By Dr Nancy Mauro-Flude
During the session ‘Ecosystems & Posthuman Networks’ ACUADS 2021 Kit Wise asked one of my panel peers: “The Makers Movement is such a powerful force, outside the academy. Do you see new opportunities for HE through a more porous approach to collaborative education? And has COVID impacted the Maker Movement, for better or worse?” I found this a profound question and I‘m going to try to respond to it briefly in the spirit of building on NiTRO Edition 38.
When things get truly complex, as they are, the distinction between us, our tools and the things that can be made with them begins to dissolve. On one hand, the information scapes we navigate daily are intertwined with an abundance of mediums, messages and identities. Published in various informal and formal formats – our words – both inscribed and incanted also disperse into new manifestations from the moment they are impelled from the lungs, or from the fingertips.
On the other hand, we so often hear of artists and designers in the academy encouraging care and sustainability, but rarely do we acquire know how of holistic tools to practice how this might occur on a day-by-day basis in our research and/or pedagogy. These questions are epitomised by many involved in the maker movement, especially in slow approach to digital literacy think, reading circles, epitomise by an experiential pedagogical philosophy often dismissed as novelty, as an add on, expensive, even out of sync with the realpolitik of the contemporary massified university.
Notably the impact of COVID made tolerable more rogue pedagogical possibilities for teachers to draw upon more grass root maker culture principles i.e., by examining how digital webserver infrastructure is normalised (based on imperial conventions and knowledge systems) in any given integrated virtual learning environments (Canvas, MyLO etc.). Within our parasocial virtual communities, nowadays it is taken for granted from dominant internet culture and scholarly works that community groups operating via computer mediated communication systems are referred to as a society. Drawing from case studies and empirical analysis I’m suggesting alternative and counter perspectives that move towards embodying the Internet as a more situated ecology needs considerable amount of attention and awareness. To scrutinise these proposals last semester I led the ‘Next Nature Networks: Engineering Flora Fiction and Data Fauna’ Studio, at School of Design, RMIT. Provoking critical thinking about technology as a cultural practice in diverse time zones and cultural contexts as a guide to thinking about the carbon footprint of the Internet and working with emerging digital technologies in a critical way. The findings revealed there needs to be utterly different relationships between teachings and students, often understood these days in business terms of providers and clients.
After a significant amount of debate in the tertiary sector, nationally and internationally, there is a clarion call to act on the grounds of our community and the every widening gap and therefore a misalignment of student expectations for university. Are they shaped by:
media and/or popular cultural representations?
kinship / family lore?
the marketing of the university experience as export commodity?
Rather than driven by instrumental problem solving procedures, alternative approaches to pedagogical technology and to User Experience (UX – the idea that we get to know what the user wants/needs and provide it, which so often assumes that there is one type of homogenous user and that what they want is an experience – a product to meet their needs, and thus it will be delivered) are needed. I posit that these incorporate a dynamic framework for students that innovates in tandem with the learning process (as opposed to one being an afterthought to the other). In distinction, focusing on tacit hands-on computational methods from the frontiers of maker culture, that is, somatic, digital literacy and feminist web server communities, demonstrate ways that contribute to the restoration of diverse spaces of sociability and kinship – in this studio we focused on the materiality of plain text computing. In contrast, UX was understood to be a microcosm of frictionlessness infrastructure.
Discussing this, we replaced UX with dramaturgy; a central discipline framing actions that offer an insight into, and elaboration of, aesthetic processes and the effect of technical provocations. The tasks often required a personal creative foray and the use of technical practices that are slow and demanding. For example first step was to install an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Client. IRC servers are located all over world, connected together in panning-tree server architecture, network. In IRC a message is transferred from one server to another server, in this architecture a message always takes shortest route through network to reach its final destination – so it uses less processing power and less carbon footprint, among other things. Installing an IRC chat client in order to take part in text-based class communication, or using the terminal to create files and folders straight from the command line, can reveal glitches and issues that in turn increase our awareness of the systems we use each day and largely ignore. One of the participants wrote:
“IRC Chat was an ecology of timestamps and invisibility, muted and therefore spacious there was room to imagine and swoop around with that one suture to the group of timestamped texts and beautiful typos.”
These pedagogical sites are contested locations of rich agonistic debate. A performative and material approach to writing tools thus reading, became an interpretational gesture – analogous to bug testing in software. Additionally enabled the students as a collective to give feedback, to modify and update content and presents a framework of open collaboration work in progress towards re-shaping and re-thinking in unstable times. The potency of acts that make visible the seams and fissures of concealed undercurrents and schemata of these environments foreground awareness of extraction technologies.
To be sure in situated learning scenarios how to measure meaningfully is an unknown. This premise is recommended to be part and parcel of the traditional focus on curricula and learning outcomes is required, but not adequate to define accomplishment. In considering the interrelation of – learning advancement – how we will measure and ensure our graduates have tangibly built new knowledge, typically measuring student retention/attrition is usually an afterthought; the recommendation is to start with this (and measure it) then we’re able to progress the focus and advancement in delivery in response to participant insights and ensure excellent researcher and student outcomes/experience.
Conceptually-led courses in practitioner degrees are often challenging for students – although creative critical thinking is often what they reflect upon years later as what taught them the most. This is hard to capture adequately in contentious student survey data tools. No doubt some students struggle and confess to not knowing entirely what they learn during semester. But in fact, the test of that is revealed over the months and years to come. And yet, is not the precious time demanded by conceptually challenging practices like “maker culture” worth arguing for, not simply in terms of the quality of thought they generate, but also for the less tangible benefits. Sensing, feeling and acting with (not on) the ecologies around us uncovers and creates opportunities for to articulate relations of scope and scale. I’m positing that perceptual shifts in pedagogy would enable us to think about community infrastructure as an ecology, being considerate about the channels that we use to communicate, we can negotiate our dependencies in our community more adequately.
Dr Nancy Mauro-Flude is a performance artist and theorist. In 2021 she led the ‘Next Nature: Engineering Flora Fiction and Data Fauna’ studio at the College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.