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.

4 comments on “D.I.T.

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    1. Julie B

      I, too, have fond memories of weaving potholders at my electricity-free vacation spot when I was a child. In fact , it was there that much of my love for handwork was born, with no modern conveniences as distraction. Love these thoughts on DIT!

  1. Amanda Perl

    In terms of fashion, the essence of DIY or DIT or Refashion is to do what you can with what you have. In the current mainstream model – walking into a store and choosing what you like, or ordering online so you get exactly what you imagine, be it finished clothing or fabric – almost anything is readily available if you don’t care about the sourcing and can pay a reasonable amount. The old model of homemade clothing is where you go out and find a pattern and then choose the perfect fabric regardless of where the materials came from or how they were made. DIY/DIT/refashion/upcycling/terms of your choice is going to sources you believe in, getting the materials available from those sources, and then seeing what can be made. To me there is a hierarchy of sources: first, existing fabric made from natural materials (secondhand stores, old clothing, old bedding, etc.), then sustainably sourced new stuff, then last mainstream new stuff, which I will buy in small quantities for a good reason.
    So before I go online and order new cotton jersey to be shipped from far away, I go to my favorite second-hand fabric stores and pick up the cotton jersey I can find. I can get the fabric I want (sometimes) with some effort: I don’t always get what I’m looking for the first time. So another piece of DIY is getting away from the need to do a project right now. It might take me weeks or even months to find the materials I need, so I can’t always start my project right away.
    When I do get the material I’m looking for, I don’t always find the colors I was imagining. In this case instead of the black and burgundy I had in my head, instead I got 2 yards of 36″ wide sage green, and two weeks later I found a scrap of teal. So now I have to find a way to make that into what I was imagining, be willing to wait longer and find more or different material, or to reimagine the project, so that the material I have will meet my need.
    And, because my material was all purchased second-hand, I feel no guilt if I don’t use it, and it simply gets donated back to the store I purchased it from.

  2. Samantha

    This conversation reminds me of a favorite book of mine called “Woman on the Edge of Time” by Marge Piercy. I was introduced to about 20 years ago in a sociology class called “Utopias, Dystopias, and Experimental Communities” (I went to an awesome college). It is about an impoverished woman living in New York City in the 70’s who has lost everything and some (namely, the state) think she has lost her mind, as well. After we are introduced to her very real and “present” life, she is visited by a stranger from a possible future. Our heroine eventually gets to visit this future where everything is very different than her time. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is a society in which people are all directly involved in all aspects of their community while at the same time have deep respect for individuality. Their methods of education for people of all ages is what I thought of most when reading this post, although the whole philosophy of life, production, and community that I have read in the Alabama Chanin books and on this site resonate with Piercy’s vision.

    That book had a profound effect on me, though I’m sorry to say that I’m a long way from living the life of the beautiful society Piercy describes in the novel. Knowing that people are embracing D.I.Y. (D.I.T. really is a terrible acronym) and sustainable living and living in real communities and not just online gives me hope. Piercy’s novel shows another possible future, thankfully only briefly, where people are locked up in their apartments miles off the ground with only screens and delivered goods to fill their lives. It is remarkable how prescient Piercy was in the 1970’s considering how relevant her book is today.

    I look forward to reading “Now You See It”! This article and the comments so far are fascinating. I hope my comment doesn’t seem like too much of non-sequitur.

    [Note: I just googled WOTEOT and it seems that it has developed quite a following over the years! It wasn’t even a core book in my course syllabus – it was from an extended reading list compiled by the professor yet I see there are now study guides available. There are 100 reviews on Amazon and most seem very positive (I can’t imagine it would sit well with uber-conservatives or anti-feminists and people do like to complain on the internet).]