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Failing to CODE

Becca Rose

#failure

#stupidity

#unmaking

#irrelevant


Introduction

Failing to CODE is a way of approaching computing education, it can be used to support educators to expand their creative coding pedagogical practice. The aim of the resource is to explore plurality in learning styles through working with ideas from feminist pedagogies. This recipe is a bit like giving some “flavor inspirations” to the cookbook – the aim is to inspire an expanded way rather than step-by-step. Educators can take on elements of the characteristics into their practice in the way that works best for them.


The Recipe

Failure

“We might read failure, for example as a refusal of master, a critique of the intuitive within capitalism between success and profit, and as a counterhegmonic discourse of losing. Stupidity could refer not simple to a lack of knowledge but to the limits of certain forms of knowing and certain ways of inhabiting structures of knowing.” – Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

Halberstam argues that failure is a fertile space for challenging the logic of success within dominant systems of knowledge production. The maintenance of narrow forms of knowing upholds the economic and social pillars (such as colonialism and capitalism) that assembled the knowledge regions into disciplines as forms of control.

In this recipe I introduce “flavors” that characterize failure based on a reading of The Queer Art of Failure. These are characteristics of failure such as stupidity, losing, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, or not knowing or acts that are small, antimonumental, and irrelevant. I describe examples of how these flavors might be part of a learning experience – based on activities I have developed in my practice as an educator. I then go on to introduce some of the concepts that helped shape these flavors, and make some connections between failure, pedagogy and computing.

Someone is shining a light onto a sensor that is embedded into where the eye should be in a small, cute (or creepy?) hand stitched fabric doll. The doll belongs to the aunt of the maker and she made it when she was a child – it has been in the family for a while. In their hand they pull on a knitted sensor that is sewn into where the ear should be. The scene is messy, there electronic components and wires about.
Image credit: Becca Rose.

Stupidity

“Stupidity could refer not simply to a lack of knowledge but to the limits of certain forms of knowing and certain ways of inhabiting structures of knowing.” – Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

The image shows a snapshot of potato printing as a starting point to making code. The picture shows a child’s hand at the computer, who is writing some code in a P5.js editor. Next to the computer is a sheet of paper, with some inky potato prints patterns in red, green and blue. On the screen, next to the code is the coded image, which is also in a similar pattern in red, green and blue.
Image credit: Becca Rose.

For Halberstam, failing to fit into knowledge disciplines through “losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing” is a way of offering “more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Halberstam, 2011:2). In this sense, failure is a paradoxical act that dismantles the monuments of the knowledge-power complex while also existing, full-bodied, and fully-being within this.

The potato print’s apparent stupidity demonstrates their failure as knowledge in the computing context. Potato printing resonates with not knowing in this space, with potential for further “detours, twists, and turns through knowing and confusion” (Halberstam, 2014). They are teaching us to know from unknowing ways, with humor.

Unmaking

“The queer art of failure dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” – Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

The contrast in materials between the pixels and the inky potato prints creates a messy and dynamic relationship with the computer – where the making and unmaking process shifts between the screen and paper. Learners print, then code, then remake print to work better with code, then remake code to work better with print. The pixels and ink are in dialogue, neither definite nor static. With the active process of printing, coding, imagining, making, and back to printing again, there was a constant adjustment between the analogue inky space and the digital pixely space.

An image showing two pairs of hands getting stuck into potato printing. One of the hands holds an ink covered potato up, the other holds one down in the ink. In front of the hands are two computers, and patterned covered paper.
Image credit: Becca Rose.

Irrelevant

“I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely. I seek to provoke, annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies.” – Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

Failing to CODE is based on learning about computing in non-computational ways. Rather than having a mindset of “Computational Thinking” (such as abstraction, problem solving, automation or information), these objects lead us to explore coding through failing at computation. Instead, we think through tangible things, messiness, idiosyncrasies or textures. These failures of thinking like a computer are based in bringing the body into the learning space.

Above there are images of emoticons being used with sensor data in the Arduino serial port. One of the emoticons looks like a cute bear, and the other looks like the sensor data is coming out of a magic wand along with sparkles and stars.
Image credit: Becca Rose.

“The pleasure of teaching is an act of resistance countering the overwhelming boredom, uninterest, and apathy that so often characterize the way professors and students feel about teaching and learning, about the classroom experience.” – bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

A small green pom pom sensor is connected to a circuit. There are wires and electronic components and a breadboard.
Image credit: Becca Rose.

In my practice I often experiment with materially active modes of participating. My aim is to develop ways of introducing code based on creative play – bringing in the body into the learning space in ways that are joyful and fun, without reducing experiences to algorithmic abstraction.

hooks argues that engaged pedagogies demand the full sense of being in the body in the teaching and learning process. Making space in the classroom for emotion is part of bringing the full body into the learning.

Key to both hooks and Halberstam’s viewpoint on knowing is that it is founded on ways of being in the world. In a similar light to hooks’ engaged pedagogies, Halberstam critiques static knowledge practices and argues that queer failures bring about ways of ambulatory knowing – where knowledge is based on mode, process or action. The Queer Art of Failure goes on to discuss how vulnerabilities and multiplicities of failure can work to erode hierarchical knowledge.

One of the reasons I started exploring this idea of failure is to help think about some of the issues with computing knowledge. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2004) questions the foundation of computing knowledge, and deconstructs software through revisiting the history from a material perspective. She refers to programmers as “users” to illustrate that they are constructed by the conventions of programming languages, rather than possessing the agency that is commonly perceived coding has.

The conditions in which programming developed have shaped it to how it is now. Chun threads the stories of machine materiality, gendered languages of control, and hierarchical social interactions, to re-position the history of computing as an entanglement of these (rather than a static, linier discipline). Based on this historic materialism, Chun illuminates the limitations of the computing discipline, and argues that software is ideology.

Learning about coding technologies from queer perspectives on failure brings into question some of the capitalist structures that uphold coding technologies, such as the concept of binary, solution based approaches, hierarchies or individualism. The role of Failing to CODE is to use learning objects to question the foundations of computing knowledge, as a way to cut through the ideological construct that has been developed from the entanglement of material conditions of its production. Bringing objects of failure to the centre of learning is a full body engagement in coding and computing.


Further Readings

  1. Teaching to Transgress (1994), bell hooks
  2. The Queer Art of Failure (2014), Jack Halberstam
  3. On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge (2004), Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

Q&A

What is the context or background that inspired your recipe?

Bringing failure to the centre of learning is a fertile space to engage in coding or computing. As educators, we know that the ways of being in the world are fundamental to how we learn, and learning new knowledge is interwoven with our backgrounds, contexts, situations, and perspectives.

I am inspired by ideas from the Queer Art of Failure (Halberstam, 2014) because of the relationship that Halberstam draws between ways of being and ways of knowing. Learning computational thinking from queer perspectives on failure brings into question some of the capitalist structures that uphold coding knowledges, such as the concept of binary, solution based approaches, hierarchies of knowing, or individualism.

Which community are you offering the recipe to?

I offer this recipe to coding educators from both non-formal and formal education spaces who’d like to experiment with refusing to think like a computer. Rather than step-by-step, this recipe is based on “flavors” that are aimed as inspiring educators for the context they work in.

Over the past few years I have been working closely with educators in non-formal learning communities (such as Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol, UK). I have taught coding (usually using p5.js or Arduino), and I’ve also observed and learned from other educators’ work. This recipe reflects this non-formal approach, where activities are flexible and adapted to support learners from different contexts or backgrounds.

How does your submission relate to intersectional feminism?

Failing to CODE aims to challenge and subvert hierarchical knowledge practices by offering suggestions for multiple ways of connecting to code activities, and also to each other. It is positioned outside of dominant hierarchies in knowledge practices, such individualism, linear modes of success, or binary thinking.

As well as drawing from queer feminist perspective, this work relates to ideas from feminist pedagogue bell hooks, who suggests that learning (and knowing) is based on full-bodied ways of being in the world. The recipe also relates to feminist computer scientist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, who describes the material development of software as gendered.

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