Play-Doh cyborgs in the classroom

I’m currently sitting at my campus office desk with a wall of Play-Doh canisters in front of me from a classroom activity I did on Tuesday. I get a lot of awkward looks or looks of utter confusion when someone sees them.

I could take them home, but I like them here: it’s a conversation starter about one of the best classes I’ve had in my  teaching career.

Some context: the Play-Doh was for my Digital Lives class this term. For their final project, they have the option of creating a “critical media project.” But because a “critical media project” is something that they may never do outside of this class and have never done before, I needed to provide a workshop where they can can create a critical media response to a particular idea or content.

Enter Julie Funk, a colleague of mine that I have and continue to work with over at the Critical Media Lab. While I do make critical media projects, I do find it helpful to have a person who is not the instructor to lead a workshop on a new idea. Having a guest speaker breaks up the flow, adds another voice (which can be helpful if students think that I am the only person that does this stuff), and adds another kind of teaching style and knowledge that I do not have.

So, when I asked Funk how to run a short workshop on critical media projects, she suggested Play-Doh. And so I ordered a pack of Play-Doh.

Because the final unit of this course is the Cyborg unit, we worked together in making some questions that would have students reflect on Haraway’s conceptions of the cyborg and/or the short anime film, Blade Runner 2022: Black Out. Here were the slides of possible questions they focused on:


The students haven’t read Haraway, and I don’t expect them to. Rather, I have selected quotes from Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and dwell and elaborate on these concepts. For a 1st year course, it’d be difficult to have them read and then process the whole essay while also focusing on certain aspects of the essay. So far, focusing on certain aspects of Haraway’s essay and connecting it to certain images and quotes from Blade Runner 2022 have been a success: students are grasping those concepts of how cyborgs defy unity, perfection, origins, and completion. Oh, and it’s not just Blade Runner. Next week is Joshua Whitehead Full-metal Indigiqueer, and the week after that is Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer emotional picture.

But anyways, I digress.

The result of these activities were fantastic. Groups focused on factory farming,  the eye in Blade Runner and the meaning it has not only in the anime but in cyborg fictions,  our anxiety over social media accounts, government pet surveillance, and technological bacteria that then got them thinking through medical access and class.

It was a fantastic class, and I just loved to see not only how much the students enjoyed this activity but also how much they engaged with the introductory concepts surrounding the cyborg.

Below are the projects with a short caption description of what they are. Thanks again to Julie Funk would did a phenomenal job facilitating the workshop. Enjoy:

This group saw a future where cats were used by the government as “spies.” They were sold as pets, but their main purpose was to spy on individuals. This cat’s name in particular is Lucifer. The group was thinking through privacy and data and surveillance.
This group was thinking through factory farming. The pig on the left was “natural” while the pig on the right was “synthetic.” The synthetic pig was designed so that there would be “more meat per square unit” and perceived as “perfect.” For this group, they were thinking of the lumpy, imperfect pig as the cyborg.


This group was thinking through the multiple social media accounts we appropriate on a daily basis, and the kinds of anxiety it can produce. They chose Squidward from SpongeBob because they felt he represented that kind of anxiety (and he’s also a squid with multiple arms). 
Another group also did an eye, but they had discussions around how “eyes” are sometimes seen as “windows into the soul.” And they used this object to think through this concept within Blade Runner 2022. 
This group made electronic bacteria that would be injected into a person in order to keep the body healthy. Julie pushed to group to think through access and class: who would have access to this? The group’s response: the upper class. The group was really into this since some of them are in Science and got them really thinking through access and medical care.