Girls' Writing & the Affect of Design

On the first day of DMA, we asked girls what it meant to design their futures. Then, on our last day of camp, we asked how the meaning of "designing your future" had changed—and in what ways girls might design their futures using what they'd learned at DMA. Their responses to both of these questions demonstrate some unsurprising patterns within and across replies: generalized references to "technology," specific invocations of tools present and played with during camp, and both action- and product-oriented language about what girls imagined themselves doing and creating in the future. Having borrowed three categories from Sheridan and Rowsell's (2010) framework to think about ways of seeing design literacies in action, we revisited girls' replies to our "designing your future" question to learn more about their affective responses to their own practices, products, and stories. In this section, we examine girls' affective responses to digital media by reading patterns in their blog posts, adding girls' writing to previous sections' contexts of tool use, multimodal text creation, and language in social interaction.

In the final blog replies, girls' references to "technology" are accompanied by more concrete notions of action, of doing things with new tools, of the digital practices-in-progress they took up during DMA:

design your future means making projects with technology and designing your project like for example adding background and add your text (Naomi)

i learned how to use a lot of tech stuff, like the green screen and gimp and iMovie (Madison)

Girls' replies also indicate their increased awareness of what "technology" or "digital media" can help them produce with these tools:

New ways that i think will design my future is gimp because gimp can help me make posters for many things (Leah)

Another idea is to use [design] as a regular talent to just have it... to make a cool little video and use some gimp in the video! (Lily)

This has changed me because now I know how to do this stuff[.] like just for this one day I could become famous for my child movies or my previews... And I will thank every single teacher that helped me along with this digital media journey (Alicia)

Even as these responses, sedimented in the text of the blog, are not convincing evidence of vast shifts in girls' dispositions, we find ourselves hard-pressed to suggest that they are not indicative of some push toward the open dispositions of design that Sheridan, Rowsell, Kress, Purdy, and others invoke.

If, as Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) maintained, architectures of participation "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), we saw evidence—however ephemeral—of this during DMA. Girls contributed to and shaped DMA as a community, however quickly formed and short-lived, through feedback and support in digital design. Although Sheridan and Rowsell don't explicitly address designers' affective responses to their practices, affect is present in their work, implicit in notions of being "ratified" and "valued." When Lily writes of using a talent "just to have it," she is ratifying herself as a designer in ways that we hoped girls would. When Alicia references her "digital media journey," she is valuing her time during DMA on a trajectory that she projects will continue.

Each of these replies reveals a story of how girls think of themselves as designers. Others also give us insight into how girls think of themselves as learners:

the meaning of this has changed because i have learned new things ,knowing all of this stuff will help me be computer lab teacher when i grow up. (Emily)

i learned how to do things that i don't get to learn at other places… i got to make some new friends and got to meet new people and got to learn how to use some things that i did not know how to use before i got here. (Aria)

i liked that i was able to learn new things and that i can do these things at home and not just at the camp (Erin)

These references to learning are tied to a sense of pride in learning new things as well as how learning at DMA might relate to learning at school (or not) and how it might transfer to what girls can do at home. Though girls often did not pinpoint concrete situations in which they might use what they'd learned at DMA, they still imagined themselves occupying various dispositions of design. For Madison, Leah, and Lily, these dispositions are tied to specific tools that did not appear in anyone's initial blog posts: GIMP, the green screen, and editing tools. For Aria and Erin, these dispositions are connected to digital practices they hadn't learned previously and the new knowledge they would take home. For Alicia and Emily, dispositions of design are related to concrete imaginings of making movies and being a computer lab teacher as part of their "digital media journey."

Responses like these—that we might, in our schooling practices of evaluating language use, read or misrecognize as vague or abstract—are interesting to re-read in light of our attempts to encourage dispositions, not specific practices, products, or language. This is particularly relevant considering Gee's (2004) claims about learning as a contextualized, cultural process that involves bodies, experiences, and a wide range of discursive practices "that facilitate learning, not just memorizing words" (p. 39). In relation to our initial intentions for the camp—to help girls gain comfort and confidence in digital design—these stories remind us to value girls' affective responses to the experience of participating in DMA in ways that may not be reflected clearly or visibly in specific practices or products.

And meaningful affective responses need not be entirely optimistic—as we made clear in "Narratives from Camp" and "Tools of Design." As Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) suggested, we should pay attention to structures, tools, and sponsors, in order foster dispositions of "creative problem-solving"—which explicitly invokes a problem as well as a solution. In response to our question about what girls think it means to "design your future," Maya wrote a lengthy response in which she imagined that the "problem" she might have will be with technology itself:

by using all of the things you learned through out the two weeks and use it for your future... like if you have a problem you could be like[,] oh i learned this in the camp i took in the summer about digital media[.] oh yeah i remember[.] and you can do it with the stuff we learned[,] which is gimp[,] i movie[,] storyboard[,] how to upload things and download things[,] and drag it to your desktop[,] and screen shot it on a computer. so all you have to do is remember what you did in the camp that token place this summer and use it if you have any problems[,] and you have already learned it. (Maya)

Maya's response is one of several that indicate that, in the future, she believes she will rely on her memory of, and learning from, DMA to help her solve unspecified "problems." Yet Maya's response also stands out—in ways that we had not anticipated. Like Madison, Leah, and Lily, Maya has language for a number of digital tools that she did not come in with: GIMP, iMovie, Storyboard, upload, download, drag, desktop, and screenshot. But unlike Aria and Erin, her reply is not visibly marked by her self-report that she did not know these things before DMA. Hers is also a different kind of concrete imagining than Alicia and Emily, who envision themselves as capable of doing things with technology that will further their own interests and pursuits. Rather than imagining herself in a specific situation, Maya hopes that what she has learned will help her in any situation; and instead of seeing technology as a means to accomplish what she already wants to do, Maya seems to see her own learning about technology as a talisman to help her deal with the problem of not knowing how to do things with that technology itself.

In brief, in Maya's figured world, digital media is both a problem and a solution. Gee (2011) defined figured worlds as the "(often unconscious) theories and stories that we as humans use to understand and deal with the world" (p. 63). In a later revision of his work on discourse analysis, he asked this question about figured worlds: "What participants, activities, ways of interacting, forms of language, people, objects, environments, and institutions, as well as values, are in these figured worlds?" (Gee, 2014, p. 176). Maya's response on the blog indicates a figured world that we did not necessarily see—or want to see—as teacher-researchers involved in a community engagement digital media camp. In her figured world, Maya is a participant who anticipates moments of trouble and imagines her own need to "remember what you did in the camp…and use it if you have any problems." Despite the long list of tools, described in specific technical language, Maya does not see the environment surrounding digital media as one that is problem- or trouble-free. Yet her narrative reflects an arc of facing and overcoming frustration over time.

While Maya's logic might seem circular to us—if you have any problems, you have already learned how to solve them; you just need to remember what you already learned—it also reminds us that sometimes problem-solving requires problem-seeing, or problem-imagining. And what this looks like to us, as digital media teacher-researchers, is vastly different than what it looks like for girls emerging from schools deemed historically underperforming, who face multiple socioeconomic and educational barriers to what Jenkins' (2009) refers to as full participation in 21st century education.

What Maya's reply on the blog doesn't reveal, though, is the rest of her story. She was one of two participants whom we feared would not return to camp due to her initial frustrations with digital tools and an initial (at least seeming) lack of connection to other girls. Yet her interview responses and conversational asides to us revealed her pride in getting over her stage fright to act out her green screen script—about her desire to act, as a form of expressing herself—and her desire to attend more camps like ours and to keep learning to create using digital media. If, as Purdy (2014) suggests of Kress' work, the activities of composing "shape the future and motivate the ways in which we (learn to) represent and communicate" (p. 626), then DMA contributed to Maya's and other girls' dispositions of design—simply by encouraging them to see such dispositions as available and encouraged for themselves and other girls their age.


What Is DMA? And Why Does It Matter?

We offer here a brief overview of the camp and our goals for it. In brief, we wanted DMA to provide girls an opportunity to create—rather than merely consume—digital texts. Twenty rising sixth grade girls participated, from two historically low-performing elementary schools in lower-income neighborhoods in Louisville. Using tablets, desktop computers, and digital cameras, girls learned, used, and played with image manipulation and video editing. We selected technologies that would give girls the opportunity to develop their projective identities, to imagine a technological place for themselves both within their projects and in their futures. We chose two focal technologies: the Mac-standard video-creation software iMovie and the free Photoshop-like image manipulation program GIMP. Since Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) identify strong support for social sharing as key to building architectures of participation for digital media literacy (pp. 46-7), we also asked girls to leave daily comments on the camp blog and share photos with one another on Instagram. Then, during the second week of DMA, girls designed group projects that proposed solutions to problems in relation to the camp's theme, Designing Your Future, and presented their projects to an audience of family, teachers, and university community members.

The primary exigency for DMA was the worsening underrepresentation of women in technology-related fields—and the particular risks for girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that in 2009 women held just 27% of science and math jobs, a drop of three percentage points since 2000. Many researchers suggest this gap is the result of adolescent girls' tendencies to underestimate their own abilities and to have higher anxiety in science and technology (Andre, Whigham, Henrdickson, and Chambers, 1997; Britner and Parajes, 2005). Peggy Orenstein (1994) called this the "confidence gap," and her research has suggested that this anxiety and underestimation often begins in middle school. Furthermore, adolescents in low-income schools are also affected by what Henry Jenkins (2009) called "the participation gap"—they are much less likely than peers at wealthier schools to use technology outside of highly restricted academic applications, and thus much less likely to see themselves as participants in digital environments. Jenkins argued that, in our current cultural moment, children have "unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare [them] for full participation in the world of tomorrow" (p. xii). More equitable digital participation, he argued, is how children and adolescents come to understand interface gestalts and develop creative technological problem-solving skills. Thus, DMA aimed to offer girls going into lower-income middle schools a chance to build technological confidence at a critical age, right before they were asked to make one of their first significant decisions about their educational futures: which elective classes to take in middle school.

We wanted DMA to be a confidence-building experience for girls that offered them two sets of possibilities: one as active bodies on a university campus where they might envision themselves, and another as thoughtful producers of digital texts. To address the former, we chose the theme, Design Your Future, as a way for girls to think about how they might pursue degrees and careers using technology in whatever futures they plan for themselves, whether as a wedding designer, soccer player, or student in an advanced math class in middle school. To emphasize the latter, we borrowed from composition's disciplinary emphasis on text creation as well as reading and critical analysis (see Selber, 2004). As a discipline, we make text creation the center of classroom learning based on a foundational understanding that students learn to write by writing. By extension, many scholars in our field have taken up a similar stance that students learn to compose for a range of audiences and contexts by composing in forms including but not limited to print-based text.

From our initial survey and participant interviews with DMA participants, we discovered girls often associated technology use in school with testing, gaming, or, at most, text consumption rather than any active creativity or design thinking associated with text creation. When asked in interviews about technology use in schools, girls often referenced "computer class," where the main objective was to use computer programs to complement curricular learning (e.g., "Cool Math"), not to engage in media creation. Further, our initial survey results indicated that, while the majority of girls at DMA had watched videos online, only two reported making their own videos. Yet every participant indicated a desire to make videos during camp. It was this fuller participation in digital spaces that DMA sought to encourage.

To help girls imagine themselves as active producers and participants in digital spaces, we turned to the scholarship of Gee (2004) and Selber (2004) as theoretical frameworks. First, we used Gee's projective identities as the trajectory for how we hoped girls would participate in digital design. Gee (2004) characterized projective identities in two parts: as acts of projecting values and desires, and of seeing these projections as projects in the making (p. 112). The goal is for learners to see these acts "as their own project in the making—an identity they take on that entails a certain trajectory through time defined by their own values, desires, choices, and goals" (Gee, 2004, p. 114). For DMA, we hoped that girls would imagine future identities as capable, confident creators in and through digital projects. To trace these identities in the making, we used Selber's (2004) framework from Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Based on Selber's categories, we developed three objectives for girls: to be users (functional literacy), questioners (critical literacy), and producers (rhetorical literacy) of digital media. We hoped that, through play and collaboration, girls would participate in Purdy's (2014) approaches to design thinking: not only in analysis but also in synthesis, designing their futures in and through digital texts that might "shape the future and motivate the ways in which we (learn to) represent and communicate" (p. 626).



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