CHID Students as Critical Makers

Submitted by Alexandra Erin Furness on

Welcome to the Autumn edition of the CHID Newsletter. If pressed to identify a theme for the Autumn Newsletter, I would suggest “Critical Making”. This strange term increasingly describes the projects that our students create and the focus of many of the new classes we teach. Most CHID students and alumni are familiar with the term “critical” as we are used to describing our academic practice as “critical thinking”. The department is known for emphasizing critical reflection--a form of reflection that pays attention to context, positionality, and consequences. It’s the “making” part that makes the phrase seem especially strange.

I’ve learned from students and colleagues that the conceptual division between critique and making is much harder to maintain these days. There are many reasons for this and I’ll just mention two: the prevalence of electronic technology and the shifting meaning of what it means to make. The widescale prevalence of electronic technology means that more of us make non-written or multi-modal documents (scholarship incorporating many different types of media) than ever before. Phones are now cameras and recording devices and many of us edit video, mix songs, or create illustrations. This form of making is no longer the province of a specialized community trained on a select group of tools. Making now occurs almost everywhere, all the time.

The other factor contributing to the growth of critical making is that making is no longer considered distinct from critique as a form of practice. Increasingly I see students, scholars, and artists create as a form of critical reflection. For instance, pointing out the lack of certain types of bodies in movies or games provides the basis for the creation of new types of entertainments that correct these biases. This form of critique as creative practice is especially important for making more creative and less oppressive cultural products, and once again our students have helped to lead the way.

This newsletter provides two great examples of critical-making. The first is Mira Petrillo’s reflection on her participation in the 2019 Summer Institute for the Arts and Humanities (SIAH). CHID has always been an active participant in this special program that supports students during summer quarter as they work on research projects. Not only have many CHID students been selected to participate, CHID faculty have taught SIAH a remarkable seven different summers now. Mira’s article reflects on the challenges and opportunities the 2019 SIAH provided her as it challenged students critically make “alternate worlds”.

Alwyn Mouton provides our second example of critical making. Alwyn has long created stories, graphic novels, and other types of objects. During Autumn Quarter 2019, they led a CHID Focus Group that introduced their peers to the history, importance, and practice of zine making. Zines are personally produced, inexpensive, and physically printed publications that bypass more institutionalized means of production.  As many of you will recognize, CHID Focus Groups have been around for decades. Students first identify a topic that they want to “focus” on with a group of their peers for 2 non-graded credits. They then work with a faculty member to design the syllabus and learn the art of facilitating a discussion. Many of our most engaged students have led focus groups and have seen how facilitating others provides a dynamic way to learn.

Some of you will argue that these efforts are a continuation of things that CHID has been doing for a while anyway. And this is true! CHID has always promoted different types of scholarship and students in the program have been critical making for decades. The big difference is that CHID now has faculty trained in different forms of making that can offer guidance with these projects. Artist Dan Paz, for instance, teaches a class in Winter Quarter on “Mobility, Visibility, and the Other: Rendering 2D Animation” that teaches animation as a study on the representations of stillness and movement as it affects indigenous populations and marginalized communities in the west; ecopoet July Hazard teaches classes on writing and poetics; Annie Dwyer will be incorporating digital humanities tools in her class this Winter on “Living and Dying in the Anthropocene”; Jonathan Lee will also teach a class this Winter on “Multimedia Praxis,” that develops critical literacy in nine different media forms; and Caroline Simpson’s class on “The Politics of Weirdness in Comics” uses comics to discuss the value of the weird in today’s society. This is far from an exhaustive list and I urge you to follow our class offerings as listed in the UW time schedule. It’s really exciting to see how the program is growing and responding to students' needs.

Because of these and other changes, CHID remains at the vanguard of humanities educational practices. Critical making is not a fad that we’ve only recently begun to chase; it is the result of the accumulated knowledge of 40 years of interdisciplinary teaching and research. CHID unswervingly believes that education should provide students with the technical, ethical, and creative tools to make a difference in their communities and in the world at large. Perhaps this is why we are one of the humanities majors who have experienced the greatest growth over the past few years; it certainly helps explain why our students are satisfied with their classes. Critical making just gives us a new forum for doing what we’ve always done well—to help educate some of the most creative and interesting students enrolled at the University of Washington.