Learning from women’s critical engagement with unfamiliar technologies

Sticking with my “this blog is mostly for posting my conference presentations” theme, I give you my talk from Computers and Writing 2015, essentially about how I suspect that sexism in tech fields and the “digital nativity” myth work together to discourage undergraduate, feminine-identifying, non-techie women from seeing themselves as competent computer users. It’s a bit of a hot mess, but it’s a start.


Competence is not a cure for the fear of incompetence. The courage to play incompetently is a cure for fear of incompetence. —Reginald Braithwaite

Last fall I started teaching in a communication studies program that focuses on digital media and I’m teaching TECHNOLOGY much more than I have in the past. As computers and composition specialists, we all probably have something we might call a “digital pedagogy,” but for me personally, it hasn’t always been easy for me to develop that pedagogy in the more traditional English departments where I got my degrees, where I’ve had to work to make new media part of my pedagogy. Now teaching technology is very much central to my job. For example, in the past I might have worked a remix video into my first-year composition course, or I might have included a blogging assignment in my 200-level literature syllabus, but now the courses I teach focus on these topics—blogging, social media outreach, video production and editing, Adobe Photoshop. Though always grounded in theory and methodology, figuring out the technology itself forms a large part of the content of my classes in this curriculum. So this year, I’ve been helping students work through “technical difficulties” much more intensively than I have in the past. Sometimes, unfortunately, it even feels like the “how” consumes the “why.”

In the midst of all these “how do I…?” conversations with students and with myself, I began to notice a pattern.

selection of student comments that say "I'm bad at technology" and "computers hate me"

Some students would often blurt out a version of these expressions in an email or in class when they asked for my help with something. Not every student, but enough for me to notice it. I would hear it when a student couldn’t figure out something that she believed should be common sense: “How do I write a new blog post?” “How do I attach a file to the email?” “How do I find a Google doc again after I close it?” “How do I right-click on my laptop?”

But what does this mean, “I’m bad at technology”? How can someone be bad at all technology ever? Of course, the expression is not literal (or is it?) and it has different possible translations for different students and contexts. Generally, I see it as an admission of guilt and embarrassment, or simply a gesture of surrender. Maybe it makes learners feel better to confess to me and to themselves that they’re imposters in our classroom of MacBook Airs and big wall‑mounted screens. Maybe it feels like a relief for some learners to confess they are not in the club of tech‑savants who “just get it.” And maybe they are telling me I shouldn’t expect them to ever be “good” at technology. Now, as I’m talking, this expression is starting to sound like a reflection of “learned helplessness,” a term from psychology that describes a subject’s response to repeated failure – when sticking points and mess-ups turn into dead-ends of disempowerment, frustration, and often escapism.

But I think there are other, less self-blamey ways to translate “I’m bad at technology.” One translation could be “this user interface sucks.” Another could be “the lab was closed by the time I got off work and I had to finish my project the morning before class.” Or simply “my computer is really old and slow.”

selection of student comments that say "The lab was closed by the time I got off work," "This user interface sucks," and "my computer is old and slow."

I wanted to know more about what’s in the background of sentences like “I’m bad at technology” and “computers hate me,” so I got IRB approval to interview some of my past undergraduate students about their experiences – I focused on women and specifically reached out to those who seemed to have the most difficulty with technology hang-ups.  (Interview questions here — I know they are broad! Suggestions?)  Talking to women about what they think and feel when confronted with a difficult technological challenge might reveal how and why they approach these situations like they do, and why they say “I’m bad at technology” as opposed to “I can’t get this to work right now” or “why is this thing designed so stupidly?”

I started with women because, based on my own experience and a number of studies by psychologists and social scientists, women are most likely to identify as incompetent technology users, and the most likely to apologize and self-deprecate when they need help. I wanted to know if it might be possible to take their feelings of vulnerability or detachment and transform them into curiosity and the kind of friction artists encounter when they work with unfamiliar or resistant materials. (Jane Bennett calls that “creative materiality.” Bethany Nowviskie calls it “the friction that makes art.”) After all, students who tend to struggle with technical skills and self-blame are also the students who are actually more sensitive to the materiality of the digital. Perhaps not by choice, but they pay attention more to the constraints and designs of digital tools. Could it be possible to take negative feelings about tech incompetence and transform them into a love of problem-solving, appreciation of material constraints and push-backs, and “the courage to play incompetently”?

I suppose I wanted to make an intervention, but not the kind of intervention that would ask someone to change a behavior, live differently, or “cross over into the light.” Obviously my goal as a teacher is to help students get comfortable with the technologies we use in class, but for this study and when I was writing the interview questions, I didn’t want it to be about “what can the student learn from me, as a superior tech user?” It was really about “what can I can learn from the student? How can her position of perceived incompetence and weakness be rethought as productive or even powerful?” Because I know, via Mariolina Salvatori’s “pedagogy of difficulty,” that even discomfort can be productive and the start of a learning process. The right kind of discomfort, to use Carolyn Nelson and Victoria Harper’s words, may yield “a deeper, more thorough understanding of the problem itself and increased student confidence and capacity to tackle and discern other complex issues and ideas” (8). So how could I increase student confidence in this way, but without stepping in as an intervener or savior?

My goal in these interviews, then, is to

  • attune myself to feminine experiences of technical difficulty
  • to understand how women’s incompetence is framed in terms of other cultural narratives and how women internalize those narratives, and
  • to distill lessons that I could use as an instructor who (hopefully) has many years of teaching technology-heavy classes ahead of me.

Increasingly, my project is emerging as an effort to “reclaim incompetence.” Earlier I used the phrase “the courage to play incompetently.” It comes from a blog post by software developer and author Reginald Braithwaite. In the post, Braithwaite writes about his struggle to learn a difficult Chinese board game called Go. A total novice, his description of trying to learn the game is strikingly similar to my own struggle trying to learn—not even learn, just comprehend—JavaScript.

I felt helpless, unable to affect the outcome of the game in any meaningful way. How could I influence what I could not perceive? […] The feelings of being helpless and incompetent cut me somewhere very deep. It feels a little like being a victim, like I am exposed to being manipulated and hurt by others. And no matter how much I reassure myself that I am playing a game with a friend, with someone who cares deeply about my feelings and would never want to hurt me, inside me there is a child who fears being hurt by someone who claims to love them, and it is hard to overcome that child’s terror, it is hard to feel safe.

How often do student experiences of learning new digital tools in our classes resemble this account? How many times do our students feel like they are unprepared—mentally, emotionally, financially—for the technological challenges we pose, and how many times do they feel incompetent and unable to move forward? When this happens, what steps can we take to make incompetence feel safe or even fun? What can we do to counter totalizing cultural narratives that tell us who is in the club of tech savants – those narratives that create the club in the first place?

Now I’d like to offer selections from two interviews that are good starting points for thinking about these questions.

Me: What do you think of when you hear the phrase “tech-savvy”? Do you know anyone who is tech-savvy?”

Kelly: When I think of the phrase, I think of someone who knows how to use computers very well, who understands the makeup of computers. So like, my computer is crashing or something is wrong, I need a tech-savvy person to help me fix it. I think of everyone that works in the Apple store as tech-savvy.

Me: The “geniuses”?

Kelly: Yes. If I have a problem, I’m going to come to them. But I don’t consider somebody who’s always on their phone tech-savvy. Maybe that’s just a social media addiction.

Me: It seems like having that insider’s knowledge is important to being an expert.

Kelly: Yeah the people at the tech help desks. Like the kids I know that are tech savvy, they’re not always tweeting, they’re not always posting on social media and stuff. My cousin, he built a computer when he was like 10 years old. He got the computer parts, and he always has like all the latest everything, but he’s not a heavy social media user at all. But I think he’s so tech-savvy.

In the next excerpt, “Amy” responds to the question, “What is your approach when you are tackling a new technology for the first time?”

Amy: I need instructions for a dumb person and they’re more just very general [but usually] there’s really nothing there, you just kind of have to figure it out.

Me: What do you mean by a dumb person?

Amy: Someone who’s not really experienced. Like my family, we are not experienced in technology at all, so me and my mom are always like “how do we do this?” I couldn’t figure stuff out by myself.

Based on these very brief excerpts, we may begin to identify two oppositions that reinforce women’s feelings of incompetence before they even get into a digitally loaded classroom.

Opposition 1: feminine vs. nerdy

The first is an opposition between being feminine and being a computer nerd. A good representative figure for this stereotype comes from a recent debate and then AWESOME meme on the internet involving a book about “computer engineer Barbie,” in which Barbie at first appears to write the code for a game, except it turns out she “only creates the design ideas” and “needs Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.” (But, yay, this exists.) A long list of barriers continues to disadvantage women and enforce the stereotype that they are better suited for design and “artsier” roles as opposed to tech industry jobs. Feedly or Twitter bring me an upsetting number of new stories to read every day about this topic – they all seem to blur together for me at this point. But here’s a sampling of some things that I’ve bookmarked from the last 3 or 4 years:

So whether they are conscious of it or not, I see the women in my classes approaching their technical difficulties in this dull light of sexism. To make a leap, we could even see a statement like “I’m bad at technology” as a reflection of women’s internalization of a nerdy/feminine opposition and all the expectations for behavior and appearance that come along with it.

Opposition 2: native vs. immigrant

There’s a second opposition that I think bolsters women’s feelings of incompetence: the digital native, and her counterpart, the digital immigrant. danah boyd attributes the rise of this colonial metaphor to John Perry Barlow and Douglas Rushkoff in the 1990s. In 2001, educational consultant Marc Prensky further popularized the metaphor with his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” insisting that “today’s learners are different” (3).

A much-discussed and widely viewed series of documentaries on PBS Frontline helped to make the idea of digital nativity mainstream. In “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier” which aired in 2009/10, Mark Bauerlein (you might know him from the not-so-good 2008 book The Dumbest Generation) spoke about digital nativity and articulated this myth (well, he doesn’t think it’s a myth) clearly:


As with Prensky and others, Bauerlein emphasizes differences between over-generalized groups of users. While natives have a “perfect feeling of being at home,” as Bauerlein said, we are left to wonder who gets left behind or left out of this nativity story? Who is not “at home” and where are they if they are not at home?

While digital natives speak digitalese fluently, having been somehow born with the language of technology (inextricable from the language of capitalism) on their tongues, the “digital immigrant accent” (as Prensky calls it) represents backwardness and mistakes that older adults make when using new media. Their accents mark them as other, positioning the aging body on the dispossessed side of what seems like an inevitable generational chasm.

The digital native/immigrant opposition constructs an image of a technologically fluent youth who “just gets it,” someone who is “uniformly prepared for the digital era” (boyd 179-80). But what about the student who is unprepared to meet the expectations of digital nativity – one who struggles with “basic” computer tasks? One who can’t afford the materials she needs to keep pace with her digitally fluent peers? That person might feel like a refugee who is not “at home” in her own generation because she doesn’t fit the mold of the digital native. Just as the supposed “digital foreigner” seems recalcitrant and fearful, and seems to reject the potential of new technology almost reflexively, I hear recalcitrance and fearfulness when I hear any learner apologize by saying “I’m bad at technology!”

Ultimately terms like digital native and digital literacy perform a gate-keeping role and create alienating, divisive difference rather than enriching, common-ground kinds of difference. The digital nativity myth, as pervasive as it still is, influences not only the way that teachers and administrators see students, but it also shapes the students’ views of themselves. Both women and aging adults tend to have a reputation as “the least capable form of computer user” (Ensmenger), and these groups then base their self-perceptions at least in part on the way they are perceived by others. For example “Idiot nerd girl” and “grandma finds the internet” are two ageist/sexist memes that present incompetence as a point of shame.

images of "Idiot nerd girl" and "Grandma finds the internet" memes

“Idiot nerd girl” and “Grandma finds the internet” memes

I think reclaiming incompetence, then, is a good approach to helping women like Kelly and Amy feel confident, but without demanding they meet a predetermined standard of “literacy.” The term “literacy,” like the immigrant/native opposition to which it’s closely tied, “encompasses potentially disturbing forms of prejudice” (Gunkel 73) and upholds the “economic and social and political structures that work to keep people in their places” (Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola 355). These oppositions (immigrant/native, literate/illiterate), like most binaries, create camps of exclusivity. David Gunkel writes that “The task of criticism,” and perhaps also the task of teaching, “is not to break out of this binary logic, which would be nonsense, but to learn to use it to develop self-reflection” (80).

Reclaiming incompetence, then, is about dissolving a hierarchy of expertise in order to show that everyone feels incompetent and it’s less a personal failure and more a symptom of our digital age, in which we are constantly asked to learn and unlearn complex, inscrutable interfaces all the time. In which a “computer person” is only as good as the Google search that gets him or her the answer.

Our conference CFP suggested that “interventions are often required—for those who fear these new technologies, as well as for those who succumb to digital addiction.” But rather than intervene and try to “convert the natives” to use Mina Shaughnessy’s term for instructors trying to “rescue” or “tame” basic writers, we may intervene in our own pedagogy. Perhaps it is through struggle and not mastery that we can engage productively with technologies and networks, and help our students start that process from a place of incompetence.


Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
boyd, danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014. PDF file.
Braithwaite, Reginald. “High Anxiety.” Braythwayt.com. N.p., 10 Oct. 2009. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
Ensmenger, Nathan L. “Making Programming Masculine.” in Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing. Misa, Thomas J., ed. Hoboken: Wiley-IEEE Computer Society, 2010. 115-142. Print.
Gunkel, David J. Thinking Otherwise: Philosophy, Communication, Technology. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2007. Print.
Nelson, Carolyn, and Victoria Harper. “A Pedagogy of Difficulty: Preparing Teachers to Understand and Integrate Complexity in Teaching and Learning.” Teacher Education Quarterly 33.2 (2006): 7–21. Print.
Nowviskie, Bethany. “Resistance in the Materials.” Nowviskie.org. Modern Language Association Convention. Boston, MA. 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.
Salvatori, Mariolina R., and Patricia A. Donahue. The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. New York: Longman, 2004. Print.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. “Diving in: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” College Composition and Communication 27.3 (1976): 234–39. Print.
Wysocki, Anne Frances, and Johndan Johnson-Eilola. “Blinded by the Letter.” Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies. ed. Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe. Logan: Utah State UP, 1999. 349-68. PDF file.