What I Learned about Maker Spaces

In my class this semester on Maker Spaces, we covered topics that ranged from how kids and teens use media to interact and learn from their increasingly digital world to how to create a physical space that invites participation and increases in value and interest as more people interact with it. What stood out to me was the variety of ways to make learning hands-on, interactive, and participatory. Hanging Out discussed how kids (and people) spontaneously seek out resources and guidance to improve their skill at a favorite hobby, and the Internet provides that access with historically unprecedented ease. Invent to Learn provides pedagogical motivation for hands-on learning and covers today’s new tools and technologies that enable easy physical prototyping of ideas and inventions.

The biggest gold mine of new ideas, for me, was The Participatory Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all of the creative and interactive exhibits people had designed for a wide variety of topics, from native cultures to a voyage to Mars. This book opened my eyes to what is possible, going beyond the interactive style of exhibits to those that enable new kinds of participation. The primary difference is that a participatory exhibit changes as visitors interact with it; they leave some trace. This might be a vote, an opinion, a comment, a creation, an artifact, or some other tangible evidence of their interaction. Further, as more people use, it becomes more interesting and informative. Visitors gain something by seeing what other visitors have contributed. As Simon notes, not every exhibit needs to have these properties. But I have found this idea to expand my sense of what is possible.

I also found the course assignments to be fascinating and challenging. They really made me stretch. In the first project, I had to choose a type of game that I’ve never played before, then play it for a few hours and analyze my learning experience.

In the second project, I sought out a social media conversation and analyzed the structure of the conversation as well as participant behaviors. It felt like I got to put on a sociologist’s hat and study a native population.

In the third project, I took a trip to the Science Center and analyzed their interactive displays from the perspective of The Participatory Museum.

In the fourth project, I had to find a maker project that gave me the chance to make something I’d never made before. The cardboard automata I made was a lot of work but very rewarding!

The final project for the class asked us to design our own maker space, using everything we’d learned over the course of the semester. I had a lot of fun designing a creative space for the Monrovia Public Library that integrates a topic of local interest (the Gold Line Metro extension) and computational thinking principles. The project had us write this up as a proposal, so the space isn’t yet a reality — but I’d love to discuss it for real with the library.

Overall, this class was a lot of work, in terms of reading and doing, but it also provided a lot of learning. And that’s why I’m here taking these classes in the first place!

Craftivism and DIY politics

Elena Solomon wrote a paper titled “Homemade and Hell Raising Through Craft, Activism, and Do-It-Yourself Culture”. This paper, published in the Journal of PsychNology (that is not a typo), begins with the interesting claim that while crafters and DIY-ers tend to take pride in the self-sufficiency demonstrated by their crafts and projects, this stands in seeming contradiction to their common dependence on DIY gathering spaces (real or virtual). In most cases, we learn to craft from others (in person, from tutorials, from examples, from books, from videos…), and even after gaining skill, we seek to share the results with other people, or sell them to other people, or get feedback from other people… Witness etsy.com, ravelry.com, etc. Do It Yourself might in some cases be better phrased as Do It Yourself With Others.

Or at least that’s the argument I think the author wanted to make. While this was the teaser, and that’s what the article claimed to be focusing on, the paper then veers off into an analysis of “craftivism,” which I gather is when you use crafts to make political statements.

My first thought was, of course, of Madame Defarge.

Solomon first describes existing craft websites as “jarringly apolitical” (I am not sure what she expected to find), a phenomenon she attributes to “the DIY movement’s highly political ties with consumerism.” I think this is trying to say that craft sites are not political because they are created? controlled? motivated by? businesses selling craft supplies. It’s not quite clear.

The same sentence then asserts that

“the apolitical masquerade reveals, upon closer analysis, neoliberal ties to a more conservative capitalist agenda.”

I read that excerpt at least five times before admitting defeat. I have no idea what this is saying.

The paper then meanders into “retrograde postfeminism” and makes some actually plausible statements that a lot of crafting and DIY projects are marketed toward white, middle-class folk, who may participate without even seeing it as so. It guess that group of people would include me, but I don’t think I’d go as far as ascribing it to “the underlying political force that actively works to maintain a racialized and middle class market of consumerist individuals.”

Much more entertaining is the list of “craftivist” activities in this article. While Defarge doesn’t make an appearance, Chilean women who were imprisoned and oppressed do. These women sewed arpilleras to tell their stories and ask about missing loved ones, while living in fear of punishment.

Barb Hunt knitted a series of anti-personnel land mines to protest their use worldwide.

Kirsty Robertson designed a knitting pattern that encodes the Code Red Virus and made it freely available. Anyone can knit this computer virus (purl = 0, knit = 1) and transport it anywhere in the world… or encode their own favorite program into a new scarf. (Of course, the scarf-code is only meaningful if associated with an interpreter, compiler, or a computer that can run it.)

I can’t claim to have performed any acts of craftivism myself. What’s your favorite example?