A Maker convergence

Composition and Participatory Culture
in the Open
Enrollment Environment

sparkleponies on bookshelf Introduction

In Convergence Culture (2008), Henry Jenkins writes that “media audiences…will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (p. 2). I am an instructor who will go almost anywhere in search of the sorts of classroom experiences I want. For Jenkins, convergence not only represents how content moves between media platforms, but also how audiences have begun to participate in that locomotion. In my classroom, I do not want students to simply analyze, but also to produce. It seems natural, then, that the projects I ask my students to do are not only print-based, but encourage the use of video, web-texts, images, sound and even occasionally robotics as they work toward a finished written product. However, when I began writing this article, I was the Director of College Writing at an open enrollment institution with a fairly rigid (though not entirely inflexible) curriculum, which perhaps makes my successes in developing a Writing with Technology Across the Curriculum program here unexpected—though I hope not entirely unique (I have since taken an Assistant Professorship at another school).

Baker College of Allen Park is one of 13 Baker College campuses in Michigan. We had about 4,000 students enrolled for Winter 2011. Many of our students are non-traditional (with a mean age of 29 in the 2009-2010 school year) and about 5-10% of our population is made up of English Language Learners. Because of our proximity to Detroit, many of our students come from the poorly funded public schools that have existed in the area over the past 30 years. Some of my most memorable students are those who tell tales of dropping out of grade school and high school during the Detroit riots of the 1960s. Our mission is to provide the highest quality education possible to these students and in doing so we have created a campus rich in access to computers, physical spaces for project work, and large amounts of supportive services for students. I will refer to this school as Open Enrollment; however, students must pass an Ability to Benefit test in order to be enrolled.

These students come to us with varying degrees of technological literacy. Some may not know how to turn on a computer while others may have been working as engineers for Chrysler before returning to school after layoffs. Knowing how important it is for all our students to graduate with computer literacy no matter what their degree, not only are there general use computer labs for students as well as a large lab in the library/Writing Center/Learning Center complex, but our developmental English and reading classes meet in computer labs as well at least every other week. Our Workplace Communication and Business Communication and report writing courses meet in computer labs every class session. In the other classrooms, every room is equipped with an instructor computer, digital projector, VCR, DVD player, and sound system. I also offer about six cameras to my students for check out, although these do not belong to the institution. In other words, given that we invest a great deal in technology for students to use, our students are in a well-funded position to be able to make multimedia projects in classrooms.

But perhaps even more importantly, there is what I will call a “Maker” mindset in this institution and ones like it—we wish to take the technology we have and make the most out of it, creating a community of do-it-yourselfer instructors and students who apply critical thinking to everyday situations and make them unique (O’Reilly Media, 2010). “Makers” are people who create, invent, and innovate mostly entirely without the support of larger institutions, research grants, or even professional grade technology and materials. This is not exactly the position that the open-enrollment instructor or student finds himself or herself in, but it does feel familiar. If something is not available, we have a tendency to “make it work,” whether that means buying cheap cameras off of woot.com, using freeware that is quickly installable for whatever software is not made available, bringing programmable robots into the classroom for scared students to make presentations through, buying a Wii to use in group work, or even just figuring out interesting ways of using Word and PowerPoint. We also have quarterly professional development sessions run not only by administrators but by innovative instructors to share the best practices that we have discovered in our own classrooms.

It is sometimes clear that adjuncts, community college teachers, and open enrollment instructors all share something in common—they’re used to “making do.” But this doesn’t, as I will show, preclude them from teaching with technology. Anne Wysocki (2004) writes that working with and writing with new media is something both more simple and more complex than making webpages in writing classrooms. Writing with new media means considering form as well as genre: do we write with crayon or pen? Computer or paper? PowerPoint or Prezi? These are all questions that our instructors ask our students, just as they might in any other school.

Since teachers here usually have experience working in other schools with less support for teaching with computers, once given them, they have a tendency to find interesting new uses for the technology that I haven’t seen elsewhere. They are quick to pick up hyperlinks in PowerPoint for choose your own adventure stories, digital projectors to use as backgrounds in student skits and films, free audio editing software for “radio ads” in business writing courses, and bizarre rearrangements of classroom furniture with computerized sound effects to act out parts of World War II and Hamlet (I saw both of those in a week). Both students and instructors are fully invested in the idea of taking what we have and making more out of it—a mindset that I believe is very conducive to making technology work in writing classrooms.

In the larger world, Maker Faires (and the Maker movement in general) have become increasingly popular, demonstrating how ordinary everyday people can create fascinating tools, gadgets, and machines using whatever is available to them (O’Reilly Media, 2010). Is this not a kind of rhetorical remediation of technology? In rhetoric, we are to apply all means possible to persuade. In Maker-logic, we are to use all means possible to create (OReilly Media, 2010). Applying this logic to writing and new media leads to a space wherein technology is used to support writing, where we use new media to learn as well as create, where we create in order to write, and where a sense of community helps bring this energy to new fields and new departments with minimal administrative effort. While “do-it-yourself” is one methodology applied here, at the same time Maker-ism requires the creation of a support community for both creators and consumers.

I wish to trace both paths of Makerism that I can see in my own community here on my own campus—first the path I see as an Administrator, then the path I see as an instructor and in my students. I will first explore whether a Maker-mindset fits best into the world of the digital humanities or of new media, and whether aesthetics and sophistry should be of any great concern for those who are working with a Maker mindset in either group. After discussing these matters of aesthetics and rhetorical production, it will be easier to understand the stakeholders in digital humanities and new media production in community college and open enrollment institutions and why it matters whether we refer to the work these students and instructors do as “new media” or “digital humanities.

By following the links below, you may navigate through this article; choosing to read all or part of the theory contained herein. There are separate sections for both instructors and administrators, as well as links to the framework and conclusions of my project.

article navigation

The Digital Humanities, Makers, and Frameworks of Technology

Makers and their Fit with the Open
Enrollment Student

New Media and the Open Enrollment Classroom

New Media and the Open Enrollment Administrator