feminist pedagogy

FTN Roadshow Blog Series* – Improvisation

by Melissa Meade, Colby-Sawyer College and Cricket Keating, Ohio State University

Comedian Tina Fey has recently foregrounded two key tenets of successful improvisation. The first she dubs the “Rule of Agreement.” In her words, “the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you” (Fey 2011). The second rule is that in addition to saying yes, you should add something of your own; that is, you should say “YES, AND.”

As an experiment in learning, the FemTechNet DOCC has been marked by an improvisational ethos. Indeed, from its open-ended organizational structure, which encourages educators of all sorts to join the collective, to its open-ended network of classes, to its key learning projects distributed across the network (such as Feminist Wiki-storming, Situated Knowledges Map, and Exquisite Engendering), FemTechNetters have said again and again “yes, and.”

In adding our “yes, ands” to the improvisation, we partnered the undergraduate students at Colby-Sawyer College (a private, liberal arts college of about 1400 students in central New Hampshire) and the Ohio State University (a large state university in central Ohio with about 44,000 undergraduates on a campus with about 58,000 students).

As instructors coming out of media and cultural history and political and feminist theory, neither of us particularly professionalized or skilled in digital media production, we joined this shared teaching and thinking project with a “DIY” mantra firmly in mind: a do-it-yourself feminist politics that suggests we ought not wait to be invited into circuits, but that we jump in and add our own.

As critical inspiration, we read Riot Grrrls and feminist DIY punk cultural production of the 1990s in our classes. They said, “Because we must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings.” Yes, and we say FemTechNet is a power tool” (FemTechNet Manifesto).

Animating a DIY approach with an improvisational spirit to us underscored that DIY is actually a misnomer. We need others — we need each other — to do the kind of work that will upend hierarchies, eliminate violence, create room for difference in the academy and beyond, and move past individual expressions of identity, the isolated and isolating digital practices. And so began our move from DIY to DWO (doing with others).

Much has been made of the role of the amateur in digital economies. Some have heralded its presence as a liberating creative spirit, with the ability to elide expertise and professionalism directly correlated to increased participation in the marketplace of ideas (see, for example, Lawrence Lessig and Clay Shirky). Carolyn Marvin has also critiqued the rise of the professional engineer and scientist of old technologies as tied to the exclusion of women and minorities in these fields (Marvin 1988). By squashing the tinkering impulse, and the tinkerer, we reinscribe hierarchies of thought, labor, and power.

Others have noted that amateurism is too easily coopted into the logic of neoliberal economies. DIY becomes a brand, and the amateur becomes a creative psychology useful to a growing economy. Astra Taylor has noted that “the grassroots rhetoric of networked amateurism has been harnessed to corporate strategy, continuing a nefarious tradition” and warns, “When we uphold amateur creativity, we are not necessarily resolving the deeper problems of entrenched privilege or the irresistible imperative of profit” (Taylor 2014, 63- 64).

Marshall McLuhan once intoned that “the amateur can afford to lose.” Yes, and we say: “Irony, comedy, making a mess, and gravitas are feminist technologies” (FemTechNet Manifesto).

In addition to jumping into the projects already in place in the network, we added some of our own, and invited others to join us. Inspired by the Object Making key learning project, and wanting to render visible what are often invisible gendered technologies, the Colby-Sawyer students developed a Bra Project that would be showcased at a Fem Fair. Inviting others to join us in this improvisation, we put out a “Call for “Bras” across FemTechNet. Here the network said yes, and sent dozens of bras, bindings and underthings through the mail. The students decorated, mutilated, and repurposed these into visual displays of gendered technologies. The Fem Fair took place in rural New Hampshire, while capturing the spirit of the dispersed and distributed FemTechNet.

femfair1Celebrating “The Bra Project” at Colby-Sawyer College, Fall 2013

At Ohio State, our class developed the idea of Freedom Recycling Bins. Taking inspiration from the “freedom trash cans” of the feminist protests at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, we repurposed trash cans so that they could be used as depositories of objects that symbolized or that perpetuated oppression. We then brainstormed how each object could be recycled and repurposed to serve liberatory ends. Later, we developed a game based on the idea. Here’s how to play!

Freedom Recycling Bin: The Game










Players: Unlimited

To play, you will need:

A trash can

Markers, paper, playdough and other repurposing supplies

A timer

How to play:

  • Label a trash can a “freedom recycling bin” and put it in the middle of the room.
  • Set the timer for five minutes. In that time, each person places an object that represents or perpetuates some aspect of oppression in their lives (either the actual object or a representation of the object) into the recycling bin.
  • Break up into even-numbered teams.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes. Racing against the clock, each team picks an object from the recycling bin and repurposes it for liberatory ends. Keep going until all the objects in the recycling bin are repurposed or until the time runs out.
  • Groups share their repurposed objects with the others. The team with the most successfully repurposed objects wins the round.
  • Repeat as often as necessary.

Speaking of the imperative of coalition work, Bernice Johnson Reagon writes: “we have lived through a period where there have been things like railroads and telephones, and radios, TVs, and airplanes, and cars and transistors, and computers. And what this has done to the concept of human society, and human life is, to a large extent… what we have been trying to grapple with” (Reagon 2000, 365).

Reagon stresses that a consequence of these technological transformations is our vulnerability– “there is no hiding place”– and our connection– we have to build coalitions through and across difference in order to survive (Reagon, 365). Yes, and we say animating these coalitions, both on and off-line, with an improvisational spirit will help us to deepen, expand, and multiply them. There won’t be a place oppression can hide.

References Cited:

FemTechNet. “Manifesto.” Femtechnet.org, 2014.

Fey, Tina. Bossypants. Little, Brown and Company, 2011.

Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Bantam Books, 1967.

Freedom Trash Can Photo: https://mediamythalert.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/bra-burning_freedomtrashcan.jpg

Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Barbara Smith, ed. ([Kitchen Table Press, 1983] Rutgers University Press, 2000.

“Riot Grrrl Manifesto,” Bikini Kill Zine 2, 1991.

Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Metropolitan Books, 2014.


*FemTechNet Roadshow Blog Series – Over the past couple of months, about a dozen FemTechNet participants have presented work based on our research and teaching related to FemTechNet in a two-part FemTechNet Keywords Workshop at the CUNY Feminist Pedagogies Conference in April 2015, and at the Union for Democratic Communications Conference at the University of Toronto in May 2015. Since these gatherings brought together such divergent modes of FemTechNet engagement, we thought we’d collect and share this new work over the last two weeks of May, leading up to the deadline for our 2015 FTN Summer Workshop. For more information on this series, contact T.L. Cowan


EduTech Horizons Singapore

by Alex Juhasz, Pitzer College
November 17, 2014

My friend and colleague, Laura Wexler and I had the opportunity to present the DOCC at the EduTech Horizons workshop held  at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for members of the International Association of Research Universities (IARU) of which Laura’s school, Yale University, is a member. We were in friendly, interesting, and interested territory even as we presented the project to technologists who weren’t necessarily feminists, and to a truly international crowd with representatives from a significant number of continents and disciplines. Given that internationalization and feminist education are both core values of FemTechNet, it was gratifying to see the enthusiasm in this diverse audience.

banner for IARU Edtech Horizons workshop Singapore

I knew we were at home when in his opening address, Professor Lakshminarayanan Samavedham from NUS’ Centre for Teaching and Learning reminded us to think beyond efficiency towards effectiveness in digitally-enhanced education, explaining that by this he meant experiences that were built to be engaging, personalized and authentic, just like the DOCC … (Professor John Traxler, from England’s University of Wolverhampton, a specialist on mobile computing and education, suggested we all stop using the term “technologically-enhanced” and instead dub those efforts not up to speed on technology as “technologically-deficient learning.”) Given this start, Laura and I felt fully supported to share the passionate, active, distributed, techno-feminist, co-production of knowledge at the heart and daily practice of the DOCC.


Evolution of the MOOCs?

By Alexandra Juhasz, Pitzer College

I am recently returned from the 9th Annual Policy Summit, Rise of the MOOCs: Foreshadowing the Coming Transformation of Higher Education? held by the Mid-West Higher Education Compact. While I have become a frequent public speaker, most recently asked to explain my several innovative projects within technology and education (like FemTechNet), I have never had the opportunity to speak and listen to this particular, and highly engaged, audience.

I was pleased, albeit a bit intimidated, to be speaking in Omaha, Nebraska, on behalf of FemTechNet and our DOCC2013, a collaborative feminist rethinking of the MOOC, in this decidedly red-state environment, and to a large number of powerful people who are seriously considering the many ramifications of Open, Free, and otherwise digital education initiatives in relation to policy and Higher Education. Yes, people in this audience in a great many ways have more power than do I over what will happen to MOOCs evolution, rise, or decline in that they are in control of purse strings, policy, and large institutions.

Difference between A DOCC and a MOOC

I was placed on an elegantly-curated panel of fellow professors (Bryan Alexander, from NITLE, Ronald Rogers, San Jose State, who has authored two really interesting MOOCs, and Ray Schroeder, a specialist on online learning) who are each thinking critically, seriously, and actively about the huge ramifications of these many technological changes.

While I learned a great deal at the Summit, let me briefly point to a few of the most important things that I heard several times over, which all point to why I titled this post, “Evolution of the MOOCs”: they are being challenged from many angles; they are being changed and modified by many of us; and, whether our concern is cost, access, ownership, content, structure, or completion rates, people want MOOCs to develop past this first consolidation. It is my sense from this and some other recent conversations, that a great many of us who are wanting to use technology to improve Higher Education share concerns about:
• the current MOOC-osphere, where for-profit or other highly-funded models are dominating the landscape
• and leading to top-down, static, one-way delivery flows that are surprisingly ill-suited for their web 2.0 home
• teachers not driving teaching and learning and teachers not retaining control of their intellectual property (even if this is to let it be free through a Creative Commons license)
• learning systems that subscribe to the limiting terms behind the MOOC. What would digital class delivery look like that was Local, Closed, Hybrid, and/or Modular (this is from Stacey Clawson from the Gates Foundation).
• The quick loss of the cMOOC (which was Open) for our current xMOOC (“broadcast, amplified, online learning”; this is from Bill Meinke from Creative Commons)
• that like anything else on the Internet, expanding access to courses or free education is only a first step; students and professors need support structures not just (free) platforms (Mark Johnson, Educational Policy Studies, U WI)
• that professors will always be needed to create (new) content (knowledge); why are we handing delivery (profit and ownership) over to someone else?
• that MOOCs not be only huge, expensive, and fancy things but rather, that little pieces of MOOCs, as modules, might allow for all kinds of usability within any particular (for-credit) class; that pieces of (free) MOOCs can also be well-used to flip traditional classrooms