The Intellectual Value of Frustration

At the core of this project is teaching the intellectual value of frustration – that is, to teach students to develop not only a tolerance for frustration, but the ability to see frustration as a useful and illuminating step on the way to understanding and discovery. I think there is a connection between the ready availability, in a sense the tyranny, of user-friendly devices and the decrease in students’ ability to engage in the more difficult and time-consuming aspects of intellectual engagement (archival research, dense and decidedly non-user-friendly texts, crossing boundaries of time, language or culture). Maker/DIY/tinkering culture demonstrates, in a material way, that sometimes in life you get directions that are unclear, incomplete, or inadequate, and that forging ahead anyway is not only rewarding but, in many cases, necessary – necessary for change, certainly, but for some, necessary for survival.  

Tolerance for frustration and productive employment of confusion are helpful skills no matter what the project at hand, and the pedagogical aim of a tinkering based course is to teach them as general skills in both the theoretical and material worlds.  The regular cross-pollination between the spaces (lab and classroom) also helps students carry the engagement in other interdisciplinary classroom spaces – that is, they may readily feel the importance of trial and error in trying to get their Arduino code to generate the right series of lights, but will be asked to recognize the same feeling when they must return again to a complex section of Haraway or Barad in order to get it to work, so to speak. 

In the first semester of teaching the course, I found that many of the students were personally invested in bridging the “technological” gap in ways I had not anticipated. That is, where I structured the class as a pedagogical experiment (“How can the experience of building help students think differently about theory?”) I had not adequately theorized about the potential of creating a space for technological learning specifically designed for students who felt intimidated by other spaces, and to ask them to engage with frustration in that space.

For example, none of the students in the class identified as male (all were female or gender-neutral), and so the question of the male domination within science and technology was a particularly personal one to many of them. They spoke often of how discouraged they had become with science education, or the lack of support they had had in life to pursue coding, programming, or electronics as a hobby – frustration with the world. One salient theme that emerged for us was the the dilemma of perfection: that in order to be an engineer or scientist, many women believe they must be better than their male peers in order to deserve a space in the lab or the classroom. We spoke often of the need for a wide range of role models, and in particular of the need to think about supporting diversity amongst rank-and-file engineers and scientists – what we came to call, in a not entirely tongue-in-cheek way, the “right to be mediocre.”

One particularly demonstrative anecdote from an early class discussion on frustration illuminates the unexpected ways that structural sexism invaded even our classroom:

The class had been meeting for a month, had had two lab sections, and I had collected and responded to the lab journals once. We were spending some time that week discussing the class themes in depth, and so that day I invited students to reflect over the readings and their projects so far through the lenses of frustration and confusion. The students immediately engaged in a lively discussion about their own frustrations with some of the class readings (the words “jargon” and “theory” came up quite a lot), but, to my surprise, no one talked about their frustrations with the technological projects – frustrations I had read about in detail in their lab journals. So I interrupted discussion, and asked them specifically to talk about frustration and confusion as they applied to their projects as well as the readings. There was a long silence, and then one student said that she was sure it was all easy for everyone else, but she really was having a hard time learning to code- that she found the particular restrictions of programming “language” to be very frustrating. The floodgates opened – soon every student was owning their own frustrations and confusions in the technological sphere, and I realized, then, that although we had spoken often in class about the barriers for women in technology, and ideas like imposter syndrome or the dilemma of perfection, the students themselves were still unwilling to admit weakness in front of their peers – but only when it came to realm of traditional science and engineering. They were all perfectly comfortable talking about how hard the readings were, even the readings that were about science or which were scientific papers, but they all assumed they were the only ones who couldn’t get their projects to work right.