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The Maker Movement and Its Influences on Technical Communication and Higher Learning: A Look at Three Makerspaces

Overview: This chapter begins with a synthesis of current discussions on the need for technical communication to turn to design-centric and material thinking, which prioritize innovative solutions that are user-oriented. This synthesis leads to the observation of recent developments in grassroot DIY culture and a fast-growing international movement called the Maker Movement. This chapter provides a survey of the history and technology' of making that perpetuated the Maker Movement. It forwards an argument that making, design thinking, and problem solving are inherently intertwined and that technical communicators are increasingly finding themselves in situations that require such thinking and doing. Through an ethnographic study of three makerspaces, this chapter shows the impact of maker culture on higher education. It uses the findings from the makerspace ethnography study to reiterate the connections between making and design thinking and technical communication.

The Materiality of Technical Communication and Its Pedagogy

Like many kids, I was obsessed with LEGOs growing up. My siblings and I would spend hours building imaginary cities, cars, and household items like tables and cabinets using a variety of bricks and pieces gifted to us by relatives as well as hand-me-downs by the older children of my parents’ friends. We used our imagination to construct things that complemented other entities of our make-believe play world—a cup for Teddy bear, a chair for Barbie Ken, a hat for the Red Power Ranger, among others. When playtime was over, our mom would always make us put away everything, including our proudest creation of the day. Despite the slight disappointment, my siblings and I would always do as told because we knew the LEGOs would still be there the next day and we’ll get to build something new again.

Fast forward 20 odd years, I still find myself using LEGO bricks but in a rather different context. Now as a technical communication instructor, I teach units on instructional design where I introduce students—most of them aspiring technical writers, engineers, and business leaders—to the principles of effective technical instructions. For the purpose of demonstrating the process of creating usable instruction sets, I deploy a module I learned from the advanced writing instructors at the University of Minnesota (where I completed my PhD) that lets students experience the not-so-common-sensical process of putting together technical instructions and manuals. And yes, this module involves LEGOs.

When I first taught this module as a graduate instructor, I would gather bricks and pieces from anywhere I could get them and loan them to students. The students, working in teams of three to four, would create a unique construction and compose a set of instructions to an intended user for replicating the construction. The assignment usually starts at a relatively high point when the students learned they could use LEGOs in a course project. It ends with the celebration of some fine instruction sets but also distinguishable disappointments from the students. That disappointment is akin to what my siblings and I felt as kids at the end of playtime when we had to, albeit unwillingly, disassemble our prized creation and return them to the toy bins. Similarly, the students were unwilling but they had to undo their trophy LEGO models and return the bricks and pieces to me.

My students’ response to using LEGOs helps demonstrate the material and affective dimensions of composition and communication. Whether grade schoolers or college students or industry practitioners, we all assign meanings and different levels of affection to both the process and product of our work. In the context of technical communication, most practitioners take creatorship and ownership seriously; they instill pride and a sense of identity in what they do. One will know what this means if they have ever experienced critiquing the works of a designer or writer. Rhetoric and writing scholar Christina Haas (1996) in Writing Technology has particularly pointed out the material dimensions of writing, with the term “material” referring to anything that possesses mass or matter, and which uses physical space. For the practice of technical communication, this includes any tools or resources that cross between the communicators and their artifacts. The material elements of the communicative space, the pencils, desks, chairs, screens, keyboards, and other communication materials also function as heuristics for learning. The connections between materials, creators and users, and the literacy knowledge in the communicative environment are often mapped onto the socio-material conditions of learning as a way of problematizing their relations to the wider societal issues.

In writing and communication studies, scholars have increasingly relied on activity and circulation theories to understand the mediating power of tools as tied to knowledge-making and dissemination (see Prior & Shipka, 2003;

Trimbur, 2000). These socio-cultural and historical approaches to composing and communicating emphasize the active and dynamic role of tangible materials, and the vitality of their interplay with learning. Former chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Kathleen Blake Yancey (2004) has also considered affects and emotions to be a part of the corporeal experience of composition:

A composition is an expression of relationships—between parts and parts, between parts and whole, between the visual and the verbal, between text and context, between reader and composer, between what is intended and is unpacked, between hope and realization. And, ultimately, between human beings.

—Kathleen Blake Yancey (cited in Sltipka, 2011, p. 9)

The “thingness” of writing and communication asks us to pay attention to the roots of the material technologies used in our workplace or academic settings, and challenges us to understand critically the social and cultural influences of these technologies on our embodied practices. For example, technical communicators who work in user-experience design teams should consider the history of an essential technology—like the Adobe Creative Suite—by learning its past, the cultural factors that influenced the design of the tool, and the social and physical effects the tool imposes and on whom.

To this end, professional communication scholar Kelli Cargile Cook (2002) has presented a “layered literacies” theoretical framework for technical communication pedagogy. This layered approach integrates the social, rhetorical, and critical literacies with “basic” (technical), technological, and ethical literacies. Cargile Cook argued that these literacies should be taught in combination rather than isolation. Further, she pointed out the need for ongoing revision of our pedagogy to meet the evolving demands of the workplace: “workplace writers need a repertoire of complex and interrelated skills to be Instructors can no longer simply provide students with opportunities to discuss form, discourse types, or the writing process. Such discussions must be further supplemented with activities that promote collaborative team-building skills and technology use and critique” (Cargile Cook, 2002, p. 8).

Given the expanding workplace literacy needs here at the advent of the digital age, the exigence prompting Cargile Cook’s call for pedagogical improvements remains but to those changes I would add that it is even more important to focus on the materiality of technical communication practices and pedagogy beyond technological and technical competencies (e.g., knowing how to code, writing in single-source systems, designing technical diagrams, visualizing data, etc.). As education administrators and program directors continue to push instructors toward new technologies and learning platforms, technical communication scholars occupy an important space in helping administrators and instructors understand the material layer of these tools. In leveraging their rhetorical and technical expertise, our scholar-teachers could recognize and examine emergent strategies involving new technologies for the enhancement of teaching and learning.

An excellent argument toward this material direction in the context of technical communication pedagogy' was forwarded by Jennifer Bay, Richard Johnson- Sheehan, and Devon Cook (2018), who encouraged program administrators to introduce principles and methods of design thinking—as introduced in the previous chapter—in technical communication courses so students could practice applying the technical communication concepts in real-world entrepreneurial situations. These professional writing scholars argue that design thinking is suitable for introducing students to concepts such as audience, user-centered design, usability, collaboration, and leadership. More importantly, design thinking helps reinvigorate departments such as English, Rhetoric, and Communications that are increasingly challenged to respond to rapid changes in the economy and our students’ career interests. They maintained,

Technical communication must evolve to meet these new challenges. We must teach our students how to have empathy for users, peers, and stakeholders, just as we must have empathy for the needs of our students. We must define educational problems from our students’ points of view, not our own, and we need to ideate those problems by refraining them and incorporating new technology. We need to prototype new assignments and new activities and then do testing to see which ones work.

(Bayetal., 2018, p. 193)

Indeed, a turn to materiality means attuning to a design-centric pedagogy that aligns technical communication primarily as a problem-solving activity. This alignment augments the recent call for technical communicators to assume leadership in seeking out, devising, and actualizing cross-sector solutions to complex global problems. More importantly, a turn to materiality, as Bay and colleagues outlined, emphasizes a more tangible “doing” in the learning process than mere conceptualization. Thanks to the design thinking framework, this “doing” can be translated into experimentation with materials and tools, tinkering with unfamiliar technologies, and building impactful solutions to existing problems.

Many may have already recognized these aforementioned exercises to be the core characteristics of the recently resurged DIY (do-it-yourself) culture, fondly known as the Maker Movement. As I elaborate later, “making” as an experiential, problem-based learning component can be a strategic direction for technical communication pedagogy'. With the exigence I presented in the introduction chapter that situates technical communicators—practitioners and instructors alike—as design leaders and changemakers, I regard the Maker Movement to be an important touchstone for our collective examination and learning. To make my case that the making should be a revitalizing force in technical communication pedagogy, I provide next a history of the Maker Movement—how it came to be and where it’s taking us.

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