A New Culture of Makers and the Citizen Writer

In multiple fields (education and business to name but two), the maker movement and its philosophy for creating offers a new approach to cultivating innovative, open, and collaborative communities of makers and learners.

Works included in the collage (arranged by appearance)

As Joan Voight notes, the maker movement’s philosophy unifies a group of people working in a broad constellation of fields: “The maker movement, as we know, is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans […]” And as Evgeny Morozov notes elsewhere, the maker movement’s philosophy — a belief in the power of the individual enabled by technology to solve social problems — is not new. Key features of the movement bring to mind similar social movements like The Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th Century, 1960s counterculture, and 1970s hacker culture. Like those past movements, the maker movement is partially a social critique of a homogenized industrial society and partially a belief in the positive potential of independence, openness, and technology to make the world a better place. Guided by these beliefs, makers of all ilks are making their ideas material:

[Makers] include 3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand. (Morozov)

In ways that are just as diverse as the makers themselves, the maker movement has captivated the imagination of a range of scholars and professionals. Economists like Richard Florida identify the maker movement indicative of a newly emerged class of worker, the creative class: “workers in science and technology, arts, culture and entertainment, healthcare, law and management, whose occupations are based on mental or creative labor.” Author and former editor of Wired magazine Chris Anderson argues that the maker movement is nothing short of a new industrial revolution made possible by the digital revolution: “The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world” (17). Just as desktop printers, word processors, and the web increased the opportunity for people to share their writing and connect through writing, technologies like 3D printers have lowered the bridge of access to industrial production. And for educators, the maker movement — embodied by the construction of shared fabrication workspaces called makerspaces — offers the possibility for positive learning outcomes for students. Not unlike rhetoric and composition’s own “Frameworks for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” learning outcomes associated with the maker movement are expressed as habits of mind or “ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical” (“Framework for Success” 4). Specific habits of mind associated with the maker movement include “curiosity, creativity, and the ability to learn on one’s own” (Makerspace 4). Or, to put it in the language of the Frameworks for Success:

  1. Curiosity–the desire to know more about the world
  2. Engagement–a sense of investment and involvement in learning
  3. Creativity–the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas (“Frameworks for Success” 4)

As Howard Tinberg argues in his 2011 call for proposals, these habits of mind, while popular in some circles of writing teachers and scholars, are not the popular opinion. Per Tinberg, the landscape surrounding the first year composition has altered, contributing to a new understanding of writing instruction. In the past, Tinberg argues, student success was synonymous with student achievement, and writing instruction was understood to have a formative role in students’ achievement. Presently, Tinberg notes that understanding of success is no longer the standard; time to completion has replaced student achievement.

As Advanced Placement, compressed scheduling and dual enrollment in high schools are gaining popularity, the once-universal requirement of first-year composition seems to be a course for students to by-pass or minimize on their way to somewhere else, with high school students (at least those who are well-placed to do so) able to take the course equivalent at their schools, enroll in a shortened, intense version of it at the local community college, or place out of the course altogether through advanced placement testing. (Tinberg)

These new gold standards of academic success, speed and completion, are accompanied by a host of questions and implications for the writing classroom, for writing programs, and for writing teachers. Many of these questions and implications were addressed at the 2013 conference, and what should not be surprising, the conference’s speakers turned to an ensemble of writers, writing practices, and writing purposes that are made possible by digital technologies and digital culture: digital citizens (B.08) digital commonplacing (C.09), and digital advocacy (K.15). This sample of terms (and panels) remind us that writing is happening outside of our classrooms in a myriad of forms and for manifold purposes.

As Kathleen Yancey reminds us, “writers are *everywhere*” and the writing they are doing is always already both social and public (Writing in the 21st Century 4).

With digital technology and, especially Web 2.0, it seems, writers are *everywhere*—on bulletin boards and in chat rooms and in emails and in text messages and on blogs responding to news reports and, indeed, reporting the news themselves as I-reporters. Such writing is what Deborah Brandt has called self-sponsored writing: a writing that belongs to the writer, not to an institution, with the result that people—students, senior citizens, employees, volunteers, family members, sensible and non-sensible people alike—want to compose and do—on the page and on the screen and on the network—to each other. (Writing in the 21st Century 4)

Where students in past landscapes came to composition as inexperienced writers in order to learn how to write, students who grew up with web 2.0 are likely to be well-practiced and well-published writers. On one hand, they frequently read in environments that invite responses like comments, upvotes (Reddit and Imgur), likes (Instagram and Facebook), and textual recirculation (Twitter and Tumblr). And on the other hand, these same environments – among others like Wikipedia – provide ample opportunity for people to compose and publish texts of their own. In short, as James Porter notes, “The computer plus the internet and the World Wide Web provide publishing capacity to the individual writer” (219). Further, as Porter also notes, the individual writer’s capacity is motivated by social impulses: “people write because they want to interact, to share, to learn, to play, to feel valued, and to help others. And that drive to interact socially is a key feature of the new digital era” (219).

Taken together, the means provided by networked devices, easy-to-use platforms, and the motives outlined by Porter constitute a culture that Clay Shirky describes as a culture of amateurs: those that make and share “for the love of it” (83). In other words, these composing practices –- all of which are governed by an impulse to share –- are part of an axiological belief about the value of writing as a means of connecting to audiences and to other writers. It is precisely these beliefs about the value of making as a means of connecting that impels the maker movement.

In the next sections of this project, I discuss two practices that take seriously the belief that writing is a means of connecting. In “Tinkering in the Digital Studio” I discuss how instructor might use networked classrooms, laptop-ready classrooms, media centers, and multiliteracy centers to support a kind of composing where students connect while composing. And in “Protyping Digital Texts” I discuss a low-stakes assignment that makes explicit the idea that a digital text is a reading experience in both form and content. Thus, when students design digital texts like portfolios, they are designing reading experiences: not just completing assignments. And I suggest designing such a reading experience is the basis of connection to a reader.