I’d really like to thank Dominic Petterman for his opening paragraph in the piece published yesterday on his class on Reality TV. I’m just going to remind you of what it said:
Among the mountains of literature dedicated to "best practices" in pedagogy, the consensus has emerged that engagement is key, and that we teachers can no longer – as we did throughout history – willfully try to drag students violently by the ear into our own umwelt and call it learning. Rather we need to create an active halfway space between world-bubbles, thus allowing learning to happen more organically, through a mutual reorientation.
That paragraph best describes what I am trying to do in my Freshman Writing class using the theme “Games and Play.” I am seeking to engage students, inspiring them to write about topics that interest them, and think critically about those things that they may take for granted, such as the games they played as children or continue to play today. We use the textbook Everything is an Argument to frame our discussions, as well as our eventual essays and other kinds of writing; I really like it because it does include visual arguments in its discussion of rhetoric but also allows for openings to have a class centered around games and play.
We are also reading Ian Bogost’s book How to Do Things with Videogames, which I have found both thought-provoking and accessible, pushing the students to think differently and more critically about (in this context), video games. In an effort to also make the course more peer-driven, we are only reading the first two chapters together as a class, when I will then allow students to choose two chapters that they will work through and develop (and write) more critical commentary on. We will also be spending the first few Fridays of the semester actually playing games that are related to the content of the chapters we read (or the goals of the class from that week), where the students will play the game, then critically reflect on the experience, using what we have read and discussed during the week to inform their commentary.
But I don’t want the class to be all about video games (I myself have never been big on video games). We will be shortly move on to discussing how to do research and the different kinds of research and sources that we can do, collectively created a bibliography of resources on the kinds of games and/or play each student is interested in exploring. I want the collaborative elements of play to inform how my students research and eventually write, and one Friday will be spent on building community and practicing collaboration. Hopefully, when we begin to write individual (required) argument essays, the class will feel more comfortable and open to peer-review exercises.
But the piece-de-résistance this semester is the final third of the class where I will be challenging the students to build their own game. Working either individually or in groups, students will have to come up with and “build” a game. They will have to have written rules for the game, as well as a justification, a purpose, an audience, etc, for the game they come up with. If physically building a game is not possible (we’re a writing class, not a coding class) then the students can “narrate” what the game would look like and what it would be like to play the game. We will be sharing and paying the games together during the final few weeks of class.
I’ve been meaning to write about my plans for this class for a while now. I have been tweeting the progress of making the syllabus on Twitter, as well as soliciting possible sources and essays for our eventual bibliography (did you know critical board game studies is a thing? You do now!). But then I almost didn’t, as it would seem like a direct response to this negative reception to the idea in the comments of my last post. I totally get the haters are going to hate, and I have said before that nothing attracts more backlash in the comments than when I write about teaching Freshman Writing. But when a post about teaching Reality TV by making the classroom resemble reality TV garnered exactly no negativity in the comments (at least when I was writing this), I knew I had to address both my class, and my positionality with higher education.
When a male, tenured professor writes about innovative pedagogy, it doesn’t earn any sort of scorn. When a female, non-tenured, contingent instructor writes about innovative pedagogy, as I have here in the past, it becomes open season. Now, I understand that there is more at play here: I am teaching a required course, something that all students have to take, where Dr. Pettman is teaching an upper-division and (one would imagine) optional course, or at least one of many that a student could choose from in order to fulfill degree requirements. My students can choose to take a different instructor who focuses on a different topic, or teaches differently, but it’s impossible to tell that from the course description in the catalogue or (especially for Freshmen) know the difference between the various professors and instructors teaching Freshman Writing. Dr. Pettman has extensive publications in the field of Cultural Studies (his PhD is in English and Cultural studies), while I have a PhD in Comparative Literature, with a smaller (less important?) output of writing on writing and teaching writing.
There is a legitimacy issue here that goes unspoken, but also an issue with how we teach/treat Freshmen versus upperclassmen, how we teach tenure, male professors versus untenured, never-tenured, contingent faculty who are often women and other visible minorities. Or even how we treat tenure-track women and POC. Or the kinds of educations we expect students to receive at The New School versus the students I teach at our rural, regional State University.
I applaud and am inspired by what Dr. Pettman is doing in his course, with his students, for his students. And I share what I am doing in my Freshman Writing classroom in that same spirit of pedagogical openness and experimentation (which is also why I started #FYCchat on Twitter – which starts back this Wednesday! Join us!). But I’m curious to see the reaction to this post, to me, to the openness of my pedagogy, to the legitimacy of my position as an instructor or the rights of my students to receive an innovative and engaging educational experience. I remind myself, I do this for them, and I blog, in part, so I feel less alone while I’m doing it.
But also because I ultimately believe that education is about sharing and community, not shaming.