My Kingdom for a Rocket, Or, What I Did This Summer

I’ve always been terrible at taking time off. Ask anyone who’s known me for more than a couple of minutes and they’ll tell you that the only time I’m not on the move doing something is when I’m asleep. What can I say? I get bored very easily, and I don’t like being bored, so I find things to do.

sherlock-bored

Not quite this bored, but then again, I don’t own any firearms

 

I’ve been back in theatre for a while now. As the son of a performer, going to see shows was part of my formative education, and even after a long hiatus (of roughly seven years), my move down South led me back into theatrical extracurriculars.

I love my day job – I’m doing what I love, teaching, for a living, I’m writing, and I have high hopes for the future.

My other job, however, is a little more entertaining.

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My close friend and colleague, Mandy Hughes, founded Rocket City Shakespeare shortly after she graduated with her Masters Degree in English Literature. She already had degrees in theatre, had already worked in business, had been acting and directing for years, and she wanted to put her skills to good use.

So she started a local theatre company.

Mandy and I are a lot alike. We’re both only happy if we’re doing as many things as possible all the time.

I met Mandy my first semester of grad school, when we were both in Linguistics together. We also met in passing at the theatre club, and we found out we had friends in common, and so six or so months later when she posted on facebook looking for help with her theatre company’s first production, The Taming of the Shrew, I said ‘hey, I can help out!’

And that’s the very brief story of how I became Front of House Manager for Rocket City Shakespeare.

Later that same summer, RCS put on its second production, As You Like It, where I worked as a Production Assistant as well as Front of House. The company rehearsed four times a week, and I was there for every rehearsal, taking notes and helping keep everything organized. My role in the company evolved once we hit the fall, and I took on work as both Assistant Director and Actor for the company’s third production, Coriolanus.

The Second Season of RCS’s run began this past Friday with our production of Richard III (we had a brief break so Mandy and I could both work on the University’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the direction of our colleague Dr. Chad Thomas, with Mandy as Titania and me as Assistant Director). I say began, of course, because that is when the production opened, but in truth the process for this play began months ago, shortly after I graduated with my Masters in May.

Mandy contacted me and we held auditions in a classroom at the university, casting about fifteen actors for a deeply complex and fascinating play. The players were an interesting crowd, a mix of theatre veterans and newcomers, young and old, from varied backgrounds and walks of life. We met in that same classroom for two months, with three rehearsals a week, going over what RCS holds most important: the text.

There’s no subtext in Shakespeare. I mean, you can argue it every which way you like, but that’s one of the tenets we hold at RCS. Everything you need to know about what Shakespeare was trying to say in his text is there in the text. Is that text open to interpretation? Of course. All text is. Shakespeare had his own motives for writing his plays, motives that go beyond needing to eat of course, and Richard III is hardly an historical accounting of the life and times of an English monarch. Rather it’s mostly Elizabethan propaganda that talks up the awesomeness of the Tudor line, but all the same, for our purposes as performers, everything we need to perform Shakespeare is in the words.

 

So we spend a lot of time working with the words. I mean a LOT of time. Nearly our first month of rehearsals was book work. We met in the classroom, desks in a circle, and read the words aloud while making notes. This is wise for any theatrical production of course, but with Shakespeare it is SO IMPORTANT that actors know what they are saying and how they are saying it.

Because, if the actors know what it means, they can relay that to the audience through expression, mannerism, and gesture as well as speech. Suddenly, Shakespeare is less esoteric language and more dick jokes.

Sometimes, in order for the message to really sink in, we have to connect those words to actions, so we spend a lot of time blocking everything too. As a fledgling theatre company in residence, RCS didn’t always have access to the performance space, but we shared the theatre with a couple of summer classes, so we made use of the space when we could.

The greatest strides in any rehearsal process seems to happen (at least in my experience) once the actors no longer have their books in their hands. This process is difficult — believe me I know, learning my lines for Coriolanus was exhausting — but it changes the entire game. Suddenly lines that made no sense are totally clear. Actions connect to words, characters to each other, and we have the beginnings of a play.

Rehearsals took up the vast majority of my evenings. Every Tuesday and Thursday night and every Sunday afternoon, we came to the theatre and Mandy and I worked as the Director-Assistant Director Brain Trust, giving notes and explaining the textual intricacies when they weren’t as clear as they could be. As we got closer to the time, we interspersed friends as audience members, because so much of our method includes blurring the line between audience and actor. Actors will sit by audience members, share food with them, talk to them, and do everything possible to bring them into the scene. We don’t pretend that what’s happening isn’t a play, but I mean, if somebody got up on our stage and used an outlet to charge their phone? We’d probably be chill with it, as long as it didn’t interfere with the scene.

That said, there’s a time and a place for that, people. Give it a try if you like, but we’ll mock you. In perfect verse.

 

So, we worked all summer. The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, with all of us arriving at the theatre between five thirty and six o’clock in the evening and remaining to run the play until often as late as eleven. We ran scenes over and over again. Cast members went through various issues, including restrictive work schedules and health problems.

Now, however, we are here, and as of the posting of this blog, halfway through the show’s six show run.

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I’m not here to write a review of Rocket City Shakespeare’s Richard III. Even if I tried, my bias would come through, because I loved working on this production. I loved working with the actors, both the new faces and the old veterans. I loved revisiting a play that I first read in college, first saw performed in college, and participating in the construction of a theatrical run I’m proud to have been involved in.

So I write this post primarily to share my experience working with a fantastic theatre company this summer. When this run ends, Mandy and I will start gearing up for our next production, Macbeth, which will be holding auditions in September for Performance in January. After that, I get to take the reins and direct my first play ever, Much Ado About Nothing, before I leave Alabama for my PHD.

As I said, I’m never bored. And I do think all of this relates to the rest of my academic life and vocation, but that’s another post entirely.

It’s been a successful run so far. We still have three shows left. If you’re in the Huntsville, Alabama area next week, consider coming down and seeing our production. You can buy tickets in advance here, or send me an email with your name and we’ll have tickets for you at the door.

I’ll be the one at the front of the house, feeling proud of the hard work everyone involved with this production has done.

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Want to help keep this blog running? Want to help me study videogames? Leave a donation on my GoFundMe as I try to raise money for a new computer to use in my academic research!

This Week In Teaching: Flexibility and Following the Teaching Moments

 

This article is part of a series I’m writing in july/august that I’m calling ‘this week in teaching’, where I talk about teaching comp 102 in a 5 week summer session.

The summer class I teach has one week left before final portfolios get turned in and my students either finish their degrees or proceed in their undergraduate educations, most of them probably running away from English classes as fast as their legs can carry them. I don’t begrudge them of this — not everybody loves the subject like I do, just like I don’t understand how anyone can enjoy studying mathematics — but I’m hoping they will have taken something useful with them out of the classroom door. Last week was the final week where I assigned reading, and this coming week is going to be all revision and writing all the time, so I’m going to take today’s post to dwell on reading assignments I’ve made use of in this class and some of the happy accidents they seem to have yielded.

I wrote a previous post about my surprise over my students’ response to Bartleby the Scrivener, and I know that I will forever recall that lesson as a prime example of how to teach old media texts in the writing classroom. This past week, however, I had another interesting teaching moment, and it’s related to an author I’ve already posted about on this site: Chuck Palahniuk.

The final reading I gave my students was one of Palahniuk’s newest short stories, Zombies, which is in his latest anthology. Much like most of his works, Zombies is postmodern, disturbing, and provokes discussion. Most of my students had never interacted with Palahniuk’s work – one or two of them had seen Fight Club, but that was the extent of their knowledge. The interesting teaching moment happened towards the end of the class, as my students summed up their reading experience as ‘disturbing’ and ‘uncomfortable’, and I made an offhand comment that I’d meant more as a joke than anything else:

 

“You think Zombies is disturbing? His story Guts makes people pass out at public readings, THAT’s a disturbing story.”

 

I thought nothing of my comment as students settled down to work on their research paper drafts and peer review each other’s work, and it had faded from my mind until I heard the sound of choked back shock and horror from one side of the classroom. I looked up and one of my students was staring at her computer screen with a stricken look on her face, saying mostly to herself “why would anyone ever write something like this?”

I asked her if she was all right and she looked at me like I had just shot her dog and said “I’m reading Guts and OH MY GOD.”

Immediately everyone else in the classroom woke up a bit, confused and intrigued, anxious and alarmed. A couple other students asked her where she found it and she told them to google it, and they started reading it too. The students who didn’t read it still watched the reactions of the others, and they began a heated discussion of why anyone would write a story like Guts, what purpose it served, how anyone could think of this. One student pointed out that aspects of it were true, as he knew someone who had worked in an ER. After a while the conversation looped back around to Zombies, and my students were unconsciously and naturally comparing the two stories. Not only that, they were relating them back to the theme of the class at hand, the idea of using metaphors to the extreme, and what teenagers do for fun.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. By mentioning a story in passing, the entire class had derailed as my students talked about how they were grossed out, why they were grossed out, and what that meant.

Sometimes it pays to teach on a tight schedule. In a summer class it’s especially important to be conscious of the clock and how much time it takes to squeeze in all the information you need. Even so, it’s important to remember that learning isn’t naturally placed in convenient two hour time slots, no matter how hard we try to schedule it down to the microsecond. The human factor leads to a necessary disconnect between schedules and reality, and nothing pains me more as a teacher than having to say ‘all right folks, as much as I want us to keep looking at this, we have to move on.’

Every class is a little different. I don’t know how previous classes would have reacted to Zombies, or Palahniuk, or even Bartleby a week or two before. It’s always the wild card of creating a lesson plan: you never know what might derail your schedule.

Even more importantly, you never know what might be worth derailing a class for.

My students needed peer review: they had papers due soon, so of course they needed to read each other’s work. But they needed to talk about the subject more: needed to process and understand. They went out of their way to seek out additional reading material, material I personally find fascinating but would not assign in a section of comp 102 without some serious warning (Guts is difficult to read, disturbing, and pretty gross all around, so much so that it’s easy to get lost in the details and the shock of it and miss the greater implications).

I may be pretty new to teaching, but I know that it’s rare for students to go out of their way to find something new to read. It’s rare for them to willingly continue a discussion during class time after it was time to move on.

For me, it was worth sacrificing that time to encourage discussion. My students would have time to read each other’s work later: for now, they had relevant and interesting thoughts to share with each other, new reading material to explore, and new insights to examine.

We can’t always derail our schedules as teachers. Students have to cover certain things as part of the assigned curriculum, and we have to make sure they get enough time for all of the necessary ground to be covered.

But I still think we need a certain amount of flexibility in our lesson plans. A little time to account for something unexpectedly relevant. Sometimes students can teach each other more effectively than we ever can as teachers, because fellow students aren’t perceived as gatekeepers of knowledge with ethos and authority. Discussion among peers fosters a deeper understanding of course material as students draw from their own experience and realize they all have different points of view.

We don’t have all the time in the world to let a conversation derail. Sometimes students get distracted easily and want to talk about what happened on Game of Thrones last night (or whatever else the hip kids are watching these days). But sometimes going off the rails leads to deeper insights into the material than previously anticipated.

Sometimes all you have to do is say “you think that’s disturbing?” and let curiosity do the rest of the work. After all, curiosity leads to some of the best learning experiences.

It also leads to stories that make you pass out, but in this case, they can’t say I didn’t warn them.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Want to help keep this blog running? Want to help me study videogames? Leave a donation on my GoFundMe as I try to raise money for a new computer to use in my academic research!

This Week In Teaching: Pet Peeves

This article is part of a series I’m writing in july/august that I’m calling ‘this week in teaching’, where I talk about teaching comp 102 in a 5 week summer session.

 

Today I’m going to talk a bit about my teaching pet peeves. Every teacher has them — they’re an occupational hazard — and getting back in the classroom has brought a few specific peeves of mine to the surface.

Discussing pet peeves serves two purposes in terms of sharing my teaching experience: for one, it allows me to express some frustrations with teaching that I don’t particularly want to bottle up for the sake of my mental health. For another, it can provide a teaching moment in and of itself, where I can try to share my experiences with my fellow teachers and come up with some productive ways to deal with pet peeves when they rear their heads in the writing classroom.

So here’s a list of my pet peeves (written out as Fall Out Boy-style song titles), and my personal methods for dealing with them.

 

Pet Peeve #1: It’s In The Syllabus, On The Assignment Sheet,  On The Website, And Probably On My Forehead

 

Every class I’ve taught, without fail, has had a student pop up with a question like this:

 

“So, when’s the paper due?”

“Do we get fall break off?”

“When’s the final?”

“You mean the paper’s due at the BEGINNING OF CLASS?”

“Where can I find out how many points I have?”

 

And the answer is always a variant of the following:

 

phd051013s

 

Every instructor deals with this, without fail. It is a rite of passage, and whether you’ve been teaching two years or twenty, this always happens. Even if you go over every assignment sheet and syllabus component in detail on the first day, this always happens. In the past I’ve even had students come up to me and say ‘I thought the assignment was due at midnight, so I haven’t started it yet.’

They said this on the day the assignment was due, at the beginning of class. It said on the assignment sheet it was due at the beginning of class, I said out loud to my students that it was due at the beginning of class, and I reminded students of this fact every day leading up to the assignment due date.

They could replace me with a broken record and I’d be just as effective at this, I swear.

How to Deal:

 

Patience. That’s pretty much the only solution I’ve come up with. Taking a deep breath, smiling, and repeating yourself. ‘No, I told you it was due at the beginning of class. It’s right there on the assignment sheet’. Of course, this isn’t the only problem that arises from these kinds of questions. Every now and then a student will come back at you with the accusation that you said no such thing, it was never mentioned in class, and it’s not on the syllabus.

So, my personal solution for combatting those situations is to be thorough, and do everything in your power to get the message across. List everything on the syllabus. Have the details on the assignment sheets. Make a note to yourself when you tell the entire class the date and time these assignments are due. Having a written record and printed proof can help a lot if a student decides to try and turn the situation around so the blame lies with you, the teacher.

I’m not saying we should expect our students to behave like this, but it’s better to be prepared for those eventualities, because for every innocent mistake, there’s the occasional student who will try to pull the wool over your eyes, or worse, get the department head or Dean involved when something doesn’t go their way. So, front-load your information, keep detailed records, and be patient with your students. It could be they misread something on the syllabus or lost the assignment sheet. They’ve got busy lives, just like we do as teachers.

 

Pet Peeve #2: The Difference Between Global And Local Peer Review Is That Every Time You Focus On Grammar You Get It Wrong

 

Peer review is the number two thing students tell me they hate about writing classes (the number one thing is reading quizzes). Even when you get a rare, diamond-in-the-rough group that enjoys discussing each other’s work and making meaningful criticism, there’s the eternal problem of how to do peer review in the most productive way. Most of the time, students reading each other’s papers focus on the most obvious issues that need fixing: spelling and grammar. Even if you as the teacher give them a prompt or guide that instructs them to review for global issues such as consistent theme, purpose, and organization, many students will fall back on whether or not a paper contains enough definitive articles or independent clauses. So it means that after a half-hour of peer review, that student comes away with a lot of information on improving form, but very little on improving content. Which is an issue for me for multiple reasons.

Firstly, I place a great deal more weight in the content of an assignment as an instructor when I teach comp 2. My rubrics are slanted towards making clear and concise points, having a strong thesis, and having solid paragraphs that serve a critical purpose. A student can turn in a paper that’s got immaculate grammar, but if it doesn’t have the required content of a rhetorical analysis, then they haven’t actually done the assignment, so they won’t get the points.

Then there’s the problem of getting advice from a peer who doesn’t have a solid grasp of grammar themselves. Looking at drafts, I often see a student attempt to ‘correct’ something at the encouragement of a peer, when the peer’s corrections were not actual grammar corrections. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing a student give their partner advice about grammar when just the night before you read that student’s paper and made note of many grammatical errors and simple spelling mistakes (an even more egregious error in the age of spell check).

 

How to Deal:

 

Other than stressing to students before and during peer review that they need to focus on the big picture, there’s very little we as instructors can do to actively combat this attitude. Sometimes I find that more structured peer review can help, where students have to turn in peer review worksheets after working together that have activities that focus explicitly on content and global issues.

My other solution for this issue is to focus less on form and more on content when grading. I point out to my students that the rubric is more heavily focused on global quality, and when I grade I may point out grammatical errors, but don’t dock points for them. To me, unless that grammar error makes the work unreadable, it’s not worth downgrading if that student has a strong point they successfully get across.

I’ve found that stressing the importance of overall quality as opposed to nitpicking every little grammar mistake actually helps my students focus more on clear ideas and strong coherent arguments. After all, losing half a point for grammar is better than losing ten points for a poor-quality argument, even if that poor argument was made with perfect sentence structure.

 

Pet Peeve #3: You Are Not being Stealthy, Everyone Knows You’re Checking Your Phone, Not Just Staring At Your Crotch Because You Think It’s Awesome.

 

This is one every teacher has some familiarity with, because it’s the age of technology and every student and their dog has a smartphone. Or not even a smartphone, just a phone the student is glued to at all times, texting somebody or other. What I have trouble with is not necessarily the use of phones in the classroom — I taught an entire class that made use of Tumblr apps on smartphones — but if we’re engaged in discussion as a class, or I’m giving a lecture or demonstration, a student more focused on their phone than the lesson at hand is frustrating. And I’d almost prefer to have a student actually have their phone out so I can see it, because at least they aren’t trying to be sneaky. Because, let’s face it, trying to covertly text under a desk is nearly impossible.

 

texting_inclass

 

(x)

That’s one of my favourite things to tell my students: ‘please don’t use your phones in class: I know you’re using your phones, because no way is your crotch that interesting or funny.’ That’s what students do: stare at their crotches texting away at their phones, ignoring their classmates, their work, and the chance to learn. Texting while in class is rude enough, trying to hide it adds insult to injury because you’re attempting to be sneaky. We’ll get into classroom etiquette later, but this is a specific subset of that problem, and it’s a big enough problem that it deserves its own discussion.

 

How to Deal:

 

Every teacher has their own method of handling this one. I had a colleague my first semester of teaching who would bring a basket into class and make their students put their phones in it at the start of class, only to be retrieved once class was over. Others go for the public shaming, calling a student out when they’re dicking around on their phone. Still more go in the opposite direction: making use of the problem technology in the classroom in one way or another. There are many approaches.

I have two approaches, each depending on the class at hand. When I taught Comp 1, I had students make use of their phones for research, for freewriting, and for peer review. This made dealing with phones easier as they were out in the open, visible, and actually useful. My other approach is to make it clear on the first day that unsanctioned use of cell phones during lecture, demonstration, and discussion would result in the docking of attendance points. I’ve docked anywhere from 3 to 5 points for cell phone use in the classroom, depending on the schedule and how many points are available for attendance. My usual policy is you get ten points for attendance, but you lose two points if you’re late, five points if you’re goofing around on your phone or other tech, and seven if you fall asleep in class.

That last one’s happened to me before, in the very first class I taught. I’d be more amused with it except my class met at 3 in the afternoon. If you’re falling asleep in class at 3 PM, you should look at your life and look at your choices.

So, there are ways to deal, and different ways suit different teaching styles. For me, explicitly stating the consequence for cell phone use both verbally and on the syllabus leaves me free to quietly make note of any students who are crotch-gazing during class time and assign attendance points accordingly. You might prefer integrating the tech or taking the temptation away with a phone basket. As a teacher, you have a number of options (though some English departments have specific policies about phone use in class: mine doesn’t have an official one but in general the use of phones in class is not allowed). If you’re reading this and you’re a student, consider this a point in classroom politeness.

Which brings me to my final pet peeve.

 

Pet Peeve #4: Leaving Early, Coming In Late, And Basic Classroom Etiquette

 

I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of being raised by a Teacher and a Naval officer. For me, to be five minutes early is to be on time, and to be on time is to be late. Whether I’m teaching a class, attending it as a student, going to an appointment, or heading to rehearsal, I make a point to always be early unless there’s some kind of dire emergency, in which case I find a way to contact whoever’s in charge.

As a result, I can be kinda hardcore about students being on time for class. I’m not as hardcore as some teachers I’ve worked with. I had a colleague who would lock their classroom door the second class started, so any students who showed up late would have to go through the shame of being let in, knowing they were running late.

Extra hardcore since this was a class taught at 8 AM.

So, I’m not that extreme, but I keep track of when students show up, and especially when they show up late. My general rule is that my students aren’t late unless they come in once I’ve started talking. Even then, I don’t take away too many points. Sometimes students have extenuating circumstances that make it difficult for them to be early or exactly on time.

My bigger problem is with students who leave class early. I’m not talking about the student who comes to me before class begins and says ‘Hey Mr. Lee, I have something at exactly 10AM so I need to slip out a little early’. That student is fine. That student doesn’t even need to go into detail (and I’d prefer they didn’t. Their business is their own, and if they’re leaving class early, I”m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s important).

But if a student gets up and leaves an entire hour before class ends? An entire half hour before class ends? That’s a problem. In longer classes I often give my students a ten minute break in the middle of the class period, give them a chance to get water and use the restroom and so forth. I’ve had a couple of students who leave at the break without saying anything to me.

There’s no other word for this: it’s straight up rude. And it bothers me.

 

How to Deal:

 

I’m not asking for a signed and dated doctor’s note. I don’t need to know every movement of my students’ lives. What I want is communication. If you need to leave early, let me know at the beginning of class. If you know you’re going to be consistently late because of a previous class or a transportation issue, let me know.

Or, if you don’t, students, don’t come crying to me when you’re missing attendance points.

Which is the solution from the teaching side: be up front about taking points off for lateness or leaving early without first informing the instructor. I also offer my students extra credit for being early or on time for every class period in the semester, offering incentive to show up on time. Ultimately, the best policy is clarity and encouraging communication. This and keeping note of student lateness and absences might not deter students from lateness, but it allows you as a teacher to keep note of who’s there and who isn’t, which makes calculating grades that much easier in the future.

***

So, to round this article out, I’d have to say that my policy when dealing with pet peeves is fairly straightforward: be clear and communicate with your students, take detailed notes, and above all, be gracious and patient. Students can be frustrating, but at the end of the day, the reverse is true too: students find teachers frustrating. I personally attribute that to a lack of communication on all sides, so the best thing we can do, as instructors and as students, is to be thorough, to explain, and to be clear. Being open and honest with students and encouraging them to do the same with you can go a long way when it comes to making peace with your teaching pet peeves.

 

NOTE: All examples in this article are general examples based on my experiences and are not referring to specific students I have had in the past or present. If you’re writing about student pet peeves, remember that mentioning specific student names violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and you can get in serious trouble for disclosing students’ personal information. If you need to vent about your students, do not ever mention them by name or by any other identifier that could lead back to them, so please vent productively and wisely.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Want to help keep this blog running? Want to help me study videogames? Leave a donation on my GoFundMe as I try to raise money for a new computer to use in my academic research!

 

This Week in Teaching: Pleasant Surprises

This article is part of a series I’m writing in july/august that I’m calling ‘This Week in Teaching’, where I talk about teaching comp 102 in a 5 week summer session.

 

The interesting thing I’ve discovered about summer classes is this paradoxical style of motivation that exists both in me and my students. There’s a sense of urgency, to cram as much into our brains as possible, to finish things with an impossibly quick turnaround, and also this overwhelming exhaustion that I see reflected in the faces of my students as we all sit in the classroom at 8 in the morning, wishing we were still in bed enjoying a nice relaxing sleep.

I guess that’s my biggest takeaway from This Week In Teaching: Summer classes are a paradoxical mix of urgency and apathy, where both teacher and students are so overworked they’ve boomeranged from stress and panic back into giving no fucks.

That’s not to say things aren’t working out. Better than I expected, to be perfectly honest. I’ve only had two students drop the class in the wake of the first assignment, and of the students who did the first assignment, grading was pleasant across the board. Lots of high scores. Pressure or no, these students can write.

Or they can write a rhetorical analysis at least. I like to start off the semester, summer or otherwise, with some kind of litmus test for writing ability. In the Monsters class, I like to give my students two theoretical pieces and then apply the arguments in those works to a film we watch as a group. For the Millennials class, I had students write a rhetorical analysis of either this article from Salon or this from the Atlantic. Even the students unfamiliar with aristotle’s rhetorical triangle did solid work, and the ones who didn’t will do better upon revision.

So, I wouldn’t go so far as saying I’m impressed with the quality of their written work, but that’s because I refuse to judge based on a single assignment.

What I AM impressed with, however, is their response to two things: difficult reading assignments and peer review.

The first one was the big surprise for me. Over the long weekend I decided to give my students a more difficult assignment than I’d normally throw at a summer class: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. The relevance and implication of Bartleby in a Millennial context came to me after watching an episode of Archer where the titular character makes a reference to the Melville story. Which mostly made me laugh, but then it got me thinking.

Most pop culture does this to me. My roommates are sick of me discussing the ‘deeper implications’ of the movies we watch when we’re just trying to enjoy a night in. I can’t help it: the power of English degrees compel me.

It really did make me think though, especially once I dug out one of my countless short story anthologies and re-read the story for the first time since my junior year of college. There’s something about the passive paradox of Bartleby’s response that made me think about the way people communicate, how we express our discomfort, and how uncomfortable we are with honesty.

So I assigned it, along with a link to the Librivox recording, and didn’t expect anything too major. I figured at least a few of my students would give the reading a shot, give up halfway through, and sit staring at the wall during discussion.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by my students when I came into class on Monday.  They had opinions about Bartleby which they expressed with little need to coax them to speak up. Normally encouraging class discussion can be a bit of an exercise in pulling teeth, but there were no teeth that needed pulling. Students had opinions about the narrator, about Bartleby as a character, had stories of their own they could relate about people who have ‘preferred not to’ in certain situations. The conversation was not only fruitful, but extensive. And it really was a conversation. Students analyzed each other’s responses, replied critically (but politely), and found resonance with a story written in the mid-1800s.

I think sometimes as teachers, especially in freshman composition, we hesitate when it comes to introducing older, more complex texts. We don’t want to overwhelm our students, but we also don’t want to get our own hopes up, don’t want to imagine that maybe our students will actually respond to difficult or lengthy material. Our past experience tends to leave us jaded, our hope clouded by memories of students only reading when they know there’s going to be a quiz or when they have to write some kind of response. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, we just have to give the students the benefit of the doubt.

I say sometimes because the very next day none of the students had done the reading from the textbook, but that could certainly have been a response to the unappealing content. Maybe they could relate Bartleby to their lives more coherently than the readings on text messaging and digital communications. It might have been the four day weekend. Hell, it may have even been that I provided them with a link to a recording they could access so they could listen instead of read. It’s hard to say.

But this leads to my second note for the week, which is that of Peer Review. Speaking of pulling teeth.

Most students have a unilateral dislike for reading and commenting on each other’s work. It requires active engagement, critical thought, and doing something other than surfing the internet. I’ve used a number of peer review methods in the classes I’ve taught, everything from the standard ‘swap papers and give comments’ to the ‘speed date review’ to a gamified method of competitive peer review, but none have truly given the results I’ve wanted to see, which is students being helpful and enthusiastic about their work and the work of their classmates.

It could just be that I got lucky, but my summer class THRIVES on peer review. Wednesday and Thursday I had them pair up to look over each other annotated bibliographies and research proposals, and the amount of productivity I saw was frankly astounding. Students paired up and discussed and explained their impending research. They gave each other feedback, comments, and advice. The first day, this went on for a full forty-five minutes, and they probably could have kept going if I’d let them do so.

What struck me the most was how motivated the students were by their chosen research topics. Giving them a casual forum to discuss their work really seemed to help them not only feel but maintain feelings of enthusiasm, of passion. They’re writing about things they find interesting, and it shows.

I won’t take entire credit for that: yes, I gave them a broad topic, but they made the connections themselves. I have yet to tell any of my students that they can’t research what they have suggested. I haven’t read the proposals yet (they’re due this coming monday) but so far everyone has something both solid and executable within the remaining three weeks of the class.

No class is perfect. Not even the students who helped me with my thesis project. But so far, the positives outweigh the negatives, and it’s refreshing to see students responding to writing with a degree of enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for giving students a chance to try something more complex and to give them the freedom to research something they get passionate about.

The coming week brings one of my favourite assignments: the literature review. It’s also the most difficult for most students to grasp. Add to that a diverse collection of reading assignments and it’s going to be another intense week. I think they’ll do a good job though. They’ve surprised me so far after all.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me athex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Want to help keep this blog running? Want to help me study videogames? Leave a donation on my GoFundMe as I try to raise money for a new computer to use in my academic research!

This Week in Teaching: Technology and Tight Schedules

This article is part of a series I’m writing in july/august that I’m calling ‘this week in teaching’, or ‘TWIT’, where I talk about teaching comp 102 in a 5 week summer session.

 

Last week I promised a follow-up article once my summer class was over, but as I start teaching again I’m finding I have a lot more to say on the subject than I previously anticipated.

I know, me, having opinions? All of you are shocked, I can tell.

So today’s post is the beginning of a series, where I share my thoughts on the week of teaching I just did, let everyone know how it all went, and what my plans are for the week ahead. My secret hope is that I’ll be able to produce enough content that I can start updating New Media Mayhem TWICE A WEEK (OMG) but we’ll see how that goes.

For now, welcome to This Week in Teaching (or TWIT, which is an unintentionally hilarious acronym), where I talk about how much I love using technology in the writing classroom and how different (and difficult) it is to teach on a five week schedule.

So my summer section met for the first time last Tuesday. It’s a small class – fifteen enrolled, and only twelve so far have collectively showed up – and we meet at 8 AM in one of the campus library computer labs.

I have a love-hate relationship with that sentence, because on the one hand, 8 AM. I am not a morning person. I have never been and never will be a morning person, it is a fact that I am primarily nocturnal and will stay up until two or three AM if left to my own devices. Waking up to teach a class at 8 in the morning is a special hell for me, so teaching so early in the morning is challenging to say the least.

It’s worth it though, and it’s worth it for being able to teach in one of the library computer labs.

I love technology. Not surprising – I’m typing this on my chromebook while listening to music on youtube and knowing as soon as I get done I can go log onto my actual laptop to play hours and hours of Borderlands 2. I have a smartphone, a tablet, an Xbox, and a 3DS. Tech is my friend, and I love using it.

Now, normally I teach composition in the campus English building. In the two years I’ve been on campus they’ve begun slowly upgrading many of the rooms to include more integrated projection and computer technology, but most of my teaching experience has been in a crowded room with creaky broken desks and a black box on the wall that, when unlocked, contains a tangle of cords that will hook a laptop up to the projector, with some trial and error of course. For the most part, however, it’s me and a podium and a whiteboard and little access to even project anything up on the screen.

Granted, it’s 2015, and most of my students tend to have some kind of device they bring with them to class, even if it’s just their phones. That said, there’s a huge difference between sitting in a classroom with a couple of students on laptops and sitting in a computer lab where every student has access to a computer right there.

Access to the school computer labs is like jumping decades into the future compared to teaching in the English building. I have a computer I work on that projects whatever I want with the push of a button. No cable hook-ups required. My students all have computers to work on drafts, to share ideas, and to view documents.

This makes teaching a completely different ballgame.

In past classes, supplementary reading was a pain to distribute. I could give students access to a google drive folder with the file in it, but didn’t have much in the way of a guarantee that they were using it. Teaching in the lab means everybody opens that drive up right there, and boom, you have the reading assignment — no excuses or confusion.

Further, it means getting students to work on their drafts in class is actually viable, and this is one of my favourite things to do. Giving students the opportunity to work on their writing in class while they have access to me for questions is really important, because in my experience a student is more likely to ask a question when you’re in the same room than in office hours or over email. I can even open google docs and look at the student’s document myself, leave some comments, and highlight pertinent information.

It’s seriously like living in the future, and I love it. I mean, I consider even having the access to regularly using Powerpoint presentations a luxury, but this? It’s delightful.

Does it have some hazards? Sure, students will be tempted to dick around online instead of write, but that’s hardly something difficult to detect.

True story, students. Your typing patterns are different when you’re goofing around online versus drafting or taking notes. So is your expression. I don’t have to roam the classroom and act like I have eyes in the back of my head to know you’re on Facebook instead of working on your rhetorical analysis. I’m not gonna call you out on it either. You’re only hurting yourself.

Plus, I’m not your parent. If I wanted to be a parent, I’d adopt a kid and teach said kid better manners on my own time, not classroom time. This is college, be a heckin’ adult about things.

Classroom time is precious, especially during the summer. The summer schedule I’m on has three official sessions: two are in five week chunks, the other is a ten week chunk. Considering the normal academic semester we teach on where I work is sixteen weeks, both of these are extremely condensed.

I’m teaching five week chunk number two. My students have class from June 30th to August 3rd, and that’s not including national US holidays.

So when my class met last week, we met for two days: on the Tuesday and the Wednesday. Thursday, the university was closed because of the Fourth of July.

Which was Saturday, but apparently having the Fourth on a Saturday means students get to take the second AND the third off.

I don’t get it, but I don’t make the schedule, and disliking it doesn’t make me any less American.

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I’m so American I eat apple pie for breakfast and crap bald eagles, baby.

 

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I dislike it because it means I have, in total, eighteen days to teach a semester’s worth of content to my students. I teach for two hours a day, monday through thursday, and it’s intense. My class has met twice and my students have an assignment due today, and they have two mini-assignments due next week. I have Monday and Tuesday to grade assignments and give them back to students so they have enough feedback as they proceed. It’s a research-based class, so my students need to have already decided what their research topics are going to be by tomorrow. If you miss two classes, you automatically fail.

It’s rough, on me and on my students. I spend a lot of time worrying I won’t cover all the content I need to cover, let alone the content I want to cover. I worry that I won’t be able to grade papers to the standards my students need. I worry I’m going too fast and they aren’t going to actually learn anything except to be in a hurry.

So, how do I combat that?

First and foremost, I keep a very tight schedule. I make sure everything is timed out in class, down to the minute. Five minutes for going over the agenda and taking roll. Twenty minutes of discussion. Ten minutes on a freewrite. And so on.

The second step is having an agenda. at the beginning of every class I have a powerpoint slide that goes over exactly what we’ll be covering in class that day. It keeps me on track, it lets my students know what they’ll be doing in class that day, and it reminds them that we have a time limit.

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The third is constantly reviewing course content and making myself extremely available to my students. As I build lesson plans, I find myself reviewing them the night before to figure out what absolutely needs to be covered. I streamline discussion with use of keywords and questions to respond to the text. I keep the classroom dynamic and encourage discussion. I still give students a break, because a two hour class is really intense for everyone. I make myself available outside of the classroom and outside of office hours. I offer to read student drafts and give feedback.

It’s tough. I’m only two days in and I can see why people avoid teaching summer classes. It’s so hard to feel like you’re not covering enough, that you’re being a bad teacher because you don’t have the time to really thoroughly go over everything that needs to be examined to adequately teach writing in so short a time.

Fortunately, I’m always up for a challenge.

So far my students seem to be as well. This coming week their assignments include a discussion on Bartleby the Scrivener by Melville, working on annotated bibliographies and research proposals, and even playing a little Portal in class. They turn in their analysis assignments, I grade them as fast as I can, and every morning we all drag our sleep-deprived bodies into the classroom to cram our brains full of knowledge, one way or another.

And of course, regardless of anything, I’d rather be waking up early to teach than wake up late to do something else. Guess that’s how I know I’m in the right profession.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, by the time this posts I’ll be neck deep in student papers to grade.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me athex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Want to help keep this blog running? Want to help me study videogames? Leave a donation on my GoFundMe as I try to raise money for a new computer to use in my academic research!

Also today is my Mum’s birthday! Happy Birthday, Mum! ❤ 

Kairos in Action: Or, building a Composition Course for Millennial Writers

My Comeback Article on this blog was all about the ‘so what’ factor of analysis: how to analyze anything with that ever-important ‘why your readers should care’ aspect of your argument. When I said this attitude was applicable to everything from academics to casual entertainment, I meant it, and this became abundantly clear to me as I began constructing my syllabus for my summer section of Composition II.

I’ve built syllabi before, and even though I always did so around a previously provided frame, I’m fortunate that I have a lot of flexibility as an adjunct where I teach. The department selects the assigned books, but instructors have a lot of freedom to select supplementary material to add to the texts available in the book. The book for the summer section of Comp II is the same as the one used for the summer section of Comp I, which is the book I taught from in the spring.

It’s a good book, and I like it a lot, but it’s exclusively focused around the process of writing and the topic of writing. Students are assigned readings that talk about how to write about literacy, the composing process, and the technology surrounding writing itself.

Now, I’m personally down with this. I’m a word nerd, I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pencil, and I find the writing process fascinating. I have two degrees in English, so writing about writing is my jam.

My students, on the other hand, are usually not exactly thrilled at the prospect.

On the one hand, I expect low levels of enthusiasm from my students pretty much regardless of the textbook or the theme of the class. Most of them are engineering majors, and when they do use writing it’s definitely not the same kind of writing I do as an English teacher. However, universities continue to require students to take a composition sequence, and no matter how many times you try to explain knowledge transfer to anyone and everyone, the Kairos (or purpose) of composition classes is not easy to dig up or hold on to. Time and time again I see my students’ faces filled with the question “why are we taking this stupid class?” Sometimes they even ask me, though most of the time they ask more politely than that.

There are a couple ways to approach the So What of composition classes, and I quickly learned that the first way, ‘because the university says you have to’, is unsatisfying for both student and teacher alike. It’s like a parent saying ‘because I said so’, and (unsurprisingly) I was the kid who always insisted on a well-reasoned answer to a question, which is probably why everything from ‘why do I have to clean my room?’ to ‘why can’t I watch this movie?’ to ‘is god real?’ became a battle in my parent’s’ household. ‘Because I said so’ never cut it, and I’d argue until I was ready to pass out because I just wanted a REASON for a task, an answer to a question.

I was an annoying kid. Pretty sure my parents knew I’d be a grad student from the moment I started talking.

Back to writing. The So What of composition is that writing really is everywhere and everybody’s gonna use it, and especially in such a technologically-saturated environment, new ways of communicating will become both prevalent and worthy of study.

So, I approach the So What of composition by giving my students an answer to their question as best I can. Because my answer is, as you’ve probably guessed, ‘because critical thinking and well-reasoned argumentation is pretty damned important in the information age, and the vast majority of that appears in writing.’ But providing practical examples of that fact is more useful than words in any situation, and so I did my best to apply that reasoning as I built my reading list and my course theme.

I wanted to move beyond the theme of pure writing — most of the students in my class will have either taken Comp I or its equivalent. Normally Comp II has a more solid theme (like the Monsters class I taught last Fall). However, I needed a theme that worked with the provided text, and as I read through the articles I could assign I came up with a term that could bring the ideas of those works together in a way my students could find relatable and interesting.

So I turned back to the research I conducted in my final semester of my MA, and started thinking about Millennials.

It’s a term most college-age students are familiar with. It’s usually associated with sentiments of ‘kids these days’ and ‘generation me’ and other comments about teens and twentysomethings being entitled, spoiled, and lazy. Even if I have non-traditional students in my class who fall outside the Millennial year spectrum (which is folks born between 1980 and 2000 according to most studies), it’s a common term, and it encompasses a great many important themes that relate to the modern student and their university-level education.

Millennials is a broad term, but it’s prevalence means it deserves academic interrogation, and for me, a composition class is the best way to examine this term and the cultural artifacts that accompany it. Like I said before, in most universities, comp is required for all incoming freshmen, and students have to take it to graduate. As composition instructors, if all of our students are going to come through our doors, we should teach them material that is culturally relevant and that teaches analysis and criticism through texts brought together by a common and relatable theme.

Granted, what’s relatable in 2015 may not stay relatable, which is why most of the thematic courses you see in comp II are very broad (the book series we use also has topics such as Death, Food, and Money), but new cultural movements and academic lenses are used for retrospective analysis all the time. Look at Hamlet: it was first performed in the early 1600s, but take a class that involves that play and at least one person will bring up the Freudian Oedipal tones of the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship. Interesting, since Freud’s oedipus complex not only showed up in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, but was probably influenced by the play in and of itself. Go Shakespeare.

Relatability is relative. As I’ve said before, you can argue anything, it’s just a matter of whether or not it’s a sound argument, and whether or not you can apply your ‘so what’ in a way that’s even somewhat reasonable. If I weren’t teaching this class in a five week summer session, I might even consider assigning Hamlet, because that play has themes that are so relevant to Millennial sentiments.

Even just this famous soliloquy has a lot of Millennial material.

 

Seriously, Hamlet spends most of the play angsting about his parents, his girlfriend, his life, he’s fighting with his parents, he has all these weird responsibilities heaped upon him by the ghost of his father, and he either goes totally insane or pretends to go totally insane (depending on who in academia you talk to) in an attempt to make things right. He’s got the trappings of Millennialism all over him.

So my syllabus looks pretty all over the place at first glance. The first major reading assignment is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. This is followed by an in-class videogame demonstration of Portal 2. Then a viewing of the first episode of The 100. The Ones the Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula LeGuin. Short stories by Neil Gaiman and Chuck Palahniuk. I even have the album Danger Days by My Chemical Romance on this syllabus.

It’ll be five weeks of initially random but actually totally related texts. Some of them are old (Bartleby was first published in 1853), and others were released just a couple of months ago, but they all relate to this Millennial theme.

Which, ultimately, is my responsibility as the instructor. I can assign things that I find relatable, I can put forth my argument for their relevance to the theme, but my students can disagree. They can find things that I may not have seen the first time around, or at all. They might read Bartleby and say ‘this is not at all relevant to my life or modern culture’, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and share these ideas with them. If nothing else, I can give them new perspective, even if it’s not a perspective they share, but that’s really just part of critical thinking. To think critically is to look below the surface, as I’ve said before, and using these pop culture texts alongside classics draws attention to the purpose of a theme, the arbitrary nature of cultural significance, what it really means to be part of This Generation, and how to examine commentary, both old and new, through a new lens.

Students will have the chance to do their own research on something Millennial. Which is pretty danged broad, but so is asking students to write an argumentative research paper about Monsters. Or Money. Or Death. Or Food.  I expect to get topics from very broad areas, but that’s what I want, because I want my students to understand.

You can relate anything to a theme. You just have to do it the right way.

What do I hope my students get out of this? Improved critical thinking skills. The ability to analytically reason. Engagement with a term that will be thrown at them for the vast majority of their lives. And, ultimately, the chance to be heard in a world that tends to assume they’re less intelligent and capable because of pop culture and technology.

We’ll see how it goes. I’ll have a follow-up article for you in a month when the class is over.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Want to help keep this blog running? Want to help me study videogames? Leave a donation on my GoFundMe as I try to raise money for a new computer to use in my academic research!

 

More than Entertainment: Unravel, Mass Effect and the Power of Games as Art

 

(This article has trigger warnings for discussion of mental illness, panic attacks, tourettes syndrome symptoms and causes, suicidal thoughts and ideation, mentions of PTSD, terrorism, abuse.)

I’ve always been only half interested in E3 coverage. Don’t get me wrong, I Get Hype when new games and projects are announced, but I don’t go out of my way to stream the press conferences. Most of the announcements find their way to me via my social media addiction of choice, Tumblr, and so I find I can spare myself the frustration of watching a bunch of white guys in suits try to explain to me what I want out of their newest videogame, platform, VR device, etc.

Not that every E3 presentation does that, but they have a pretty common formula at this point. So I don’t watch the press conferences, I wait for the coverage to pop up online, usually in gif or article form, with links to relevant trailers.

But this year I broke my usual habit for one particular announcement, which did pop up on my tumblr dash.

I’m talking about the announcement for Unravel.

I’ve always been a big fan of puzzle platformers, which is funny because I straight up suck at them. Seriously, you should see me, anything from trying to play Lode Runner when I was a kid on my parent’s old Apple computer, to more recent games like Limbo and Never Alone. I am quite possibly the worst at these games. But I keep coming back, because most of the time, they are CUTE as HECK and I am a sucker for things that are cute as heck.

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I’m a sucker for small fuzzy animals, like the fox in Never Alone.

 

So I saw a couple of gifs and screenshots of Unravel, and then I watched tumblr blow up over the creative director, Martin Sahlin, and how he was a beautiful cinnamon roll too precious for this world, too pure, who stole everyone’s hearts with his presentation. And so I watched the presentation.

I’ve posted the video below, but the basic gist is that after being introduced, Sahlin comes out and gives a slightly stumbling but extremely earnest explanation of how Unravel came to be, and what he hoped to convey to his audience, and this quote from the video resonated so strongly with me:

 

“I think that games are really powerful things. They have the ability to grab you and move you in a way that few other art forms can, and that gives us as game makers a certain responsibility I think. we should try to do more than just entertain.”

 

 

 

Sahlin’s presentation was simultaneously a heartfelt personal story and a serious call to action. He told a story about how this character, named Yarny, came to be, how the game was inspired by his family, and how the game really has a heart behind its creation and woven throughout the story. He also told the gaming community, and the gaming industry, that we all need to do more, because games are so much more than entertainment.

Which is, of course, right up my alley. I watched this video and I had a combination strong Affect response (which is academese for I cried) and a strong pedagogical response (academese for I yelled ‘THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT IN MY THESIS YES GOOD 10/10 GOOD JOB HELL YES’ at my computer and scaring my cats). Sahlin’s words hit me harder than ever the moment he pulled his little model of Yarny out of his jacket and made him wave hello. Because games as art, games as culture, games as a point of responsibility, and games as personal experience, is not only exactly my jam, but what I’ve been trying to say ever since I started studying videogames.

Videogames have become so much more than mere entertainment, they have the power to move people, inspire people, and drive people in a more immersive environment than any other artistic text.

I could turn this article into another hardcore academic dissection, pull out scholars and make quotations, but what inspired this post was Martin Sahlin’s personal life experience with game design, family, and creation.

So I’m gonna talk about the other thing I took away from E3 this year, and the thing I am the most excited for, and why I’m most excited for it:

Mass Effect: Andromeda.

I came to the Mass Effect fandom relatively late in the game compared to most gamers. I knew very little about the franchise until the internet started exploding about the ending to Mass Effect 3 back in 2012. I won’t go into those details, because this post isn’t about the ending of Mass Effect 3 (my thoughts on that deserve a separate post, which I’ll probably never make because I’m one of the few people out there who didn’t completely hate the ending). The reaction to the ending made me want to play the game, but that was just one of a few significant motivations.

So, rewind time. Back to 2012. Also known as the second-worst year of my life (the worst was probably 2004 or 2005). I was 24, and I rang in that year on the back of a trip to the hospital for a stress-induced anxiety attack that set off major full-body convulsions. I couldn’t sleep, I could barely breathe, they pumped me full of ativan and sent me home and after three straight days of not being able to sleep because I was twitching so violently and so often.

Ever stayed up for three straight days? Even when you want to do it, it’s pretty miserable.

I saw a neurologist and got a prescription for anticonvulsants. I went to five different doctors in as many days, had my blood drawn so many times my arm was nothing but bruise, got an EKG, an EEG, an MRI, every acronym you could think of, so they could figure out what was wrong with me. Even with insurance, and even with the help of my parents, this hospital adventure drained my savings accounts. In layman’s terms, it wrecked my shit.

The best part of all of that was that, once they figured out it wasn’t a heart problem or a brain tumor, they told me they couldn’t get me in to see the neurologist again until April.

They told me this in January.

So I had to wait three months to get a diagnosis of my condition (American Health Care, everyone), which hadn’t gone away, even with the medication to help me sleep. Still hasn’t. And by the time I saw the neurologist again, I’d done enough research that his diagnosis confirmed what I already knew.

I had Tourette’s Syndrome.

So, to add that to the other laundry list of my conditions, I had gone my whole life undiagnosed with Tourettes (Because normally you get that diagnosis when you’re a little kid or right around puberty), I had PTSD from two separate events, one being an abusive relationship, the other a terrorist attack, depression with suicidal ideation, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, instances of dissociation, and yeah, I was kind of a mess in 2012.

If you do a little cursory research into Tourettes, you’ll find out two interesting things right off the bat. The first is that not all people with Tourettes curse all the time. It’s a specific tic called coprolalia, and I do not have it. My vocal tic is more of a coughing, squeaking thing most of the time, so, that swearing thing is a generalization.

The second interesting thing is that there’s no cure. It’s a neurodivergence, a way my brain processes, which still hasn’t been fully researched but many experts attribute to a lack of dopamine in the brain and a misfiring of neurons that leads to twitching, or tics. Things can help the tics, lessen them and help you ride out the worst of the waxing period (a length of time where the tics get worse), but you’ve got it for life.

Nothing sucks like being 24 and finding out you have an incurable neurological disorder.

And here’s the funny thing, which is where we get back to the original point of this post, is that I found a unique thing to help calm my tics.

Playing videogames.

I replayed almost every game in my steam library during those first few months of 2012. The Portal games especially seemed to help, most likely because I was moving, solving problems, and actively engaging multiple parts of my brain in order to play. Once I finished those, I needed something more, a new franchise to throw myself into.

And that was about the time Mass Effect 3 kicked up a controversy cloud. And I heard all about it. And decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

I played through the first Mass Effect game in less than 14 hours the first time around. In rapid succession. I took a long weekend at work and played for two straight days, only stopping for meals and a few hours of sleep, because my curiosity quickly turned into love.

Yeah, I fell head over heels in love with this game.

It took me a couple of months to play through all three games sufficiently, but a large part of that was that I started taking my time the further into the series I got. I wanted to know more about all of the characters, the options, my choices, the stories being presented to me, and the choices my Shepard avatar would make.

It was more than an addiction, more than an obsession. My love for Mass Effect became a way of life. I’d go to work, while listening to the Mass Effect soundtrack. I’d watch youtube videos of walkthroughs on my lunch break, read FAQs to find easter eggs I’d missed, and as soon as I got home I’d hop right back on my computer to play some more.

I fell in love with being Commander Shepard, with the idea of fighting against all odds to save the galaxy, to help friends and family, to make difficult decisions that were not unlike my own life, only on a grander scale. I loved coming home from my awful day job (this was long before grad school) and just losing myself in this world of aliens and complex moral choices and squadmate humor, of being a badass who wasn’t afraid to risk her life to save everyone.

 

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Yes I played femshep. Femshep is best shep regardless of my gender identity.

 

When I played through Mass Effect 3 for the first time, I cried a lot. I cried at the beginning, I cried during various character deaths, I cried through the entire end sequence, and I let myself cry. I let myself feel, because for months and months I’d been trying to fight my own inner war, trying to come to terms with a survivable yet utterly intolerable disorder and how it was affecting and changing every aspect of my life. Which it did. I was constantly trying to find a good balance of medications that didn’t wreck my mental or physical health. I’d randomly overheat and pass out, spend days feeling suicidal, have a major tic fit while trying to be on the phone at work (and being on the phone was bad enough, my phone anxiety is SO high), have to cancel plans because I was so exhausted.

And that’s not even mentioning the sleep. I haven’t had a restful night’s sleep that wasn’t somehow chemically induced since December 26th of 2011. True story.

I saw a lot of myself in Shepard’s fight, and Shepard’s life. I played the games over and over again. Made friends, fell in love, fought until I could barely stand up, and ultimately did everything I could to save the galaxy.

Shepard became my motivation, my inspiration. I’d have a stickynote up in my cube that just said ‘if commander shepard can save the galaxy, you can answer the phone.’ I bought t-shirts and posters. I threw the game at all my friends. I wrote 26,000 words of fanfiction based on my main Shepard, Kara, and her adventures.

And it gave me something to live for. This story, these characters, all of their struggles, resonated with me and my life, gave me an outlet. I channelled all my frustration and rage at the real world into the game, using that energy to fight a greater fictional battle, to be a hero for a cause when I had little power over anything outside of the Normandy.

So, when I say that Mass Effect saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. If I had not discovered that game, played through that game, discovered the incredible characters and stories they had to tell? I wouldn’t be here today.

So it’s three years later. I’m on a stable regime of medications. I still play Mass Effect and have clocked probably a collective 500 plus hours on all three games (I have it for the PC and the XBox), I have a Mass Effect tattoo on my left wrist (my best friend has one too: mine is the renegade symbol and hers is the paragon symbol), and plan on getting another one. Or more.

And E3 announces Mass Effect: Andromeda. The news drops while I’m hanging out at home with my roommates, one of whom is my best friend. The same friend who loves Mass Effect as much as I do. We watched the Andromeda trailer together, and we both cried because we were so excited, so thrilled that there would be more Mass Effect coming our way.

I felt so overwhelmed with emotion just from watching a two minute trailer, and I’m sure I’ll have reactions like that again and again as they release more content.

I’m a lover of media, obviously. I have a Master’s Degree in English with a focus in New Media. Films, television shows, games, all of them have a strong emotional effect on me. I’m a writer of fiction too, and I know the power that stories have. I know how important they are.

That’s why what Martin Sahlin said at the Unravel press conference is so important. That’s why I use videogames in the classroom. Games have a power to share stories with players that is so immersive, so strong, and so intense, that the messages they convey become all the more important because of their affective ability. While some take this to theoretical negative extremes, such as the now mostly dead debate about videogames and violence, the study of the positive extremes shows us that if games are responsible about what they convey through their immersive ability, they can give us experiences that help us learn, help us understand, and help us cope.

That’s what Unravel is aiming for by telling a story from the heart. That’s what Mass Effect did for me when I was at a horribly low point in my life. That’s what games have done for my students, and games have a strong impact on my students’ lives. When I did my thesis research, every single student in the class had experienced videogames at the very least from a second-hand perspective, by watching a friend or a child play those games.

Videogames are everywhere in 21st century culture and you don’t have to be a capital-G Gamer to enjoy games any more. Games are integrated into learning, games are studied in academic contexts, they’re adapted and ported and celebrated, critiqued and reviewed, and they bring to us this idea of the importance of Meaningful Play. And Play doesn’t have to be blatantly educational to be meaningful.

There’s a concept that’s big in rhet comp right now: knowledge transfer. It’s the idea that students in freshman composition will get something useful out of learning to write at the college level because the skills they learn will transfer from the writing classroom into their daily lives. Critical thinking skills, making coherent and well-reasoned arguments, and being able to analyze everything as a text are useful all across academics and industry, and I see a lot of this transfer principle in videogames.

I’m teaching a section of Comp II that starts next week and the theme of the class will touch on a number of subgenres, including apocalyptic settings. One of the games I want my students to demo is Fallout 3, because the game does not just tell a story, it lets you experience a story, which gives students the chance to really understand what’s at stake when they talk about the difficult decisions one may have to make in an apocalyptic setting. Beyond that, the skills a player picks up in videogames transfer in surprising ways. Mass Effect’s morality system has straight up improved my ability to relate to other people. I had my students play Left 4 Dead last year and it helped them understand the benefit of working together in a group.

Videogames are immersive. Videogames are entertainment, but their ability to express concepts at such a deep level is what requires the responsibility Martin Sahlin was talking about. It’s taking the power of narrative and kicking it up to the next level. Since games have this ability to imbue a sense of heightened reality, it’s important to be aware of the impact those worlds can have on players.

That means games are already more than entertainment, are already art, and the best first step we as gamers and as makers of games can take is to be aware of this and be responsible for our content. We need to consider the critical impact of the stories we tell beyond simply creating a pleasing aesthetic and a fun story. Games are integral to 21st century culture, and games are being made with more of a mind towards creating a text that teaches and inspires and affects the players who engage with it.

How do we do that though?

I think we got the answer to that when Martin Sahlin pulled out his model of Yarny at E3. I think I explained that when I told the story of how Mass Effect saved my life.

 

yarny

Seriously, EA will make a killing if they merchandise these suckers, hashtag capitalism.

 

Like Sahlin said, it’s important that the games we make and games we play have a heart. They have the power to change lives. Even save lives. As we consider games, make games, and play games, it’s important to be aware of the personal stories that create a relatable experience, the hearts that went into creating and playing those games. Games are always inevitably connected to human experience – the creator of the game’s experience, and then the player’s experience, all combined together to create something impactful and important.

For games to be more than entertainment, they need that heart, that personal touch, to truly move us to be inspired or to be analytical. That’s how they stop being ‘just’ entertainment, and become something more.

That’s how a work becomes Art.

Play, Performance, and Community: An Introduction to Let’s Play Culture

As a self-confessed citizen of the internet, I spend a lot of time on Tumblr. In fact, endlessly scrolling my tumblr dashboard is the number one reason why I usually don’t write these articles until between 48 and 12 hours before I’m due to post them.

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The number two reason is binge-watching new seasons of TV shows on Netflix.

 

Sometimes I can pass this off as research — I study new media and fandom after all, so looking at Tumblr is sort of like data collection and brainstorming for future ideas — but after a while I know that I need to stop procrastinating and get back to work. This week’s a little trickier though, because I used Tumblr to gather some data about another extremely popular internet pastime, and between that and endlessly scrolling my dash, I’ve been very easily distracted.

In my article two weeks ago I mentioned my Critical Theory seminar, where I wrote my paper on Alien: Isolation. Bringing up the inherent active nature of playing videogames led my instructor to ask for my insight on a sophomore student of his who was working on a videogame-related paper. More specifically, a paper about people who watched Five Nights at Freddy’s Let’s Play Videos on Youtube. He wanted some insight into this phenomenon, the Let’s Play Phenomenon, because he couldn’t understand why anyone would watch someone else play a videogame, especially one like FNAF. From his point of view, it was taking an inherently active medium and turning it into a passive act, watching someone else play scary games instead of playing them for yourself. He said he didn’t get it, and the conversation has been gnawing at the back of my brain ever since.

For those of you not familiar with the game in question, Five Nights At Freddy’s is an indie game where the player, as an overnight security guard at a Chuck-E-Cheez clone called ‘Freddy Fazbears Pizza’, has to monitor the animatronic animals who perform at this restaurant during the day, because they still move around even at night. Players sit in a guard room with nothing but two doors, the buttons to close those doors and lights to shine down those hallways, a camera feed that checks multiple areas of the restaurant to keep an eye out for the roaming Fazbear characters, and a little percentage counter that keeps track of how much power you use. You have a first-person POV, and extremely static movement — you can turn to the left, and turn to the right, and that’s pretty much it.

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I fired up the game and took this screenshot just for all of you.

 

What makes this scary is that when the animatronics roam around at night, their screwed up AI sees you not as a person, but as a naked exoskeleton. So if they come across you on their nighttime wanderings, they try to shove you into an old Freddy Fazbear suit. While you’re still alive.

 

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gooey popped-out eyeballs and everything

 

Gruesome.

Between that and the repeated jump scares, it became an internet sensation and people called it ‘THE SCARIEST GAME IN YEARS’. It went from being a little-known indie game to a HUGE DEAL, and two sequel games have been spawned with another slated for a release this coming Halloween. These days internet folk either seem to love this game, feel sick of it, refuse to have anything to do with it because it’s scary, refuse to have anything to do with it because it’s too simplistic and boring, or they just draw strange pornography of the characters. This is the internet, after all.

 

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No I’m not posting FNAF Rule 34 in this article. You can go find that yourself.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve played very little Five Nights at Freddy’s. I spent five bucks on it in a Steam sale to use it as a demo for my freshmen, and have never made it past Night 3. Not necessarily because it scared me – it made me jump, but a jump scare is not true fear by my standards – but because it made me so incredibly tense and hypervigilant. I almost worked myself into a panic attack trying to prevent animatronic rabbits and bears from shoving me eyeballs-first into an animal suit and making me dance for their amusement. I couldn’t keep playing.

All the same, I was curious. The internet spoke and said there were clues and easter eggs that alluded to a bigger story, even an in-game conspiracy. I also found out that a couple of big youtube personalities were doing playthroughs while recording their reactions.

So I started watching people’s reaction videos to Five Nights at Freddys (trigger warning for jump scares in that link). Then I started watching full-length Let’s Plays of the game. So, when my theory professor said he didn’t understand why people watched reactions to this game instead of just playing the game itself, I had a personal stake in the answer.

It’s led me to consider why people watch Let’s Play videos. I certainly have my own reasons, but I’m just one nerd on the internet, and I wanted to know if my experiences and thoughts lined up or diverged with other fans of Let’s Play channels. I didn’t just ask about FNAF – I asked about Let’s Plays in general, and I got a collection of answers from some excellent people, many of whom watch Let’s Play videos weekly or even daily, and their insight helped me put together a few introductory points that help explain why people love to watch Let’s Plays and become a part of the Let’s Play community.

 

Let’s Plays as Performance and Spectatorship

The average Let’s Play Channel on Youtube is run by one person or a couple of people, and they play games while delivering their commentary. That’s the basic formula, and different channels go for different points of view from there. Sometimes, people like to watch other people play games to see how they respond to the situations of that game. Tumblr user serenescientist had this to say on that point: “I think we all have our idiosyncrasies about how to interact with different game mechanics and it’s cool to be able to see the differences.” It’s true: even watching three different Let’s Players play through the first Five Nights at Freddy’s yields three different responses, all of which can be completely different from personal experience. Everyone approaches games differently too, and some folks like to watch them to get a tip when they’re stuck on a difficult level of a game or to hear about other gamers’ opinions of those games.

While Let’s Play videos have a lot in common, most watchers will select for the channel based on how they feel about the player, because it’s not just about the game, it’s all about the reactions, and the kind of reactions. Some people want comedy, some want commentary, others want a nuanced combination. “I like some sort of commentary about what’s going on,” says avid Let’s Play watcher tsukidoesthething. “I will take knock-knock jokes over just yelling at the game. Anyone can scream, I demand wits!” The personalities of those Let’s Players brings a different energy to experiencing those games, and as the popularity of the subgenre grows, Let’s Play Channels have to provide their own original spin on games and their reactions to those games. Let’s Player and viewer Andrew64 notes that “A lot of new Let’s Players tend to just copy the jokes of more successful ones and hope they take off, but don’t take the time and energy to make the video entertaining.” It’s a lot like going to see a particular genre of film, at least from my view. I’ll go see action movies in theatres, but I don’t want them to be carbon copies of each other.

There’s something fascinating about the performative nature of Let’s Play videos, and how so much of the culture is focused on that performativity. A successful Let’s Player has to wear a lot of hats and juggle a lot of roles, and a large portion of that includes being able to deliver a successful on-camera performance, much like an actor or television star. These personalities do encourage their viewers to promote their videos, do charity work, and post videos thanking their fans for watching. It’s performative, but also interactive, in a way that I consider similar to being able to tweet a celebrity versus just watching them on the red carpet. Because these youtube personalities are internet celebrities, performers who use their internet platform to communicate with their fans as best they can. And Let’s Play work is a full time job. As a creator of Let’s Plays, Andrew64 provided me more insight into that too:

 

“[Let’s Plays are] a lot harder than people think. Like, plain and simple. Not only are you trying to entertain viewers, but you’re also trying to complete a game, beat a challenge, engage your audience, and make it all worthwhile watching with hours of editing, rendering, exporting, uploading. It’s not just a simple record upload and rack in the views. It requires a lot of hard work and dedication, and I respect anyone that can do it successfully.”

 

The hard work pays off too — check out Andrew’s channel, BeardBox, to see how he manages it!

 

Let’s Plays and Accessibility

Last week I touched on the issue of game accessibility, and I think that it’s especially relevant to the reasoning behind watching Let’s Plays. A recently released AAA videogame title usually costs around 60 dollars in the US. Even with a carefully-planned budget, that’s a lot of money for folks to drop without knowing what they’re going to get. This is one of the reasons tumblr user and aspiring Let’s Player duckrunsagain watches Let’s Plays: “Sometimes, I want to see if the gameplay is interesting enough to invest in playing the game.” A free Let’s Play on the internet is one way to do that. This was Taylor’s motivation for watching Let’s Plays too: “I started to watch LP videos as a way to tell if I liked the game or not before buying it but then some of the commentary over the video became so entertaining, that I would watch them whether or not I was interested in the videogame.” A lot of times, Let’s Plays function as a ‘view before you buy’ for gamers. As Sara notes, “It’s also a great way to check out the game beforehand to see even if you would want to buy it since you see real time gameplay versus a game trailer.” Some folks prefer to watch Let’s Plays of games they don’t ever intend to play themselves. It gives them the chance to experience the game without spending the money.

Ultimately, not everybody has access to a game console, not everyone has a computer that can run demanding games. Watching a Let’s Play allows people to experience those games without having to drop hundreds of dollars on a console or computer upgrade. Even with sales on Steam or at GameStop, gamers use Let’s Plays for a vicarious experience, and with the high volume of Let’s Players on youtube, they have a number of styles of playthrough to choose from.

 

Let’s Plays and Personal Well Being

It’s no secret that playing videogames can be a source of stress. I spent last Friday night playing through a long story mission in Borderlands 2, only to have my computer crash once and the game glitch another time, losing me all the progress I’d made on that mission. I was so mad I ate a bagel smothered in cream cheese at 2am.

… I react strangely to frustration.

Stress and videogames aren’t just unique to my experience. A lot of gamers don’t have the time or energy to play certain games, games that Ray refers to as “too punishing, repetitive, or long for me to realistically tackle with my life’s limited free time.” This is one of the reasons I often watch Let’s Plays — because I realistically do not have the time to sit down and play all of the games I want to. I mean, I could, but then I’d have no job and no social life and basically rot away in my room. Which is bad for everyone.

Let’s Play watching is all about mental health too, and that’s where I go back to the start of this post: Five Night’s at Freddy’s. Tsuki’s experience with this game lines up pretty well with mine, and she has some pretty awesome insight into her experience with Let’s Plays of Horror Games:

 

“I like horror games but I sometimes have issues with jump scares mimicking a panic attack for me, which is extremely uncomfortable. Watching a Let’s Play is less immersive so I don’t feel as… threatened (I guess?) when jump scares happen. It doesn’t feel like it’s me being “attacked” it’s the person playing the game. Also it gives me an immediate out if I can’t handle an aspect of gameplay; I can just close the game window, or tab to something else but still listen to the commentary if I’m curious about what’s going on. For example, I was very curious about Five Nights at Freddy’s but I knew for a fact that there was no way I could play it on my own. So I watched Markiplier do it. Probably for half the Let’s Play I couldn’t watch the screen itself because the jump scares just kept getting to me, but I played bubble shooter in one window while listening to him talk about the game. I still got a sense of the plot and gameplay, but I didn’t have to deal with my chest seizing up every single time there was a jump scare.”   

 

Videogames are entertainment. They’re cultural insight, they’re literary texts, they’re tests of skill and problem solving, and they’re part of the building blocks of numerous communities. Let’s Players and the people who watch Let’s Plays are their own unique community, and they watch Let’s Plays because they want to be a part of that community in one way or another. Be it watching the videos, making their own, or introducing them to their friends, there’s a certain rhetoric to this particular group, which I consider a Discourse Community (but more on that in the future).

Let’s Plays are another form of entertainment, one that includes performance, analysis, and fun that the average viewer can afford. It’s not something all gamers do — some gamers prefer their own gaming experience, but for a lot of us, videogames are social and part of our community, and whether that community involves playing a few quests in Diablo III together or sitting down to watch a Let’s Play as a group, it involves human interaction in a new and fascinating way. I’ve become fascinated with the inner workings of Let’s Play culture and communities, and this article barely scratches the surface of what people have shared with me about their experiences. I fully anticipate there being additional articles on Let’s Plays in the future.

Until then, if you’re interested in what Let’s Plays have to offer you, check out some of the channels the folks I interviewed recommend! Their list includes Dodger, Jesse Cox, Game Grumps, Markiplier, Super Beard Bros, therpgminx, twobestfriendsplay, twobestsistersplay, and numerous others.

 

Special thanks to 8tabbs, andrew64, bengiyo, beta, Dawn, duckrunsagain, e-z-a-k-u-r, Garner, Lets-Play-Social-Justice, Ray, Sara, serenescientist, Taylor, tinker-tanner, and tsuki for their willingness to receive interview questions.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Writing Something New: Freshman Composition and Videogames as a Demonstration of the Possible

I’ll be the first to admit it: freshman composition is not the most interesting class in the universe. It’s a catch-all course (or sequence depending on where you teach) that students must take along with at least one science lab, a handful of social sciences, and mathematics. In the two years I’ve been a teacher I’ve had a grand total of one english major in one of my classes, and everyone else was either in engineering, nursing, or similar. I know going into these classes that my students are like as not there because they have to be, because it’s required for their undergraduate degree, and not because they’re actually keen on becoming great writers.

I taught my first college class in august of 2013. Technically it was the first class I’d ever taught, and believe me I was nervous. My training beforehand had consisted of GTA orientation, and even in a small computer lab with only eight students, it was a new and difficult experience. That first semester, teaching studio (which is basically like a writing lab — students attended regular class twice a week in a big group of about 23, then got split into small groups of 8 or 9 for recitation or lab style studio writing classes), was an experience. I had students dicking around on their phones, surfing the internet instead of actually working on their papers, and I even had a student fall asleep during a freewriting exercise one time.

Normally I’d blame that on a late night studying (or partying, I’m being charitable), but class met at 3 PM. You fall asleep in my class at 3 in the afternoon, you deserve to be mocked in my article.

I remember taking required courses in my undergrad years. I feel my students’ pain. Granted, for me it was more the math and science that were challenging and unrelated to my career path, but I sympathize with every student who walks through the door into my classroom. None of them want to be there, they just want a grade (sometimes not even a good grade) and to move on with their degrees.

Making freshman comp relevant and useful to my students is a challenge. It’s a challenge for all teachers of basic college english in the US, because we’re battling a combination of potentially burned out students who have next to no knowledge of critical writing beyond the five paragraph essay, and students who wouldn’t write for fun if you paid them. Our students enter our classrooms expecting to get nothing out of our classes but a bump in their GPA and hours logged towards their actual goals.

In case you think I’m generalizing or making up random stuff, here’s the deal: US colleges require general education courses for all students, and students neither find them interesting nor relevant to their majors or future careers (Hawthorne et. al 2010). Most students still view school as a “grueling marathon” that uses decades old teaching methods, lecture styles and exam models in an attempt to reach students and engage them (Sheldon 2012). This attitude comes from a number of places, but one of the major places is this feeling of pressure incoming students have, the pressure to earn a useful and relevant college degree after completing high school, and this pressure combined with the boredom that stems from not seeing connections between what they’re learning and what they’re living (Penrod 1997). So, if I have a student majoring in chemical engineering in my class, they aren’t going to see any connection between their chosen field and my teaching them writing, which will decrease their effort and engagement in my class. As far as they’re concerned, what they learn outside the classroom has no bearing to what goes on inside it, and vice versa (Jenkins 2014).

So, there’s some of the scholarship I’ve done. The engagement problem isn’t a new one in general education courses, but the more I study it as a phenomenon the more I feel compelled to find ways to change it. The whole issue is challenging and frustrating because to me, writing matters and writing is something we do constantly. Some argue that this generation writes more than any other before, and those facts add up too. This time I get to quote myself, so here’s a page of work pulled straight out of my master’s thesis:

“Modern students do engage in writing practices more than ever, and these writing practices are related to their consumption of modern media through technology.  Our world differs from the world of past generations in that it is more high tech and global, suggesting that theories applied to learning in the past must be adjusted to apply to students of the present and the future (Gee 2007).  A student entering college level academics will have encountered over a million media impressions in their lifetime already, and students do not enter the FYCC as “blank slates” that receive knowledge, instead possessing immense knowledge of popular culture and media that they can actively apply (Penrod 1997).  The modern student requires a modern classroom, and steps have been taken towards shifting classroom attention towards innovation and working with new and diverse textual types, stepping away from traditional curricula and moving instead towards a classroom that exists within the context of the digital world (Beavis and O’Mara 2014).  Further, the use of critical approaches in the digitally saturated classroom, which recognize and challenge the status quo, work to expose biases and create positive change rather than simply reproducing the existing social order, thus creating a more active and interrogative style of classroom discourse (Selber 2015).  The question of student engagement therefore comes with an answer, an answer that calls for a classroom that emphasizes critical engagement with the media and culture students consume outside of academia and using those elements and the principles that govern them to create a more active and engaging learning environment that students care about, relate to, and perceive as relevant to their lives.” (Hibbard 2015).

But enough of me quoting myself because I can (I just got the hardbound copies of my thesis in the mail and HOT DAMN am I excited). What it boils down to is I face this challenge every time I step into a classroom. My chosen solution, while not uncommon, is relatively novel.

I use videogames.

In the fall of 2014 I taught a section of English Comp 102. At my institution, the second course in the comp sequence is usually taught around a theme. All of the graduate teaching assistants used the same book for their sections, and thus the same theme.

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A little worse for wear, but ready for this coming fall semester

So when I found out the theme was Monsters, the wheels started turning in my brain. I found this out at the end of the previous spring semester, when I was working on a paper about representation of native american women in videogames. As I read more books and articles about the power of narrative in immersive technological storytelling (like videogames), the two concepts began to merge and feed off of each other as I considered my options for teaching this section of 102.

Monsters is an easy topic to bring videogames into — most games have some kind of monster for the protagonist to defeat, so that wasn’t the challenge. My biggest problem, alongside the aforementioned lack of student motivation, stemmed from game accessibility.

I want to assign videogames to my students the way teachers assign novels or films. I want to send my students home and tell them to play through two chapters of Bioshock and then come back in a week for discussion.

But I can’t do that. Even in our hyper-technological world, not every student who comes into my classroom will have access to a computer, or a console system, or have money to spend on an expensive videogame after already dropping hundreds of dollars on textbooks. It simply wasn’t practical or fair of me to assign videogames as texts to study for homework or outside of class time.

So, my solution was simple. If my students couldn’t play the games outside the classroom, I would bring the games to them. Which is how I ended up dragging gaming equipment onto campus at least half a dozen times during the semester so I could give students the opportunity to experience and play these games when they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance.

For the purposes of this article I’ll describe two separate incidents in this classroom, because both show, for me at least, how videogames demonstrate for students what is possible in the writing classroom, and how the possible extends beyond the five paragraph essay and topics they really couldn’t care less about.

The first incident was the day we played Silent Hill 2. I’ll definitely write an entire article about this particular class in the future, but what I want to mention is the student reaction to me bringing in a big red duffle bag full of gaming equipment including my Xbox 360 (which makes R2D2 noises because I’m a nerd) and various and sundry connecting cables. Every single student in the room sat up and took note. Even during the half hour of discussion preceding the actual gameplay, students paid more attention, seemed more interested, answered questions and actually had discussions about the reading assignment (which was an excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny). And when I held up the xbox controller and asked for volunteers, it was like I’d just sent an electric shock through the floor. Not every student volunteered, but dang were they excited. It was like nothing they’d ever experienced in a writing class before.

My second incident occurred on the day that I had my students read from the supplementary textbook, which I hated. It read like it was written for elementary school students, and thus felt horribly condescending and like it assumed any student reading it had no idea what an argument was. I knew my students weren’t going to read it, or if they did they wouldn’t find it useful.

So I used it as a demonstration of what I wanted to avoid. Class began and I asked my students what they thought of it, and almost everyone responded negatively. They disliked the writer’s tone, they felt like they were being talked down to, and they didn’t see that it had any relevance to their lives.

So I went for a visual demonstration, and tossed the textbook over my shoulder.

I apologised for assigning a condescending article. I explained that it was an example of how most textbooks try to teach writing, and that it was what I was trying to avoid. I wanted them to get something out of this class, no matter what their major was, because I believed (and still believe) that writing matters, and the skills a person can learn from a composition course go beyond simply writing research essays. Composition and Rhetoric teaches critical thinking skills, the ability to find what different multimedia texts have in common with each other, and understanding the importance of being able to express oneself clearly and coherently. Using new media texts, especially videogames, transferred those ideas from old media to something more familiar, which helped to demonstrate the near infinite possibilities students could explore with the right rhetorical tools.

Interestingly enough, when it came time for my students to write their end-of-semester research papers, very few of them wrote about videogames. This made sense within the context of the course: I was looking for papers about monsters, not papers about videogames. The variety of topics was what interested me, as I had students writing about everything from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sleep Paralysis and fear of the dark, Twilight, and the anime Psycho-Pass. A Monsters-theme usually yields a broad range of research topics, but more often than not those topics focus more heavily on the traditional literature discussed in the class, and relate more to Dracula and Frankenstein than anything else.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. If a student wants to write about Dracula, I encourage them to do so. But so many times, students chose a Dracula paper because within the context of the class, writing about literary works felt like their only option.

Making use of videogames in my writing classroom demonstrated to my students that they could write about more than just one of the random literary texts we had studied and discussed together. While most of them weren’t compelled to research or analyse videogames the way I had been, they still felt that this inclusion of videogames as part of the curriculum opened them up to a whole new possible range of research topics, expanding their options and encouraging more creativity.

There are some students we’ll never reach. As teachers, we have to accept that there’s a certain amount of give and take in our relationship with our students, and no matter how hard we sometimes try to make material more accessible, to open them up to what is possible, they will refuse to be led. But I’ve found that I’m more likely to keep students interested by finding forms of media they relate to, and by showing them that a writing class is about more than just seemingly-irrelevant old literature. If my students can find value in playing through scenes from Bioshock, they become more open to the relevance of other texts in the classroom, and more capable of creating and refining a research topic they actually have some interest in and some passion for. And that, ultimately, is my goal.
***

References:

Beavis, Catherine, and Joanne O’Mara. “Computer Games – pushing at the boundaries of literacy.” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy Vol 33 (1) (Feb 2010): 65-76. OneSearch. Web. Feb 20 2014.

Gee, James Paul. What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Hawthorne, Joan, Anne Kelsch, and Tom Steen. “Making general education matter: Structures and strategies.” New Directions for Teaching & Learning 2010.121 (2010): 23-33. OneSearch. Web. 20 January 2015.

Hibbard, Lee. “Battling With Monsters: Integrated Gamification in the First Year Composition Classroom.” MA Thesis, University of Alabama Huntsville 2015. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Empowering Children in the Digital Age: Towards a Radical Media Pedagogy.” The Radical Teacher Vol. 50 (Spring 1997): 30-35. JSTOR Web. 20 Feb 2014.

Penrod, Diane. “Pop Goes the Content: Teaching the Ugly and the Ordinary.” Miss Grundy Doesn’t Teach Here Anymore: Popular Culture and the Composition Classroom. Ed. Diane Penrod. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1997. 1-21. Print.

Selber, Stuart. “Technological Dramas: A Meta-Discourse Heuristic for Critical Literacy.” Computers and Composition 21 (2004): 171-195. Science Direct. Web. 20 January 2015.

Sheldon, Lee. The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.