For the love of critical making & doing

because to me it is part of critical pedagogy… or something. (Is critical pedagogy a thing?)

I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion and their own style of pedagogy. So here is a part of mine. I’m about to embark on a new teaching trajectory where I get to put making before theory as much as I want (and based on the syllabus I think I might be failing a little but we’ll see how it plays out), and I am looking forward to it. The reason is, I have an immense amount of faith in my students to take what is given to them and surprise me with what they teach me. Every semester I am amazed at what they teach me with their unique ways of seeing the world. I know that if I just gave them papers to do though, I wouldn’t get to know how inspiring every student I’ve had to date is. And I’m not just saying that to say that.

I am lucky to be in graduate school in the department where I am for one reason above all others. That reason is the freedom my department gives me when it comes to teaching. I’ve TAed for Communication and Gender, and been able to teach in performance studies and media studies. My teaching is reflects my diverse interests, and for that I am thankful. My heart is with media studies though. It is where I have the most fun. That being said, I am greatly informed by my performance studies training in as much as I think that there are multiple ways to express deep thought and reflection, and those ways are valid, encouraged and should be submittable for grades. I love that people are getting into critical making because I think it is an “in” for people who might not have a performance background to begin exploring other ways of learning, assessing, and thinking through problems and theory… (I’m still not sold on the 3D printer thing though).

As I’ve been thinking through why the reactions people are having to critical making on the interwebs bothered me so much I started kept coming back to a performance studies classes I taught. I consider performance to be a form of critical doing or making, just not with circuit boards and code. To highlight why I was thinking of this I will tell the story of how the class went through four students.

Student 1: Probably a genius or some kind of savant. Best writer I’ve read in a long time. Performances were amazing. Got theory right away. Self motivated, but didn’t have to work hard. Contributions to class discussions were always unexpected and spot on.

Student 2: An amazing motivated student. Extremely intelligent, but had to work hard at it. Performances were good. Writing was exceptional but not near the level of Student 1. Eagerly participated in class discussions and helped other students walk through the process to get them to understand. Asked great questions.

Student 3: Had a learning disability. Had trouble with traditional assignments. Came alive when performing and able to express understanding and openness without restraint or fear. Performing allowed the class to meet an entirely different, expressive, hyper-intelligent, super-confident, stellar human being.

Student 4: Writing assignments showed lack of depth. Had a hard time communicating the connections that were being made during class discussions. Final performance was absolutely breath taking and brought many people in the class to tears. Absolutely nailed everything we did in the class from beginning to end in a snippet that we were all able to experience together. produced something that was probably a once in a life time experience for everyone in the class that day. In fact, writing this now I can go back to that moment and I still tear up a little bit.

The reason I think these four are so important is because if I hadn’t had a critical making or doing I would not have been assessing these students for what they really understood, synthesized, and learned from the course, especially student 4. Student 1 and 2 would have been fine no matter what. I can’t imagine though, not knowing students 3 and 4 the way that I know them simply because I didn’t allow them a different means of expressing their thought processes.

While I realize not every class can allow a space for some type of doing or making (can I just simplify and call it “faire”?), the ability to incorporate faire into my teaching repertoire has been a net positive for everyone. There are students that exist in the space between student 2 and 3 who were able to explore new ways of thinking and determine what they enjoyed doing more, and as a result, they were able to make decisions about future classes and… I say this having spoken to students in the 2.5 area… future types of jobs, because they had a better idea of what different types of work feel like.

I see so much critique happening of people doing things like “critical making” without thinking of big questions, but for me, a big part of critical pedagogy is allowing a space of exploration so that the class has a life of its own, and so that as many students as possible have a chance to succeed and to show the connections they are making. I don’t expect everyone to have the big questions when they teach, or to think through all the layers of power dynamics we all exists and teach in, not everyone has to (thank goodness for them). But that doesn’t mean that their students will not. And that doesn’t mean that trying to do something different, something that might allow student 3 and 4 to shine when normally they might just give in to the idea that they won’t do well, should be critiqued for being shallow or pointless. It just makes me… sad. Especially when I see this coming from people who are against essays too. I’m just not sure what to think.

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