A three-panel storyboard-style comic. A girl is handing a robot a trumpet. A girl is handing a robot a top hat. The scene pans back to reveal that the girl is actually working on a computer in a lab

Not Mastery:

Encouraging Digital Design Dispositions in Girls

Elizabeth Chamberlain, Rachel Gramer,
& Megan Faver Hartline

Although compositionists have long pushed against a single, visible product from a single, static moment as the sole representation of learning in the writing classroom, we are still implicated in educational systems that seek and assess mastery of skills as evidenced in such products. Often separated from situated contexts and participant experiences and voices, much educational evaluation cannot capture the complex mess involved in learning and, instead, raises the stakes for performing mastery in formative moments. Learning is much better facilitated in low-stakes environments of play, of creation, and of productive failure (see Gee, 2003; Selfe and Hawisher, 2007). Add to this high-stakes learning another complication in our current—and, unfortunately, persistent—cultural moment: for young girls, the high stakes of learning digital tools and the literacies they afford are entangled in limiting narratives of gender, technology, and identity in ways that are often implicit and, therefore, too often uninterrogated. Even as we are seemingly making strides toward gender equity (whether in the workplace or in children's toys), women still face discrimination and even violence for attempting to participate fully in a society mediated and marked by digital technologies.

Taken together, these scenarios make it all the more vital to facilitate positive experiences with technology for girls at a young age as a matter of economic and social justice. In this Webtext, we examine scenes from the Digital Media Academy (DMA), a free two-week digital media summer camp for rising sixth grade girls piloted at the University of Louisville and collaboratively designed by five graduate students (of which we were three) and our faculty mentor in rhetoric and composition. Here, we investigate how we facilitated girls in gaining comfort and confidence as capable, active creators of digital texts in a community of other girls making design contributions. As current and future educators, we ask ourselves: how do we encourage girls to develop active dispositions as digital designers when there are so many conflicting narratives surrounding the intersections of gender, technology, education, and identity? As digital technologies, practices, and education continue to change, we also think it vital for all educators and literacy researchers to continue to investigate how to facilitate full digital participation in and beyond the classroom. More importantly, as we attempt to do here with girls from DMA, we need to continue to think deeply about how digital technologies and learning experiences inflect the formation and performance of individuals' identity over time.

To examine narrative scenes from DMA, we use the framework of design dispositions from Mary P. Sheridan and Jennifer Rowsell's Design Literacies (2010). In describing the practices, products, and stories of digital media producers, Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) explored patterns in the dispositions of professional producers, taking up digital media in particular because of "how everyday digital technologies influence our cultural spaces and the ways people interact with each other in those spaces. As educators, we are particularly interested in understanding how people learn in these interactions and environments" (p. 5). Grounded in understandings of literacy as ways of social participation, their work calls for different "architectures of participation" than are historically—and many would argue also currently—valued in prevalent models of learning across educational sites. In their chapter on "Fearless Creativity," Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) concluded:

If we want to encourage learning with communities of creative and engaged participants, then we need to design environments that encourage creative and engaged ways of acting and thinking. These environments should be thought of as architectures of participation that provide legitimate sites of learning where people can meaningfully contribute, receive constructive feedback, and shape the community—often as producers who are ratified, valued members of their community. (p. 69)

Presenting lessons learned from digital media producers, Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) designated three things to pay attention to in order to foster dispositions of creative problem-solving: "structures that foster creativity and innovation," "tools to encourage people to think in new and creative ways," and sponsors (whether educators or producers) who "design participation structures that invite people to explore opportunities for creative engagement via new tools" (pp. 69-70).

Our intention here is to examine how DMA served as a sponsor of digital literacy practices and design dispositions of middle school girls. Sheridan and Rowsell's notion of sponsorship is situated in relation to structures and tools so that those who sponsor design literacies create structures of participation using tools as a mediational means of action. In other words, when teachers sponsor digital literacy, they take up (and ask students to take up) digital tools that have already shaped classroom structures, from activities to assignments, and then also enable students to meet a variety of goals within these structures. Those sponsors, tools, and structures together constitute architectures of participation. In order to describe DMA as a sponsored site of digital design, in this article, we borrow from Sheridan and Rowsell's method of exploring design dispositions, looking at the practices, products, and stories of girls participating in DMA.

The concept of sponsorship has already been established in our field (Brandt, 1998) and applied to the contexts of digital media (Chandler and Scenters-Zapico; 2012, Jenkins, 2009), including previous summer camp projects (Blair and Tulley, 2007; Blair et al., 2011; Blair, 2012; Powell, 2007). Therefore, we aim to situate our analysis in relation to conversations of design—that can be traced, in our field, back to Cope and Kalantzis's and the New London Group's Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures (2000) and can also be seen in more recent work on design (Purdy, 2014; Leverenz, 2014). In "What Can Design Thinking Offer Writing Studies?", James P. Purdy (2014) suggested that scholars in writing studies are invoking and turning to the language, conceptualization, and possibilities of design, including the "currency of design" involved in multimedia and multimodal composing (p. 613). For Purdy (2014), design thinking is characterized by three approaches: a forward orientation (focusing on future solutions, not past problems), the use of synthesis as well as analysis, and the generation of multiple diverse solutions (p. 620, p. 626). His synopsis of Gunther Kress' (1999, 2003) perspectives on design focus not only on the multiplicity of available solutions (and problems), but also on the future-oriented process of creation:

Design, for Kress, is a way to bring about future social change through textual creation. As his work illustrates, with design thinking, processes of composing are generative, not just because these activities matter in determining what products are created, but because they shape the future and motivate the ways in which we (learn to) represent and communicate. A design thinking-influenced writing process, then, does not end with critique or analysis...but analyzes in order to create. (Purdy, 2014, p. 626)

As a summer camp, DMA attempted to reach, in some measure, for these complex design thinking goals that focused on digital text creation as a means of influencing the ways girls (learned to) create, represent, and communicate layers of their own shifting identities in the transition from elementary to middle school. Our central goal in this article is to explore the following questions: how did DMA, as a site of sponsorship, design structures of participation for girls to create texts—and construct identities—using new digital tools? And what dispositions toward teaching and learning were necessary to facilitate girls in feeling more comfortable and confident as designers of digital texts in a community of production?

While we do not rely on Purdy's analogy between design and writing as our primary framework, his conceptualization of the place of design thinking in writing studies draws into relief our disciplinary need to engage in efforts like DMA and how moving toward the tenets of design might better facilitate the goals of faculty and graduate students in rhetoric and composition in generative ways. More importantly, seeing the actions of DMA participants through the language and aims of design can teach us something not only about teaching and learning in the messy contexts of digital media (Denecker and Tulley, 2014; Journet, 2007; Yancey, 2004; Selfe, 1999), but also about the disciplinary value of projects like DMA in relation to qualitative research (Rickly, 2007), community engagement (Hull and Nelson, 2005; Cushman, Getto, and Ghosh, 2012), and graduate education (Ridolfo et al., 2011; Graupner, Nickoson-Massey, and Blair, 2009; Knievel and Sheridan-Rabideau, 2009, Yancey, 2009). Namely, in asking questions about the architectures of participation we hoped might support girls' digital practices, we discovered that it is vital to pay attention to girls' affective responses to working with digital media—and each other. As our own process of learning taught us, evaluations that focus on products or demonstrations of mastery of any specific tool eclipse girls' own perceptions of their practices and competencies as active learners and creators; and such assessments are, to a great extent, attempting to codify and reify processes that are always shifting, situated within specific contexts that are overshadowed by the assumptions of the assessment process in ways that create more misreadings and misinterpretations than they clarify. We have sought out girls' affective responses to the camp and their learning experiences through written blog responses and one-on-one interviews, both of which we discuss in the pages that follow.

In "What's DMA?" we briefly describe DMA, the exigence of the camp, and the theoretical frameworks we used to design the camp. In the bulk of our webtext, we analyze DMA in-depth through Sheridan and Rowsell's (2010) method of exploring design dispositions, looking at the practices, products, and stories of girls during their two weeks at DMA. Specifically, in "Tools of Design," we discuss GIMP and the cycle of frustration. In "Products of Design," we attune to the way play and continued engagement help encourage design dispositions as seen in the projects girls created over the course of the camp. In "Articulating Design," we analyze girls' language use in relation to the tools and social interactions during camp. Then, in "Girls' Writing & the Affect of Design," we create space for girls' writing as evidence of their affective responses to their own practices, products, and stories. Ultimately, we offer our conclusions on the digital literacies and design dispositions made available through DMA. We argue that, as one possible set of architectures of participation, DMA helped girls (learn to) create, represent, and communicate projective identities as active designers of digital texts; and in order to recognize and value these identities, we needed to resist our own pedagogical impulses of intervention in order to risk frustration and encourage girls to foster their own design dispositions.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Chamberlain, Rachel Gramer, and Megan Hartline are all doctoral students in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.


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