Craft Education

I’m heading back from a quick trip to the desert (specifically the Biosphere 2) where I attended a University of Arizona-hosted, NSF-funded grant funded workshop titled “Principles for the Equitable Design of Digitally-Distributed, Studio-based STEM Learning Environments” (fancy title for makerspaces). I had come to learn there are a handful of people attending that I’ve met before at tangental conferences that intersect digital learning, open education, and academic innovation, which was super exciting. I’ve spent much of the last two years focusing on the faculty-side of my job with travel, and have thus missed out on opportunities to bump into people as often as I’d like. These are a small portion of my people, my kinfolk; or as educators would say my “community of practice.” So a big thank you is due to Angela Gunder for throwing out my name as someone who could valuably contribute (though the jury is still out on that).

The opening set of discussions were really interesting. I was expecting some sort of level setting and maybe even some orienting around what is being done and what is expected of us over the next couple of days, but they decided to come out of the gate and hit us a little harder by opening up with three short talks titled “provocations” in which the speakers were encouraged to speak towards bold claims. One provocation was from Maggie Melo who made a point about how the “maker movement” is in actuality an idea packaged and sold directly out of Silicon Valley. Here’s a more eloquently written version which I scraped from one of her more recent talk abstracts:

Maggie Melo argues that while the Maker Movement has contributed importantly to a larger conversation in higher education about the importance of experiential learning, the Movement’s Silicon Valley roots have infused it with a set of discourses that are almost inescapably gendered, classed, and raced.

“The Makerspace is Dead, Long Live the Makerspace!”

This got me thinking about so many other projects that we’ve seen in education get packaged as innovation (MOOCs, design thinking) and sold back to us. Ideas that had already existed somewhere else but were appropriated and monetized by the tech community.

It also reminded me of a piece I had recently read prepping for a summer course I’m teaching (more on that later) titled The White Lies of Craft Culture in Eater. There is a similar history in American food. As Lauren Michele Jackson argues in the piece, barbecue is historically rooted in black culture, but has found a craft renaissance in states like Texas. Or how Jack Daniels learned to make whiskey from an enslaved black man.

Craft culture looks like white people. 

The White Lies of Craft Culture

Tech culture, too, looks like white people. And, yet, here I find myself at a workshop on strengthening efforts towards ensuring equity in makerspaces.

I guess one concern I have lies in how to consider historically DIY spaces and make recommendations to a federal organization liked the National Science Foundation and how that might lead us to NSF-like answers (demonstration, replication, measurability) that are often arguably immeasurable and potentially antithetical to what many school-based maker spaces originally intended to achieve (inquiry-based learning, problem-solving, creativity, student ownership, artistic expressions, etc.). As the conversation about STEM continues to expand to accept a broader definition of the field which often now aims to include art and design (STEM to STEAM), I wonder how much we are taking two steps forward and one step back.

I’m not sure how closely this ties in, but in some ways I feel like you can draw a thread between the standardization of makerspaces and other various forms of media making. I’ve frequently cited this quote from Tim Wu which explains how the impact of federal regulation on information technology has always led the same direction–from open to closed systems.

History shows a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel–from open to closed system. It is a progression so common as to seem inevitable, though it would hardly have seemed so at the dawn of any of the past century’s transformative technologies, whether telephony, radio, television, or film.

Tim Wu, The master switch : the rise and fall of the information empire
Featured image credit: Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash