Am I A Maker? Tech, Education, and the Maker Movement

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So I thought I’d stick this Atlantic editorial, “Why I Am Not A Maker,” up on my FB feed a couple of days ago. It’s a lighter subject, I thought… It’ll be fun, I thought….

It was fun, as it turned out, because it also turned out to be one of the hottest hot button topics I’ve posted on, well, ever. I shouldn’t be surprised, though: the Maker Movement is infiltrating classrooms at the speed of STEAM.

The author of the piece, Debbie Chachra, is an associate professor at Olin College of Engineering, so she knows something about making. Her point is that:

“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.”

She goes on:

“Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.”

and points out why she believes, as an educator, that this is an especial problem:

“People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences,” which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as “making” is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I “make” other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.”

She worries that caregiving, “sense-making” roles such as teaching are then demeaned by the idea that

“only making things is valuable.”

Whew.

My dear friend Kat, a digital artist in San Diego, California, who has worked on Star Trek 2009, Transformers, and is now lending her hand to Ted 2 , has recently become a mother, experiencing first-hand Debbie Chachra’s perceived gulf between “making” and “caregiving.”

I just haven’t had the time to make any artwork of my own lately, beyond knitting a few rounds on a sweater I’ve been working on since last July. The reason why I haven’t had time is because I do a lot of caregiving. I’ve been preparing dinner. Picking up the house. Going through the mail, both physical and digital, and dealing with it. Getting the kid fed/dressed/bathed/into bed. After a full day of work, and then coming home to my second job (being a wife and mother), I don’t have the time.

It irritates me that I don’t have the time to make stuff, but it irritates me more that caretaking is not valued. The low paid immigrant who cooks your meal in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant, the nurse who helps you walk to the bathroom after surgery, the maid who cleans your hotel room, the preschool teacher who watches your child while you’re at your “making” job: these are all caretaking professions. They are not high paying or glamorous, but the world would screech to a halt without them.

A thoughtful alternative comes from buddy Michelle Hlubinka, who is the Director of Custom Programs for Maker Media. She wonders who Debbie Chachra has been talking to. Makers are caregivers are caregivers are makers, to her; the Maker Movement is fundamentally wider than its digital roots.

I’d love to know what experiences have given her this faulty impression. Everyone I’ve met is super welcoming and as interested in beekeeping as in coding…Makers are chill people… When you build a circuit from scratch using components you find in an electronics catalog and it takes hours and tears and then you buy something similar for $7, it definitely makes you scratch your head. Likewise, if you buy wool and knit a sweater or cap, or make your own dinner….. the process is meditative and eye-opening. Everybody is a maker. The Maker movement is about celebrating that, not about excluding people.

And another dear friend, Kate Wing, who has lived and worked in the heart of Silicon Valley culture for fifteen years, points out that the problem is larger than the one word that takes the brunt of Debbie Chachra’s critique. Making– robots versus knitting, for example– isn’t intrinsically and unequally gendered, she maintains. Our society is.

Silicon Valley was valuing coders over HR staff, cooks, and soft skills long before the “Maker” movement caught fire in the mid-2000s. I live in the heart of this culture (sorry, Boston) and the folks I know at MakerFaire, Make:Magazine, BioCurious and other “Maker” hotbeds turned to things you can do with your hands because code felt intangible. Things were artifacts to be exchanged, they spark conversation and generate emotion. At MakerFaire, knitting and robotics get equal booth space (there may be knitted robots – I can’t keep track.)

Does our economic system favor quantitative products over qualitative outputs, like ‘building community’ that are traditionally done more by women? Yep. Does the history of western museum curation have a male bias that influences the ‘made things’ that get displayed? Sure, see half the theses in any museum curation grad school program. Is this inequity the fault of the word ‘maker’?

Which brings us round to the point that the gendered associations of education with caregiving– and the lower class status of women– are inescapable. By this light, the Maker Movement is indeed in danger of trumping the arguments of American educators for what is important for kids to learn– but only, perhaps, insofar as any educational movement at all recapitulates the long struggle for economic and social equality between men and women.

Ken Rodoff adds a new thought, however. A twenty plus year veteran of the classroom, he was an instructional technological specialist before returning to the classroom as a Photography and Digital Arts teacher in 2013. For him, a K-12 teacher on the ground, the problem expresses itself far more globally and insidiously: as an opaque, hierarchical, and rapidly changing definition of what is important for our students to learn in schools. It is one that teachers don’t always trust, aren’t always well-trained in, and don’t always feel they have had a voice in shaping– even those who are male, and even those who are specialists in technology. I’ll close with his words– and ask for your comments. What are your thoughts on the Maker Movement in schools? 

 ISTE’s latest issue dedicates page after page to ‘making’, ‘tinkering’, and if I’m not mistaken, ‘jengaing’. The post-2013 Ken Rodoff, the one “in the classroom”, takes umbrage with the notion of ‘making’, as it suggests the lack of ‘making’ is placing students at a disadvantage. Or worse, that I am not ‘teaching’ / ‘preparing’ my students for a world that doesn’t blah blah blah. We’re not in Coalwood, WV, circa 1954, so I’d like to believe that even in the dark [technological] ages of the late 1970s educators must have talked about preparing their cherubs for “an unforeseen future” replete with “jobs that did not exist” at the time. I’m just tired. And yet I like to think I’m doing right for my students. Right when I provide them opportunities to talk, confer, decide, counter, and most importantly, persist.