Writing is Making: Maker Culture and Embodied Learning in the Composition Classroom

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Writing is Making: Maker Culture and Embodied Learning in the Composition Classroom

“Excuse me, where’s your teacher?” I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to see students pointing towards the door. I looked over and saw a campus ambassador standing with a group of prospective students and their families—they were on a campus tour. I walked towards the tour guide as she asked: “We were just wondering… what class is going on right now?” I looked back into the classroom and realized how incredibly ridiculous the sight probably was.

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Figure 1: “Upcycled Dorm Décor” by Aimee & Allie

In one corner of the room were two students whittling a chunk of wood, in another corner one student was unjamming a sewing machine, in the center of the room a few students were crafting a cardboard replica of the University of Arizona‘s football stadium, while towards the far end of the class a group of students were on a Google Hangout with a pit-master from a local BBQ restaurant. I, too, was a part of this scene a few moments prior—I was off to the side with a student; she was helping me edit a short film on the movie editing software iMovie.

I turned towards the tour group, “Oh. This is English 101. First-year Composition.”

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Figure 2: “Duct Dynasty” by Ryan

That semester I transformed the composition classroom into a makerspace. That is, throughout a five-week time frame, students were asked to create an object of interest while concurrently devising a critical reflection documenting their creative processes. Moreover, they were asked to speak to the ways the unit’s assigned readings informed their making process. The students were free to make anything (for the most part!) as long as two requisites were met 1.) they chose something they had little or no experience doing and 2.) it must be something that is meaningful to them in some way. Aside from the critical reflection that was composed in conventional alpha-numerics, students had material agency to decide what and how they wanted to make their artifacts.

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Figure 3: “Mini Catapult” by Austin

Throughout that 5-week span, the classroom was our makerspace—students were asked to work on their creations during class time and continue writing their critical reflections after class. The classroom space was messy, noisy, and a bit chaotic as one could imagine with 26 makers in one space. At the end of the writing unit, each student presented their creation with a short accompanying PowerPoint or Prezi to showcase the various stages of their handiwork. The artifacts varied from a quilt made from old high school t-shirts, a wooden catapult, to a zombie film, each student was able to speak to and write from their own embodied learning experiences.

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Figure 4: Long exposure night photography by Aaron & Jessica

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Figure 5: Beach-themed jewelry by Ally

My pedagogical rationale is invigorated by the “Maker Movement” proper, but is fundamentally inspired by critical pedagogues that I hold close to my teaching practice. Thinkers such as Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Seymour Papert, and John Dewey continue to motivate my pedagogy. In particular, I appreciate their call to disrupt the teacher-student binary in the classroom, the “banking” approach towards teaching, and their advocacy for holistic embodied learning. I argue that these scholars were “maker culture” way before it was coined in 2005 by O’Reilly Media’s Dale Doherty; way before it was even “cool” to be the new-aged “maker.”

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Figure 6: Action shot of Zombie film by Matt

I chose to put into praxis one of their major arguments into this writing unit (synthesized here): to encourage holistic, embodied learning that in turn cultivates effective writing that is meaningful to students. So, how can one go about doing that? Well, I’m certain there are different ways; I did so by leveraging the operational framework of a makerspace into the composition classroom. Now in retrospect, I am left with a few personal pedagogical takeaways from this making-centered writing assignment. Here, let me share them with you:

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Figure 7: “Birdhouse Mansion” by Ramses

  • Makerspaces aren’t spaces filled with cutting-edge technologies such as laser cutters and 3D printers; instead, a makerspace manifests from the coming together of makers in a central space.
    • When I said that I “transformed” the composition classroom into a makerspace, I didn’t do anything particularly special. Really. I didn’t spend any money on technology, furniture, or on space itself. The most physical energy exerted came from the class reconfiguring the desks from their linear default. If anything, what changed the class the most was the altering of the metaphysics of the space—once students brought in their tools, materials, and questions the classroom transformed into a makerspace.
  • Making allows for embodied, holistic learning—this makes for better writing.
    • My students writing and presentation skills noticeably improved during this unit. The most remarkable difference between their writing from this unit to other writing assignments was their sense of confidence and careful analysis of their own processes. Common writing obstacles such as writer’s block, invoking their academic voice, and “not having anything to say” seemed minimal considering their maker experience was personal and meaningful to them.
  • A makerspace disrupts the teacher-student binary and banking concept model of learning; it also allows for compassion and sympathy to emerge with learning something new.
    • I also engaged in a maker project during this unit. I created a short film charting the student making experience during this unit. The film is entitled “Making in Motion: Maker Culture in the Writing Class.” Check it out by clicking on the image below:

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It was my first time venturing into the iOS environment and subsequently with movie editing, so I leaned heavily on others’ (i.e. my students) for help. Doing the writing assignment alongside my students provided a nice 360 degree look into the assignment, while also reminding me of the stresses and triumphs that comes with learning something new. The class was truly a community of teacher-student, student-teachers makers.

Finally, there’s one last “a-ha” that I wanted to both share and conclude with. I wholeheartedly believe that the distinctions between a makerspace and composition classroom are arbitrary—these spaces are in many ways one in the same. Making is writing. Writing is making. Although it doesn’t readily embody features of a makerspace, a composition classroom is a space where students discover (invention), tinker with new ideas (research), collaborate with others on their ideas (peer revision), and fail through an iterative process (revision). Whether it’s through conventional alphanumeric or even transmodal means of writing, composition continues to be the pulling together of semiotic resources to say something; to make an argument.

About Author(s)

Maggie is a PhD student at the University of Arizona. Her research centers on rhetorics of innovation, maker culture, and women in technology.

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