Critical Making


The previous contributors to this discussion have done a fantastic job of reflecting on the importance of professional context, personal growth, and depth of inquiry as valuable frames for considering the relationships between media studies and the digital humanities. In addressing this question in other contexts, I have argued[PDF] that the richest possible intersections between these “fields” would bring together the theoretical sophistication, attention to history, and concern for the practices of actual people that has characterized the most productive turns in media studies, as well as the emphasis on praxis, collaboration, and experiments with new modes of scholarly practices that are often associated with digital humanities work. Building on Aaron Kashtan’s recent post, I would like to pull on the thread of this argument that is nearest to my own concern with digital scholarship program building in and around disciplinary environments. 

As I work with colleagues on my own small campus, I find that the rhetorical frame of my discussions changes based on specific contexts - I might talk about “media studies” with fellow travelers, “digital scholarship” with colleagues trained in the sciences, and “Digital Humanities” with those who keep up with the Chronicle and the New York Times- but that our conversations often gain traction when I suggest that much of the best work covered by such labels share a concern with practices of “critical making.” In the simplest terms, I take this phrase to mean producing cultural objects from within the critical frames of a discipline. I use it to describe coding, prototyping, fanvids, complex data visualizations, zine-making, webmaking, geo-spatial analysis, network visualizations, and the set of critical reflections that are baked into or built around such activities. Building on long-traditions of praxis-based pedagogy and project-based learning, the notion of critical making appeals for a number of reasons. At first glance, it is quite simply that scientists/artists understand lab/studio work, people familiar with the digital humanities are aware of the debates around building and coding, and media studies folks might already appreciate the value of production training for critique or the importance of fandom and participatory cultures as forms of knowledge production. At a deeper level, an emphasis on robust forms of critical making includes a process of production, reflection, reformulation, and reconsideration, or making as a way to ask better questions. For students who are not fully persuaded that academic papers make a difference in the world, critical making projects often open an avenue to critical intervention, and help them understand that making is something done by authors, scholars, and audiences, and that students themselves may occupy these roles. Beyond the bounds of our current discussion, I think that a critical making framework also connects such academic work to a broader terrain of contemporary cultural change, in the form of hacker spaces, physical computing projects, slow food movements, cultural remixing, urban farming, bike garages, and the like. Students engaged in critical making might develop transferrable skills, but more importantly they might develop a transferrable (critical) disposition that they can apply in other curricular and non-curricular contexts.

I have been engaged in the discourses of media studies and digital humanities long enough to know that the idea of critical making is not central to the practice of everyone who might identify as being associated with these disciplines, and I certainly am not trying to reinforce any perceived boundaries about which forms of making count in either field. I do want to suggest that such a framework is becoming more urgent as emergent media increasingly becomes an object of analysis, as technologically-inflected techniques inform scholarly method, and as new forms of scholarly communication rely on digital and networked systems. 

Image on front page by mandiberg and available on Flickr.


I really like the term "critical making" and the concept behind it. While students may have difficulty with academic papers, I've found that when I ask them to reflect on their process of "creation" for any kind of artifact that they make (be it academic paper, video, etc.), they are often quite lucid and eager to talk about their "process." I think that the process of making and subsequently reflecting on that process can serve to make the study of the digital a much more tangible and engaged act.

Another benefit of this hands-on approach to media is that it whittles away at the anxiety many students feel towards media production. Amateur projects such as Critical Making allow producers to participate in a traditional form of discourse that has historically been key to much widespread social, political, and economic change. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that media production can sometimes inspire such panic in those being asked to publish - creators are cognizant of the self-indentification that occurs when publishing personally resonant texts. Heavy stuff. When we get dirty with texts, we are learning about the (im)permanence of the elements within the composition. 

"Beyond the bounds of our current discussion, I think that a critical making framework also connects such academic work to a broader terrain of contemporary cultural change, in the form of hacker spaces, physical computing projects, slow food movements, cultural remixing, urban farming, bike garages, and the like." 

This sentence reminded me a lot of my colleague Hugh Crawford's pedagogical practice. As he explains in a Chronicle of Higher Education article (, he taught a Thoreau course where he asked his students to build a replica of Thoreau's house. The point of this, as I understand it, was to give his students (and himself) a firsthand experience of the actual material conditions and processes in which Thoreau was working. He also had them use digital tools to document the experience of building the house, so this was a project that moved between digital and non-digital modes of creating stuff. 

This fascinates me because it suggests that critical making is a practice that not only extends beyond purely digital work, and it also helps us think about the ways in which digital and non-digital processes interact. In the Chronicle article linked to above, Crawford characterizes his pedagogical practice as the polar opposite of MOOCs. But I think it's also a model of a pedagogical practice that thoughtfully synthesizes digital and non-digital modes of making. 

Hi Daniel,

Great post and discussion! I like how you're positioning critical making in relation to DH and media studies, and I'm particularly interested in this emphasis on process over product.

It's been exciting seeing how Garnet Hertz's series has broadened the discourse around critical making and helped the concept gain currency in a variety of related fields. My sense is that Matt Ratto initially coined the term to describe a workshop-based methodological practice (one that privileges the process of making as an opportunity for critical reflection).  Given his interest in pedagogy and methodology, I'm wondering if Ratto's writing (links here and here) may have particular resonance with this conversation.

Ratto distinguishes his approach from adjacent concepts, like Critical Design or Reflective HCI,  by de-emphasizing the object itself to privilege the process of making as a context for critical reflection. The way I understand this approach is as a repositioning of the thinking-through-making techniques that designers find so valuable. But in the hands of critical makers, the object is not as much the end goal. Instead making provides a context for identifying and untangling implicit ideological choices embedded in objects, systems, platforms, etc. So for Ratto, conversation about objects and about reimagining them is a key part of this process. And along similar lines, it was interesting to see Hertz's Critical Making series inscribe this value of conversation through interviews and zine-like informal registers.

Returning to the pedagogical context though, I'd be eager to hear from Daniel how this kind of methodological approach might evolve as it migrates into DH and media studies curricula. If the emphasis continues to be about facilitating a particular kind of inter-subjective process, I'm eager to see what best practices or techniques start to emerge in these various fields and subfields. And how will these conversations be reported in fields that place less emphasis on orality as a medium for knowledge production? What kinds of object or media interventions lead to particular kinds of conversations? What features of the object get remade (and thus rethought)? And are all interventions equal, or should we privilege certain methods of intervention as particularly generative or particularly favorable to critical reflection?

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.