Thoughts on YOUmedia… and Some Inevitable Thoughts About Gender

Prompt: What types of participation are happening at Chicago’s YouMedia Digital Media Lab? What struck you from the report about its first year in action?

I first read a little bit about YOUmedia in another class and thought it sounded pretty cool… but then moved on to other things and never followed up with reading more about it! I’m glad we had the opportunity to read this report and really dive into the context and circumstances of this particular makerspace.

Some responses:

First of all, reading Teens, Digital Media and the Chicago Public Library  about the YOUmedia Digital Media Lab made me want to move to Chicago and work there or just do that kind of work somewhere! The report felt energizing and invigorating to read – I’m glad a place like this exists. YOUmedia is not perfect, of course, and I appreciated the authors’ discussion of some shortcomings, but it is an interesting example of one way that a makerspace for teens in a library setting can be conceptualized. And it just sounds like plain old fun to be there and hang out and/or do stuff.

The participatory profiles, categorized as Socializers, Readers/Studiers, Floaters, Experimenters, or Creators for the purposes of the study, sounded familiar after reading Ito’s “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.” I appreciated the discussion of how these participatory styles interacted with 1) teen freedom of choice (e.g., choosing how to spend their time in the space, options of activities/workshops to participate in, etc) and 2) the actual layout of the physical space as determined by the equipment and the staff. The map graphic on page 26 that showed where certain categories of participators were most likely to spend time in the space was a great visualization of data that may seem convoluted at first. I also enjoyed reading about the students’ relationships with staff members and the roles that staff members played in 1) facilitating engagement or 2) just hanging out and talking. One teen mentioned the feeling that “the adults who work there respect teens” and many others mentioned this same idea. I wish I could have known more about the staff (e.g., backgrounds, prior experiences, perspectives) beyond what was provided in the report.

I was also struck by the number of teens who commented that YOUmedia made them feel safe and also gave them a feeling of belonging, perhaps incorporating that “affinity space” mentality that encourages teens to be bold and honest about what interests them and share that with others. A number of teens also highlighted the importance of agency and choice in terms of deciding how they spend their time at YOUmedia. Teens are encouraged to focus on their interests and aren’t forced into doing anything just because someone else is doing it. I remember loving these sorts of opportunities as a teen and can see why this would be a well-liked component of YOUmedia. However, the authors of the report do point out:

“Here is the conundrum: Privileging teen choice seems to incentivize the teens with more ambition and advanced production skills, who navigate their way more often to the high-profile learning opportunities. Because most teens who are novices do not reach advanced levels of skill, they are unable to take advantage of the opportunities such skill affords for participating in signature projects. […] Can the degree of teen choice be modified to encourage more commitment and consistency from teens who are less inclined to participate in structured learning activities while also retaining the sense of freedom many teens appreciate about YOUmedia?” (quotes from page 49)

This sounds like a huge, interesting question. The nuance in finding that fine line between modifying teen choice and maintaining teen freedom to choose is probably quite complicated when you look at it from a logistical, real world perspective. Do you ask teens how to do it? Do you ask colleagues? Do you read other makerspace evaluation reports? Do you try things until they work? I’m looking forward to learning more about possible answers to this question.

Lastly, I was struck by the role that gender (as always) seemed to play in the description and confirmation of the participatory categories and how the teens identified as one particular role. The study authors shared that “more than half of Readers/Studiers are male” (p. 27), “eighty percent of Floaters are male” (p. 28) “three-fourths of the Experimenters are male” (p. 28) and “eight-six percent of Music Creators are male” (p. 29) while “more than half of the Socializers are female” (p. 27) and “half of other Creators are female” (p. 30). For a program that has been incredibly successful at serving under-served African-American teen males, this isn’t surprising, and of course, is terrific. I’m glad to see that half of general Creators were girls, but what about those girls who are interested in music? Or who are maybe interested in moving into another participatory profile but aren’t sure how to do it? I couldn’t help but think of the continued gender divide that we’ve encountered in our other readings regarding makerspaces and makers in general. Is it our society as a whole, in the way gender-based socialization works that tends to (more likely) inhibit girls and (more likely) encourage boys to get their hands dirty and get involved, to become “makers” at least in the ways that we seem to conceptualize and study “making”? Of course, this is a stereotype and not true for everyone and every context across the board, but it’s a stereotype that seems to sort of ring true in the data. I can’t help but feel that the participatory categories are still inherently “tiered” or discussed in order of importance — being an Experimenter or becoming a Creator the epitome of making and is inherently more important or more valuable than being a Floater or a Socializer.

Heather discussed this idea earlier in the term – why is having a non-tangible experience (having a good conversation with a mentor or thinking of a new idea, for example) seemingly not as valued in our culture — or adequately captured when we measure and evaluate success — as it is to produce a tangible thing that other people can view/interact with? In the profiles of teens highlighted in the report, I felt like the authors discussed the participatory profiles like “Girl X went to YOUmedia to make a personal post on her Facebook page and socialize with her friends. Boy Y went to YOUmedia to record a music track with lyrics that he wrote and also talked to a trusted adult about prospects of building a career in the music industry.” In Kayla’s profile (she’s a Reader/Studier), the language used is “Despite her lack of participation…” in order to describe the benefits she’s gained from spending time at YOUmedia (p. 28). In my view, she is participating! She’s choosing to be there, she’s doing her thing on her own terms, she’s talking to people or enjoying the presence of other people. But inevitably, it seems, equal levels of attention and recognition aren’t given to her for her “limited” contribution or personal experience in the space. Who produces the majority of products that YOUmedia can point to as youth-generated content? I think it’s unlikely that staff will record casual conversations or show a slurry of Facebook posts at review meetings — they’ll show a video montage someone made using YOUmedia’s equipment and software. I’m reminded again of Chachra’s “Why I Am Not a Maker” article and some of the thoughts I had about gender and the history of making in my post High Culture is for Everyone, or Why “Hands On” Isn’t a Dirty Word.

Whew. I didn’t mean for that to come off as a rant, although maybe it did. If anything, thinking about things like this just makes me want to learn and read and think more about gender and creation culture.


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