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.

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

“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:

Posted in Creative Nonfiction, Creative Writing | Leave a comment

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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M/MLA Presentations and Comments

Just got back a few hours ago from the M/MLA conference held in St. Louis. The conference theme was “Play…No Seriously.” I gave two presentations: one on using videogames in English classes, and the other on using role-playing games in creative writing classes. Both were very well-received and I had a lot of good questions and conversations after the sessions. Surprisingly there was very little on gaming as most panels interpreted “play” quite broadly.

Over the past six or so months I have noticed two things: 1) a growing number of people in the academy are becoming interested in games-based pedagogy, and 2) I know quite a bit about it. As I draw nearer to finishing graduate school, I still often feel like I have a ways to go before I’m an authority on any topic, especially when I get the chance to talk to so many brilliant scholars on a regular basis. But then every so often I get a chance to talk about my areas of specialty—specifically creative writing pedagogy and gaming—to someone who doesn’t know much if anything about them, and I can go on and on, recommending books and articles, framing major debates within the fields, yada yada yada. While there’s always more to learn, it feels good to be able to contribute meaningfully to ongoing academic discussions with other professional scholars.

As someone who has productively used videogames in college classes (Fallout 3 in creative writing, and lots of games for the Game Culture course), I was asked a lot of questions about how to make it work. The answer is that you can’t just drop any game into a class just to do it and hope the students like it. First you have to decide what educational goal you’re trying to accomplish, then you need to find a game that best fits that goal. I pointed several comp instructors to Persuasive Games; to me, using persuasive games in a first-year writing program is a home run.

The other thing I’ve been feeling for awhile is that I need to do more reading in game design. I’m becoming a strong believer that asking students to design games that reflect their knowledge and mastery of course content is a pretty perfect pedagogical tool. However game design is pretty hard, so there have to be rules of thumb to help amateurs make a balanced, playable game.

So anyway, here’s my Prezi entitled “Units of Meaning: Videogame Criticism, Literary Analysis, Effective Pedagogy.”

And for the role-playing talk, I was going to write a new paper and create a new presentation, but I was running short on time and decided that I would use the Prezi from my GLS talk in June. So here’s that one again too:

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