Blog Post

6 things: exploring, contributing, making, thinking, doing in the classroom

What are the options for working within the constraints of today's university clasroom when considering the conversations around critical building, making, coding, and changing the classroom?

I’ve been very fortunate to teach in very supportive departments where I can create my own hybrid courses- where students  spend their time thinking, theorizing and making (art, code, dance, games) This is all due to Dr. Marilee Lindemann, Director of LGBT Studies, and Hasan Elahi, Director of Digital Cultures & Creativity, both at University of Maryland & the Film + Media Department at Hunter College.

But even within these really welcoming and open spaces, there are university structures that must be considered-  there are grades (at most places), and students (at least at UMD) are very concerned with them.  And they’ve been taught to be overly concerned-  getting them to let go, to unlearn is difficult. Additionally, there are classroom spaces (at least this semester the chairs aren’t bolted to the floor) and imposed time limits.  There are academic limits as well.  A 200 level class can’t be 100 pages of theory every week.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

1. if you want students to feel free to explore, you must give them clearly defined goals and grading. This sounds simple, but in fact it’s not.  When you ask students to take a giant risk - to make something- when they never have before - you must give them the support they need to not fail. In my courses, the final outcome of the project is not the most important.  Instead, it is the student’s own analysis of their process. And there is a really detailed grading matrix with points, so they always know where they stand.

2. Give them the space to contribute in various ways-  some people are quite good at writing, or drawing, or researching,  at providing support to classmates-  all of these count.  Sometimes students will ask if they can perform their work, or describe their process in relation to a set of readings that we’ve just read. Other times, they volunteer to lead discussions on the readings, or they show videos or have us play games that relate to the current material. Or, they ask for additional, related readings and then use them in class discussions. These all count.

3. Critical race theory, queer theory, feminisms, disability studies, and the always already combinations of these come into play within and through, and as organizing mechanisms of the systems and institutions they interact with everyday. Recognizing this and incorporating this into the classroom itself enables different knowledges.  The faculty for LGBT courses at UMD are pretty good at asking students for their preferred pronouns - but how many times does this happen in other courses?  Do you do this in all of yours?

4. Art, design, and play concepts are also foundational to thinking through systems and theories. The ability to take a theory or a question and attempt to answer it, or unpack it through design or creation requires a different way of thinking, and helps students to consider how theories and concepts in class ‘play out’ in our everyday lives. Getting students to ask questions and then use concepts in art, design, gaming to explore the possibilities gives students a way to understand their own interaction with everyday technologies and social institutions.

5. Don’t focus on the tools, instead focus on the concepts that are deployed by and through those tools - so don’t teach photoshop, teach image as object - what does an image do? Investigate composition, structure, landscape, camera angle in relationship to other knowledges- critical race theory or the gaze, for example.  Then consider the photographer or image-maker, the page layout (web page design, book or magazine design) and the editorial decisions that seem to have been made to place the image where it is. All of these are as important as knowing/learning a piece of software- because of course, the software is also built off particular knowledges and histories as well.  And then there’s the market too. Once a student grasps the concepts behind a tool, working with the tool becomes a skill that they use to enable their thinking, instead of the tool being the end-goal.

6. Create the course so there is room for student intervention into both the course content and clasroom space. Don’t  focus too much on spatial issues within the classroom-  switching students seats around, or sitting ‘in the round’ - or faculty sitting at the back of the room does decenter things momentarily, but in the end, the instructor is still the authority- and maintains some control over what happens in the classroom - UNLESS you structure the course itself, as Cathy Davidson has written about at great length-  to allow your students to come up with the grading rubric and then grade themselves. 

I’ve borrowed from this idea, and this semester I asked my students in my Digital Queers course to collaboratively create (using an existing content management system of their choice) a course web space-  they could use any platform they chose - there were a few technical requirements - such as students needing to watch have their own login, and that the site could handle video upload, commenting, and keyword tagging. Out of 13 students, only 3 had ever configured or administered a website before, and for those 3, it was a tumblr blog. So, no html, no CMS experience, no digital making prior to this assignment.

The minimum requirement was that all project assignments had to be posted to an online space-  this is  simply because the course is centered around students creating their own theoretical practices - and the work they create as part of this needs to be posted for the class (and me) to see/share. Their main task though was to collaboratively decide what that space would be used for. They all had to agree, by signing the list of requirements they created and turning it in to me,  on what the site would be used for. Their follow-through on this decision is worth 20% of their grade. So, it would have been very easy for them to say that they would simply upload all of their work to the site, and gotten an easy ‘A’ for 20% of their grade.  However, they did much, much more.  They came up with a  comprehensive list of requirements that includes constructive critique and brainstorming on each other’s work, posting of related links, sharing of ideas, as well as posting their own critical analyses of their own individual projects. And they are doing it.

This course is based in LGBT Studies.  My students are not artists, many aren’t even in the humanities.  For some, this is their first course in LGBT Studies. And this is queer theory in it’s widest sense. Prior to this course, even if they could critique media, they weren’t making their own critical media (except for 1 student), and certainly not through the primary objective of this course- which is for each student to develop their own theoretical practice. Throughout the semester they are creating small practical interventions into theoretical ideas and questions, by making videos, creating images, developing game rules and concepts, writing scripts, making zines, and performing their ideas in various spaces- and I haven’t taught them, beyond basic explanations, how to use a piece of software, or write a line of code.  Instead, we are entangling queer theory with and through space, place, image theory, critical play and performance.  Collaging using magazines, handwritten text, and stick figures to create screenshots for a game is just as useful, if not more so (for non-programmers), than know how to code the game itself.  My students have been really open to this idea, really investing themselves, their ideas and their questions into their work, not only in the making, but the thinking and analyzing of their own process. we will get to the knowledges behind software, code, and digital systems during the second half of the semester, and at that point we will delve into the softwares a bit more.

Though I’d like to write more- I have to go- it’s Wednesday, which means that I am meeting my Interactive Environments working group - comprised of first and second year students (blog post on the DCC program here) who are creating an interface using the Kinect to interact with the 3D spaces of Google Sketch-up.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.




Jarah ---

Thanks for these tips - very useful. I especially like how you take queer theory and apply it to the educational social norms of how to address the student/teacher - it seems as though there is a gap between what is taught and how it translates into the larger bureaucracy of classroom dynamics. I'm glad you are taking steps to change this. :-) It also reminded me of a recent talk we had here at CNDLS, Georgetown  - where teaching should now be seen as an ecosystem built on mentor culture (not teacher -> student linear relationships). 

I also enjoyed what you had to say about veering away from the tools and focusing on the concepts/theories embedded within them. I think one of the most productive tools to design is ambiguity. But one of the hardest things to teach students is how to transition form working off what you know to not knowing what you are doing. :-) 

Lastly…I'm interested in hearing how the Kinect worked with Google Sketch-up! please do share! 


Kelsey, Thanks for your comments! I love the idea of a mentor ecosystem! I'd love to hear more about it! I think this can be quite queer as well, especially in particular educational locations where surveillance and control are key classroom methods.

As for the Kinect-Google Sketch-up project- we are still in proof-of-concept stage, but it's been a great process of learning, collaborating and trouble-shooting- I think a perfect example of being ok with not knowing the specific steps, but recognizing the desgined ambiguity (part of my dissertation project actually!) that comes with the process of learning. It changes learning from having a specific goal that one must attain for a grade to a process of exploration, or theoretical practice within which one learns how to question.




This is fabulous---and a great conversation.  Jarah,  I agree so much that, if you want students to take risk, you have to let them know what risk they are taking by being really clear about grading practices and policies---and put those in writing, so they trust it (i.e. a lot of people have promised them freedom and then clamped down at grade time, they are apprehensive and schooled to be so, imho).   With my contract + crowdsourced peer grading, I actually write out full contracts and students take them home, read them, sign them, and I and a classmate countersign.   So they know exactly what they are getting in to----and that means, if they are brave, they know what it means to step off the cliff.   Thanks so much for this really smark post and for generating a great conversation.  I'm learning much from it. 


The name of the speaker for our CNDLS seminar was Ann Pendleton Julian.

Have a look at the handout she made for us:

She spoke a lot about how ambuiguity is productive for design (She teaches Architecture at MIT)

She also gave a talk at Harvard in Feb. of this year called "From Game Design to Ecosystem Thinking" which I think directly relates to what you are experimenting with Kinect/Google Sketchup.

hope this is useful!




@Kelsey-  thanks for posting that handout!  I like the way the author has framed 'problems' (as in things to be solved) as "By problems, we do not mean only things problematic, but also opportunities for working on the questions, puzzles, and enigmas that are inherent to human existence." This speaks to the ways in which the process of thinking and designing creates the change, and not the actual solving.

I think it also fits into what @Cathy is talking about with students 'being brave' and are therefore able to take risks: by changing the focus from the grade (end result) to the contract in which the student can place their trust (process), we change the ''problem' to be solved from how to get an 'A' to the process of questioning the course content itself.

@Cathy - Thank you for your comment. It was a post you wrote about your 21st century literacies class - probably well over a year ago - (which I can't find right now!) that led me to them writing their own contract for 20% of their grade. I appreciated the breakdown of 'literacies' that you had written about, and the explanations you gave for not just thinking, but for practicing. So thank you!