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Fandom, Feminism, and Maker Pedagogy

 Published on April 17, 2018 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Elizabeth Lenaghan and Gregory Zobel /  “Conditional support” by Pulpolux !!!; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  1

Politicizing Critical Digital Pedagogy

This article is part of a series addressing the unavoidable politicization of education. The goal is to investigate how our work as educators is irrevocably linked with civic awareness and to understand how our responsibility to our students and our democracy intertwine. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

In my graduate seminar on the History of Publishing, I ask students to “adopt” an object from Simon Fraser University’s Special Collections and to propose a way to remediate that object. How can they “republish,” or find a new public for, something that has fallen out of circulation? What does this republishing teach them about the history and present of publishing practices — their media, their audiences? Recently, a student chose to remediate the Vancouver Punk Rock Collection as a photocopied ‘zine: a single, unique copy, bound by hand. When we discussed her project afterwards, she spoke of the satisfaction she experienced in making something. She told me that she’d assumed, when she proposed the project, that she wouldn’t be able to do it; she expressed a fear I’ve heard from young women countless times, that she would do it wrong. Making the zine helped her understand the aesthetics of the punk movement, she told me, because she realized that it didn’t matter if the zine she made looked good; what mattered was the process of making it and the way that process drew her into a sense of community with the artists and musicians included in the Punk Rock Collection archives.

What this student expressed is, from my perspective, maker pedagogy at its best. As Shawn Bullock defines it, maker pedagogy is concerned with “deconstructing existing technology for the purpose of creating knowledge” as well as “archiving contextual knowledge obtained through engaging in the process of making, as well as the actual tangible products.” That is, maker pedagogy is about understanding how things are made by taking them apart, and then using that understanding to put things together in different ways. It’s both a critical and material approach to learning about technologies and media; as Jonan Donaldson explains it, “learning happens best when learners construct their understanding through a process of constructing things to share with others.” What’s lacking from this, and many, definitions, is that maker pedagogy can also be a political — by which I mean attuned to power dynamics — and even radical — designed to actively intervene in those power dynamics — approach to learning. In my own teaching practice, I frequently incorporate creative, DIY, or maker-based assignments, but always with an eye to the power dynamics of the making involved. It is important to me that my students understand a range of publishing practices, from the pamphlet culture of the radical left to the role of multinationals in the Canadian book publishing landscape. And when it comes to teaching publishing — itself a set of practices charged with complex politics of access and exclusion — students learn better through doing. (For more on systemic forms of exclusion in publishing, look to the examples of Vivek Shraya, Rupi Kaur, and Wolsak & Wynn’s new editorial board.) In addition to creative remediations of Special Collections holdings, I’ve had students prototype new media publishing concepts and use zines and podcasts to advocate for social change. I teach in a department with a strong industry orientation, and maker pedagogy is also an effective way of encouraging student buy-in. It’s easier to convince them to engage with abstract conversations about media history or industry accountability when those ideas come packaged with a marketable skill or concrete deliverable.

And herein lies my concern. I actually think that the best learning experiences emerge when students approach making not only as the acquisition of a marketable set of skills (though I have nothing against skill-acquisition in itself) but as an exploratory and self-reflexive process that brings them into closer conversation with the concerns of the course. The “best”-ness of those learning experiences emerges when my concerns and goals enter into dialogue with those of my students: I want them to be activists, they want to be publishers, but in the best case scenario we collectively learn about the productive spaces where publishing and activism might overlap. In this sense, I share Ben Harley’s understanding of “education as an event — an unpredictable engagement between students, material, and instructor — that takes place within the confines of the university.”

Our shared starting point is an investment in making and doing within the space of a classroom that is often instead dominated by thinking and talking. My challenge, as their teacher, is to create a space in which making is reframed in such a way that it can teach the lessons I want to teach: about different forms of labour and how they’re valued, about the gendered dimensions of technology, and about what feminist communities of making might look like.

“An Invisible Infrastructure of Labor”: Women and Maker Culture

In 2015, Professor of Engineering Debbie Chachra published a pointed — and pointedly feminist — critique entitled “Why I Am Not a Maker.” In it, Chachra thinks through issues of labour and value both within and beyond academia, focusing on how the term “maker” applies to, and thus values, only certain kinds of work. She explores what kinds of activities count or don’t count when we talk about making. Coding? Yes. Community management? Not so much. Here’s the crux of Chachra’s argument:

Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor — primarily caregiving, in its various aspects — that is mostly performed by women. […] The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture — that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving — is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Chachra links this kind of care work to pedagogy, which is similarly undervalued in contexts like the university in comparison to getting a grant or publishing an article (the closest many humanities scholars ever get to “making” something).

Her point, of course, is not to devalue making (which includes coding, software design, and other forms of technological creation) altogether; she recognizes why, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, we might want to raise our daughters more like our sons, empowering them to take the tools of making-writ-large into their hands. This is the role that projects like The Arts+Feminism Edit-a-thon play, and it is a significant one, contributing to the “re-imagin[ing] and re-build[ing of] the digital spaces we inhabit.” But what about balancing this business of getting women into maker culture with also increasing the value of gendered forms of labour like caregiving, education, and community maintenance?

Chachra’s sense that maker culture is gendered in a way that devalues women’s labour and/or excludes women echoes former MIT Media Lab Professor Leah Buechley’s critique of the social movement surrounding Make magazine. In a 2014 talk for Eyeo Festival entitled “Thinking About Making,” Buechleypoints out that, while Make harnesses “the language of openness and egalitarianism and inclusion,” their actual representation of making as a practice belies this rhetoric. She compares the representation of makers on the magazine’s cover (85% men and boys) to the editorial staff (87% male) and then to Google Tech Employees (83% male), and points out that the homogeneity of maker culture matters primarily “because this community has so much access to influence and power in our society” in the form of millions of dollars of funding from the government and from tech companies. Maker culture doesn’t actually increase access to technology training but rather continues to focus that training on the same demographic (men, especially white and Asian men) while making claims to being radical. Insofar as it extends something like an emancipatory education to women and people of colour, it does so by encouraging them to value the same kind of making that white male tech culture already values. As Buechley succinctly puts it: “I’m really tired of setting of structures where we tell young women and young brown and black kids that they should aspire to be like rich white guys. Fuck that.” In the field of publishing — which is dominated by women because it is a kind of care work and dominated by white women because it is also structurally racist — I hesitate to teach my students that they’ll become more successful by doing more of the work valued by white men. Fuck that indeed.

I taught Chachra’s article for the first time in Fall of 2016, and it’s made a lasting impression on me as I’ve continued to think through the intersection between two prevalent streams in my work: critiques of the politics of Canadian publishing, and podcasting as a valuable form of public scholarship and pedagogy. The former has manifested particularly in my work on the history of publishing in Canada, with a focus on how fantasies of a specifically white and colonial Canadian modernity were intertwined with a desire for technological sophistication in the printing industries. The latter has stemmed from my own experience as a podcaster as an advocate for more women getting involved in podcasting. I’m suspicious of technology; I like it in the classroom. Podcasting, for me, has brought this tension to a head.

Originally an outcropping of tech culture, podcasting has been a medium dominated by men. Podcasts have existed for decades and thrived within particular kinds of communities — tech, indie comedy, and sci fi fandoms, all dominated by white men. The medium is currently diversifying, but at nowhere near the rate at which it’s expanding. Sure, there are more podcasts led by women, queer people, people of colour — for example, the podcasting network Indian & Cowboy or the women-only podcasting festival Werk It — and yet podcasting in North America is still, as a Quartz article puts it, “a white male thing.” And, with Chachra and Buechley’s critiques of maker culture in mind, as well as my own concerns about technological modernity and oppressive politics, simply saying “we need to make young women more confident about participating in this medium by providing them with the skills necessary to make their own podcasts” is both true and insufficient insofar as it reproduces the same structures of value (making good, affective labour bad) rather than unsettling them.

But podcasting isn’t merely another example of white-tech-bro-dominated maker culture. It’s also the activity that taught me about other kinds of maker-based communities, ones not built around hierarchies of gendered labour.

Feminist Fandom and Digital Culture

What drew me to podcasting in the first place was neither my scholarship nor my teaching, but my friendship and fandom. For me and my collaborator Marcelle, making Witch, Please together was part of our feminist praxis of prioritizing friendship and collaborative knowledge building. By valuing first and foremost not the thing we were making but the relationships it was facilitating — our friendship with each other, our affective responses to the books, and eventually the community of listeners whose presence and participation we began to build into the podcast — we have positioned ourselves not as makers but as friends, feminist community organizers and, always, as fans. (Though I should add that it has been an important part of Marcelle’s feminist practice to emphasize that we record and produce the show ourselves.)

We locate Witch, Please squarely within the feminist tradition of transformative fandom, which Constant Grady distinguishes from the more frequently masculine-gendered curative form. Where male fans are more likely to “end up on Reddit, ranking every Doctor on Doctor Who,” she writes, women “are more likely to end up on Tumblr, dream-casting a race bent version of Doctor Who.” And if, as she claims, being a young woman and loving something unabashedly is itself a radical act, “transformative fandom is the most radical act of all, because … [it] takes a piece of media that may not have been designed for young women and makes it for young women.”

The devaluing of women’s fandom is part of the larger pattern of devaluing women’s labour. And, as Auckland tech entrepreneur Sacha Judd has pointed out, it can also be linked directly to women’s exclusion from tech culture. Online fandoms, Judd argues, are frequently spaces where people develop their own tech skills, not out of an entrepreneurial drive to make themselves more competitive in the job market, but in service of contributing to their fandom community:

Right under our noses, there’s a generation of young women who are video editors, graphic designers, community managers. They’re absolutely immersed in technology, every day, and we aren’t paying attention, because they’re doing it in service of something we don’t care about.

We’re missing out on a pipeline of creative, hardworking young women who should be in our industry and aren’t.

There’s a link to be drawn here between the devaluing of community-building as labour and the equivalent (and ongoing) stereotyping of women as less technologically capable. Judd demonstrates that women don’t lack tech skills, but rather develop them in different contexts and with different goals. This is making not as profit-driven tech development, but as collaborative world-building. In that way, it is much more in keeping with the kind of DIY feminism embodied in the history of zines.

Like the use of technology by female One Direction fans, zines aren’t about marketable skills but about passions; DIY feminism, explainsmedia historian Red Chidgey, “promotes informal, peer-to-peer pedagogies and critical making practices” (105). Contrasted to this feminist and DIY version of maker pedagogy is the neoliberal fixation on skills acquisition, commodity development, and an entrepreneurial subjectivity premised on decreased state intervention into citizens’ quality of life (106). The distinction between DIY and maker cultures being “grassroots and participatory” on the one hand or “neoliberal and conservative” one the other is, of course, its contexts — social, political, and institutional (102). And so, as Chidgey concludes of “DIY” we might equally conclude of “maker”: the word has become something of “an empty signifier” that depends on context (108). When the context is our classrooms, it’s valuable to think about the orientation of DIY as — these are Chidgey’s words again — “peer education, support, and finding activist identities within a creative collectivity” (108). It may be equally valuable to frame critical making in terms of fandom, building spaces for students to bring their own passions to the table and to encounter technologies as in service of the communities of care they’re already involved in.

In order to encourage such an approach to maker-culture, however, students need to be given the space to engage passionately and openly with their communities within and beyond the classroom. And I’m increasingly convinced that this space can only be created by teachers who are willing to bring their own passions into the classroom as well. That passion might be fandom, or any other set of personal investments, but I like the term “fannish affect” for how it conjures up a sort of unselfconscious and even uncool excitement. In presenting ourselves to students as subjects bound up in our own communities of both care and creation, we open up space for students to draw on their own affective responses, both to coursework and to the cultures in which our classrooms are embedded.

My zine-making student discovered the pleasures of fannish affect when she was motivated by her excitement and enthusiasm rather than by her confidence in her own skillsets — or even by a sense that those skills would be marketable later on in her career. And when students bring this affect to bear on their work, they often end up surprising themselves with what they can accomplish. It seems increasingly to me that, if I want my teaching, both within and beyond the classroom, to build students’ capacities for feminist and community-centred making, then I need to be willing to bring my own fannish affect into the classroom, and model to them what it looks like to make something because I’m passionate about it. That way, I hope, lies an ability to teach making without reproducing a hierarchy of gendered labour.

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1 Response
  1. Rachel

    I love this essay.

    “What drew me to podcasting in the first place was neither my scholarship nor my teaching, but my friendship and fandom.”

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