The Prongs of Engagement

When I approached my co-conspirator, Cartland, about presenting at Reclaim Open to discuss the work we do in the Digital Knowledge Center (DKC) I had one request and that was not to do something too serious. In the spirit of many presentations I saw Jim Groom and Tom Woodward do (Greeting from Non-Programistan) I thought it would be fun to be a bit more performative and we decided that using the rhetoric of the “get rich quick scheme” to talk about the work we do would be a humorous framing. We created an over-simplified, if not convoluted, framework of reclaiming digital fluency through our patented “prongs of engagement” which, of course, form the Trident of Digital Fluency. Since we chose to do a 15 minute presentation there wasn’t any time afterwards for conversation, so this post is an attempt to capture the details of the presentation as well as discuss what this has to do with digital fluency.

Prong 1: Workshops

Workshops get a bad wrap (sometimes rightfully so), but it seems to be a perennial refrain that people “want workshops” (even if they never show up). So, in 2021 when one of our student workers asked if we could start doing workshops I was initially skeptical. By the end of the semester my feelings about our student led workshops started to change and I was surprised how eager some of our students were to do these and delightfully surprised at the attendance at some of them. There was certainly room for improvement though and we’ve iterated ourselves to a fairly successful model that works for us. It goes a little something like this:

  1. Finding workshops
    • While many of the workshops are done by our student consultants we do invite others to propose their own. We have a form that anyone could fill out to request a workshop they’d like to see or to propose an idea they’d like to present on. Our goal is to give students an opportunity to share their expertise with others, so we aren’t particularly picky about what the topic is, which opens us up to all sort of cool workshops (like creating an interactive fiction game or launching your DJ career on Twitch).
  2. Building the workshop
    • After we get a proposal we have an initial jam with the presenter to get an idea of what the workshop will be about and help them figure out the beats of the presentation. This is where a lot of the magic happens. During the jam we engage in a back and forth with the student as we work to understand what they know and mold that into something that is accessible to a wide audience. Students rarely get the opportunity to teach others and these workshops gives them a perspective about teaching and learning they did not have before. I imagine for many students they are simultaneously thinking, “wow, I really do know a lot about this” and “teaching is not as straightforward as I thought it was”. Lastly, before we are done we come up with a snazzy title for the workshop by getting in front of a whiteboard and brainstorming together. This is one of my favorite things to do because we do not treat it too seriously (I love proposing bad pun titles) and is a rare opportunity to engage in brainstorming that feels wildly open and creative. Some of the best titles have come about riffing on what was a silly suggestion. After the title is chosen we are ready for the necessary evil that is…
  3. Marketing the workshop
    • Once the workshop wheels are in motion we set our student workers to the task of creating graphics, blurbs, an event for our events page, and of course pushing the content to all the different platforms on campus. We take the marketing piece off the presenters plate so they can focus on putting together the workshop. Cartland put a ton of effort into figuring out the process for this so that we could hand it off to our student workers. Our feedback has revealed that a lot of students attend because of our advertising efforts.
  4. Workshop rehearsal
    • Before the actual workshop we have the presenter run through the workshop under “show conditions” (or as close to that as we can possibly get). This is where we can try out the hands on pieces and work out the technical issues that inevitably arise. It gives us time to give the presenters feedback and hopefully give them a boost of confidence before they present (and I imagine that getting in some practice on presenting may help with anxiety about running a workshop).
  5. Fabulous workshop!
    • The day of the workshop we make sure catering is lined up (we’ve discovered our students love hot cocoa) and then at the start of the workshop we introduce the DKC, our other upcoming events, and most importantly the student who will be doing the workshop. Once it gets going it is the presenters time to shine. Many of our student workers will attend these workshops. We consider workshops a form of professional development for them (and they get paid for their time). Lastly, I’ll mention that we do pay presenters a small honorarium for all their hard work.

Prong 2: Fellowships

This is the newest of the prongs and we’ve only recently established a process (although I’m sure there is more iteration to go). Our goal with the Digital Knowledge Fellowship is to empower students to deeply engage in a specific area of digital creation and give them incentive (stipend or credit) to dedicate the time to explore something they are excited about. This idea arose of out our desire to try and encourage students to pursue a passion project more deeply by making it financially possible to achieve those projects. In return for our support of their project we get to learn from their explorations. So how do we make this happen?:

  1. Application
    • Students can learn more and apply to the fellowship through a simple application process. Right now we’ve had to actively encourage students to apply so we haven’t had to deal with having more applicants than we can support (a bridge we will have to cross if we get there).
  2. Initial Meeting
    • Before we get going we have an initial meeting to learn more about what the student wants to do. Since the application doesn’t require a lot of information this is our opportunity to learn more from the student and also to make sure they understand what our expectations are during the fellowship.
  3. Project Contract
    • Once the fellowship is a go we work out the finer details. There is what the student hopes to achieve with their project and how they think they will get there. We also include what we would like in return (e.g. a workshop or a presentation on their work). Helping the student scope out the project is a key part of this. Some student are not used to having control over defining what the end goal of a project should be or what success might look like for their experiment. This contract also sets up an initial schedule of deadlines. This can be flexible, and in fact we expect it to change, but we’ve found that this bit of structure helps keep everyone on track around expectations.
  4. Meetings, meetings, meetings
    • Throughout the semester we regularly meet with the fellow. Since we don’t have an expectation that students have to be in our space working on their fellowship this gives us a defined time to hear about their progress, if they need support, or if there are any adjustments that need to be made to the deadlines or deliverables (as you can imagine students are often more ambitious than is feasible, but that is okay!).
  5. Fabulous project!
    • We’ve done two fellowships so far, one involving 3D design and printing to make a practice bagpipe chanter, the other involved green screen video and animation to capture dreams. I’m still working on having a place to showcase the work they’ve done, but it so gratifying to watch these projects unfold over the course of a semester.

Prong 3: Jobs

This is the prong that has been around the longest. Since it’s founding in 2014 by the inimitable Martha Burtis, the DKC has been about peer to peer support. It was an outgrowth of the work DTLT did with faculty in support of class projects and assignments. As you can imagine the more classes you work with the more students with questions. Additionally, these students also make it possible to grow and sustain additional services or programs that support the mission of the DKC. As far as the peer to peer support goes there is plenty of research showing the benefits of peer tutoring not only for those students who use the services but for the students who provide the support. I feel fortunate that Cartland and I share the same view that the students who work for the DKC aren’t just here to help us “get work done” but we are there to give them experience and skills that will help them on their next steps after college. There is nothing more rewarding than hearing that a student’s experience working in the DKC has helped them succeed after college.

Now, I’m not sure about your institution but I know at mine we’ve long underrated the amount of work it takes to give students a valuable employment experience. If you have ever managed students you quickly realize how much work it is. I won’t get into detail about what it takes to manage students (honestly that could warrant several blog posts), but I will note that we spend a whole semester training students in a cohort model before they are considered official consultants. So, what do these students do once they are working for the DKC?:

  • Consultations
  • Class visits
    • We’ve invested more in class visits over the last year. In some ways these visits are less about the practical help in the moment and more about putting ourselves in front of the students. There have been many times a student has intentionally booked an appointment with a student worker because they knew them from a class visit. I’ll also mention that like workshops, we have found that our class visits are more successful when we can collaborate with our student workers on the presentation for the class.
  • Writing and updating guides
    • During the early COVID days we were looking for ways to keep our students busy but also have them work on something that could be useful. From that grew our series of guides on tools and how to get started on projects. These have become invaluable for class visits and training new students.
  • Lead on services and other things that help use get the work of the DKC done. This upcoming year we are moving away from the model of having one or two “supervisors” and more towards having many “lead” positions so that student workers can really dedicate time at become expert at those positions. For example:
    • Marketing Lead
      • Is tasked with making sure we are getting the word out about all our events and services and works with other students to make that happen
    • Workshop Lead
      • This student coordinates meetings with presenter, jams on the workshop, and relays to the marketing lead information about the event
  • Projects
    • During downtime we expect that our consultants are working on things to professionally develop. We’ve found one of the more effective ways to do this is to define a project that is meaningful to them and bonus if it means we are getting something we can use. Many videos and graphics that we use have come out of these learning projects.

So, digital fluency?

At the conclusion of our presentation we had a series of questions that brought home the reality that the approach we are taking is hard to scale, requires time (and a lot of it), investment in people, and it can be hard to measure impact. But despite all this (or more factually because of this) the students who come into contact with our “prongs of engagement” are having meaningful educational experiences.

So, what does this have to do with digital fluency?”

Glad you asked because honestly the answer is nothing and everything. The framework that we showed could easily apply to many different kinds of “fluency” or educational outcomes because it isn’t about the “bits”, like how to use technology and interrogate it (although this is very important and I do get paid in part to know these things), but how do you engage students about the bits in a meaningful way in the first place? If you look at what we proposed (workshops, fellowships, jobs) there isn’t anything radically new there, but what we do emphasize is the importance of human connection in those three prongs. We don’t just do workshops, we co-build a workshop with a student and along the way we have conversations around accessibility, ethical uses of tools, how to explain to others what you know. We don’t want to have student who just work for us, we want to have students that will care about helping the individual in front of them, that want to expand their ability to tackle technology questions both practical and abstract, and to build their creative confidence with digital tools.

One of the reasons we titled our presentation “Reclaiming Digital Fluency”, was to resist the narrow track conversations around digital fluency can sometimes go down (learning outcomes, badges, etc) in favor of the broader scope of what it means to educate a student. Perhaps this happens more in the technology field where there is a lot of focus around “skilling” people around digital tools that can lead to conflating digital fluency with digital technology proficiencies. As if digital fluency were merely a series of activities strung together where you end up with a badge at the end. Education is relational, not transactional, but how does one capture that in a meaningful way? How do I even know students are becoming “digitally fluent”? (As an aside: imagining that my interactions with students must lead to some sort of measurable outcome is nausea inducing. What if the time we spend with that student on a workshop ends up being useful for them for some other reason? Is that not worth something?).

To the “capturing piece” I will say that one thing we’ve identified we need to do more of is build in the reflection piece with students. As facilitators to students learning we often see the growth and change that they are unable to see in themselves. Even more alarmingly students sometimes believe the work they do outside of class (especially if it is fun) doesn’t “count” as part of their education. It is incumbent upon us to have these conversations with students to reflect back to them what we are seeing, to give them words to explain what they’ve accomplished, and to encourage them to cogitate on their own experiences. We need to help them see it at all matters and that, as Dewey put it, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

The Jam

One of my favorite things to come out of the work I do with my co-conspirators Cartland and Jerry is “the jam”. I believe credit goes to Cartland for the naming and codifying it into a Thing™, but it evolved out of many meetings where we would sit down and actively work on building something together. Whether it was revamping a presentation, figuring out work flows, or architecting a site we realized some of the best work came out of sitting down and hashing it out together. So, whenever we need to work on something like that we don’t call it a meeting, we call it a jam, and we go into that space ready to build, make, or blow up something. Additionally, in these collaborative moments we reveal and clarify our thinking and ideas (e.g. how do we talk about online identity to students?). I often come out the other side of those jams not only happy with what we’ve built but with a better and more nuanced understanding of the topic, idea, or purpose. It should be noted that at the foundation of all of this is trust. Even when we argue, sometimes vociferously, we all want to work towards the same goals.

Earlier this year Cartland and I were wrestling with better ways to scaffold our DKC student consultants to be better prepared for class visits. We had an explosion of class visit requests from faculty (seriously, we’ve done about double the amount of class visits than what we had done the previous two years). Some of these class visits required students to understand an assignment for a class and explain how to get started with technology tools. Many of our consultants had not done this kind of presentation and although we gave them a outline template to use to prepare for these presentations, they were not utilizing them in the way we wanted.

Sunset view up the Rappahannock river

Cut to an evening paddle along the Rappahannock river where many a work question has been pondered. As we paddled upstream Cartland asked the question, “What if we extended the jam model to our work with students?” As soon as he said this not only did I know we had a very viable solution, but a parallel musing that had been running through my mind suddenly found itself doing a hard right turn and coming together in his simple idea. You see, one of the most the valuable parts of my undergraduate experience was my time spent as a student employee in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT). It wasn’t necessarily the projects I did (although I did learn things), what I really had access to was a seat around the table (and I mean this literally) and the opportunity to listen to people (really smart and thoughtful people) think through ideas and be creative. I got to see how people think. In retrospect it seems like this shouldn’t have been a radical practice, but my schooling experience was full of assignments and projects where I was expected to complete them on my own (and in fact perhaps collaborating could even be considered cheating) and I don’t recall any moments where teachers demonstrated how they wrestled with complex questions and ideas. Cartland’s simple idea of “why don’t we jam with the students?” brought together all of this. Why wouldn’t we share the process that helped us create better things?

The jam is not necessarily a defined protocol we follow, but I do recommend that for anything you are planning to jam on with student that having an outline or questions to work from is helpful. It gives enough scaffolding to have a conversation, but by going through it together, out loud, we can also have those clarifying conversations. My favorite application of the jam has been for our DKC workshops. We encourage our students to propose a workshop around a digital skill or topic and we work with them to develop it, name it, market it, and run it.

The naming is honestly my favorite part of the whole endeavor. Once we have established a topic we gather around the whiteboard with the student (and anyone else in the room that wants to be involved) and start to brainstorm. We strongly push the “no bad idea” part of brainstorming. If you say it out loud, write it down. I think students have been able to see the value of being generative in ideas and not self-editing so quickly. You never know what is going to inspire the next thought that will lead to everyone exclaiming, “That’s it!”

whiteboard with brainstorming words about designing graphics
The winner for this workshop was “Let’s Get Graphic! Designing for Social Media”

Not only have we come up with some terrific names, but I think student have a lot of fun with this process too. There are often silly suggestions that don’t lead anywhere but at least one workshop on building accessible websites was titled “Oops, I Made the Web a Better Place!”. This title jam is also an opportunity to make sure we all are on agreement about what this workshop is going to be about. If you are trying to come up with a concise title and tagline it reveals what you think is important and can help clarify focus of the workshop itself.

A whiteboard with brainstorming words about a storyboarding workshop
We went with “From Post-It to Production: Learning to Storyboard your Videos”

Combining an eye catching title with some snazzy marketing graphics designed by our students has led to some fairly amazing ads as well.

An ad for the DKC workshop series titled "Mixing it up with JMack: Launching your DJ Career on Twitch"

We have seen an uptick in our workshop attendance this semester and I think credit can be given to the combined effect of a good title that makes a compelling pitch, alongside pushing that marketing material everywhere you can get in front of students (more props to Cartland for taking the time to figure out a process for getting this distributed to all the places at the right time. He should really write about this).

One thing I’m eager to see is how the jams will evolve over time as students gain creative confidence and become more practiced in the process. While I can’t speak for my students experience I suspect that like me at that age their experience in this kind of collaboration is minimal. I hope they see value in it and I hope we can continue to make time to prioritize it. Honestly, we are lucky we can do this kind of work because it is time consuming (in the best way). I think the jam not only leads to a better “product”, but it lets us have real human connection and a shared experience building something great.

Time to Stop at the Inn

There are many in my RSS reader who never stopped blogging and have kept writing all these years, but there is something about breaking a silence that can cajole me out of my own blog silence just a bit.

I most certainly have a bit of fearfulness in putting my writing out there. This space has mostly been reserved for more personal writing so I’ve worried about the violation of a random person (or even someone I know) eviscerating my writing in the form of a comment. I don’t desire to “build an audience” or be well known outside of my little quadrant of life. I count myself lucky to have never had a reason to turn off comments, but I understand why people have had to turn them off once they started gaining a larger readership. People on the internet can be less than nice at times.

So why even write in a public way? Why not keep it all in a journal? I suppose there is something about seeing other people around me write and share their insights, experience, and themselves that makes me think I should give back a little too. When one is in community with people there is a desire to have some give and take, a bit of “I see you. Do you see me?”. Even at a time when the power of the individual creator on the web seems so large it also feels like the vast majority of technology is designed to drive consumptive and addictive behaviors. I still see this medium as a refuge from the compulsive refreshing and stream of thoughts.

I’ve been trying to find more ways to build in reflection time in my life. I’m fairly decent at making space in my life and not filling it was busyness, but there is still something missing for me in the equation and I am fairly certain a regular writing habit is it. I’m a classic infrequent pen and paper journal writer (although I managed to keep a pretty decent gratitude journal last year). The unwinding of thoughts and connections made when putting pen on paper or letters on screen still feels like a kind of magic. I want to spend more times doing things that make happier long-term, even when they are hard. I don’t run because I love running. I run because I love “having run” and the rewards that come from persevering. In much the same way writing can be a struggle, but it generally ends up be a satisfying way to have spent time. And like running I find I do best when I have accountability and a community of people writing is one of the best. So, thanks to you all who keep that going and keep me going as well.

The Internet Community that Formed Me

In October of last year I started a new job as the Associate Director of the Digital Knowledge Center at UMW. Lots of crazy things had to happen for this to become my reality, but I’ve been beyond grateful for the opportunity to take on a new challenge and I have loved my new job so far.

It is funny to find myself back in the unit that brought me in to the conversation in the first place. As I’ve been reflecting back on the journey I’ve been thinking about that early twitter/blogging community that hooked me in to the world of technology and education as a young undergrad student working for the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT).

It meant a lot to me as a student to get to know people who worked outside my University. That community was due in large part to the staff members at DTLT cultivating those relationships and inviting me in to those conversations. Going through my earliest Twitter followers I find people like Brian Lamb, D’Arcy Norman, Scott Leslie, Tom Woodward, Gardner Campbell, Laura Blankenship, Barbara Ganley, Alan Levine, Mikhail Gershovich, Luke Waltzer, Matt Gold, Chris Lott, Barbara Sawhill, Leslie Madsen, and Mike Caulfield.

Is that not a ridiculously awesome list of people to know as an undergrad student??

These voices, along with the staff and faculty at my University, helped shape my thinking around what it means to be engaged in the world. Over the years I’ve gathered more and more voices and have been pushed to think in new ways (forgive me for not having the room to list them all). Yet, I still think about 19 year old me, and how incredibly lucky I was to have access to that conversation at all. That is why it pleases me to see many people blogging again (and why I’ve felt called to dust off this blog) because seeing the work people are doing is incredibly important. Of course some people never fell off the blogging wagon and if there is a Web 2.0 heaven, there is a special place for you there.

So, thanks for the conversation and the continued conversations. I’m glad there are so many people for me to continue to learn from out there.

There, I think I managed to blog about not blogging without really calling attention to it…oh wait.

Grabbing the Moments

I worry I don’t do a good job of talking with my tutors about the “why” of the ThinkLab. I seldom have explicit conversations about my philosophy around teaching and making. I still haven’t figured out a way to have those conversations that don’t come across as “let me randomly start talking about philosophy and possibly lecture you about things”. Sometimes a moment happens organically and I try to grab them as they come up. This week held one of those moments.

Recently we’ve been working with a class that does a 3D printing assignment. I’ve struggled to make this assignment a meaningful exercise (at least meaningful in my mind). After a tutor had started another print he said something along the lines of, “I don’t really care for assignments where people come in and 3D print one-off things and we never see them again. I like to see people work through a project.” Yes, this was a moment! Another tutor also hopped in to the conversation and we began discussing the purpose of this space, the value of making things, and where a makerspace fits in at a small public liberal arts university. They could articulate ideas, even in their first semester working in the ThinkLab, that told me they already understood so much about this space. I know I should have not been surprised since they are both the kinds of students who valued the ThinkLab as a creative space before I even hired them. I spent the rest of the afternoon beaming. This is why I do this work.

Now, how do I create more moments and opportunities like this?

Tell About It

I received a birthday card in the mail today.

Hand written card. Text of card:
As Mary Oliver wrote
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention
Be astonished
Tell about it.
An unexpected card. A moment of pause.

I try to pay attention and find joy in stumbling upon a penny. Talking about it all, especially in written form, seems to elude me though.

Last year I attended the Digital Pedagogy Lab and had the opportunity to spend a week writing. It was the most I had written in years. I wrote for me and I wrote without fear. Time passes though and I fell out of the practice of writing and inevitably over the course of months fear has crept back in again. Today though, after receiving the unexpected card in the mail, I felt convicted again. I’ve come back to the paragraph from Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence in to Language an Action” that gave me the courage to write last summer.

In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?

Most of my writing spaces are silent. I have been afraid of the permanency of ink on a page or words on a blog and for me that is a poor reason to be silent. I need to write because I have stories I need to share and my voice matters too. I want to have a say in the narrative and that means speaking up, even when I am afraid.

A Makerspace of Need

I’ve been struggling to write out a clear and concise vision of the ThinkLab. Every attempt has been thwarted by my attempt to explain all the details that have led me to the conclusions that I have come to. As you can imagine this does not make for clear and concise writing. So, instead of writing one blog post that works through everything that I’ve been thinking about over the past year I’m writing a series of posts that will help clarify my thinking around different areas. I hope bounding my posts to particular aspects will help me hit that publish button and get me to a point where I can say “This is what I want to come out of this space”.

Blinking LED photo gif taken by Shannon Hauser

When it comes to the most recent explosion of interest in making and DIY  (what has been called the “maker movement’) there have been certain kinds of making that have been more heavily focused on. Activities such as 3D printing, robotics, microcontrollers, drones, etc are the types of making that have been prominently featured as representative of the maker movement. Libraries and schools everywhere started buying 3D printers and little programmable boards. There were clearly defined consumable products that were considered important to have in a makerspace. Currently the makerspace I manage has many of these things (3D printers, 3D scanners, arduinos, robotics kits), but we also have sewing machines, e-textiles, and crafting materials.

3D printed articulating fish photo taken by Shannon Hauser

It isn’t hard to see what happens once you start to privilege certain things as “making” inside a movement. A quick google search will easily turn up criticism that details the problematic nature of this privileging in major publications like Make or at Maker Faires. To be fair Make magazine has done a bit better over the last couple years of being more inclusive of what counts as making. Yet, there is a persistent idea that a particular kind of making happens in makerspaces.

A while back I read this excellent post by  Kim Jaxon titled “Connecting Making, Designing and Composing” that really helped me connect the pieces on things I felt were problematic about teaching making. In the piece she notes that the recent trend in teaching people “design thinking” or the skill of “making” has the same pitfalls as assuming that the freshman comp class teaches students how to be writers. As if the skill of writing, once learned, was something that you had and can be used in any situation. Anyone who is trained in a discipline will have developed a certain way of writing that is appropriate for their field. What works for a creative fiction piece is not the same thing that works for a research biology paper, or, “writing is not writing is not writing”. A quote:

…my concern is that we are about to follow the same path with design and making as we have with the teaching of writing: we talk about introducing “design thinking” and “making” to students in general, instead of asking what it means to design like an engineer or use design like a graphic designer or ask what design problems look like to a physicist, all of whom talk about design, and the role of design in meaning making, differently in their respective fields.


While there can be a lot of overlap in approaches between disciplines to design problems there is still the reality that these approaches are emergent from the discipline and aren’t some rules handed down from above. There is no, “Though shall empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.” written in stone to be obeyed by all (although it is a pretty good guideline for a lot of things). It seemed presumptuous to me that I could come in to a discipline’s space bearing arduinos, sewing machines, and 3D prints telling them how they would all become makers now. No, I was introducing them to a particular kind of making, which, could be useful to them, but was certainly a paradigm of making that comes with a set of underlying assumptions.

Soldering Away photo taken by Shannon Hauser

Obviously, at some point in forming a makerspace you have to define a scope of services because a space can’t be all things to all people, but in making these decisions about the space I have to acknowledge that there is a whole world of possibility and I am choosing particular kinds of making. I want to make sure that the choices I make are thoughtful and aren’t necessarily driven by what the maker movement thinks is the important tech to have. So, how is one to decide what kinds of making to support? And then how does one go about learning to be a maker in all these disciplines? Another quote from the piece:

Like many of you, I will continue to be a champion for doing, making, tinkering, and composing ideas and artifacts. At the end of the day, design and making could be exactly the trojan horse we need to infuse constructivist pedagogies in teaching and learning. An affordance of a maker space is also its potential for breaking down disciplinary silos: a maker space can bring together a variety of disciplines and make explicit the kinds of problems various disciplines can solve, and more importantly, highlight the interdisciplinary approaches to meaning making and problem solving. As we take this step toward design and making in schools, my hope is that we keep an eye on the messy, recursive, and disciplinary ways we make and design.

I’m firmly of the mind that making and makerspaces can be as wide ranging as one can imagine. Therefore a makerspace should work with people in the community they serve to figure out where there are unmet needs around making and consider whether it can help support those kinds of making. It can be an in depth as working with a faculty member to learn how to take arduinos to the next level and training up tutors to help students complete complex projects that require numerous sensors and lots of coding. Or it can be as simple as noticing that you have an activist student body that often goes out to protest so maybe it would be beneficial to them to keep a stash of poster board, stencils, and paints on hand so they can make their signs. Is that not making? And imagine the conversations that could happen in a space where students are creating protest sign. Being open to possibilities in the space can mean that different kinds of makers will cross paths and who knows what might come out of that kind of cross-disciplinary interaction? I’m still working out how one manages something that can be so wide open and how to prepare student tutors to help others in this kind of space, but I think it is possible. There will be times I have to say no to things, but I want to say no for the right reasons. It is my hope that I run a makerspace that will do it’s best to find ways to help people make things or if I can’t help them point them to the places that can.

Painting Blues photo taken by Shannon Hauser.

What To Support When You Are Making It Up As You Go Along?

Cleaning up the 3D printer. CC-BY Shannon Hauser

One of the many questions I continue to struggle with when trying to figure out where to navigate the ThinkLab is what kinds of things should we support and at what level should we support those things? There are already some things that the ThinkLab is known for, 3D design and printing, that we’ll continue to do but many things are undecided at this point. In looking at other makerspaces I realized there is so much variety. Being housed in the library this thought keeps running through my head — we wouldn’t fill our stacks with the same books as Virginia Tech so why would our makerspace have the same tools and technology as theirs? How does a makerspace meet the curricular needs of a public liberal arts institution? How does a makerspace reach out to disciplines that don’t typically associate themselves with spaces that are like makerspaces? I find myself worrying about becoming pigeon-holed as a space. I worry that as the ThinkLab’s exposure increases we’ll fall in to a cycle of supporting a very narrow area to the expense of exploring possibilities. I don’t want to hear, “Only [fill in the blank] majors use the ThinkLab”. Much like our library supports a wide variety of disciplines I want the ThinkLab to support a varied student population. And just as the library makes strategic investments about what curricular needs it can support (no, we can’t buy that niche $1000 encyclopedia set, sorry) I want to make sure I don’t over commit to some disciplines. Sure we’ll show you some basic 3D modelling software, but you’ll have to figure out that advanced 3D modelling software for yourself. But am I placing limits in ways that are thoughtful of what is sustainable or am I placing limits because I fear what I do not know? (And I certainly don’t know a whole lot). I’m constantly thinking about what we currently have to offer and what I think we should offer and and the balance between what I know at the moment and what I think would be possible. I worry about offering to support something only to later realize that it is going to be beyond what we could sustainably support.

Luckily in the fall every single faculty member I worked with was willing to take risks with me to see what the limits of space may be and the semester went off fairly well. I am very lucky to have hired student aides that brought in their own background knowledge in areas that I don’t know a whole lot about who were able to pull off projects I wouldn’t have been able to do myself. There were times though that I asked my student aides to stretch in ways that may have been taking advantage of their general excitement to be working in the space. Over the course of the semester it became quite clear I needed to establish some solid structure about what we could definitely support and what would be experimental. I have spent a bit of the winter break working on actual tutorials that I can expect my student aides to take students through as well as rolling out an online scheduling tool. This has alleviated some of my worry about providing sustainable support, but I know there is more work to be done.

In writing this post I realize I don’t hate all these tensions, but they make  me uncomfortable (uncomfortable, but not paralyzed). There is no one right way to have a makerspace (despite the commodification of the maker movement). This is both liberating and terrifying. At times I wish I could stick my head in the sand and copy what so many other spaces do, but that wouldn’t make the space meaningful and useful to anyone in the long run. I want the ThinkLab to evolve with the needs of the school, but also be a source of inspiration that points in a direction. It is in this tension where people are working together and even disagreeing that some of the best stuff appears. I have a vision for the ThinkLab (maybe I should blog that one day?), but I know that some faculty member is going to show up one day and go, “I have an idea for a class” or a student is going to come in and say, “There is no place on campus that supports this, do you think the ThinkLab could?” and I’m going to be blown away and do everything I can to try and support that despite all my thinking about sustainable practices. I’ve already seen it start to happen.

How does one support wildly brilliant ideas?



I wonder if I could make it myself…

I’ve been trying to find a way to begin to talk about my latest job change in the library. I have this ongoing problem of wanting to write all encompassing narratives (it all started when I was 5 and I fixed my mom’s stapler) that ultimately prove to be too overwhelming to finish writing.

So, in my attempt to keep it simple I want to tell you I recently finished making something for my cat.

More specifically I made a cat scratcher pad. One of those cardboard things you can buy at the pet store that encourages your cats to claw it rather than your lovely furniture. I’ve bought a couple in the past and it always seemed to me that it consisted of cardboard pieces glued together and wrapped in some paper. It didn’t seem too complicated and one day I thought, “I wonder if I could make it myself?”. I brought my cardboard to our makerspace, the ThinkLab, and utilized a box cutter, a hot glue gun and some duct tape and out came this:

The things I do for my cat...

It didn’t turn out as neat and even as one I’d buy at the store, but it seems fairly solid. I’ll be taking it home later today to see what the cat thinks of it. The cat scratcher pad isn’t anything that complicated or elaborate but in attempting to craft my own I had to think through the process of cutting and gluing it together and as I went along what might make it more structurally sound. I’m sure you are wondering why am I talking about this and what does it have to do with my new job?

Well, in the library we’ve had a makerspace since about 2012 and in that time it has fluctuated in its use and has been making its way along with support from outside faculty and staff as well as the head of the library and library staff. It has lacked a sense of continuity though, as any space would that was being supported by people who had other jobs they had to do, and in the past years has struggled to be a place we kept staffed on a regular basis. Earlier this semester several library staff came together for a meeting and out of that came the decision that I would spend a percentage of my time managing the ThinkLab. I’m grateful to colleagues in the library who have willingly taken on pieces of my old job so that I’d actually have the time to give the ThinkLab a shot.

Now that you have that background back to the cat scratcher pad. Why do I use this as an example of something I created in the ThinkLab? Well, besides being humorous it gets to the heart of what I see the ThinkLab being and it all starts with the simple idea, “I want to try and make that”. Your project doesn’t have to be complicated or even work in the end. The important thing is that you start taking the thoughts in your head and making them in to something real. What excites me most about the space is not the 3D printers, or the robotics kits, or the sewing machines (although all of that is great) it is the opportunity to make something and probably even more importantly break something (the head of the library, Rosemary, is fond of saying that our tagline should be “We’ll help you break things creatively!”). I’m lucky that I work at a university that places great value in our students being creators of all kinds and I’m looking forward to the ThinkLab contributing to the mission of our institution in creating students that think thoughtfully about the things they produce and about the importance of being actively engaged in the world. There is more I can unpack about the pedagogy of makerspaces and certainly I plan to write more about it as I work on programming for the space over the summer, but for now I have to head home and see what my cat thinks of my handy work.

On Learning In and Out of College

This post is for the younger version of myself who struggled to care about schooling and to the the current students who feel the same way. It is no solution, but perhaps some consolation.

One of my biggest struggles as a student was sustaining the energy to learn something through an entire semester. I would start out most semesters with great gusto, but a few weeks in to the semester my enthusiasm for the topic  would wane and I’d inevitably fall in to the disillusioned questioning of, “Why am I learning this? Why does it matter? What is the point of learning this stuff?”. I distinctly remember during my sophomore year reading Yeats under a tree outside my dorm instead of doing work for a class. If my memory is correct  my attempt to decipher “Among School Children” was inspired in some way by Gardner. It may seem overwrought to say, but in that moment reading Yeats was the most important thing I could be doing because I had a sense that it would mean more to my life here on earth than working on the school assignment.

A Serene Scene

For a long time I’ve felt guilty over how poorly I performed at times during my academic career. There are times when I still feel that way, but I know that I can’t live with that regret forever.  I wasn’t very good at achieving decent grades in college, but it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. The structure that schools use to set up a curriculum, dividing things up in to disciplines and semesters,  is one approach for making sure that society as a whole has a similar baseline of knowledge. It isn’t the end all be all of educating. I’ve known this all for a long time, but it wasn’t until fairly recently I felt it to be true.

I’ve been out of college for almost 5 years now and I’ve continued to grow and learn new things since then. I recently read some older entries in a journal I sporadically keep and it was rewarding to see that many of the things I wanted to accomplish and learn about I’ve managed to do in two years since the date of the entry. The enthusiasm I have for learning is still there and I can come at topics with great fervor and deeply involve myself in an idea. The upside is that when my momentum begins to fade there is usually no major consequence to laying that topic to rest for awhile. I can pick up the idea a day, a week, or many months later. Nothing prevents me from going back to that topic when I’m ready to dive in again. Iteration. The time scale at which I learn things in is much longer than the semester. In fact it seems that there is no discrete unit of time to learn things. How freeing!

I will admit there is value in sustaining focus on a topic even after the initial enthusiasm begins to fade. There is something about pushing past “getting stuck” (or is that “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”?) that is really good for the brain. I’m definitely not advocating for avoiding the hard things, but  in college many classes and many semesters felt like pushing past a wall of boredom not because a class was hard but because my brain was just done thinking about the topic. I found it incredibly frustrating to not have control over my head space at times. During my post college life I’ve discovered that there are times when I need to push past the “stuck” when I don’t have the energy, but for the most part I’ve found that I have the time and space to allow an idea to breathe. Sometimes all I need is a week off from thinking about something. A week is something not afforded to most college students. If you get a week behind in college it tends to snowball out of control until you limp across the semester finish line hoping the avalanche doesn’t outpace you.


Now that I’ve had time outside of college to learn and grow I’ve noticed that besides some content sticking with me a lot of what has stuck with me are the soft skills that are so hard to quantify: critical thinking, how to break down difficult ideas, write about ideas, talk about ideas, be curious about the world, and so much more. I know how to learn and teach myself things and I’m always learning how to get better at that too. I’ve found so much joy in learning post college and I’m learning all the time. I’m lucky to have a job that gives me the freedom to challenge myself to learn new things and try out new ideas.

I’m not sure what the future holds for me (besides the terrible feeling that I’ll be going back to school sometime in the future), but I have confidence in my ability to learn and grow. Heck, who knows, maybe by the time I need that masters I might find I enjoy being in school again…or maybe not 🙂