Tinkering in Feminist Technoscience

Tinkering in Feminist Technoscience

by Cyd Cipolla
Spring 2017
(Teaching-with-Technology Grant Awardee)

“Tinkering in Feminist Technoscience” is an interdisciplinary seminar about feminist science and technology studies with an incorporated experimental “maker” lab. This course uses the concept of tinkering to explore the innate links between “maker” culture and feminist studies of science. Something more than novice, but less than expert, a tinkerer is one who tests boundaries and innovates through fresh perspective, often working outside of a professional context. Students in this class learn the theoretical tools of feminist technoscience studies, noting how the topics of scientific research are guided by, and tacitly reinforce, sexist stereotypes and assumptions, and question whether it is possible to change the methods and the ideas that justify scientific knowledge itself. Along the way, students become tinkerers in a literal sense by completing a robotic, wearable technology, or coding project of their own. Together, we consider the radical potential of building from scratch in the digital age, the ethical imperative to re-write the world around us, and the philosophical experience of tinkering with knowledge itself. For in feminist critical theory, it is not enough to take things apart: we must also put them back together. 

The course itself meets three times per week. Two of these course meetings are a traditional discussion-based seminar class. The third weekly meeting is a lab period. Students take tinkering as the primary method of engagement with the assigned reading and as the guiding principle for a semester-long technology project. The project, and the larger idea of the “maker” lab, has three aims: 1) to encourage and explore engagements with material cultures, 2) to provide a space where students can build a new thing, and 3) to use the process of building, not as a means to an end, but as a metaphor for engaging theory, specifically, in this case, feminist theories on science and technology. 

Why pair what is a fairly standard humanities seminar with a lab? 

As a class adviser at Gallatin, I see many many students who embrace the “artist-scholar” model of Gallatin, who are open to incorporating arts or writing workshops into their concentrations even if they do not have aspirations to become professional artists or writers. At the same time, I see students who are very wary of taking science courses. So this course was imagined as a space where I could teach students to see science and engineering the way they already see art: an area for expression, a compliment to learning, where they could grow regardless of formal training, prior experience, or innate talent.

Central to the idea of the course is that the texts we are reading, the so-called “learning content,” is in humanistic and social studies in science, so unlike a science laboratory class, the lab is not a space for formally testing or demonstrating the “facts” we have learned in the classroom, but rather an integrated space that encourages students to think differently. 

And, finally, the lab helps students learn the intellectual value of frustration – that is, to develop not only a tolerance for frustration, but the ability to see frustration as a useful and illuminating step on the way to understanding and discovery. I think there is a connection between the ready availability, in a sense the tyranny, of user-friendly devices and what I see as a decrease in students’ ability to engage in the more difficult and time-consuming aspects of intellectual engagement (archival research, dense and decidedly non-user-friendly texts, crossing boundaries of time, language or culture). Tinkering demonstrates, in a concrete way, that sometimes in life you get directions that are unclear, incomplete, or inadequate, and that forging ahead anyway is not only rewarding but, in many cases, necessary – necessary for change, certainly, but for some, necessary for survival.  

And why feminism?

Spending time building in a lab environment gives purchase for feminist explorations of science and technology in two important ways. First, it contextualizes some of the questions and ideas posed by practicing scientists (e.g. Marta Wayne, Evelyn Fox Keller) who draw from their own lab work to think critically about feminist theory. Second, and more abstractly, feminist science studies, politically, is deeply devoted to the democratization of science – empowering amateurs, tinkerers, and critics alike to engage in the process of scientific knowledge formation – to understand, to ask questions, and to tinker. It also, as a field, challenges the norms of both science and feminism. Science is not a dead, sterile thing, nor is feminism a critical theory that revels in dismantling alone. 

“...students not only gain a feminist lens through technology, but see technology as a formative, generative feminist tool.”

The technological emphasis in this class and its link to a coding and robotics lab is meant to highlight how breakthroughs in engineering, and in particular computer and small electronics engineering, still come from basements, backyards, and garages. Students engage with these forms of prototyping technology as a way of connecting to technology not as an inaccessible process, but as something to be molded – paralleling the feminist invective that cultural roles are not things to be accepted, but systems anyone can understand, challenge, and change.  And by engaging feminism not as a secondary or tertiary form of critique, but as the foundational lens through which we examine techno-sciences, we take, head-on, the significant gender biases that exist within STEM, and particularly within computer science and engineering. So students not only gain a feminist lens through technology, but see technology as a formative, generative feminist tool.

Finally, one of the goals within a specifically feminist “maker” lab is actually to disrupt the word “maker” itself as it is currently used. Through our class, students examine how and why the overtones of “making” and “DIY” are whiter, more middle class, and more Western than those of “hacking,” “kludging,” or “crafting.”