Makers and their Fit with the Open Enrollment Student
I will be writing primarily about what has occurred in one open enrollment institution—the one that was my own. Baker College of Allen Park, as I wrote above, is located only a few miles from the border of Detroit. Detroit is a city that has long been known for car-making, baseball, and hockey, and has a rich history of manufacturing and making that has unfortunately been mostly lost in economic downturn, riots, and urban decay. When you think about Detroit, in other words, you probably don’t think about the positive things that are going on in the city, although there are many.
Detroit’s people, and in turn my students, have almost a legendary resiliency. They are, in short, capable of making great things. They are also capable of earning great degrees if given the opportunity. Maker-ism has developed a strong foothold in the area in general. A Maker Faire was hosted on the grounds of the Henry Ford in Greenfield Village in 2010 and 2011, and a Kresge Foundation Grant has allowed for the building of a “Makerspace” community center and workshop that will allow Detroit and surrounding area community members to build and make to their hearts’ content without having to build, rent, or buy expensive workshop space (Haber, 2010). The space will allow them to do everything from robotics and electronics to carpentry and woodworking, and the ideal outcome will be for community members of all ages to learn to take pleasure in the making of things they need.
Just as it is a challenge to get teachers to accept the idea that interesting new media projects and papers that make use of the digital is a worthwhile concept, it is likewise difficult to sell people on the idea that Maker-culture is a worthwhile turn away from consumerism. Why make it if you can buy it somewhere? As one investigation of Maker culture explains:
Since people are raised within the cult of consumption, getting them to realize the reward that comes from open source creation can be a challenge. …there’s skepticism towards the movement when people learn there’s no attention paid to a bottom line, but [Honkala, a popular Maker] thinks naysayers could get pumped for maker culture if they could experience the results. He feels if people took control again they would want to know more about how the world around them works. If people had to make like their ancestors, they also might know more about themselves. (Sastri, Schultz, Melnychuk, Hazlewood, 2010, “Maker Motivation,” para. 8).
I think there is an instinctive match between a Maker-mindset in composition classrooms (and especially open enrollment ones) based upon that idea—we want students to be in control and wanting to know more about the world instead of just the basics necessary to get a degree and get a job. Coming into our school, most students want a job (there are, of course, exceptions to that rule). It is not that they are uninterested in an education, but they may view one as not necessarily connected to their larger life.
Becoming involved in projects that force students to be Makers, like ad-hoc movie production and watching their instructors pull together amazing assignments with little other than a computer and a digital projector, makes students want to learn more about these things. If the teacher can make do with little, so can the student. If the student can make a video in class, maybe they can make one at home. If the student can publish a book within the class, why couldn’t they self publish a book outside of class? Howard Rheingold is quoted as saying that
When we talk about technology, I think people often disconnect that from the fact that we are creatures that have hands with opposable thumbs and binocular vision and brains that have evolved because we coordinate our activities in manipulating the world. Our ancestors were rather small creatures and they were prey, how was it that we turned into the top predator in the food chain? It had to do with not only our ability to use our hands, but our ability to coordinate and communicate with each other. (Gellatly, O’Rourke, Strapagiel, & Vandezande, 2010, para. 7)
In other words, we need to communicate, coordinate and make in order to be fulfilled. New media and the digital humanities gives us one more way to do all of those.
One serious complaint that I’ve read about new media works in all composition classrooms is that they aren’t aesthetically pleasing enough. They also aren’t as likely to show linear organization and development as traditional texts. It seems as if new media texts must fit the expectations of the academy—or must they? It depends on where we place them in our curriculum. They don’t have to be end stage finished pieces—instead, they can be something we do along the way to finished writing or even other new media pieces.
Traditional college students often come to school with a lot of technology skills that they have earned by pointing and clicking on their own. However, those students who are unlikely to explore these on their own (like the non-traditional conservative student who thinks that technology will magically make them fat—a common trope in my classroom when I talk about online experiences) really do need a kick in the butt. Not having many students who are already new media or digital humanities natives does not mean that you should not attempt to use these in your classroom, it just means that you must be more digitally proficient yourself. Of course, extensive training can and does make a difference.
My experience in teaching open enrollment students using new media projects has shown me that those with little knowledge of academic texts are more likely given the framework of the digital humanities to accidentally make new media art than their traditionally minded peers. My fellow colleagues were quick to warn me that a video project might work well with traditional students, but that older non-traditional students would see it as a waste of time. Term after term, however, students in their 30s, 40s, and 50s grab a camera and go refilm scenes from their favorite movies, being very careful to make everything accurate and reflective of their own vision. They are the ones that I had to make rules for like “don’t kayak down the stairs,” “please don’t actually lock anyone in the trunk of your car,” and “you don’t really have to re-enact the blood brothers ritual” for one of my projects. They are more likely to accidentally use the tools for exteriorization. They are more likely, in short, to do exactly what I want them to with very little instruction when handed a camera. This is precisely the opposite of writing instruction where they want the “rules.” They get it—there are no rules. Go play. We’ll talk about it later.
Maker culture and the digital humanities movements are a great fit for open enrollment institutions. Why? Maker politics have a lot to do with people working together to spread a message and set changes into action (Atkinson, Kelley, Pierse, & Power, 2010). Examples of Maker Culture politics are everywhere around us once we know where to look, and technology is just one place (though an obvious one) that we can bring them into our classrooms. Open enrollment and community college students need these types of interventions even more so than “traditional” students. Empowering them through Maker Culture, even if it is just witnessed, can empower them to make similar changes in their own communities.
In the Detroit area we have always been very dependent on big companies and corporations (for example: the car industry, just for one) and the jobs they provided. As these companies have done poorly in the current economic climate, and more and more individuals return to school, more and more individuals turn to the Maker movement, or at least the idea of doing it on their own (whatever “it” may be). Some parts of the Maker movement are very political, arguing against big corporations and toward more advocacy for small and personal business.
New media and the digital humanities can both be used in order to encourage more participation from students politically. Students, no matter their age or income bracket, all seem to come to class equipped with cameras and cell phones. As such, asking them to use these in previously known ways around their neighborhoods can help them make real change and build community.