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Talking Notes
“Coding for ‘Possibility Spaces’: Designing and Teaching
A New Course in Gender and Technology
Laura Blankenship and Anne Dalke
Panel Presentation for the
Society for Literature, Science and the Arts
Atlanta, Georgia, November 6, 2009



Our goa
l: to reproduce, in 20 minutes, the experience we shared w/ our students in G&T.
Begin by asking you each to write briefly about a moment of learning,
of illumination, an ah-ha experience,
and to think in particular about WHERE IT HAPPENED.

Ask for a couple of responses, then
a show of hands re: learning in similar locations.
What patterns do we see?
How many of these events took place in classrooms? Why not?
Is “ah ha” about “getting it” or “making it,”
about “absorption” or “construction”?

This differs from the conventional understanding
of education as a process of “encoding”:

teachers who know something “inscribe” it on/in their students.
From our own experiences (much like yours….)
we knew that was not really an
accurate representation of what happens in classrooms.

So: we envisioned our new course in “Gender and Technology”
as a challenge to that understanding.
We saw it as an experiment in decoding—
not only the two terms of our title,
but also our students’ most basic assumptions
about what education is and does.
Throughout the course we also tried to “decode”
much of what had been “encoded” in them,
with regards to how education operates—
and it is this more radical re-scripting that
we want to talk w/ you about here.

The most basic assumption we unsettled was that of a single authority,
a primary point of view which organizes the process of learning in most classrooms.
We did this by

* co-teaching (and disagreeing!)
* requiring each of them to comment weekly in our on-line class forum,
then using those postings to organize our class sessions
* designing a quarter of the course around student panel presentations,
first about individually-, then collectively-gendered uses of technology
* inviting the students to design the next quarter of the course:
through a rather elaborate deliberative process, they both selected the
readings and decided how we might best orchestrate our discussions of them

As you might imagine, our attempts at decoding our authority met with some opposition. One student reported that, because we had asked them to select their own readings, her mother had said that “we weren’t doing our job.” Since we felt quite clear that we were, in spades, quite effectively re-designing our jobs, to very productive ends, that complaint didn’t trouble us (too much!).

What did trouble us, however—a trouble we’d like you to help us think through now–
was our realization that a course in which the students shoulder most of the responsibility
makes visible what is normally invisible in a classroom
—that is,
the inability of some students (for whatever reason) to participate as we expect them to.

This class had 40 students, from a wide range of majors and classes,
each of them dealing with a range of personal issues,
and some of them not coping very well with what they had to cope with.
Everyone could see when such students didn’t do their weekly postings,
or didn’t show up for a panel presentation, or couldn’t engage in
community-building exercises like naming their classmates–
or couldn’t themselves be named by others, because they came so infrequently.
Such problems occur of course in every classroom,
but in one that is more conventionally structured, they are hidden.
Here they were foregrounded.

Turning again to you:
Try to remember such an experience in your own life.
Write briefly about
a moment of visible failing: a time when you fell short publicly,

and others noticed (or: you thought that they did).

Ask for volunteers—what patterns do we see?

Let’s all of us now revise our roles,
turning from being students to being teachers:
what might have made a difference in such scenarios?
How might teachers—or the class structure—be
altered so that such visibility might not be so painful?

To conclude/not:
This has been a discussion about re-writing the
conventional educational script in this country,
one of “encoding” knowledge in students,
by teaching them the skill of “decoding” conventional assumptions–
about gender, about technology, most profoundly about education itself.

We were trying to help our students, not to crack a cipher that has a received meaning,
but rather to make meaning of what they—and we– don’t yet know the meaning of.
We were helping them learn to encode what we ourselves don’t yet have the key for.
This was a much more exciting—and risky, and generative—process than
the one we ourselves were encoded to perform.

Thank you for taking some of those risks—and for
helping us think about some new keys for decoding them.