Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Illusive Mystery of Sticktuitiveness

So, all of my faithful blog followers (all two or three of you),

My experience at the Saturday workshop about computerized textiles will be no surprise. I loved the lecture at the start, loved the big ideas about democratization of technology and found the methods and motives of the group incredibly inspiring. But, once again, in trying to actually be a practioner of the art, I found myself completely, totally, unbelievably, inept.

I could go into the gory details of the day, but let's just say (and I am no slacker, I tried my darndest for the entire 11:30-2:30 section of the sewing part of the day), the hours were a blur of unsuccessfully trying to thread needles (thank God for Ying Sin, the best lady in the world), losing the thread off of my needle, pricking myself, starting over because of fraying thread, and the cycle repeats. I did my most work of the day during the last ten minutes, when I panicked because I had no project for Dianne to take a picture of, so I miraculously somewhat-successfully sewed on a battery and half of an LED onto my daughter's "BOO" Halloween shirt.

I blame my slow-to-nonexistent progress on the following:
1. My lack of sewing skills. (I got a B- in sewing class in the 8th grade.)
2. The fact that several of the assistants recommended that I do a "trial run" of the circuit on a meaningless block of cloth. The second I moved to my daughter's shirt, I suddenly worked a lot better.
3. My lack of sewing skills. (Oh to have hand eye, small motor, coordination)
4. And finally, my lack of basic sewing skills.

I could comment on the computer programming section of the workshop (which did go slightly better, but no gold stars here), but this is getting lengthy.

I ran into an ethereal-with-joy Dianne at lunch (the lady practically ran the workshop), who breathlessly described the easy-connection she has with this medium, and related my frustration with it to her frustration with Scratch. (What happens if I was frustrated with both?) Of course, this validated the assumptions of Leah and Kylie's research group, that the medium makes all the difference, that it's not that technology is "too hard" for most mainstream girls, but that the medium is often unappealing.

One last topic to explore. My poor, sleeping daughter's ghost Halloween shirt. It has a battery and LED slightly dangling, thread all over the place. I, due to Kylie's encouraging urging, have some beads to attach and a very shaky vision of how I might actually be able to make it work, for Lucy's movement to make the light go on and off. Unfortunately, I've more than lost my motivation. This is the story of my life. I love the starts of things, the ideas of things. If I could, I would simply learn about interesting pedagogies, perhaps think about how I could adapt them to my context. But it's the actually putting them into practice, the cutting out of materials, this is where the rubber meets the road, and where I lose my interest. I figure understanding the new concept of the idea is the point, while most people find being able to actually physically represent this understanding is the point.

Does this make me a bad person? In our culture, it usually does. But I'm not so sure. I think some of us are finishers, and some of us are starters, and the really lucky ones of us are both starters and finishers. I feel like my daughter's messy shirt is pretty perfect the way it is, and I'm not sure if that is because I'm a lazy excuse for a human being, because I fear the constant prick of the needle, or because, in some way, me understanding how the circuit could work and how the medium has real potential (for some people) is enough for me. . .

And, more to the point, what about my students who are like me? Most of us "judge" our students by their output, their final projects, their revised and edited papers. Process gets very little credit, very little notice. I feel like I learned a lot from the day, but if Kylie just would take a look at Lucy's sad shirt, she would be hard-pressed to tell. In a world we are judged by the only thing that we CAN judge, the output, the product, is there anything more to us than just what we do?


  1. Did the mix of the appealing craft like nature of the cloth and thread make the computer gadgets more appealing as well? What do you think catches peoples' attention, the lights or the medium in which the lights are found?
    I liked the lecture as well, but I wondered after it all, if the sewing--being more girl focused, is just the same as the robot being boy focused. Is there a happy medium? Or in general, is everything gender biased? Did she get into that at all?

  2. Tiffany, she didn't really address the gender differences during the workshop. I had wondered about the gender bias myself. I will say however, that it is a starting point for girls to get into programming. I know I was into the bit of the workshop when we were programming the Lilypad.

    In response to your post, Julie, I agree that assessment has to take into account process, rather than the actual product. Bear in mind that Kylie mentioned that she's not going to judge our products based on whether it's half-assed (trust me, I have a battery and a light. WHOOPS) but rather on how we got there. I think your post explains it all. This is what the design journal does from a teacher's perspective. It gives insights into our students' minds and is a demonstration of the kinds of paths that individuals take. So what if you have a hate relationship with technology? I think you get mad props for thinking about it critically and make connections between your experiences and what students will face. I think that's half the battle won.

  3. Thanks for the "mad props"! :) I will treasure them forever. . .

    So the two of you bring up a really interesting point about gender bias, and the assumption that most girls will be drawn to fashion and not robots. I think, although the thought of building a robot appeals to me SO MUCH MORE than the thought of creating a fashionable, artistic purse that blinks, it is true that MOST young girls at the formative "this is what I want to do when I grow up" stage in the their lives DO tend to follow the gender rules as far as likes and dislikes. (MOST, not ALL.) But I don't even think girls liking fashion and boys liking robots is even the point. The point is to radically CHANGE the medium that is carrying technology in order to capture the interest of a new and under-utilized population. So if the textile stuff attracts some guys to circuits and electronics, hurray! That's one more person broadening their knowledge.

    I certainly don't think the goal is to create a "gender neutral" way to involve technology, although this too would be welcome. (I actually feel like robot-creating is totally gender neutral, but I'm a girl who can't sew, so what do I know?) The important thing is to make sure that judgements and generalizations don't plague these new uses of technology. (AKA GIRLS do computerized textiles, BOYS do Lego Mindstorms. Fashion isn't a real use of technology. Mindstorms is serious programming.)

    On an unrelated-related note, my daughter has recently become obsessed with baby dolls (rocking them, hugging them, saying "baby" over and over) and disgusting pink, sparkling things. I find this particularly offensive, as I, a liberal, open-minded mom, have refused to buy her such crap (although they found their way into her life through grandparents and such.) Just yesterday, she threw such a fit in Payless because I wouldn't buy her Princess sparkly glass slippers (which she had "made me" put on her feet), that I was seriously embarrassed by the noise level.

    All of this to say, maybe there is more to gender stereotypes than just societal brainwashing. Or maybe the brainwashing happens in such subtle, all-over-the-place ways that it is impossible to even track . . .

  4. need a thimble to protect your poor fingers : -)
    When we were in Boston at the workshop Leah was playing with not stitching the conductive thread, but instead used puffy paint on top of it, but you would still need to sew in the light, battery and switch (or make your own switch) there are options to sewing. And yes while the process is very important, the finished circuit was just the artifact that illustrated your understanding of the process.
    I think the gender issue is an interesting one. Traditionally electrical instruction and programming has been taken up by males, so it's important to pull more females into the mix. In talking to Tiffany, the Mac IT lab tech, she was brought into programming by playing with Logo in middle school. She's a prime example of how an early introduction into a non-traditional female field can turn into a long term interest and occupation. Hopefully CT can be as influential in the future as Logo was in the past : -)

  5. Julie! OK, next up LEGO Mindstorms! I feel like I'm putting you through boot camp for new media -- although I will say that you seem to be taking to blogging by watching your posts evolve :) Ant is quite right that I won't be evaluating the product -- the point is to engage and form deeper opinions (whether they be love or hate relationships) with a wider range of technologies over the course of the semester and reflect on this process, which you do quite nicely here. However, that's my take on what's important but I think it raises some important issues about assessment and the dangers of placing too much importance on the product. In my own work, I theorize that the product is one of four domains of learning in the arts. Certainly, if you learned to sew or craft better that would demonstrate some learning gains but if you become increasingly more reflective on your work (even if your product never looks any more sophisticated) that's certainly demonstrating some learning gains. The last two are about understanding the larger social and cultural context of the work (aka professional work a lot of times) as well as having some knowledge about the key terms, concepts, and other aspects of the work. In this case that would be learning to name the parts of the circuit, to recognize the various stitching techniques and to be able to name them, etc. What's your thinking? How did you evaluate work on the laptops in your class?

    To chime in on the discussions on gender, I think that it's important to note that Leah is speaking about serious pipeline issues in the STEM fields but particularly in computer science and engineering. At it's worst, women can sometimes make up less than 4% of the field at the Undergraduate level. Think about the implications if these are the people designing and making all of the software and videogames that we all use given this "leaking" pipeline. If you would like to learn more about issues surrounding gender and computing, I would suggest you consult the work of Jane Margolis, Yasmin Kafai, and others that have looked at these issues and describe the current state of affairs in recent publications. Definitely worth the read even if you are not interested in CS or Engineering...

  6. Julie, love the blog.

    I had some relatable experiences, mostly of the losing my needle variety, and in the end have a half completed jacket I'm scared to wear because I'll stab myself, but Leah was definitely right about the social aspect of these projects - of being able to relate to others at my same level, or in a sort of apprenticeship model, being able to turn to others for guidance.

    The thing I love about sewing, despite not being able to really do it, is that the internet cannot help me, clicking on google does not magically give me the skills, make my fingers nimble, nor give me the experience to be successful - rather I have to turn to my peers, I have to be social and learn from others. So in a sense, the learning of sewing cannot be outsourced or digitilized per se because in the end it is a person working with a physical object not of their own design, humbling themselves towards it, trying to modify its features and characteristics, and in this way sewing is more than a product or a process, its a performance (see Barton and Hamilton for literacy as a performance, and see Barton for literacy as an everyday thing) - a performance that involves know how of sewing conventions and basic electrical understanding.

    so this performance can ostensibly be done on its own, but it can't. I can't just sit around on my own and dream of the right laws of electricity and circuit breakers, or conjure up sewing skills - rather I have to carefully watch and learn from others, and that's what blows me away, how social it all is. even the end product, because we are making the clothing for others to see, we make it with an audience in mind, perhaps even a social purpose in mind.

    well that's all, great post julie,