Adventures in the New Humanities: Making it in the maker space
This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
“Welcome to the next big thing, the Maker movement and its revolution,” Mark Hatch announced in his 2014 book, The Maker Movement Manifesto. Making is trending, as are maker spaces; they are everywhere, as are its products, everything from craft-brewed beer to hand-bound books.
St. Olaf has hopped aboard the Maker revolution with the Cave, formerly the home of feature-film DVDs in Rolvaag Memorial Library. It opened without much fanfare late last spring, embraced by some, puzzling others, and prompting a few humanists to lament anew the shrinking space for books in the library.
Yet making and maker spaces are trending for a reason, and humanists ought to appreciate that they honor the past while helping our students prepare for the future. Advocates suggest that there is a fundamental human need to make things, made all the more necessary by the reality that so much of what we do these days is virtual. Making also encourages valuable skills in the 21st century — collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity, to name the most important. Making uses both hemispheres of the brain; plus it engages eight more fingers than does texting.
Making and maker spaces are trending for a reason, and humanists ought to appreciate that they honor the past while helping our students prepare for the future.
As a maker in my spare time — pottery — I completely understand what’s gained when you start with an idea that you bring into being. When I learned professors could reserve the Cave for their classes, I signed myself up ASAP.
My gut might have said “yes, please,” but the teacher/planner me encountered immediate frustration. Our Cave has roots in entrepreneurship, which I suppose could have been relevant to my class; however, that wasn’t where I wanted to go. Online one can find guides to maker spaces and K-12 classes; maker spaces and technology; maker spaces and STEM fields; and maker spaces and social science problem-solving. Humanities and the maker space? Not so much. Thus, my first maker-space challenge was figuring out how to use it. The endless yet nonspecific possibilities taunted me, and the sheer number of spools, wires, fabrics, and pieces of colored paper in the Cave rendered me unable to think straight.
So I stepped away from the mesmerizing cans of multi-colored Play-Doh and the scary sewing machines long enough to consult the local experts: the amazing staff of the Digital Scholarship Center at St. Olaf (DiSCO) who, in this case, were Ben Gottfried, Ezra Plemons, and Doug Hamilton. Wearing my Boldt Chair hat, I organized two sessions for fellow faculty to look around; then I picked their brains, too.
As the date with the space started to loom, I still lacked an intended learning outcome (mistake #1), but had an idea. Since my class focuses on U.S. history since 1945, I decided to have my students learn about the 1960s counterculture beforehand, make something inspired by it during the class hour in the Cave, take a picture of it, and write a paragraph explaining how it met the assignment.
Overall, I thought the result was positive, although the students were as overwhelmed initially by the space as I was. I’d suggested they check it out beforehand and advised them to learn about the counterculture in advance, sending them some sources. The point was to maximize their productivity in the space itself. One student spent an hour mastering the embroidery function on the sewing machine the day before, but I don’t think anyone else did more than just glance into the space, if they did that. Everyone seemed to assume they knew what the counterculture was or at least thought they knew enough about its oeuvre to fake it. I realized within 10 minutes of class beginning that I’d needed to build accountability into the assignment (mistake #2).
I thought I’d dodged an evaluation bullet by not assessing the students on their artistic output so much as their understanding of the counterculture; however, I discovered while trying to grade that my assignment was too fuzzy (yep, #3). I didn’t know what to do with someone who, for instance, made a joint out of construction paper or someone who recreated the famous daisy in the barrel of a National Guardsman’s gun at a protest using a wooden dowel and Play-Doh. Our culture socializes females to be craftier than males, so they were generally more fluent in the language of making. I expected the class to see visiting the Cave as a treat, but they saw it as a chore — although, blessedly, nobody asked if making was going to be on the final.
Advocates suggest that there is a fundamental human need to make things, made all the more necessary by the reality that so much of what we do these days is virtual. Making also encourages valuable skills in the 21st century — collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity, to name the most important.
I realize that with three already-identified flaws in my assignment, I may not have the credibility to offer advice — but for what it’s worth, here’s what I learned from the experience:
- Although there may be little humanities scholarship on maker spaces, there are universal principles I should have kept in mind. My project actually allowed my students to avoid the humanities altogether, not unlike those chamois-cloth tipis my sons built in elementary school that taught them virtually nothing about Dakota life. I should have reverse-engineered my assignment from a learning outcome. So too should I have linked the creative part to the research and the context more explicitly. I should have made them contextualize their products with reference to the past. Just because something gets built in a maker space doesn’t mean there can’t be citations.
- DiSCO staffers are maker gods. Their enthusiasm and expertise will snap you out of temporary maker-space panics. They provide supplies, set up spaces, offer advice, and remove obstacles in your path. They will gently nudge you to expand outside the maker space into the rest of DiSCO. Listen to them. Explaining, displaying, curating, and promoting needs to be part of the creative process, particularly in the humanities and particularly for imparting 21st-century skills. Talk to Ezra Plemons (firstname.lastname@example.org). He knows everything AND he can reserve the room for you.
- Collaboration is the logical way to organize any assignment that involves students with different levels of enthusiasm and experience making. A team challenge will smooth out any crafting differences and help ensure fairness overall. Having to come up with a shared plan is a good antidote to the overstimulating aspects of the Cave. If nothing else, at least there will be noise, activity, and energy in a place where it seems like such things ought to abound.
- Recognize the limits of the Cave and your students’ tolerance, and plan your class accordingly. It’s a bit of a hike to the nearest sink, which discourages messier endeavors like painting. Understand that the sewing machines may not work and the 3D printer requires advance planning. Be clear about clean-up, which I wasn’t (aka mistake #4). Anticipate ways things could go wrong, compensate as best you can, and then just, as the song says, let it go. There was a two-person Viking long ship Halloween costume hogging a lot of floor space in the Cave when my class first arrived, along with a warning not to touch it. Ezra fixed it right away.
- A grading rubric will help you grade, make the point clear to students, and reassure everybody. When it’s all over, do a debrief of some kind so you can do it better next time.
All in all, my experiment this semester was a mixed-bag, but that hasn’t stopped me from imagining next semester’s Cave endeavor. My U.S. women’s history class will be creating a virtual quilt for Women’s History Month. Watch for it! Doug Hamilton is already helping me imagine the digital how. This next time round, I hope to keep the mistakes to two or fewer.
Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.