The Amateur and the Arduino – Media Project 1

Getting started with the Arduino. Electricity, coding, and wires? I’m out of my depth.

It is an amazing feeling to read something that changes your thinking. There is a sort of physical rush in an “a-ha” moment when an old idea crumbles to make way for a new one. At least, that is the case for me. Believe it or not, this rush came to me when I first read what appears to be the least enticing book ever written – Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Then it came to me again, today, when I was learning to program an arduino for the first time. So, how might these two situations be related?

Rancière tells the story of French philosopher and teacher Joseph Jacotot who, in 1818, set out to teach Flemish students to read French without being able to communicate with them in their own language. Indeed, for Jacotot, “To teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex” (Rancière, 1991, pg. 2). This is a very old and very compelling view of the educator’s role and it is certainly one that I have held, perhaps without thinking too much about it, in my years as a teacher. Once Jacotot had witnessed what the Flemish students – left to themselves – were able to learn from the French text he had given them, he realized the possibility that all men could understand what other men had written and understood and that they only needed the will to do so (Rancière, 1991). I admit, this seemed a bit of a stretch at first, but the idea gains some traction when Rancière turns to the example of a book.

I’ll paraphrase. If we give a student a book, then that book is likely to be filled with a series of events or a story or some set of reasonings designed to teach the reader what the author intended. If a teacher then sets about explaining the book to the student, two things immediately happen. First, the teacher’s actions tell the student that he or she is not capable of understanding the text without help. Second, the teacher sets up what Rancière calls a “regression ad infinitum”. That is, if the original text needs an explanation, does this not also apply to the teacher’s explanation? Who will explain the explanation? And so on. The only way to stop this infinite regression is through a “paradoxical hierarchy” which puts speech above the written word in terms of its power to convey a message. That is, the teacher’s verbal explanation is thought to be more powerful than the text itself. The power of the teacher comes directly from this belief; Thumlert (2015) reminds us that this is Jacotot’s “pedagogical fiction”. Rancière writes:

Explication is not necessary to remedy an incapacity to understand. On the contrary, that incapacity provides the structuring fiction of the explicative conception of the world….explication is the myth of pedagogy, the parable of a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid (Ranciere, 1991, pg. 6).

The software is utterly baffling at first. How will I figure this out?

Of course, all of this could be used to build a case against the need for teachers, though this is not Rancière’s intent at all. He writes that, rather than stultifying the student based on the division of the world into the capable and incapable – that “principle of inequality,” instead “the good masters, through their questions…discreetly guide the student’s intelligence” (Rancière, 1991, pg. 29). The teacher must ask questions “in the manner of men…in order to be instructed, not to instruct” and “to reveal an intelligence to itself” (Rancière, 1991, pg. 29). It was this idea that moved me to that first a-ha moment in my reading of this text and to shift my own thinking around my role as a teacher. And it is this that Thumlert (2015) discusses when he talks about the amateur ”as a “deeply engaged mode of agency through which unauthorized or unqualified actors (Rancière, 1998, 2003) might unexpectedly take part in authentic aesthetic/intellectual practices” (pg. 115). In programming the arduino, I was that totally unqualified amateur attempting to reveal my own intelligence to myself. The process was not an easy one, but was certainly ‘deeply engaging’ and ultimately satisfying. That is, I felt proud of my own programmed blinking light. [Watch my very exciting first foray into the creation of light right here: Arduino Movie 1]

No coding yet, but I did get the wiring right. Look, the LED light is on!

This brings me quite naturally to Blikstein’s (2016) online piece in which he discusses Seymour Papert’s ground-breaking work and the notion that children should be programming computers rather than being programmed by them. According to Blikstein, Papert asks us to think differently about our model of learning and claims that, in programming computers, we never get things right at first. Instead, “the question to ask about the program is not whether it is right or wrong, but if it is fixable.” (Blikstein, 2016, n.p.) Like Ranciere, Papert wanted teachers to facilitate the process but not lead the way. He feels that If we thought of learning and knowledge acquisition this way – as a process of overcoming obstacles on the way to mastery – then perhaps we would be more willing to see ourselves as intelligent beings with potential. Likewise, and rooted in Papert’s ideas around constructionism, de Castell reminds us that, through play, the production of things will lead to a production of insights (de Castell, n.p.). This was certainly the case in today’s experiment with production pedagogy. Specifically, the process by which I managed to learn to use the Arduino included the following:

  • I opened up the package and figured out what all the parts were using the text that came with it (old school).
  • I downloaded the software and was completely baffled at first
  • I managed to follow a diagram and get an LED to light up!
  • That made me feel good.
  • My next thought was, “Why does it do that?” which would lead me – if I had time – to more research.
  • My second thought was, “What else can I make this thing do?”
  • I tried a second task – to add a dimmer switch – and I failed.
  • That made me feel bad.
  • I tried again and failed again (this happened a few more times)
  • I turned to YouTube and found a really helpful set of videos by Jeremy Blum. Thanks Jeremy!
  • This time, I followed Jeremy’s lead and learned some basic code to get the light to blink. It worked!
  • Now, I started experimenting on my own. Could I change the code and make the light do what I wanted? Yes, yes I could.

[Watch my first foray into CODING A LIGHT ALL BY MYSELF right here:  Arduino Movie 2]

Rancière would be pleased.



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