#TeachMeYouDid is a mashup of Star Wars and teacher appreciation, where people are encouraged to recognize the educators who made a difference in their lives and “woke up the Force in them.”

I entered graduate school in 2006 envisioning myself as a Writer/Teacher/Scholar. Ten years on I envision myself as more of a Teacher/Scholar/Writer, though the slashes between those categories are now very porous. But teaching has become an important part of my identity, and I reflect—a lot—on different types of teaching practices and pedagogy is a central component of my research. Teaching has become a priority because I know when I came to college I felt I was of average ability and that school really wasn’t my thing. That was the message I’d had reinforced through most of my K-12 years, unfortunately, and I’d come to believe it. My experience at UW-Madison as an undergrad, and especially at UW-Milwaukee as a graduate student, helped me realize that my off-kilter way of looking at things was a bonus, not a negative.

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are the names that come off the top of my head as teachers who had a major part in helping me become who I am today. Sadly some of them are no longer with us.

  • John Moeller, English and Fiction, Green Bay Southwest High School
  • Prof. Paul Boyer, American Culture and History, UW-Madison
  • Prof. Bruce Burgett, American Literature, UW-Madison
  • Prof. Lynn Keller, American Literature, UW-Madison
  • Prof. Mimi Schippers, Women’s Studies, UW-Madison
  • Prof. Steve Slack, Integrated Liberal Studies, UW-Madison
  • Prof. Liam Callanan, Fiction Writing, UW-Milwaukee
  • Prof. Dave Clark, Professional Writing, UW-Milwaukee
  • Prof. Lane Hall, Visual Studies and Creative Writing, UW-Milwaukee
  • Prof. Stuart Moulthrop, New Media and Games, UW-Milwaukee
  • Prof. Pete Sands, Science Fiction Literature, UW-Milwaukee
  • Prof. Michael Wilson, Native American Literature, UW-Milwaukee
  • Prof. Anne Wysocki, Rhetoric and New Media, UW-Milwaukee

Lots of guys in there, but that’s more of a reflection of the imbalance in the number of male to female faculty in higher education.

For what it’s worth, thank you very much.

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Collaborative World Building Explained

Post-apocalyptic world

I was asked by a student reporter to write something up that explains my world building class. I have no idea what the final article is going to look like or how much of this will be used, so I’ll put the description here:

ENGL 386 – World Building is an outgrowth of my work on how role-playing games produce collaborative, interactive narratives. I teach another course, ENGL 543 – Game-based Fiction, where students spend the semester either collaboratively build a fictional world from the ground up or add to a preexisting world, and the fiction they write later in the semester must take place in this shared setting. I’ve taught variations of this class that have been post-apocalyptic futures, alternate histories that incorporate steampunk technology, and fanfiction where students add to preexisting worlds, like George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros from Game of Thrones. In that course, students spend the entire semester in a single world, figuring out that world’s “rules” and how society operates, and what that means for their individual characters. I started thinking that it would be interesting to try to build multiple worlds in a single semester rather than just one, and thus the World Building course was born.

One of my students described the course as “critical theory meets creative writing” and I couldn’t have said it better myself. Critical theory is the analysis of culture and the social, historical, and ideological forces at play in a given place in a given time. This is to say that the “world” of Rochester is experienced different from the world in Lagos, Nigeria or Yokohama, Japan, or even New York City. We might even say that the “world” of RIT in Henrietta is different than the “world” of downtown Rochester. So the questions we get at are: How big is a world? How do we define its borders? What forces are at play in the world, and how do we describe them? If these social forces help constitute a set of “rules” about how the world operates, are these objective or subjective in nature? How do the rules of a given world help influence the experiences of different types of people who live in it? These are the questions we cycle through as we analyze fictional worlds from short stories, movies, and even games and then build our own.

Most writers view fiction writing as a solitary occupation, just a lone writer and his or her keyboard and a flashing cursor on a white page. My approach blows up that notion quite deliberately. In this course, writers have to work together and agree on how their collaboratively built world works. The economy of the world must be connected to its government structures, which are in turn tied to its social and cultural values. All of these things tie together and influence each other in strange and unpredictable ways. In order to gain some consensus on the fictional world, students must first come to an agreement on how our world works. That move, between the fictional representation of the created world and our own individual perceptions of our shared reality, requires students to think critically about their own world views, and then attempt to resolve those ideas in fiction. It’s critical thinking with a creative output. Rather than writing an essay reflecting what you’ve learned, you write a short story.

The challenge is trying to incorporate 20 students’ ideas. Not everyone can get what they want, and I remind them constantly that coming up with a definitive, objective answer is not the point. They only need to have a rough idea of how the world works, and the characters in their stories can have divergent attitudes or beliefs. The whole process is shot through with subjective perspectives and, again, thinking through those perspectives is the most important part of the process. We only got through two different types of worlds–a post-apocalyptic future and a deep space setting–as a class, but for their final project they’ll get in smaller groups of 4-5 students where resolving some of the differences of opinions might be a bit easier.

Overall, it’s going very well from my perspective. As we read and write, I think it’s becoming clear that in every world there are all these competing social forces at work, and different types of characters feel them differently. When we talk about how a world is represented in a work of fiction, we often must consider the viewpoint from which we learn about the world, and that gives us insight into the belief systems and motivations of lots of different narrators. My hope is that when my students leave class and build or contribute to fictional worlds, they’ll bring this critical sensibility with them and remember to think through lots of different subjective viewpoints when establishing how their world works.

The course counts toward RIT’s Digital Humanities and Social Sciences BS degree and I hope to see more DHSS students enrolling in it. There is so much going on in the class already, it’s easy to overlook the fact that large-scale collaborative projects like this are facilitated by digital technology, specifically wikis and online mapping tools. Digital technology is changing the way people produce and consume narratives, and sole authorship is increasingly giving way to collaborative efforts. If you look at the Marvel universe or Star Wars, those have grown far, far beyond Stan Lee and George Lucas. In fact, their contributions are minuscule compared to the amount of material out there, and that’s not even including unauthorized fan work. I find it fascinating to think about how narrative is changing in the twenty-first century, and I think DHSS students will get a lot out of thinking about the connections between digital technology, critical thinking, and creative work.

Posted in Creative Writing, Digital Media, Fiction, Games, Pedagogy, Role-Playing | Leave a comment

Initial Thoughts on Fallout 4

I say with no exaggeration that Fallout 3 changed my life. It brought me back to videogaming in a serious way (I’d been playing the FIFA series, GTA, and little else) and demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, the importance role-playing games had in my life. Late nights spent playing Fallout 3 blended with my reading of James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and John Gardner’s Art of Fiction (and a lot more) for my Ph.D. preliminary exams launched my research agenda, which is still going strong and growing after all these years. My first published academic work discussed how one might use a digital role-playing game in a fiction writing class and the example used, of course, was Fallout 3. I’ve written about it many times since.

So the release of Fallout 4 is something I, and millions of others, have been eagerly awaiting. My work and home life means that my playing time is limited to what I spend at night on the exercise bike, usually between the hours of 9:30 and midnight. Last night I stayed up until 2:30 AM playing Fallout 4, for a total of five hours. Even though I have been kidding for weeks about disappearing from the planet, this was a legitimate “oops.” I had planned to go to bed no later than 1:30. As players of the Fallout series and Elder Scrolls will recognize, I fell into the trap of exploring “just one more location.” Concepts of real-world time disintegrate.

Here are some thoughts on these first five hours of play.

1. The most surprising thing was that the game took 30 minutes to install on my PS4—from disc.
I didn’t necessarily mind as I had resisted watching all the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. videos that were available for pre-release, but I’ve never had a game self-install—and take so long—on a console. I assume this translates to more seamless gameplay, so it’s worth it.

2. The black comedy is blacker because the violence is harrowing.
No game series I know of moves between ironic humor and graphic violence like the Fallout series. The opening sequence demonstrates this expertly. Without giving away anything, the campy 1950’s tutorial features your robot butler Codsworth (complete with arch British accent) and a pushy Vault-Tec salesman. The humor drains out of scene as the news of confirmed nuclear strikes reaches your community, and you sprint to the safety of the fallout shelter.

I imagine it’s common for gamers to move through this and the next few scenes without much reflection. However, if you invest yourself in the “reading” of this world, it’s grim stuff. You brush past a whole line of people waiting to get into the shelter, and you barely make it—this means they didn’t. The other survivors are speechless and grief-stricken, stunned, staggering around as Vault 111 bureaucrats direct them, and you, where to go. You are given no opportunity to question or explore—you can only do as you are told.

The set piece that establishes the main quest is perhaps a little too familiar, but this is what we’ve come to expect from Bethesda’s open world games. The lack of a compelling central story is partially what invites you to explore and pick up all those wonderful side quests. Even after you emerge from Vault 111 into the Wasteland, the game veers from satire to violence in ways that continually make me think about both.

3. It’s harder than I expected.
I played through Fallout: New Vegas twice, once at launch and then again years later, and wound it up liking it a lot more the second time around. While I wouldn’t call my initial playthrough disappointing, it did feel like an enormous DLC tacked on to Fallout 3. The controls were completely familiar, VATS was identical, and I was quickly gunning down Powder Gangers without much thought. Playing and hard core mode where I needed to better ration food and water changed things a little, and I appreciated the added weapon crafting (more on that below), but it felt very familiar and a little too easy. Fallout: New Vegas never made me that scared to go exploring. This stood in stark contrast to Fallout 3, where I repeatedly got my virtual ass kicked in the opening acts of the game, which made me respect the danger of the Wasteland right out of the gate.

Well, it’s back to slinking around and jumping at shadows with Fallout 4. When I followed the path of introductory quests, I did fine; when I went off the beaten path, I died. Part of the issue is that good weapons and stimpacks seem to be in short supply in relation to how quickly I go through them when I meet a challenge. The new VATS system, which slows but does not stop time, feeds into my sense of anxiety. This is a good thing. We love it when a horror movie gives us a good thrill. I am doing plenty of shouting and swearing anytime I blunder into a situation I’m not yet powerful enough to handle, mad at myself for my carelessness and not the game for being unfair. That kind of visceral reaction keeps you engaged and emerged. This is why we play for hours on end and not realize the passage of time.

4. With all the crafting to be done, I’m glad I got the Prima Guide.
I’m not much of a crafter. Even in Skyrim, I never went in big for the enchantments or weapons forging. It always seems too fiddly for me. I’m going to have to change my tune in Fallout 4. As other reviews have remarked, there’s a ton of stuff lying around that you can pick up (though not everything, as some like to claim) and ostensibly all of it can be used to craft stuff. This includes modifying dwellings as well as weapons, armor, cooking, and doing chemistry. All told, it’s overwhelming.

I admit, I buy the Prima Game Guides for the maps and having them as the equivalent of coffee table books, for browsing through pretty pictures. This time I feel like this is going to be a much needed resource as I figure out how to do useful things with the many crafting stations to be found.

5. The designers give you some hallmark stuff right up front—which means there’s probably other stuff coming.
When I first played Fallout 3, I made it a point to find Dogmeat, an available canine companion, as soon as possible. I also remember the moment where, after hours of gameplay, you finally get to don the power armor on the game’s cover. These were big moments.

In contrast, Fallout 4 practically gives you this stuff at startup. You’ll have both the dog and the armor just by completing the first quest or two. This, I suspect, is a calculated move. The sense of palpable satisfaction when you team up with Dogmeat and first step into your power armor in Fallout 3 could not be replicated in Fallout 4, and the designers undercut this expectation by letting you have it right up front. As a player, this says to me that this world has new stuff to offer.

Some people have gently complained that much of the world, with raiders and deathclaws and all the rest, feels too familiar. This doesn’t bother me, at least not yet. With such enormous worlds, it makes more sense for there to be continuity among the disparate parts. The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a few hundred miles south of post-apocalyptic Boston, as opposed to the almost three thousand to New Vegas. It makes sense from a narrative perspective that it would feel very similar to Fallout 3. From a gameplay perspective, I genuinely do not care. The side quests are always unique, and that’s where the best storytelling resides anyway.

I don’t plan on blogging regularly on the game (he says now) but I did want to commemorate my thoughts about my initial session before they begin to get muddied through extended play. Comments welcome, here or on Facebook.

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My Research in a Nutshell, or Haters Gonna Hate

Working on my third-year review document and I wrote this summary of my research. Thought I encapsulated it rather well, if I do say so myself, so I thought I’d share it here:

My research resides at the intersection of creative writing studies, games and game-based learning, and digital pedagogy. The site of my research is the undergraduate creative writing classroom, where I use digital tools such as wikis and Google maps to create a semester-long, collaborative writing project where students create a fictional world and populate it with people, places, and things. Throughout the process, I foreground questions that require students to think critically about the social forces at play in a given world and how these forces apply pressure on individuals differently, based on factors such as their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. The students experience the world through role-playing sessions, where their unique characters explore the fictional space and have to make decisions based on the situations their characters encounter. This approach transforms the classroom into a dynamic environment where, through the combination of collaborative writing and the open-endedness of role-playing game narratives, students feel their choices genuinely matter, both in the game world and in the course. In addition, they gain experience working in teams in digital environments, experimenting with different media in their storytelling, and having to employ their critical faculties during the act of creative production. Needless to say, this game-based research appeals to students at RIT and gives them a unique learning experience they’re unlikely to find anywhere else.

More than a few people in my profession are skeptical when I talk about games and game-based approaches, assuming (quite wrongly) that this is pandering to our students and giving them an easy out, when they should be grappling with traditional academic texts and questions. Of course, these critics can’t be bothered to actually learn about what it is I actually do in these classes, or consider the theoretical and pedagogical principles at work, or even just get past their own preconceived notions of what constitutes a game—or what constitutes deep learning, for that matter.

I’m not exactly torn up about this. Between the volume of stuff I’m getting published—and increasingly being solicited to write—and the line of students waiting outside my office, I’ll somehow find a way to survive.

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Spring 2015 Speculative Fiction Workshop Reading List

I posted this for some colleagues in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group. The books below are Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection, and Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014.

Happy to answer any questions in the comments.

Wk 1 – Tues 1/27/2015 Wonderbook 1-40, People of Sand & Slag (PDF) (Bacigalupi)
Wk 1 – Thurs 1/29/2015 Wonderbook 41-72, Cold Fires (PDF) (Rickert)

Wk 2- Tues 2/3/2015 Wonderbook 73-132, The Black Phone (PDF)(Hill)
Wk 2 – Thurs 2/5/2015 YBSF “Gray Wings” Bunker 140-147

Wk 3- Tues 2/10/2015 YBSF “The Best We Can” Vaughn 148-156
Wk 3 – Thurs 2/12/2015 Wonderbook, 133-176; Prompt A (write near-future SF based on story from Wired, Scientific American, Etc.)

Wk 4- Tues 2/17/2015 YBSF “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” Swanwick 398-407
Wk 4 – Thurs 2/19/2015 YBSF “The Promise of Space” Kelly 626-633, Post Story #1 to MyCourses by 5:00 PM Tues 2/24

Wk 5- Tues 2/24/2015 Read/critique for SF Fiction Workshop #1
Wk 5 – Thurs 2/26/2015 Read/critique for SF Fiction Workshop #2

Wk 6- Tues 3/3/2015 Read/critique for SF Fiction Workshop #3
Wk 6 – Thurs 3/5/2015 Online “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” Heuvelt

Wk 7- Tues 3/10/2015 In-class writing prompts.
Wk 7 – Thurs 3/12/2015 Prompt B (retell a classic fairy tale, myth or legend adding a twist)

Wk 8- Tues 3/17/2015 Online “Selkie Stories are for Losers” Samatar
Wk 8 – Thurs 3/19/2015 Online “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” Headley

Wk 9- Tues 3/24/2015 SPRING BREAK
Wk 9 – Thurs 3/26/2015 SPRING BREAK

Wk 10- Tues 3/31/2015 Read/critique for Fantasy Workshop #1
Wk 10 – Thurs 4/2/2015 Read/critique for Fantasy Workshop #2

Wk 11- Tues 4/7/2015 Read/critique for Fantasy Workshop #3
Wk 11 – Thurs 4/9/2015 Wonderbook, 177-210, YBDF&H “A Collapse of Horses” Evenson 337-345

Wk 12- Tues 4/14/2015 YBDF&H “The Good Husband” Ballingrud, 61-84
Wk 12 – Thurs 4/16/2015 Prompt C (find an “everyday” horror)

Wk 13- Tues 4/21/2015 YBDF&H “Phosphorous” Schanoes, 160-178
Wk 13 – Thurs 4/23/2015 YBDF&H “Cuckoo” Slatter

Wk 14- Tues 4/28/2015 Horror Workshop #1
Wk 14 – Thurs 4/30/2015 Horror Workshop #2

Wk 15- Tues 5/5/2015 Horror Workshop #3
Wk 15 – Thurs 5/7/2015 Wonderbook 211-280 (revision)
Wk 16- Tues 5/12/2015 Submit final story

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Artwork from the Silmarillion

I’m teaching a Tolkien course in the fall. I realize that The Silmarillion (which I was introduced to as an undergrad and quickly became one of my all-time favorite books) can be a difficult entry point into Tolkien’s work and there’s a lot of stunning artwork that depicts scenes and images from the book. I’m creating this Pinterest board for students who might struggle with The Silmarillion find a way into the text.

I’ll add more as I find them. (and yes, I know the board categories aren’t 100% correct)

Visit Trent’s profile on Pinterest.

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What’s an RPG/fanfic Writing Workshop Look Like?

Here’s what we did today in a 75 minute session of my Game of Thrones fanfic/RPG course. There were 17 people in class, making it a challenge to keep the story interesting for everyone. This covered the first day of the Hand’s Tourney in King’s Landing, commemorating Ned Stark’s appointment to that post by King Robert Baratheon.

Some context: the students used a role-playing game to create their own unique characters, and each of the characters belong to one of four noble houses, and each house belongs to one of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Each of the characters has her/his own role within their house: some are servants, some are heirs, some are soldiers, some are scholars. The goal of the course is to have them think deeply about how a combination of social pressures and individual motivations shape the decisions their characters make. My goal as the instructor is to put difficult choices and interesting situations in front of their characters and make the students decide what the characters do on the fly. Plot, then, is something that develops based on the decisions their characters make rather than something decided beforehand.


Much of the below is a combination of events taken from the novel, random events rolled from a D&D manual, and some lightly scripted events I designed based on the students’ characters’ back stories.

What’s it look like as it happens? Lots of laughter, applause, and cheering. People shouting advice to each other. Joking. Dice rolling and calling out of results. Questions about the rules. It’s a very lively atmosphere and lots of fun as we spin out the story together.

Some highlights:

* Two students of noble lineage were forced into participating in the joust due to their station, even though neither really wanted to. One drew Jamie Lannister in the opening round and lost gracefully. The other had a much easier draw and managed to win twice, advancing to the Round of 16, where he will face Renly Baratheon. (both of these are characters in the novel)

* A young woman participated in the archery contest and advanced past the first two rounds, but was disqualified on a bogus “foot fault.” Through interrogation, she and her brother forced the contrite judge who disqualified her to admit that the tourney organizers would not allow a woman to win the contest. As a token of apology, he offered them a bolt of fine silk they could collect at a clothier in King’s Landing (a location created by another student)

* A rough-and-tumble warrior doubled his money dicing in the People’s section of the festival. A fight unexpectedly broke out and he took great joy in clubbing the two nearest combatants near him. Everyone celebrated his prowess and bought him drinks.

* One noble house is charged with serving their fine wine at the royal feast. One administrator organizes the staff efficiently, a fact noted by the keepers of King Robert’s kitchen. His colleague in charge of accounting notices that the kitchen is not tracking how much wine they are pouring, and he can bill them for virtually whatever he wants. He is already skimming the accounts of the noble house, and this could be an opportunity for him to make quite a bit of money, but if he gets caught…

* One of the ladies-in-waiting hoping to be find a husband from a good house is groped by a very drunk, and quite ugly, young noble. While she initially accepts his advances, his lecherousness turns her off and she shoos him away only to discover that he is a member of one of the richest houses in the Westerlands. She’s left pondering her decision.

* Another lady-in-waiting discovers to her horror that the lord of their house, an unapologetic drunk, has arrived at the feast despite the family deliberately leaving him at home. He is trying to get the noble families to start singing a bawdy song in the middle of dinner. When the lady-in-waiting moves to lead him away, he shoves her away. It’s only when his daughter comes to his side that he sobers up enough to be led away to the kitchens and then outside so he may get sick in the bushes.

* And finally, as time ran out in class, at the end of the feast a drunken man approaches the royal table shouting death threats at the lord of Westeros’s most powerful houses.

And there’s still a second day to the Hand’s Tournament!

I get plenty of skeptical looks when I tell people that I’m teaching a class that’s a) modeled on role-playing games, b) a pop culture series, and c) having students writing fanfiction. This can’t possibly be for college credit, can it? Something so frivolous? Sure the students like it—why wouldn’t they? But what are they learning?

Plenty, actually, and it’s not by chance. Using a popular text like Game of Thrones means that just about every student enters the class with at least one thing> they feel confident they know something about. They come in with different levels of writing ability but they share a common knowledge and common interest in the subject matter. This immediately lowers the bar for participation. The Song of Ice and Fire Role-Playing Game: A Game of Thrones Edition provides a wealth of additional information about the world, drawn from the source material and expanded upon. These early readings build on their preexisting knowledge, and the game rules also highlight social forces at work in the world, particularly those of class and gender. Westeros, as we know, is not a nice place.

Skeptics might say that there’s no content here, that they’re just learning about a fantasy world. And they’d be right, but only partially. I’m not worried about content at this stage, but rather I am very consciously (and hopefully subtly) constructing a learning community where students feel at ease sharing ideas and knowledge. And it’s also quite easy to talk about touchy subjects such as sexism, racism, classism, and jingoism in the world of Westeros, but that allows the instructor (i.e. me) occasionally to turn the conversation back to our world’s social structures, institutional biases, and guiding mythologies. Those things can be hard to get at in a more traditional classroom, but it becomes a lot easier when you use students’ knowledge of a fantasy world as a basis for reflection on our actual world.

At this point, which is only the second week of class, they break into groups and start creating noble houses. The role-playing game rule book gives them specific instructions on how to do this, and dice rolls help determine details how long ago the house was established, important moments in its history, how many resources (lands, money, vassals) the house currently possesses, and more. They then collaboratively begin writing a narrative that strings together these random dice rolls into a coherent history. A story. One that they write collaboratively. And that’s just the beginning. Over the coming weeks they build out parts of the world the novels only hint at and develop their own personalized character.

There’s a lot more to it, but I’ll stop there. Is the class fun? Undoubtedly. But that’s a happy byproduct, not the goal. What I want to do is create a tight knit writing community built on friendship and trust that can boldly experiment in a large-scale digital writing experiment, one that gets them to think critically about how societies operate, both fictional ones as well as our own. On the craft end, they put a lot of care into the fiction that eventually comes out of this process, and they put time into their critiques of their peers’ work too because many times the stories feature people, places, and things they themselves created. My job as the instructor is to steer them away from the titillating aspects of Game of Thrones and instead delve into psyches of the characters they painstakingly created. Does it work 100% of the time? Of course not, but neither does having them read literary fiction. And I get a whole lot more out of them this way.

So, yeah. It’s a bit more than just fun and games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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On the Syllabus as EULA and Other Teaching Anxieties

We’re an anxious bunch, academics, aren’t we? Cue a new school year and we’re (again) fretting over whether Google is making us stupid, if using laptops in class leads to shallow thinking, and generally whether electronics and digital media are producing a generation of self-absorbed, vapid, know-nothings who will drive the nation into the ditch. (Don’t look now, but those schooled in in the pre-digital era have done a pretty good job of that already, thank you very much.)

Apparently we’re now supposed to be anxious about the syllabus too. The author, Rebecca Schuman, has a long-standing (and perfectly legitimate) ax to grind with our deeply flawed university system; I find she’s always worth reading, even if I don’t agree with her. However, in her desire to indict the entire system, she mistakes personal experience and anecdotal evidence with universal practice. (Perhaps the best example is “The End of the College Essay,” which, as a writing instructor, is both wrong and wrongheaded.)

So it is with this article on the syllabus. I think one key question that needs to be asked: what do administrators actually require you to put in your syllabus? For my part, I include the bare minimum, usually just a link—which is a single line—pointing to my institution’s policies on attendance, academic misconduct, etc. Contrary to Schuman’s piece, my syllabus has been getting shorter in recent years, and it’s a conscious choice on my part. I provide only the essentials pertaining to materials, course goals, grading, how homework will be collected and graded, other essential expectations, along with a tentative schedule. (I stress the tentative part.) It’s rarely longer than 3 pages.

Why? Because a syllabus is a document I always go over in the first day of class, when I’m just getting to know the students and they’re getting to know me. Is this how I want to start our relationship, with a document packed with legalese that sounds, as Schuman describes, like a software end-user license agreement? Nope.

So I go the opposite route. I always say on the first day that my syllabus is a plan but that “we’re going to have to work this out together.” Ours will not be a relationship governed by bean counting. Their education is a negotiation of my expertise in the subject matter and their learning objectives and interests. I make it very clear that they’re responsible for their own learning, but I’m the expert in the room there to help point them in the most productive directions. Critics might assume (wrongly) that this means caving to an already self-centered population of students, but it’s not. At all. It’s actually helping them shape their education around their interests by exposing them to new ways of thinking about something they already have a decent handle on. (BTW, it’s called “scaffolded learning,” it’s kind of a thing, and it’s considered to be good pedagogical practice. Kthx.) In class, this generally means time I would have spent preparing and presenting lectures is instead shifted to managing classroom discussion and working individually with students. It’s what I’d like to call a “win-win” as it’s more interesting and engaging for me and, more importantly, for the students. Such a structure encourages them to establish a relationship with me, which, as it so happens, also turns out to be essential to providing actual long-term benefits from a college degree.

Do I have students who challenge such a loose structure, where very little is spelled out in syllabus? Of course. Almost always. But it’s only one or two per class, and sometimes none. And here’s the thing, if they have a real problem with it or think they’re being treated unfairly, they can make a complaint through the proper academic channels. Let me say this again a different way: if they don’t like this lack of rigid rules to define our relationship, they can choose to bring the bureaucracy onto themselves. However, in seven years of teaching I’ve never had a single student actually file a formal complaint because they discover—lo!—that it’s easier to hash out our differences and work out a compromise though a human conversation. Do they appreciate this? Not in the slightest. In fact, I think the ones who go this route resent the hell out of me. I don’t lose much sleep over it.

This is because the other 90+% of my students seem to like it just fine. In their evaluations they’ve been known write things like “this class was life-changing,” “he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” and “I wish I would have taken his class earlier in college.” I would humbly suggest that this praise stems from me treating my students like the complex, intelligent, curious human beings they are, and we happen to be meeting at a very exciting (and perplexing) time of their lives, where they need—perhaps more than anything—to feel comfortable bouncing ideas off someone knowledgeable that they respect and trust. I suspect that throughout their educational history, they’ve mostly had teachers who have talked at them. They get a lot of that in college too, and in some disciplines it’s unavoidable. But this is why I’m in the humanities.

13 of the 15 students in my advanced fiction workshop this semester are students I’ve previously taught. Before class started, we talked about our summers. We joked a lot and discussed what we’d been reading, what movies we’d watched, what games we were playing. Then I outlined my plan for the course and answered their questions. Many of those answers were, “Well, that’s up to you. I’m just here to help.” Over those couple hours, lots of laughter was shared. (Which is also a conscious strategy to increase engagement and improve learning, btw.)

So no, my students aren’t incapable of deep thought, entirely self-centered, and afraid of hard work. And guess what? My students aren’t so different than anyone else’s. I don’t ban technology in my classes because, by and large, students are engaged and paying attention to our conversation. For those who aren’t? Well, I did a lot of crossword puzzles in the back row of lecture halls as an undergraduate too. If they prefer a structured (dare I say spoon-fed?) learning environment, they’ve got two options: drop, or suffer through the pain of me trying to get to know them.

A syllabus is a necessary and useful document, but it is not a contract. Relationships are built on trust, and if your students don’t trust you—for whatever reason—they’ll find a reason to argue any point regardless of how detailed your syllabus might be. Be like a bad student; find out the minimum syllabus requirements and do your best to barely meet them. Your good students will thank you.

Posted in Digital Media, Pedagogy | Leave a comment

MFA vs NYC? Notes on a False Debate

Since I didn’t attend AWP 2014, Facebook friends clued me in to MFA vs NYC, a collection that “brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents to talk about these overlapping worlds, and the ways writers make (or fail to make) a living within them.”

I read the book’s description, a chapter on Gordon Lish’s workshop of seduction, online discussions about it, and more recently a rejoinder entitled “Stop blaming Iowa! MFA vs. NYC is a phony debate”. Through all of it, I can’t help but think that it’s a ridiculously narrow viewpoint to be debating the role of creative writing in the academy and the nature of publishing in the 21st century. Two essays are dedicated to Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, but that seems to be it for thinking about how and why creative writing came to its current place in the academy.

My question: where are the PhDs in creative writing in this discussion? Why is the PhD in creative writing scarcely mentioned in MFA vs NYC? My suspicion is that there are far more MFAs than CW PhDs in the US and they’re the ones carrying the conversation. While I’m leery about saying too much about the MFA experience (because I didn’t attend an MFA program), I feel on safe ground saying that the MFA programs I’m familiar with are more about reproducing traditional literary print culture whereas PhD programs inject a not insignificant amount of literary theory and writing pedagogy into the curriculum. The chapter on Lish’s preposterous pedagogy–reprinted in the New Yorker, no less–was enough to suggest to me that there was too little of either for me to take this book or its conclusions seriously.

Instead I’ve been reading both The Creativity Market: Creative Writing in the 21st Century and Creative Writing and the New Humanities, both of which I’m enjoying quite a bit. A chapter by Jeff Sparrow entitled “Creative Writing, Neo-Liberalism, and the Literary Paradigm” is just one example from the former that frames the issue in much more relevant terms.

Stephanie Vanderslice has a good review of MFA vs NYC on HuffPo that confirms my suspicions that I should spend my time reading something else.

Posted in Creative Writing, Pedagogy, Reading | Leave a comment

American Officials Play Board Games to Understand War

A friend of mine kindly shared a link to this story on Business Insider: American Officials Play Board Games To Understand War

The idea that the military uses games to train personnel is nothing new. There’s been a lot of recent attention on the use of videogames specifically, but war simulation games go way, way back in time. Like, say, chess. (Jon Peterson does a terrific job chronicling the history of war games in relation to the genesis of role-playing games in his comprehensive book Playing at the World, which I highly recommend.)

Regardless, this Business Insider article makes a very common mistake in that it assumes that these games necessarily and correctly represent contemporary global challenges. Sure, it’s fun to play a game where you spin out countless possible outcomes—potential replayability is an important aspect in game design. However, it’s a little alarming to ponder what kinds of lessons the players might be learning. I’m less concerned with games that deal explicitly with combat because such scenarios are more contained. Even if no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, military encounters can have only so many plausible outcomes. Things like weaponry, terrain, and numbers of troops are easily quantified and thus more easily calculated, meaning that military leadership know with a high degree of accuracy what it takes to achieve certain military objectives. Given that the military has finite resources (believe it or not), combat simulation games can effectively highlight the best risk vs reward options in complex scenarios.

Diplomacy is another thing entirely though. Part of my problem with digital role-playing games is that the game designers need to distill the complexity and unpredictability of human personalities into calculable code. This results in pretty stilted, unconvincing interpersonal interactions since everything boils down to numbers, e.g. if I have high enough charisma then I can charm the innkeeper into giving me the magical amulet for free. All context and subtlety gets blasted away in favor of a simplistic resolution bound by few dialogue options. The BI article even gives a nod in this direction, explaining that board games are more easily customizable than digital games for this very reason.

The big problem is that you can’t quantify and calculate diplomacy so easily. Imagine the amount of guesswork and margin of error in predicting how another human will react given a set of continually shifting circumstances. Building a game simulation might help train military leaders to think on their feet in terms of rapidly switching strategies, but this should not be confused with the prognosticative ability of combat simulation games. Having heard non-experts talk about the educational potential of games, let’s say my confidence level that this is being handled appropriately is low.

Posted in Games, Pedagogy, Role-Playing | 3 Comments