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.

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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.

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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

Creative Writing in the Digital Age

I’m very excited to announce the table of contents for CREATIVE WRITING IN THE DIGITAL AGE: THEORY, PRACTICE AND PEDAGOGY edited by Michael Dean Clark, Trent Hergenrader and Joe Rein.

The book is being published by Bloomsbury’s Literary Studies division and will be available in late 2014/early 2015.


Introduction – Creative Writing in the Digital Age (Mike Clark, Trent Hergenrader, Joe Rein)

SECTION ONE: Digital Influences on Creative Writing Studies
2. Creative Writing in the Age of Synapses (Graeme Harper, Oakland University)
3. Screening Subjects: Workshop Pedagogy, Media Ecologies, and (New) Student Subjectivities (Adam Koehler, Manhattan College)
4. Concentration, Form, and Ways of Seeing (Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow, Chapman University)
5. Game Spaces: Videogames as Story-Generating Systems for Creative Writers (Trent Hergenrader, Rochester Institute of Technology)
6. “But What Can I Do with a Writing Degree?”: Using Technology to Leverage More from the Fiction Course (Michael Dean Clark, Azusa Pacific University)
7. Two Creative Writers Look Askance at Digital Composition (Crayon on Paper) (Joe Amato and Kass Fleisher, Illinois State University)

SECTION TWO: Using Digital Tools as Creative Practice
8. Lost in Digital Translation: Navigating the Online Creative Writing Classroom (Joseph Rein, University of Wisconsin-River Falls)
9. Giving an Account of Oneself: Teaching Identity Construction and Authorship in Creative Nonfiction and Social Media (Janelle Adsit, State University of New York-Albany)
10. Reconsidering the Online Writing Workshop with ‪#‎25wordstory‬ (Abigail Scheg, Elizabeth City State University)
11. Writing with Machines and Taroko Gorge (Jim Brown, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
12. Telling Stories with Maps and Rules: Using the Interactive Fiction Language “Inform 7” in a Creative Writing Workshop (Aaron Reed, University of California-Santa Cruz)
13. Acting Out: Netprov in the Classroom (Rob Wittig, University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Mark Marino, University of Southern California-Dornsife)
14. The Text is Where It’s At: The Power of Digital Storytelling in Teaching Creative Writing (Christina Clancy, Beloit College)
15. Creative Writing for New Media (Amy Letter, Drake University)


Posted in Creative Writing, Pedagogy | 13 Comments

Prezi on Speculative Fiction and RPGs in College Classes

Posted in Creative Writing, Fiction, Games, Pedagogy, Role-Playing | 2 Comments

Flier for English 236: Digital Storytelling & Role-Playing

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Prezi on my RPG Talk

Last Thursday I gave a talk on the narrative potential of role-playing games. Here’s the Prezi that accompanied the talk.

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“Mouth of the Volga” Available Online

Just found out that my creative nonfiction piece “The Mouth of the Volga” is available online at the Post Road website. Here’s the link: http://www.postroadmag.com/21/nonfiction/hergenrader.phtml

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GLS 7.0 Conference Proceedings Now Available

Just got an email that the GLS 7.0 Conference Proceedings are now available via ETC Press:

This publication features my article “Gaming, World Building, and Narrative: Using Role-playing Games to Teach Fiction Writing.”


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

Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter Gets Honorable Mention in BHoY #3

Some narcissistic googling turned up an interesting little factoid: my story “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter” made Ellen Datlow’s list of honorable mentions in Best Horror of the Year #3.

Based on the post date, this news is about 10 months old. Great news nonetheless. Time to update the ol’ CV…

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