Shifting Gears Post-Election

[cross-posted from Makerbridge]

I’d like to build on Sharona’s post from two weeks ago and discuss post-Election (or perhaps post-Obama) maker movement impulses … something is changing, and I haven’t quite put my finger on it, so here goes with what I know so far.

First of all, we are transitioning from a President who loved technology, innovation, community, and youth empowerment. It’s no surprise he liked the maker movement and elevated into a Presidential initiative. Now we are entering an administration built on big business. There’s a big difference between a POTUS who enjoys shooting off a marshmallow cannon in the White House as a pathway to American excellence and a POTUS who has accumulated a long resume for not paying American workers and outsourcing mass-produced manufacturing under a banner of “America First.” (I’m trying to be fact-based here, not political. And I’ll be honest, there are probably holes in both arguments to be made.)

Anyhow, in the midst of this, we’re running our graduate-level makers course again this winter, which I haven’t taught for 18 months (we’ve offered it annually, but moving it from Fall to Winter led to an above-average pause in it being offered). I’m using Dale Dougherty’s late fall book, Free to Make: How the Maker Movement is Changing Our Jobs, Our Schools, and Our Minds, in my graduate-level makers class this fall. (Later this term, we’ll go into Innocent Experimentswhich I raved about here.)

I read it and thought, “Here’s a book that will give folks an overview of the maker movement from multiple perspectives: education, manufacturing, crowdsourcing/Kickstarter, and more. It’ll talk about some of the key tools and people, some of the goals, and give a really great ladder onto which my students can filter and build new understandings as they engage on their own with maker projects and experiences. There might be a few passages or threads I don’t agree with, but I was on a different maker trajectory than Dougherty was, so that doesn’t surprise me.”

My students, on the other hand, are having quite a different experience. Almost every student — and it should be said that they do the reading and are prepared for class, sometimes recalling details that have slipped my mind since this fall — is troubled by much of the narrative.

According to my Amazon account, I ordered the book on October 27, 2016, and if memory serves, I read it immediately. (I traveled on Election Day, and I know I brought a different book on that trip.) That means I read it before the Presidential Election. I mention these details because I wonder if the timing is contributing to the different lens they are using. They’re pushing back specifically in these ways:

  • Making is described as nearly a cure-all for all woes, from unemployment to psychological depression. (Keep in mind that depression is up on college campuses, so this is a hard one for some students to swallow.) I call this the Thneed effect, recalling The Lorax, in which Thneeds are described as the ultimate Swiss Army Knife purchase — able to do anything! To be honest, I do think that hands-on, repetitive, but creative work does do something powerful to our psyches … and I see it in this class of students. There is a luxuriousness when we just all set out to work on stuff … none of us having much time to just settle in and create things outside of class. It’s powerful. But would I claim it as a cure for a medical malady? I’m not sure I go there, either.
  • Making is seen as a low- to no-cost enterprise, but only if you’re middle class or above. Graduate students, most certainly, do not currently fit that bill. They point out $800 or $1200 or $10K tools early in the book. That’s true. Of course, in my world of making, we’re looking for projects that can engage large numbers of folks. A $1 project is a big deal. Of course, underlying this is the tension: is making meant to grow up from the individual (a more libertarian approach that honors individual impulses but also further empowers those who already have access and means) or grow in a community fashion (which transfers some/all of the planning, purchasing, and executing to organizational budgets, which almost always means less costly projects?)
  • Making as a return to the good old days, something I’ve said in many talks along the lines of, “We need to use our hands … we feel productive when we use our hands … in the era of swipe and click, we want to feel productive with physical objects”? Umm, Kristin, I don’t want to be rude, one tells me (absolutely not being rude in doing so, to be clear), but your generation remembers when economics were better. Our generation never knew those times. It doesn’t feel true.
  • Making is supposed to be any creative act, but the book examples are almost always about technology, digital fabrication, or  making-as-business-enterprise. (To be fair, I caught this theme, too, but I’m used to kinda tampering that theme down in my head, so I guess I now do it almost subconsciously.)
  • There are five types of makerspaces, including libraries, but library makerspaces are the only type that are listed but not described in the book. OK, I caught this one, too, but again, I’m used to being tangential in the larger conversation about making. My students are not. Some came to class precisely because they aspire to library work and think making is an aspect of librarianship that they should understand … so I get it that their identity role isn’t validated in the book.

How about American Maker, the 1960 Chevrolet promotional video Dougherty uses as an example of us being a nation proud to use its hands (embedded below)? I remembered having shown it in class 18 months before. While we found it a bit corny then, and definitely reflective of a world where white men go to work, white women sew and cook, and minorities are absent (FWIW: Detroit was never homogenous or all-white — both Southern migration and international immigration were at play, and I have long hypothesized that immigration is a critical way in which new industries are built — as Hamilton says, “Immigrants … we get the job done.”), this year’s students found it to be a false kind of narrative. Making wasn’t assembly lines and inspectors, as discussed in the video. This whitewashed world where everyone is middle class and sparkling clean on the assembly line wasn’t their America.

So I’m wondering what you think … do you see any of these themes in your work?

  • Making defined as inclusive but fleshed out with purely digital examples
  • Generational differences about the maker movement
  • Maker success being defined primarily via examples of “making for money”?
  • Maker activities where the promised payout far exceeds the reality?

In the meantime, I remain steadfast in my belief that communities coming together to use one’s hands — particularly in more-“neutral” settings like libraries — can be a  powerful balm for our fractured selves. When our hands are busy, but we are together, we have opportunities to converse until we find common ground. That’s my hope, anyway…

 

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