What does D.I.Y. mean to you?
I posed this question to Cathy Davidson, one of the world’s most important thinkers on education and the workplace in the 21st century. Her new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, is a must-read for educators, parents, and students. “I’m not sure I believe in D.I.Y. anything,” she wrote.
Every self is connected to every other, and, even when we think we are “doing it ourselves,” we are summoning the memories, gestures, and hopes of so much and so many gone before. Instead, I like to think about peer learning and community learning, where we all work together toward some goal, filling in one another’s vacancies and blind spots as others fill in ours. This doesn’t mean there aren’t mentors, but only that the position and status of the mentor aren’t fixed. The person who intends to learn, finds herself the teacher–and vice versa. That’s what D.I.Y. learning means to me, in school and lifelong, the surprise of never knowing where you will learn, where you will teach, or even where the boundaries between those two might lie.
This is a beautiful answer, highlighting the way that the “Y” in “D.I.Y.” rarely means “Doing It By Yourself.” We mean something much closer to “Doing It Together.” It’s too bad D.I.T. sounds awful, like some kind of chemical defoliant, because the concept clarifies what we really mean when we say “D.I.Y.”
As Cathy shows in Now We See It, sometimes the “Y” is also about reclaiming “Doing It” from institutions that have monopolized the “doing” and the “it”—whether they are institutions of higher learning, or agribusiness, or clothing production. To take one example, Anya Kamentz’s DIY U models how people can access education independently of traditional institutions. At P2PU (which stands for “peer-to-peer university,” and is part of DIY U), people work together to learn a particular topic by completing tasks, assessing individual and group work, and providing constructive feedback. Anyone can join online and take—or teach—a class. Some “community favorites” include topics such as writing for the web, science, computer programming, and community activism.
D.I.Y can also be a potent antidote to what we might call D.I.I.A.W.T.L.Y.F.A. —Doing It In A Way That Leaves You Feeling Alienated. This may happen when we purchase clothing or food (or education) without comprehending how it’s made or by whom. Or—perhaps more troubling—when we have a keen sense of NOT knowing how it’s made or by whom. My friend Thuy Linh Tu calls this disconnection between producers and consumers the “logic of distance.” D.I.Y. can present a powerful critique of the “logic of distance,” establishing instead forms of “doing” based on intimacy and community. When my NYU students and I visited Alabama Chanin last winter, many of us had never sewn before, let alone by hand. You could say we were “distant” from our clothes. Yet, after even a few days of sewing together, we left with a much deeper understanding of the skill, time, and labor that go into creating a garment. The experience of “D.I.T.” with teachers (Natalie and her staff!) who emphasized the pleasure and craft of making things was as important as any book learning we did about the history or current state of the garment industry.
Why should we bother considering the various meanings of D.I.Y.? After all, it’s called Doing It, not Thinking About It. To my mind, having a working definition of D.I.Y. matters if we care about articulating the ethics and the politics of D.I.Y. as clearly as possible. Like any vibrant subculture that sets itself at an ethical and political distance from the status quo of “doing it,” D.I.Y. is vulnerable to being disregarded, treated as if it were substandard, or, alternatively, taken over by the powers that be. In New York City, where I live, there’s a caricature of the D.I.Y.-er as a hipster in vintage Y.S.L. tending to her rooftop garden. Don’t get me wrong—I love fresh vegetables and vintage Y.S.L. But, as projects such as Cathy Davidson’s, Anya Kamentz’s, and Alabama Chanin’s show, these caricatures trivialize what can be at stake in D.I.Y. —access to resources, innovation, the creation of thriving communities, collapsing the logic of distance, and the pleasure of making things together.
What do you think? How do you define D.I.Y. —or D.I.T., as maybe we are better off calling it?
*The featured images are from our Visiting Artist Series with Faythe Levine. We had a wonderful night full of DIY and interactive crafting- learning from one another and teaching each other. All together.