hands. Towards the end of the essay, in an appeal to shop owners, he claims that with the implementation of cylindrical shafts, “even if fingers are caught in the slot, the resulting injuries are slight, consisting merely of lacerations that need not even interrupt work.”[7] These lacerations are illustrated further down on the same page: small planes of raw flesh.


At the entrance to a bar, I try to open a scan of my vaccination card, but I accidentally show the bouncer the Kafka hands instead. At our table on the patio, my friend says, “What are you waiting for?” and I tell her how much I make at the university down the street, where we are always on the verge of striking. “People do it with less,” she says. We are surrounded by men in lemon-printed button-down shirts and when she finishes her beer, she pulls up a video of nuns singing “Ave Maria,” sets her phone down on the table, and leans back. I bring my ear closer so I can hear it over the chatter. She told me once that her parents met in an Italian wedding band, then divorced when she was fourteen.


Scientists have observed sheep and deer eating baby seabirds in dire circumstances. I think about this daily—the seabirds. And what if at the end of it we’re all living off of baby seabirds?

“I’d love to sew this up,” said the Emergency physician, considering the hole in my finger, “but we can’t sew dog bites. It will just have to bleed for a few days.” I showed him a matching scar on my right hand from a rat bite a few years back, and he told me that middle fingers are the most vulnerable to animal bites because they are the longest and the slowest. Then, in silence, we turned and, for a little while, watched a woman in a Yankee’s cap shuffle around holding her urine sample like a drink at an uncomfortable cocktail party, politely asking around, “Excuse me? What do I do now? With this? Where should I put it? What do I do?”


And what if the grapes rot on the vine? And what if the grapes rot on the vine?


I don’t know how to tell my students I have nothing to teach them. I don’t know how to tell my students that the instruction manual is a fantasy genre.


[1] Marguerite Duras. Writing. Trans. Mark Polizzotti (University of Minnesota Press), 2011. Page 3. Later in the same essay, Duras describes “naked writing” (9). Though I did not interpret this to literally mean writing while naked, it was still startling to happen upon while reading naked.

[2] Hai Hsin Huang. SINGLE. (nos:books), 2018.

[3] Andrew Herscher and Daniel Bertrand Monk, Global Shelter Imaginary: IKEA Humanitarianism and Rightless Relief (Univ of Minnesota Press), 2021. Page 7.

[4] Franz Kafka, “Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines,” in Franz Kafka: the Office Writingseds. Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner, trans. Eric Patton, and Ruth Hein (Princeton University Press), 2009. Page 116, editorial commentary: “(these illustrations) were a media innovation – the first pictorial elements ever used in (the Institute of Technology in Prague’s) annual reports.”

[5] Kate Zambreno, To Write as if Already Dead (Columbia University Press), 2021. Page 35. I am grateful to Zambreno for introducing me to this Kafka essay.

[6] Andrew Ward. “The Job: Instruction Deviser,” Financial Times (2011).

[7] Franz Kafka, “Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines,” in Franz Kafka: the Office Writingseds. Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner, trans. Eric Patton, and Ruth Hein (Princeton University Press), 2009. Page 113. In my marginal note I write, “if I sustained a laceration, I’d need a break.”

Saturday, January 15, 2022