Gretchen Larsen

Sculptural Light Installation,
Creative Code &
Education Research.


Research methods that support a decolonial, action-oriented, teacher/researcher approach to understanding the creative coding classroom 

Gretchen Larsen
Summer 2021
Research is challenging for me to do, as a novice, and it’s challenging for its large and slippery vocabulary, but then it is also challenging for two more reasons, which I will bear witness to in more detail here. The first is that the literature on how to DO the various methods are so deep, so particular and precise and undoubting and instructive, so steeped in themselves and their own certitude, that it is wholly consuming just to grasp hold of and translate to practice all of their prescriptions, and that is just the half of it, because then there exists another large body of de-colonial analyses of the methodologies, which are also thoroughly deep and mind-bending and appear to rip at the seams many of the certainties so professed in the other.

It’s as if one pulls you so deeply into the thick description (pun intended for ethnography audience) of how research is done that you can’t actually see anything else, but then the other is actually right beside you, down in the muck, shining lights all over the place that illuminate things in a totally different light. So, there’s all the opaque and complicated ways to do research, and then there’s the myriad and deep critical perspectives on it. Another way of putting this challenge is how do you practice in this muck, when it's basically your first time in the muck, and the tools you thought you were going to use (though you read the many, many pages about “how” to use them) have been rendered pretty futile and ridiculous with your new awareness of the actual, somewhat insane, state of the muck (which the flashlights aka de-colonial perspective brought on). And that’s just one of my two reasons why I find it such a challenging topic.

The other reason I find research challenging is that I can’t stop thinking about how the three things I do (though it’s worth mentioning that these are really just the three things I do in this program, for outside of it I skateboard and garden and befriend some little kids and walk a little dog)—art, research, and teach—are really, all approximately the same sort of activity. They’re all practices that involve making things, via some process (and we might call the process “design”) and the thing I just said, the previous challenge where you’re in the muck (trying to DO) and someone’s down there shining a light (de-colonial perspective), well that’s actually true of EACH of the three practices (art, teaching, research). They’re all me trying to corral and mess around in the muck and make something while reckoning with the splintering, shattering fact of critical and de-colonial perspectives which (quite importantly, I think) throw one’s mucky practice for a loop.

I’m reminded of that thing Papert and Harel (1991) said about learning being like “groping around in our disorderly bag of tricks and tools for the wherewithal to build understandings,” and I’m thinking that what they describe is really the moment when our practice touches theory, when a new idea totally undoes you and you’ve actually no idea how in the world you’re going to make the thing you thought just moments ago you knew how to make. That, I think, is learning —the total uncertainty, the total mess of groping around, the terror and curiosity and excitement to build an understanding that you’ve never had before. I think some people would call this praxis, this relationship between theory and practice, this meandering working process that oscillates side to side much more often than it goes forward.

In what follows I’ll basically follow these challenges down to the bone, diving into how various methodologies recommend doing research, confronting these practices with pieces of de-colonial critique, and situating research in the realm of my own art-teaching-researching practices.

Ethnography is my earliest official research practice, the first methodology I encountered at graduate university. Ethnography originated in the field of anthropology. It was employed to study other/othered societies, often colonized or third worlds. Ethnography is really a practice of experiencing some culture, and then describing it (Geertz, 1973; Hammersley, 2017). Experiencing a culture can mean witnessing or observing, or it can mean participating in the culture. After some experience, the ethnographer practices describing it, which happens both immediately (or as soon as possible) after the experience, as well as in an ongoing way that leads to a final written account.

Describing these experiences of a culture involves a thorough interrogation of what’s going on, and if the researcher is working in the interpretive/pragmatic or critical paradigm, it also involves a thorough interrogation of one’s own (the researcher’s) positionality and habits of attending to various phenomena. In most ethnographic accounts of recent years (i.e. ones that are not rooted in a positivist/objectivist philosophy), one of the more complicated aspects of ethnography is handling this interplay between what is going on outside, and how one’s individual perception contributes to the shape of what is seen. In the ethnographic account A Thrice Told Tale, Margery Wolf (1992) gives three different accounts of a series of events which reckon with the varying tendencies of ethnographers to give accounts that totally detached, to those that are so “self-absorbed as to lose sight altogether of the culturally different Other” (p. 131).

In ethnography the different types of data, from fieldnotes to diaristic journals, attempt to capture the different layers of experience. The data ranges from descriptions of what happened, to one’s more personal reflection on and experience of what happened. Ethnographic methods involve capturing these types of data. Field notes are written up after time spent in observation or participant observation, and are a narrative account of the unfolding events. Ethnographic methods also involve soliciting from the people in the culture accounts of their experience, often given during an ethnographic interview, which has its own set of methods for asking questions in such a way as to elicit as much rich description from the perspective of the informant as possible. Ethnographic interview techniques include who is chosen as an informant, what types of questions to ask, how to ask questions, and how to facilitate this more specific style of conversation.

The ethnographer’s data, often in the form of field notes, are the researcher’s “constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to” (Geertz, 1973, p. 9). The ethnographic text is justified as a thing that makes “available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said” (Geertz, 1973, p. 30). In spite of how simple and straightforward these goals seem, quite rapidly in the light of critical and de-colonial critique of Eurocentric research practices they become entirely problematic, if not sinister. This practice of describing someone’s world for them, and then of making this information available, is an act of colonization where the culture being researched is the frontier to be made known, to be translated into the colonizer’s language and understood by them as a sort of property that now the researcher, who has officially claimed the knowledge, owns and can cash in.

Patel (2016) describes that the “thirst for property and accumulation of wealth [under settler colonialism] then converts other entities to property” (p. 13). The data is a sort of property “to be saved and analyzed at all costs” (Tuck & Yang, 2014a, p. 11). Tuck and Yang (2014a) explain that the white/European world operates on a “different set of values [from the indigenous world], one which requires learning all and telling all in the interests of knowledge, objectivity and freedom” (p. 11). However “knowledge,” “objectivity,” and “freedom” deserve interrogation, as it is possible to know without using knowledge to secure power or to contribute to the colonial/capitalist project; objectivity is a technology historically used to silence dissent; and freedom is not freedom if it involves the humiliation and degradation that makes objects of human beings.

Ethnography, however, is first and foremost a methodology, which is but one part of a paradigm (de-colonial, critical, interpretive/pragmatic, and positivist/objectivist mentioned above). A paradigm consists of an ontology, epistemology, methodology, and methods (Scotland, 2012, p. 1). The methodology, the strategy that underlies the specific methods (interviews, observation, questionnaires), is inherently tied to ontologies and epistemologies which really form the fundamental assumptions and beliefs of the paradigm. The methodology asserts, it’s a plan that will assert, “how the [researcher will] go about finding out whatever [she] believe[s] can be known” (Scotland, 2012, p.10). What a researcher believes can be known is tied up in her beliefs about reality, what is (ontology), and epistemology, or how knowledge is “created, acquired, and communicated” (Scotland, 2012, p.1).

Ethnography, then, can be done via the critical paradigm, as in critical ethnography. Critical ethnography uses the same methods—the thick description, the translation of experience of another culture and ventriloquist speaking for it, but adds to this an emphasis on how “patterns of social domination, hierarchy, and social privilege” play out (Agar, 1996, p. 27). The critical ethnographer tries to expose “patterns that reveal injustice” (Agar, 1996, p. 27). Even so, functionally the critical ethnography project often uses captured knowledge to reinforce the researcher’s own position in the White/European colonial state (Tuck & Yang, 2014b).

A type of ethnography called new ethnography might be seen as an interpretive/pragmatic take that, in contrast with “old ethnography” favors “complexity and ambiguity at the expense, in some cases of noticing patterns” (Agar, 1996,  pp. 10-11). Rather than working to name, to confirm, to say for certain, its products are more winding. In comparing this practice with the decolonial strategy of refusal (Tuck & Yang, 2014b), this openness and unwillingness to pin down for certain why something is does function in opposition of the Eurocentric cultural paradigm, however it does still fail to address how and when it is appropriate to describe a culture for members of the cultural group being studied.

How might ethnography be done in such a way that it does more good than harm, that it doesn’t fall prey to the traps of a Eurocentric worldview, where knowledge is power and research is the sort of horse and gun of the new frontier? Is it possible to do ethnographic research and not effectively use it to strengthen the white/European colonial project? Is it possible to use it towards decolonial ends? Tuck and Yang (2014a) describe the academy as a “community of practice that is focused upon the propagation and promulgation of [settler colonial] knowledge” (p. 10). Core practices of the academy include:
  • Stockpiles examples of injustice, yet will not make explicit a commitment to social justice
  • Produces knowledge shaped by the imperatives of the nation-state, while claiming neutrality and universality in knowledge production
  • Accumulates intellectual and financial capital, while informants give a part of themselves away
  • Absorbs or repudiates competing knowledge systems, while claiming limitless horizons (Tuck & Yang, 2014a, p. 10)

Tuck and Yang (2014b) offer the practice of refusal as a strategy that could apply to any methodology. Refusal aims to counter the dominating narratives of so-called needy/problem-ed groups, refusing both to tell stories of pain and humiliation which only deepen the myth, as well as refusing the corresponding help/hope offered from the White/European community for those groups. So much of educational research “relies on vulnerable populations to justify various foci in funding streams and publications bolstered by the potential impact in improving said vulnerable populations” (Patel, 2016, p. 22). Refusal, as a practice, refuses to exploit vulnerable populations by extracting stories in promise for some form of help.

Refusal as a practice is not something that’s sort of dead or null. Refusal isn’t about not doing research. It’s about committing to doing research in a way that does not exploit suffering, that does not continue to retell the same story of a group in need of help. What Tuck and Yang propose might be worth telling instead is two-fold. For one, the account might focus its lens instead on naming the White/European colonial snake who might take the form of “a Eurocentric epistemology that is based on White superiority, capitalism, and scientific theories of intelligence” (Delgado Bernal, 2002, p. 112). Second Wave Critical Whiteness studies might come in as a framework for seeing things like white privilege, colorblindness, and invisibility of whiteness at work (Jupp et. al., 2018, p. 311).

Tuck and Yang’s refusal could also take the form of telling new stories, stories not of pain and humiliation, but of desire, as Tuck and Yang (2018) put it. Desire is really in their sense the naming of/making space for othered groups to name their own lives, their values and hope for the future. This practice is really the opposite of some outsider prescribing a hope or cure for a community that they do not belong to. This side of refusal might make use of Critical Raced-Gendered epistemologies which offer important perspectives about reality and knowing from historically marginalized, oppressed groups. Critical Raced-Gendered epistemologies include Critical Race Feminism, which centers the experiences of black women, and LatCrit or Latina/o Critical Theory, which centers the perspectives of Chicanas/Latinas. Critical Raced-Gendered epistemologies really build off of Critical Race Theory, Feminist theory of the 60s and 70s, the Black Nationalism movement, and Chicana feminist studies, but seek to recover/repair what any one of these theories in isolation might lack (hooks, 1994; Berry, 2010; Delgado Bernal, 2002). For example Critical Race Theory, in its original form, didn’t account for gender, the Black Nationalist movement failed to account for sexism, and the mainstream feminism of the 60s and 70s failed to acknowledge theoretical differences along race and class lines (hooks, 1994; Delgado Bernal, 1998).

In my current thinking and understanding, the second method, where refusal is combined with Critical Raced-Gendered epistemologies, still runs some risk of teetering towards telling someone’s story for them, and serving more the goals of the academy than the goals of the de-colonial project which appear to oppose the academy. The frameworks which might support this method offer more specific tools to teeter towards the de-colonial project. Delgado Bernal (2002) explains that “CRT and LatCrit [a type of critical raced-gendered epistemology] form a lens for educational research that acknowledges and supports systems of knowing and understanding that counter the dominant Eurocentric epistemology” (p. 121). The core commitments of a Critical Raced-Gendered epistemology include (1) the fact that racism is a social construction that does real damage to human beings (2) the idea that racism is ordinary and permanent (3) the ways that interest convergence functions to maintain the white/European colonial norm (4) practices of anti-essentialism which refuse to simplify or generalize complexity of identity (5) practices of intersectionality which acknowledge and critically consider how different pieces of one’s identity shape one's experience and (6) the importance of counter-storytelling (Jupp et. al., 2018; Delgado Bernal, 2002; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001).

Critical Raced-Gendered epistemologies offer pathways for ethnography as a methodology. Nonetheless I can’t help but feel that there is something endemic to ethnography’s foundational beliefs, which shapes the corresponding research practice, that make it sort of unsalvageable. The fact that I was taught ethnography but never offered a decolonial critique of the practice makes me doubt it. The methodology was really developed to understand other/othered cultures and really grew from a Eurocentric frame of mind where knowing about another culture was linked to having power and dominance over it. However, ethnography’s methods for data collection via observations and participant observation did help me to become more attentive to what is happening versus what I personally experience or judge about what’s happening. I appreciate its prescription of fieldnotes versus personal diaries, as ways of recording different data sources, one “outside” (though still individually perceived) and one more internal. The same appreciation is true for its interview techniques and domain analysis practice that attunes the researcher to the languages of her subjects.

Still, ethnography can easily fall prey to the ventriloquist’s treachery, which I first learned from Gloria Anzaldua (2009), where a researcher takes a missionary role, attempting to save somebody, to rescue them by means of presuming to know what they lack in comparison to her own [white] culture, speaking for othered, marginalized populations which Anzaldua names “a rape of our tongue… silenced into a mere hissing” (Anzaldua, 2009, p. 47). One research methodology which intentionally seeks to avoid speaking for its subjects is Participatory Action Research (PAR). This methodology brings the perspectives of the research subjects into the entire research design, involving subjects as participants in the research process who also ask questions, propose problems or acknowledge areas of desire or growth, and establish goals. In this, the research subjects might gain some of the researcher’s tools, known to confer power via knowledge collection and production, and may use them towards new ends. PAR isn’t necessarily de-colonial, but Miguel Zavela (2013) imagines how to do it so that it does serve the de-colonial project: growing PAR from grassroots sites that are situated outside the academy, to ensure they are not entangled with the goals of the Eurocentric dominant group. He explains, “a fundamental lesson from decolonizing projects is the following: where the research grows from and who funds it matters as much as if not more than the kinds of research methods/strategies used or the theoretical frameworks that inform such work” (Zavela, 2013, p. 57).

PAR really extends or refines Action Research, a methodology that typically falls within the critical paradigm. Action research, in contrast with what might be considered typical ethnographic research projects, invites research into a practitioner's (often an educator’s) existing teaching practice, and uses a reflective research process to bring about personal growth in the teacher/researcher and make positive intervention in the classroom (Ferrance, 2000). So the Action Researcher, instead of going somewhere and looking at and writing about something and describing for some audience, does all of this on her own turf; “participants examine their own educational practice systematically and carefully, using the techniques of research” (Ferrance, 2000, p. 1). Action Research also, in contrast to ethnography, uses the research findings as models for direct intervention, testing the products of her careful reflection in practice.

Grundy (1982) identified three types of Action Research: technical action research (“seeks to deliver more efficient practice”), practical action research (“improve self-reflection, improve the quality of action within a situation”), and emancipatory action research, in which the researcher as participant is emancipated “from the dictates of compulsions of tradition, precedent, habit, coercion as well as from self-deception” (as cited in Leitch & Day, 2000, pp. 184-185). Occasionally Action Research, although not as easy to fall prey to ventriloquism, can just as harmfully overindulge in self-focus at the expense of the real work that needs doing in the educational realm. Leitch & Day (2000) cite Somekh (1995): “There is a tendency for some Action Research to become ingrown and ‘contentless’, so that self-exploration and personal growth seem to become the whole focus and purpose of the research. This may be an effective form of therapy, but it is difficult to call it research” (p. 184).

It seems possible to me that there are various strategies to help the Action Researcher avoid this sort of self-indulgent practice. One might be to engage in PAR, which has an explicit commitment to social (not just personal) improvement “as determined by marginalized and oppressed groups” (Dixson et. al., 2019, p. 65). Another might be one model of emancipatory action research where the researcher collaborates with a community of practitioners “who are committed to transforming the educational system” (Leitch & Day, 2000, p. 185). This model helps bring the transformation outside of the individual and out into social space. There is also another model of emancipatory action research typified by Whitehead (1989, 1993) that engages a reflective but action-oriented process of “explaining your present practice in terms of an evaluation of your past’” (Whitehead, 1996, as cited in Leitch & Day, 2000, p. 185). This form of research involves autobiography, reflective writing and journals, as well as fictional stories, with the goal towards becoming aware of the underlying ontological and epistemological beliefs held, to more clearly be able to articulate what you do and why (Leitch & Day, 2000). This model of emancipatory Action Research emphasizes the individual over the collective, but likely imagines that reflection and personal growth or transformation can also contribute to societal growth or transformation.

It’s clear to me that, when we’re talking about and imagining decolonial research methodologies, there’s a tension between action and reflection. Critical Raced-Gendered theories have as a core tenet a commitment to “[seeking] political and social change on behalf of communities of color” (Delgado Bernal, 2002, p. 110). We might think of research methodologies like ethnography being all reflection—entirely focused on understanding what’s going on, and absent of any explicit component of doing something with it. Dewey names reflective thinking as a multistage process that involves “a state of doubt, hesitation or mental difficulty in which thinking originates, followed by an act of searching or inquiring to find material that will resolve the doubt” (Leitch & Day, 2000, p. 180). It’s possible that in ethnography, writing the account is a sort of doing, is a resolution or attempt to tie up the ends of the many questions and mis-understandings that the researcher has experienced, which are resolved by theory, or a means of summing up, of naming or making sense of what wasn’t before understood. In ethnography, the researcher acts (talks to people, goes places), and reflects on that action, via memos and journals, and then puts forth a theory that is constructed out of her (the researcher’s) jabs (actions) out in a space, and her reflection on what those jabbings did.

bell hooks writes about her experience of theory as a sort of savior, a thing that “made the hurt go away’ (hooks, 1994, p. 59). She says “I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me… I saw in theory then a location for healing” (hooks, 1994, p. 59). She says that theory, or theorizing, isn't inherently liberatory, but it can be. I  think she believes it is liberating when it’s linked to “processes of self-recovery” and “collective liberation.” Theory, or theorizing, then, is gorgeous, a healing well if you will, when taken up as a sort of sanctuary, when it’s rooted in the discovery and recovery of our lost selves, in our healing, and when that practice and process is shared and enacted in community and used towards imagining and building new possibilities, new futures. When theory is used to dominate, “to divide, separate, exclude, keep at a distance,” it does not serve collective or personal healing, and it is a real marvel that so much theory in academia which does this is given any attention at all, is not instead seen through narrowed eyes for the “narcissistic, self-indulgent practice” it is (hooks, 1994, p. 64). This way of theorizing, the opposite of theorizing as a liberatory practice, is the sort that “seeks to create a gap between theory and practice so as to perpetuate class elitism” (hooks, 1994, p. 64). hooks (1994) says,

“I am grateful to the many women and men who dare to create theory from the location of pain and struggle, who courageously expose wounds to give us their experience to teach and guide, as a means to chart new theoretical journeys. Their work is liberatory. It not only enables us to remember and recover ourselves, it charges and challenges us to renew our committment to an active, inclusive feminist struggle” (p. 74).

I think she advocates a sort of embodied theory, one centered on lived experiences,  not the head but the heart, as a tool or practice that can offer healing. She quotes Catherine McKinnon saying “we know  things with our lives and we live that knowledge, beyond what any theory has  yet theorized” (hooks, 1994, p. 75).

hooks raises a few important questions. For one, she talks a lot about theory that grows from painful experience. I don’t doubt this—my experience has affirmed it. However I want to bring back Tuck & Yang’s (2014a, 2014b) practice of refusal, their naming of the way the academy absorbs stories of pain, feeds on them, but doesn’t give much (maybe a gift card) in return. So, I have to wonder what it means to practice liberatory theorizing in the academy, or how to practice it in the academy in a way that will de-colonize it, not strengthen it. I wonder about practicing a “tougher” theory in the academy. I wonder if it's possible to use theory to help heal myself/students/the people in my community of practice, and to use it differently in the academic sphere to question, to expose, to illuminate the snake of white/European values which functionally harm us all (as I believe it). I know personally at least one example of a participant in academia who supports herself by writing research papers, but uses a lot of the knowledge and some of the financial return to support women in the local community who are under-resourced. I think this is one model.

Kathleen Stewart (2008), a writer and ethnographer, advocates a kind of weak theory, which might offer a strategy for conducting research under the academic lens. Weak theory is the opposite of strong theory, which “defends itself against the puncturing of its dream of a perfect parallelism between the analytic subject, her concept, and the world” (p. 72). Weak theory “comes unstuck from its own line of  thought,” or it “becomes undone by its attention to things that don’t just add up” (p. 72). I like to think about Stewart’s weak theory in contrast to hooks’ theory as liberatory practice. Is Stewart’s method for white folks like me, drenched in the White/European colonial paradigm, who need a theoretical practice which will detach me from my perfect dream (where I save the drawing lady, where I become queen)? Maybe. I appreciate her temperament, one of patience, with things that don’t add up. I appreciate her stance against forcing things to add up, which seems like an anti-colonial thing to do—not packaging and selling a perfect product, but just holding in open palm all the bits, and watching and wondering what they might do.

Stewart’s weak theory seems a lot like humble theorizing, or building theory that stays close to domain-specific learning processes (instead of trying to “name the world”). She writes “models of thinking that glide over the surface of modes of attention and attachment in search of the determinants of big systems located somewhere else are more and more like roadblocks to proprioception than tunnels that yield understanding” (p. 75). Action research is a methodology that is sometimes thought to over-emphasize the ground, to merely “meet local needs” instead of advancing some larger theoretical agenda (Anderson & Shattuck, 2012). Ethnography strives to use the ground, the daily/dull observations, to build theory or build on existing theory. Grounded Theory research, which might be combined with Action Research or ethnographic methods, uses raw data solely to build new theory (though it’s informed by existing theories). Design-based Research (DBR) is a lot like Action Research, with its emphasis on intervention as part of the research process (and not  just a possibility in the aftermath of the write-up). However DBR adds a more explicit emphasis on building theory, as opposed to what might be called more local, personal knowledge than Action Research, thus trying to move out of the confines of the research context where a designed practice or artifact is implemented, and assert things about those interventions to other situations in the same domain.

I have been practicing and critically considering DBR and grounded theory (GT) in my research context of the Computational Art and Design class I teach and assistant-teach. DBR, as I mentioned, intervenes in context, and includes as a practice both reflection and intervention. More specifically, DBR involves “both ‘engineering’ particular forms of learning” and then “systematically studying those forms of learning within the context defined by the means of supporting them” (Cobb et. al., 2003, p. 9). When I compare DBR to a ‘weak theoried ethnography,’ DBR feels more proactive. If weak theory ethnography is an open palm, holding space for whatever shows up, then DBR still could be conducted with an open palm, but in that palm sits a very intentionally designed learning experience or learning artifact, and the researcher is watching pretty intently to see how it's interacted with. DBR (notice the word design in its name) is really intentional about implementing intervention. Like Action research, DBR occurs on the researcher’s/teacher’s own turf. So this designed implementation, like in Action Research, is at least not another form of outsider intervention (do we need to talk about how wanting or wishing somebody outside yourself will solve your problems for you is a lie? Maybe later). It’s worth mentioning, however, that often DBR is a teacher/practitioner and researcher partnership, where the researchers research and the teacher implements the designed intervention. Because of this added energy—the fact that DBR often involves both researcher and practitioner in collaboration—supposedly DBR is better able to work both practically (in action/intervention) and theoretically (there’s more energy to do the deep scholarly work).

DBR distinguishes the researcher/scholar from the creative teacher/practitioner. Dede (2004) explains, “the skills of creative designers and the attributes of rigorous scholars have limited overlap” (p. 107). Clearly he is not aware of Simon Penny’s goals for an emerging media art education that does both. I was practicing doing DBR as both the teacher/practitioner and researcher/scholar in the Computational Art and Design class I teach, though I was also informally collaborating with a fellow instructor with whom I would reflect, speculate, and design both semester-wide curriculum and daily pedagogic interventions. The designed intervention was really the intentional design of the class. It included the sequence of the topics, the format of the project descriptions, the nature of the projects (which required basically a creative/coded response to a set of constraints), the modes of sharing information, my practices of offering critique, the supports that were offered, the timing (of lectures, of office hours, of intervals between assignments), inclusion of specific aspects of cultural content, and especially the balance of technical tool instruction versus creative inspiration and space for students to produce creative work.

In DBR, the idea is that all this intentionality about these aspects, and then your corresponding consideration of how they play out, might help you to design increasingly better (however that’s defined) interventions, which also simultaneously shed some light on deeper domain-specific theoretical concerns. In my field, these domain-specific theoretical concerns could be: how art versus non-art students experience learning creative coding, or more specific aspects of what their challenges in acquiring code are (I’ve found that non-art students with a CS background are challenged by the creative and open-ended quality of the prompts); the challenges that art students experience in acquiring code (some has been written about the relative ease of learning to read code, but the challenge in learning to write it); how to balance breadth with depth; and the ongoing question of really how is it possible to become deeply effective in a technical tool, while also being able to mis-use it, and re/imagine it. This last theoretical issue is especially relevant when the emerging media artist is defined as a person who can use tools in any context. “Learning,” void of meaningful context, is actually the terrible pitfall of a lot of education to date, where students learn things that really don’t apply to their life and don’t get to learn things that might really help them, things they desperately need (Gee, 2012). I think the practice of trying to understand deep domain-specific theoretical issues is a really interesting one, and I’m compelled by DBR’s practice of designing, and actually building/implementing, solutions to try to understand the questions better.

DBR critics say it sometimes just feels like action research, where the theory can feel more like common sense knowledge (Dede, 2004, p. 107). Others worry about how to account for both the many and varying aspects of the learning ecology, alongside the evolving variables of the designed intervention. These critics think it’s easy for the DBR practitioner to name whatever theory she wants without grounding it, due to the difficulty of collecting and analyzing the amount of data necessary to account for so many variables (Dede, 2004). DBR is a bit like hypothesis-testing, where the design is a sort of hypothesis, and it seems very possible to over-emphasize, to coddle and force, to make whatever form of learning or artifact work, instead of acknowledging more openly what’s going on.

Grounded Theory (GT) is a research approach that can vary by methods and epistemology, but that generally seeks to “generate new knowledge instead of just testing what is already known” (Mruck & Mey, 2019, p. 20). It can probably be seen in the best light as not following a hypothesis-testing route. It doesn't “begin with a theory, then prove it,” instead it begins with an area of study and then “what is relevant to that area is allowed to emerge” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 23). Its methods for data collection can be borrowed, but it suggests a more prescriptive process for analyzing the data via open, axial, and selective coding. Data is organized around the paradigm model, which is more like a phenomenon model, which asserts that all phenomena consist of causal conditions, some context, intervening actions, interactional strategies, and consequences. I've spent a decent bit of time trying to align my data into these categories (Figure 1). I’ve found it makes me feel like I’m doing research, and it feels good, like filling out a worksheet that will make your teacher give you a stamp.

I can’t help but feel like filling out a worksheet and feeling good about it is a pretty lousy way to contribute to the de-colonial project (I think it’s not contributing to it at all), and I also can’t help but notice GT’s emphasis on things adding up. In naming this or that as phenomena, and not that, I can’t help but feel a sort of “conquering self” emerge, which can easily over-emphasize its definite categories over the real meaty, felt, guts of a situation. I don’t think grounded theory is bad, and I think it helps the DBR practitioner to stay close to her data and not be married to her design. However I also wonder if my attention might be more of service to what matters to me by, instead of attending to the paradigm model, attending to Critical Raced-Gendered theories and frameworks. Instead of focusing on how some piece of data fits the paradigm model, wondering about Critical Raced-Gendered lenses which attune me to aspects of intersectionality, white invisibility, interest convergence, and multidimensionality (among others).

From what I’ve found, and what I’ve read, the research on teaching and learning EMA at the college level is limited. The reason for it is believed to be the fact that the “prevailing discourse” of EMA is so new and so involved that teachers/practitioners focus more on practicing EMA and practicing teaching than on writing research to reflect on teaching. The seminal texts, Code as Creative Medium (Levin & Brain, 2021) and Teaching Computational Creativity (Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017) are written with little reference to methodology. Teaching Computational Creativity is a collection of chapters about teaching by EMA teacher/practitioners and also emerging media theorists, and although some of the chapters are thorough in their theoretical base, the design of their class, and their description of student projects and work, rarely are research methodologies mentioned (see Hieronymi, 2017, or Patton & Meeken, 2017, for reference).

The lead authors of Code as Creative Medium (Levin & Brain, 2021), while not citing formal methodologies to justify their conclusions, have independently published work that does reference methodology. Author Tega Brain co-published a paper with fellow NYU professor Laine Nooney (2019) that utilized autoethnographic methods to reflect on their teaching of a joint history and design class. The class used a “speculative past” design framework that departs from speculative design and looks a lot like critical design applied to specific historical instances. As I’ve mentioned, speculative design is really a departure from typical design practices, in that it refuses to believe that some perfect, designed solution exists, and instead emphasizes that what might need change or transformation are our own values and beliefs. The speculative design process involves researching, prototyping, and building artifacts that represent new values and beliefs (Dunne & Raby, 2013). Critical design emphasizes “identifying and dismantling inequitable and oppressive systems” (Holbert et. al., 2020, p. 329). In the space of their class, ‘How the Computer Became Personal,’ students critically reflected on the history of the computer. Through the duration of the semester students built alternatives to the computer as we now know it, informed by research into the historical context of the past. One student group imagined the real activist group Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) got early computing technology into their hands and used it to distribute information about undesirable state projects like “a prison and a hazardous waste incinerator within their community” (Nooney & Brain, 2019, p. 226).

Nooney and Brain (2019) use autoethnography to deeply reflect and describe the class that they built. The paper is extremely detailed about how their joint history-design partnership came about, the design of the course and course content, and the specifics of the main speculative past assignment, which includes rich description of student work. In their description of student work, they critically reflect on the core theoretical issue of using design to “fix” a complex social problem via “corporate means and product design solutions” (Nooney & Brain, 2019, p. 231). Critical or de-colonial reflection on the authors’ own teaching and course design is limited, with a very small mention of the fact that the course content centers on the American computing history, as opposed to having a more “transnational lens” (p. 223).

It is interesting to consider the overlap between speculative and critical design practices with research methodologies, particularly DBR. Both involve the creation of a designed “artifact” (which may be a form of learning), based on research and existing theory. Both involve a critical consideration of how that design actually functions. As Nooney & Brain (2019) reflected on one student project, their critical design unfortunately fell prey to a lot of the same pitfalls of early computer design (see Figure 2, a prototype for a multi-user computer, 3D printed and sculpted by students). Similarly, the design of Nooney & Brain’s class was, in a sense, a critical/speculative design which aimed to reconsider the relationship between the practices of historians and designers, by imagining and building a class that taught students a hybrid practice where designers were steeped in critical historical context and historians were tasked with building interventions out of their critical knowledge. It’s a bit meta, then: teachers as critical/speculative designers who also teach critical/speculative design practice.

What does feel missing from this sort of research/teaching practice are meaningful reflection on the following: (1)  the teacher’s/researcher’s positionality (2) institutional criticality (3) explicit use of Critical Raced-Gendered theory or other decolonial methodological practice (3) the lack of explicitly revolutionary/liberatory pedagogical practices like that of bell hooks, Paolo Freire, Dolores Delgado Bernal, or Cheryl Matias. When I read hooks’ words in her dedication to Teaching to Transgress, “to all my students… in gratitude for all the times we start over--begin again--renew our joy in learning,” it feels like a bell singing inside me, remembering that it is a joy to learn. Remembering that in this practice I am saved and renewed. How often do I feel this way, teaching Computational Art and Design? How often do my students, encountering code for the first time, experience this joy?

In the White Chapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art: Nature, McDonough (2004) reminds me of the sharp worry I fear about the EMA educational project:

“The contemporary ‘immaterial labour’ of post-Fordism has seen the conscription of the category of subjectivity itself into the relations of production. ‘The prescription of tasks’ along the assembly line, in which the worker was subject to the coordination of the various functions of production ‘as simple command’ has given way in the post-industrial economy to ‘a prescription of subjectivities’ in which the worker is expected to become a participating agent in processes of control, the handling of information and decision-making.” (p. 136)

I worry that efforts to build EMA programs are little more than a push to keep up with the colonial regime, that our efforts to swim and help students swim among technologies will make us simply tools of capitalist production. I can’t help but admit that it feels like a big challenge, in a university setting already rife with questionable values, where education itself can feel like commodity, for students and educators/researchers to resist this.

May 2023

— Sculpture and light installation
— Creative code education & research