Rise Above The LMS #4C13 [video & transcript]

VIDEO: https://www.dropbox.com/s/jh2bqmv9r28dwr0/RATLMS.mov

TRANSCRIPT: Good morning and welcome to session L.24, Reaching New Publics with Homegrown Learning Management Systems. My name is James Schirmer and I’m presenting in absentia for a very good reason: the birth of my first child. But I want to thank Brian and Quinn for allowing me to present in this manner. Please know that all are welcome to tweet about or at me. My Twitter handle is at the top right corner of most slides; our session and conference hashtags are at the top left. Also, a full transcript of this talk is available at betajames.net (and at betajames.posthaven.com).

Now, in talking about learning management systems, we talk about many things, including access and control. We talk about who has access to what information at which level as well as who controls that access and that information. We also talk about persistent and potential obstacles to access and control. In such discussions, it can be very easy to conflate a course and a learning management system. So, I hereby invite my colleagues on the panel and in the audience to challenge me if I appear to make such a conflation.

In talking about alternatives to learning management systems, I think we talk about access and control, too, but with an acknowledgement of honesty and openness. More of what we do as writing teachers may be exposed in LMS alternatives; things can get messy in having all or some of the construction laid bare. And I think there’s a public-ness to LMS alternatives that standard, traditional platforms like Blackboard lack. I see this as a net positive for alternatives, varied as they are.

New media and Web 2.0 technologies are more accessible and open by nature, sharing a similar degree of public-ness. As writing teachers, we can — and sometimes do — voice our LMS frustrations via social media, but these online spaces are also opportunities for us to connect pedagogical aims and goals in new ways. This is not necessarily a new thing anymore, but I think it’s an idea worth repeating because it is also shared in the do-it-yourself ethos. Open the course, expose the scaffolding, encourage more and varied interaction, get beyond the Blackboard box.

Using a computer keyboard, we can blog about yesterday’s class and tweet course updates, but it is through social media that the work we do may be public in unanticipated ways. Searching Twitter for hashtags like #englishsucks and phrases like “I hate writing” can be very revealing. I mention this, too, because I want to steer clear of triumphalism here. Moving from a standard, traditional LMS like Blackboard to an alternative doesn’t eliminate certain problems; it may only change them.

But we’re talking about such movement this morning for reasons in addition to access, control, messiness, and openness. I think it’s safe to say that we, as writing teachers, value these concepts to varying degrees. I want to extend things a bit, though. If we acknowledge that writing often constitutes public work, if we are interested in enhancing the status of first-year composition, we should rethink housing our courses in learning management systems. Do not mistake this statement for blind adherence to an ideal, though. Often enough, I still find myself singing the following song.

[clip of “I’m Against It” from the Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers, ]
I don't know what they have to say,
It makes no difference anyway,
Whatever it is, I'm against it.
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I'm against it.

Your proposition may be good,
But let's have one thing understood,
Whatever it is, I'm against it.
And even when you've changed it or condensed it,
I'm against it.] 

I admit my own resistance to Blackboard and to learning management systems in general. However, I must also admit my reservations about this resistance. Do I dislike Blackboard for what it is or do my frustrations deal with broader concerns about higher education? Are my operating methods and preferences just too different? Do I just need to be more patient, more willing to discover and learn how a particular LMS organizes and values the efforts of students and teachers alike? In an “Authors @ Google” lecture, Douglas Rushkoff explains the Blackboard situation a bit better than I can: 

[clip of "Authors@Google: Douglas Rushkoff," 7:38-9:10]
[From the student or teacher's perspective, Blackboard is terrible. It's just awful. You run up consistently against these terrible obstacles and extremely difficult things, ways you've got to wrap your whole self and brain and course and life around what this program needs needs from you in order to comply with it. And most of us look and say, "Ugh, this is just an awful thing. This software is awful." If you look at it from what I'm calling the programmer's perspective, you see, "Oh no, Blackboard is brilliant." Because Blackboard wasn't written for me. Blackboard wasn't written for me as an educator or for that person as a student. Blackboard was written for the Blackboard company to dominate education in a very particular way. Blackboard was created to help create an equivalence between distance learning and real-life learning so that in your classroom you're actually using this technology as much as you would long distance...It's created not to promote the user's agency, but to decrease the user's agency and increase the institution's dependence on this piece of software.]   

While I agree with Rushkoff, I no longer think of standard, traditional LMS platforms like Blackboard as software. Instead, I think of them as “institutionware.” For as much as Blackboard may be about preserving itself as the top LMS option, it is also about preserving the traditional aspects of higher education. Even more recent social media ‘features’ are about containment; blogs and wikis are stuck in the Blackboard box and mark the introduction of new environments and tools for learning but only serve lectures and exams. It’s all enough to make one rage against the machine.

[clip of "07 - Rage Against the Machine - Freedom (Live)," 4:15-4:45]
[LYRIC: anger is a gift

I agree with Zach de la Rocha that “anger is a gift.” When directing it in a productive way toward an issue or problem, clarity can often follow. I also agree with Matthew Gold’s perspective that the problem with learning management systems ‘lies in the conjunction of three words that should not appear together. Learning is not something that can be “managed” via a “system.”’ Given how we may use Blackboard or another platform, our course banners might as well read “Under Old Management.” Many of the faults of traditional LMS platforms are also the faults of higher education.

Still, the title of this talk isn’t “Rage Against The LMS.” Well, it was, but it isn’t anymore. In fact, my co-panelist Brian McNely has, in his words, “backed away from a militant anti-LMS perspective in everyday practice, in large part because it’s simply not conducive to getting things done with what we have…I don’t have the energy or influence to overturn my university’s LMS policy; I can offer my students interesting workarounds to the limitations of the LMS.” Like him, I’m more interested in how we might rise above the LMS, either through alternatives or by other means. 

[clip of "Henry Rollins/Black Flag 'Rise Above' Live, 0:25-0:55]
Jealous cowards try to control
Rise above
We're gonna rise above
They distort what we say
Rise above
We're gonna rise above
Try and stop what we do
Rise above
When they can't do it themselves

We are tired of your abuse
Try to stop us it's no use

Society's arms of control
Rise above
We're gonna rise above]

Part of rising above the LMS may involve remembering that, as Sean Michael Morris writes in a piece for Hybrid Pedagogy, “the LMS is meant to help us think about teaching, not to do the teaching, or to tell us what teaching needs to occur. The LMS is not the course; it’s the launching pad for the course." In other words, we need to see the LMS as an opportunity to reconsider how and what it is we do as teachers.

This diagram is part of a blog entry by Lisa M. Lane in which she looks at how and where courses begin. According to Lane, starting in an LMS implies a teacher-centric model, closer connection with the college and its structures, greater concern for security and privacy, and emphasis on presentation and content over interactivity and community. Starting on the open web or a social media site implies a learner-centric model, greater connection with the outside world, and emphasis on community over content. 

Lane sees both starting options as doors, with the LMS linking out to social media and social media linking in or to the LMS. Whichever we choose “sets up different kinds of hierarchies, implies differences in pedagogy, and creates different kinds of opportunities for learning” (Lane). Similarly, William Beasley notes “there are good pedagogical reasons both for providing links that take students outside the LMS, and for bringing portions of the outside world into the LMS." 

This diagram is part of a blog entry by D’Arcy Norman in which he sees a role for the LMS in higher education “if for no other reason than the simple reality that most instructors, and many students, aren’t ready, willing, or able to forge their own solutions." Norman also acknowledges that “even a grassroots No-LMS environment eventually grows to resemble an LMS-like space." Through these diagrams, we can come to see the LMS in general as less of a learning management system and more of a learning mediated system. 

Now, in my own courses, I seek to rise above the LMS by incorporating simple, effective tools with a low barrier of entry. Here is one such example: Posterous, a soon-to-be defunct online writing service that allowed students to blog via email. Students and I were able to subscribe to and comment on each other’s blogs as well as personalize our online spaces. Twitter’s “acqui-hire” of the Posterous staff one year ago prefaced the announcement of a full-service shutdown on April 30. 

However, Twitter is (I hope) a more reliable online writing service used in many of my courses. Hashtags and/or specific tweeting times help foster community and that greater connection with the outside world mentioned earlier by Lisa Lane. 

Now, before turning things over to Brian and Quinn for more substantive inquiry, allow me to share a couple other, perhaps more interesting examples before closing with some persistent problems related to rising above the LMS. 

“Part storytelling workshop, part technology training, part critical interrogation of the digital landscape,” DS106 stands among the most unique and successful endeavors to engage students of all kinds in the development of skills for using technology as a tool for networking, sharing, narrating, and creative self-expression. Searching on Twitter for the hashtags #ds106 and#ds106radio will send you down a rabbit’s hole into a wonderland of digital artifacts of all kinds.  

In sharing this screenshot of materials for a web application development course posted on GitHub, it is worth noting that Karl Stolley uses Git, version control software, for just about everything he writes. But, for Stolley, posting his syllabi on GitHub is worth doing so that his materials “are a tad more easy to get ahold of” but it also changes how he writes the source of his materials, whether Markdown or HTML.  

And, as usual, we are at an interesting time in higher education. The MOOC looms over much discussion of academia’s future, but it also stands as another potential LMS alternative. Many MOOCs serve as a combination of approaches and strategies; some are united as much by Twitter hashtags as more traditional methods of instruction. So, with these examples, we’re once again back to the opening concerns of access, control, honesty, messiness, and openness.

As also mentioned earlier, rising above a standard, traditional LMS like Blackboard may not eliminate certain problems, only change them. Our position in a college or university may determine our ability to rise. We may be limited to engaging in the strategy explained by Brian McNely rather than implementing one of the “door” approaches explained by Lisa Lane. Using free online services invite archival, privacy, and reliability issues. Hosting and growing our own spaces requires time and vigilance we may not have. 

While there are among the persistent problems related to rising above the LMS, I want to remain optimistic. When we rise above the LMS, we assert as ourselves as activists as well as writing teachers. We show others what alternatives are possible in particular capacities. And I look forward to what Brian and Quinn are about to show us. So, to close as so many of my students do, here is my references page.

Thank you.

Notes on GameLoop 2012 #gl12

A description of GameLoop as well as notes on last year's unconference are available from co-runner Darius Kazemi here

"Art Games from a Fine Arts Perspective," Alex Myers presiding

The purpose of this session was to think about art games from an artist's perspective rather than that of a designer or developer. In Myers' opinion, using contemporary game design as a medium for expression is all fine and good, but that the placement of games in galleries is problematic in approach. 

First, there is the myth of the gallery. There is also the movement and removal of games themselves from arcades to homes and now to galleries. Art continues to move in comparable directions and Myers and session attendees rattled off many examples. Some were also quick to stress the need to challenge and question what we consider to be art games, to be mindful of using subversiveness as a crutch because we engage in passive participation in oppression every day. 

Furthermore, there are questions of accessibility and legitimacy and the importance of exploring alternative as well as traditional spaces for art and for games, of pursuing "art games for art games' sake." It was around this point that the overall discussion separated art and games, acknowledging how context comes through interaction (sort of) with both. This separation was not an issue as it appeared easier for some to understand how art and games might learn from each other, what it means to make art the focus of a game and if that's even really possible. 

In the midst of this part of the session, someone mentioned "MOMA retcons," how certain art movements rebelled and responded to the establishment only to be included and/or canonized later so that the general public might "step back and respect" them. Myers also took issue with dressing art up in videogame culture, expressing uncertainty with what such action accomplishes. 

To continue the separation and similarity aspect, this session made note of the player-predictability in games and the viewer-unpredictability of art. "What consequences can there be in the digital?" is an additional question that arose, however briefly, in the Philosophy and Videogames (development) session described below. 

As the session came to a close, there was a look to the future toward locative art games and emergent objectives, of using the "raw means of abstraction" as the essence of interaction to produce less obvious metaphors that might still be reminiscent of life experiences. In a final address of how to pass the time, a session attendee stated, "We had five minutes left two minutes ago." 

Among the artists and events mentioned: Duchamp, Cactus Squid, Brody Condon, the Machine Project, Deep Sea


"Why All Videogame Conferences Suck," Courtney Stanton presiding

Short answer: exclusionary practices. This is a continuing problem at conferences, so there was a stated concern of how to address it. Courtney shared her experiences with and knowledge of unconferences and workshops like No Show. Alex and Darius framed their K-12 and college-level classes as forms of outreach.

Part of the intent is to have more conversations in more places, to have more welcoming spaces as well as perhaps more separatist spaces, all so that the big conferences aren't the only spaces anymore and more people interested in videogames can say, "There's someone/something here for me."

It was around this point that Johnny(?) brought up issues of accessibility, stressing the potential complications of distance and physical spaces for those with special needs. Conferences tend to ignore, overlook, or assume too much when it comes to policies that ensure safe, welcoming spaces, but much the same also happens with regards to special-needs considerations.

So, how to community-organize for everyone? Attend to privilege, acknowledge the popularity of past panels, get away from predatory logic and what conferences tend to sell attendees on, realize that what happens at conferences is often someone's first impression of the industry.  


"Philosophy and Videogames (Development)," Darius Kazemi presiding

In true unconference spirit, this was sort of an impromptu session jammed in during the lunch hour. Darius started off by noting how architecting a game engine addresses philosophical questions and what it's like being forced to write those ontological rules, thereby revealing the purpose of the session overall. Attendees then shared their own reasons for being present, including ethics, the nonhuman turn, "old thinkers," games as reflections of humanity (or not), game tendencies, natural human states, absurdism, existentialism, inherent systems of meaning, theology, life and death in games, less definite spaces, what philosophy can provide, systems construction.

Of course, it proved impossible to address all these interests. One of the first questions raised was that of combat being the dominant/lone interaction of a game and how player perception can be influenced as a result, how we can come to see the "real" space on which a game space is based as "where people are supposed to get shot." This can be most pronounced in FPS games set in New York, Los Angeles, etc. 

So, how to get away from this possibility? Decenter player privilege, embrace the core ambiguity and flexibility of game design. This somehow led into thinking of the computer/system as adjudicator, a computer's sense of justice, and what it means to follow laws and rules vs. understanding them. Kirk can probably speak more and better about this, but there was another question raised: "When is a rule going to make something stupid happen?" One answer was the A.I. Director from the Left 4 Dead series. 

No one mentioned Bioshock during the session, which was nice. 


"Games That Hate You," Cameron Kunzleman presiding

Things got started with a focus on games that provide active punishment for playing them as well as the appeal of playing these kinds of games. There's a nostalgic aspect to them, to their punishing difficulty, but Cameron also wanted the discussion to move beyond this. Rather than just an address of difficulty and punishment, the discussion moved into the realm of clear disrespect for players and what we perceive as unfair. 

Hateful or not (perhaps), there needs to be respect and trust on the part of both the designer and the player of the game. Wrapped up in all this, too, are understandings of content value and experience and how games reward certain player behaviors or don't. There was mention of a game in which the player can realize that "you're fucked 5 minutes into a match." This led some to ask how can we as players tell when a game respects our time. During a sub-discussion concerning sadomasochistic aspects of games, one attendee admitted, "Alt+F4 is my safe word." 

I'm not sure this session stayed on topic as much as it could have. This is more of an observation than a complaint, though, given bits and pieces about motivational environments and the absence of them, the idea of "hard simplicity," how and why players react when a game denies, exhausts, or robs their agency, and how some violations of player expectations can be fun. 


"Women in Games," Courtney Stanton presiding

Unfortunately, I missed a good chunk of this session. It was clear upon entering the room, though, that this wasn't a session about portrayals of women in videogames but an industry/workplace talk. 

One woman shared her experience of being mistaken for a marketer instead of a programmer because she "dressed nice." A few others observed how sexism in the videogames monoculture can be just as bad in indie as AAA, if not worse. This is because the legal liability that exists in AAA doesn't have an equivalent in indie. 

There was also discussion of what it takes to be heard, the sacrifices and personality changes some women made to fit in with the guys. A later shift to education focused on priming the next generation, looking at the importance of support for those experiencing sexism as well as the worth in correction and even embarrassment for those causing it. We need to not only let people know that they're wrong but also show them how and why.

Similar to the earlier session about why videogame conferences suck, I felt exhausted at the end. 


"Roguelike-likes," ??? presiding

I spent too much time in my own head during this session, which began with some discussion of roguelike characteristics. These included procedural generation, discovery, capacity for surprise, permanent risk, adversity with interesting/intersecting consequences, and systems awareness. Regarding the roguelike aspects of accumulation and loss, one attendee commented, "The better you do, the more it hurts." In other words, the greater a player's progression through a roguelike, the worse a player's potential 'death' becomes. At the same time, starting over may not be so terrible, given acceptance of failure beforehand. A roguelike, then, forces us to admit that we have nothing to lose. Well, except maybe time. 

Having somewhat defined characteristics of roguelikes, discussion moved into the application of roguelike aspects to other kinds of games. After naming titles like Dark Souls and Fallout, the latter of which diverged into a discussion of sub-optimal builds, there was some brainstorming about FPS roguelikes, social roguelikes, and even how a movie like Groundhog Day could be seen as roguelike-like. 

Among roguelikes named: Nethack, Facade, Brogue, Spelunky, Epic Dungeon, Realm of the Mad God. 

On Week 7 #112CWR #342VS #513DR

After having to ignore so much just to get last week's entry written and posted, I almost find this week to be lacking things for me to note and observe. Then again, just as much may have happened this week as in weeks past, but other significant demands on my time perhaps kept me from noticing. (Every time I have to write/revise for publication during the semester, I swear I'll never do it again. This has happened five times.) 

In #112CWR, there was what I've come to see as the usual amount of confusion and dread toward the introduction of Mashup Scholarship, almost in parallel to the enthusiasm I still have for this unorthodox assignment. Part of my enthusiasm has to do with bias, of course. I remain enamored with the arguments of Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence" and Shields' Reality Hunger as well as mashup efforts like The Grey Album and Wugazi. And I still hold out hope for some kind of grand academic mashup of a disciplinary argument. However, part of the reason I ask students to put together their own academic mashups has to do with the potential of discovering just how scholarly sentences are constructed. It is my hope that by melding five different sources together into one cohesive essay students will learn a bit more about what discipline-specific writing is, if not does. So, if students see Pop Up Scholarship as a vehicle to vent about academic writing, Mashup Scholarship asks them to rise above raging against the machine and get more constructive.

What appears to be less constructive, though, are the facilitations, which have become less student-led class sessions and more a series of variant themes related to academic writing. Facilitations aren't so much group projects as a collection of individual performances about the same thing. Put simpler, #112CWR facilitations this semester tend toward mini-lectures. With just one more such session remaining, I have to be okay with this as it wouldn't be fair for me to come down on the last group with demands to do everything that previous groups might have not done. Plus, I think students often perform from prior experience, from what they know, and maybe not what's most helpful, but almost always what they perceive as easiest. If the comfortable or default setting for a facilitation is the mini-lecture, what does this say about professorial pedagogy?

In #342VS, facilitations are a bit better, with less lecture and more whole-class discussion of whatever readings I assigned that week. In some cases, these facilitations have been more media-heavy than the sessions I've led. I suspect that this often happens because students observe how I lead discussion and see what I fail to incorporate. In a way, then, #342VS facilitations build on or otherwise relate to the prior session and go from there. As a result, I think #342VS stands as a more cohesive endeavor with greater relationship between sessions each week and week to week. That each #112CWR session stands somewhat alone by contract is both interesting and troubling.

Having just begun #513DR facilitations, I'm rather impressed by students' collective abilities to conduct class without me.  As primary responsibilities for guiding discussion were on two fellow students, questions fell to This is a graduate-level course, so one could conceivably make the argument that graduate students should be able to hold a session without the professor. When I did contribute to the discussions of videogames in education and amateur/professional critics online, I almost felt as though I had interrupted the proceedings. I have every intention of attending next week's session, though. With scheduled facilitations on videogames as new media/rhetoric and 4chan and the online disinhibition effect, how could I not attend?

On Week 4-5-6 #112CWR #342VS #513DR

I do a disservice by grouping general thoughts about students' work over the last three weeks into a single entry. However, a multitude of demands on my time don't allow for much else. I've been asking a lot of students as of late and they've fulfilled my requests, yet all time allows is a lone, meager blog post to acknowledge and reflect. Of course, each undergraduate student received a quick progress report with more tailored details about how I see their recent work. I won't divulge such specifics here for a variety of reasons, instead taking a broader view, a longer picture of what's happening. So, let's begin…

Students don't like writing. To be more specific, students don't like academic writing. They see it as jargon, unnecessary, verbose. "Why should/would anyone write like this?" they ask. Such a question ties into not only important considerations of audience and purpose but it also remains a persistent, existential query for me as a teacher of writing. I don't discourage a question like that, instead encouraging students to ask by way of assignments like Pop Up Scholarship. And, more often than not, what comes out of such an assignment are the above criticisms. Rare is the question one of content; almost always is the question one of performance, of presentation. 

Variations of these questions also appear in upper-level and graduate courses, often with the same focus. Rather than discussing the argument put forth or the ideas presented, upper-level and graduate students address an assigned article from points of analysis literary and/or rhetorical. Their approaches are more deconstruction than New Criticism, more feminist and Marxist than reader-response. "If we can summarize an academic work in 50 words or 140 characters, why can't the original author?" they ask. 

I don't know if such inquiries are standard in college-level writing courses, but they seem to be in mine. I structure my courses to be spaces not just for writing, but critiquing writing. I don't want students' blind or blithe acceptance of the tenets of academic writing. Yes, I hope for them to grasp the nuances of what it means to put together a scholarly piece of writing, but I also hope for them to remain critical in the process. Besides, I'm not exactly the biggest fan of academic writing myself. There's an insurgent aspect to my pedagogy, I suppose.

Again, this is part of the reason for assignments like Pop Up Scholarship that ask and encourage students to change, comment, pick apart, and even poke fun at academic work. It's also part of the way toward foundational awareness, whether it be academic writing, videogame studies, or digital rhetoric. The first eight weeks or so of each course are strikingly similar in this regard. After the break, after having gained awareness if not knowledge of what's involved, students have the freedom for more individual exploration. Given students' reactions to freedom and open-endedness of certain assignments already undertaken, I expect there will be some accounts of stress post-break. 

I know that not all students are comfortable with the class structure. I know some would be content with or even prefer that I just give them information, straight from the scholarly horse's mouth. I know there are many reasons for this desire, too, but my general response to the majority of direct questions asked of me is this: I don't have all the answers, but I'm here to help you seek them, to offer perspective on what you discover. 

Contrary to what students might think, some of the best class sessions are those facilitated by fellow students. Even somewhat disastrous facilitations, like the one in #112CWR this week, can be instructive in myriad ways. This has me thinking about implementing less formal, straightforward groupwork in my courses. Rather than group facilitations, perhaps future courses will have discussion leaders, those who post the first and second online entries related to a week's readings for others to read and respond to. Students tend to like groupwork about as much as they like academic writing anyway.

On Week 3 #112CWR #342VS #513DR

In #112CWR this week, we saw the first two class sessions devoted to students' pecha kucha presentations, all of which addressed Part 1 of the Major Media Representations assignment. This is the earliest in the semester such presentations have ever happened in any of the courses I have designed. As I'm still learning students' names as well as their speaking and writing styles, I find these presentations to be functioning as further introductions to me and the rest of the class. 

There's a certain bravery to students' presentations, too. For some, it's just a matter of going first, of "getting it over with," but this also means providing an example for the rest of the class to either avoid or follow to the letter. For others, it was an opportunity to get personal, to give the origin story behind their choice of major and/or intended profession. 

That students took cues from the model pecha kucha presentation I gave in Week 2 was no surprise. This was also a bit of a disappointment. For as important as I think it often is to provide students with examples and models of successful projects, I worry that doing so stifles their creativity. The model provided can be an easy way for students to think less about what they want to communicate and how they want to communicate it. I suppose, though, that I'm only giving them a possible approach and template. All students produced their own memory cues, note cards, and scripts to accompany the 20 images on their 20 slides.

And for as involved as we allegedly are now when it comes to new media, I remain somewhat surprised at the clear dominance and influence of movie and television references in students' work in the MMR assignment. There are countless Vimeo, Xtranormal, and YouTube videos portraying various and sundry professions in positive and negative ways. These remain as much untapped sources for this particular assignment as videogames. Perhaps the presentations next week will have greater variation. 

If interested in the next two class sessions devoted to students' pecha kucha presentations, all our related tweets can be found here


Due to illness and/or weather, overall presence in #342VS was uneven this week. I still talked too much on Tuesday and discussion often felt forced, even unfocused at times. This may have been due to the topic (which is somewhat difficult to understand we're talking about videogames) or a lack of preparation (which is more understandable). 

So, with in-class discussion already growing too stagnant for my tastes, I pitched a different approach for Thursday's class. Having assigned the introductory chapters to Half-Real and The Meaning of Video Games for that day, I asked students to identify and summarize Steven E. Jones's and Jesper Juul's approaches to and arguments for studying games. I then asked students to use their laptops and smartphones to find and play games with Jones and Juul in mind. In other words, students read/reread and discussed Jones and Juul in small groups before playing videogames for about an hour. 

When later sharing summaries of Jones and Juul as well as what videogames they played, a few students admitted to experiencing some difficulty in playing Amnesia and Angry Birds while keeping Juul's "real rules/fictional world" idea in mind. One student even went so far as to express worry that #342VS would be ruining videogames for him.

This is an interesting point of reservation and resistance that I've noticed in prior sessions, the idea that we play videogames for pleasure and that critical thinking and deeper learning about videogames lessen that pleasure. My first response is to go on and on about how we can gain a deeper appreciation for what videogames are and do through that critical thinking and deeper learning about them, just as my appreciation for and understanding of Citizen Kane broadened by way of an undergrad film studies class, just as my learning how to play the guitar provided me with greater awareness of song structure and the tenets of punk rock music. However, based on the abridged version I gave in class, such an explanation rings hollow for some reason. 

A second explanation could incorporate arguments and ideas from the likes of Tom Bissell, Ian Bogost, Heather Chaplin, and Jane McGonigal about what videogames can do, but I don't know how well this would work either. At least for some, playing videogames are all the justification they need. It's enough to play, their attitudes seem to say. 


My lone #513DR session this week was mostly show-and-tell based on the Approaches to Digital Rhetoric assignment. Students' own Pen.io pages are more revealing than anything I could provide here, so I'm happy to just provide links.

However, I don't know if we're any at all closer to defining digital rhetoric for ourselves. As better definitions might be better enacted than found, perhaps this is okay as student-led facilitations begin in two weeks. I'm quite interested in the deliberations scheduled as I know some students have very clear pedagogical interests they want to explore. I also know that other students are much more geared toward ideas of videogames as digital, rhetorical forms. In all, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the deliberations, who takes responsibility for what while maintaining little overlap with the facilitations of others in the class.

With a mere eight students enrolled, #513DR is the smallest class I've ever had. This size is almost comical in comparison to our assigned classroom which has a capacity of 48. The last two weeks have seen us push four tables together so we can all face each other. We've been making a discussion-oriented space out of a larger, lecture-oriented space. I hope we continue to do that. 

Initial & revised parts of an academic essay #112CWR #342VS #513DR

This is a lengthy post and for that I apologize. However, my reasons for sharing these are more instructive for #112CWR, #342VS, and #513DR students than anyone necessarily interested in the subject matter. I want to say that this is what revision looks like. I think I'm right, but all are welcome to prove me wrong. Perhaps my editors will.



Pedagogy that encourages more play in college-level writing courses often comes coupled with an acknowledgement of technology as an increasing influence in students’ lives (Sirc 2001; Moberly 2008; Robison 2008; Shultz Colby & Colby 2008). It is here that various questions concerning implementation arise. Without a more thorough understanding of technology and how it is manifest in society, any incorporation is doomed to failure. Historical inquiry of the root of technology, techne, can result in a more beneficial balance between pedagogy and technology. This chapter endeavors to present techne as a way of understanding videogames as applicable to composition pedagogy. Primary emphasis is upon historical roots over contemporary applications, but implications for the future of teaching writing will not be disregarded.   

Often defined as art, craft, skill and/or the active application of knowledge, techne's ambiguity remains intriguing and many redefitions are in the service of pedagogy. With discourse so shaped by computer technology, there comes a need to "return to Composition's rhetorical roots to find a language and a methodology" (Penrod 26). Because of technology's influence on us and our influence on technology, it is beneficial if not necessary to explore techne. Again, prior scholarship reveals an acknowledgement of techne's ambiguity, a characteristic embraced because it allows for particular ends. 

It is possible to view techne as a field of practice with its own knowledge and skills and inseparable from politeia, “the proper order of human relationships within a city-state” (Winner 97). This is because “what appear to be merely instrumental choices are better seen as choices about the form of the society we continually build, choices about the kinds of people we want to be” (105). Political and scientific aspects of technical and technological production “modify and stimulate each other so as to lead to the development of a comprehensive philosophical program of revolution” (Rosen 79), one impossible to designate as theoretical, practical or productive because it is all three. As such, techne is "the knowledge of those social practices that characterize the acts of insiders…[and] enables cultural critique and becomes the means by which new social possibilities are invented" (Atwill & Lauer 37-38). This enabling aspect further solidifies and strengthens the relationship between technology and civic action. 

For as serious as we might understand techne in relation to politics and society, there is also an element of play in its performance. Embracing techne's ambiguity, Ryan Moeller and Ken McAllister use Greek and Roman historical anecdotes to illustrate. In revealing techne as conversation about an art, as ingenuity, cunning, trickery, chance, and artisanship, Moeller and McAllister seek better ways to teach technical communication, “letting [students] learn and play with the rudiments of technical communication before requiring them to act like experts and professionals” (187). To see techne as "creative, ingenious, tricky, unpredictable, and utterly human" (Moeller & McAllister 204) echoes Heidegger's definition of technology  as both a means to an end and as a human activity because "to posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them is a human activity" (4). Techne is thus the name for the activities and skills of the craftsman as well as for the arts of the mind (13). However, we may also see techne as a mode of revealing (Ong 1982), as the suggestion of learning within a tradition (Hodgkin 1990), as possessing aesthetic and technical characteristics (Rutsky 1999), as a kind of control over chance (Gordon 2002), as a situational bridge over the gap between theory and practice (Dubinsky 2002), as techniques for situating bodies in contexts (Hawk 2004), as reflection on aesthetic criticism (Penrod 2005). As a result, the pervasiveness and scope of techne also remains a point of contention. Techne is a tool used, working in tandem with knowledge/wisdom to produce an effect or event; techne is also more than a tool, often exhibiting a kind of autonomy which some embrace and others fear.  Divorced from or saturated with emotion, separate or inseparable from knowledge and science, ‘mere craft’ or exalted art, various interpretations of techne illuminate freedom of opportunity.

Similar to techne is the concept of play, which "stands for a category of very diverse happenings" (Sutton-Smith 3). In part, it has to do with how discussions of play place it "in context within broader value systems" (Sutton-Smith 8), quite similar to how some view techne. It could be argued that this has to do with how culture arises out of play (Huizinga 1950). Influencing rhetorics of play are historical sources, particular functions, specialized advocates, and the contexts of specific academic discplines (Sutton-Smith 214). Neutral interpretations are as impossible for play as they might be for techne, given how ambiguity creeps into "the relationship between how they are perceived and how they are experienced" (Sutton-Smith 216). Roger Caillois' definition of play is illustrative here as he describes it as "an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money" (5-6) while also emphasizing it as essential to social development. For a host of reasons, Sutton-Smith concludes with an explanation of how play is "characterized by quirkiness, redundancy, and flexibility" (229). Below signifies an attempt to paint techne in a similar light.

The nebulous nature of both techne and play invite tangible examples. Videogames are an evolving, popular medium that refashions earlier media and promotes a greater degree of interactivity (Bolter & Grusin 2000) while also being representative of learning (Gee 2003). As such, they constitute an important example of how techne, play, and techne as play might be understood. This may very well be because "videogames teach biased perspectives about how things work" (Bogost 260). What follows then is analysis of videogames as of techne as play with an eye toward implications for teaching composition. Techne provides a historical foundation and videogames provide a current literacy practice, both of which serve to improve approaches to teaching composition.  

If we understand techne as an aesthetic, affecting and autonomous art to be learned and practiced in context, videogames represent an arena in which we might explore epistemology and apply to composition pedagogy.  Furthermore, if we view techne as a kind of play, videogames work as a collective example, inviting a rethinking of composition, a reimagining of approaches and sequeneces designed to promote active, critical thinking. Technology is an integral part of teaching writing, and it is therefore important to go beyond acknowledgement and awareness by discussing and implementing approaches that encourage and complement new ways of making meaning. 

This chapter will explain how Platonic, Aristotelian, and Isocratic notions of techne function within videogames, remaining flexible and diverse while requiring different forms of principled, rule-based interaction and the acquisition of means to desirable and fulfilling ends. Videogames reveal techne as flexible and diverse, requiring different interactions in relation to particular principles and the acquisition of means to desirable and fulfilling ends, achieved through tapping into the potential presented within. Each in-game encounter shapes literacy practices, causing reflection and/or revision in light of new knowledge; learning becomes an ever-present possibility, revealing techne as a kind of play, a fluid, contextual form of action. It can also be through videogames that we are better able to understand ourselves and the identities we create and comprehend and enact the changes we want to see. There is also a certain richness to historical inquiry that makes for a worthy addition to discussions of composition pedagogy and videogames. This chapter endeavors to provide a degree of that richness.

Again, techne can be vague. Rare is the occasion for Plato, Aristotle or Isocrates, to call techne by name, but it is possible to discern how they understood it. From Plato is the idea of techne as flexible and diverse, with each artful craft requiring communication in concepts and construction. Such action is necessary prior to production.  Aristotle takes this further with the idea of potential within, of something to be acquired and applied, but this something is more than the means.  Rules govern and inform methods of making; absence of principles often means absence of production.  Both are necessary aspects of literacy, its acquisition and action, which Isocrates understands in bringing principles and production together in his rhetorical pedagogy. 

Divergent ideas about techne can cause confusion, but divergence also allows for greater understanding. In drawing together Plato’s idea of techne as flexible and diverse yet principled, Aristotle’s of a ‘capacity to make’ and Isocrates’ pedagogical amalgamation of parameters and potential production, we can come to understand techne as a kind of play. 




Pedagogy that encourages more play in college-level writing courses often comes coupled with an acknowledgement of technology as an increasing influence in students’ lives (Sirc 2001; Moberly 2008; Robison 2008; Shultz Colby & Colby 2008). Related is the revisiting and/or revitalization of old Greek words like kairos and techne for similar purposes, i.e., the teaching of writing in acknowledgement of technical and technological influences (Moeller & McAllister 2002; Penrod 2005; Losh 2009). In light of research into play and old Greek words for the purposes of composition-rhetoric pedagogy, I desire to bring these two research areas together in arguing for understanding techne as play. 

However, the nebulous nature of both techne and play invite tangible examples. Videogames are an evolving, popular medium that refashions earlier media and promotes a greater degree of interactivity (Bolter & Grusin 2000) while also being representative of learning (Gee 2003). As such, they comprise important instances of how techne, play, and techne as play might be understood. What follows, then, is an exploratory analysis of three interstices of gaming that signal opportunities for play and provide potential models for writing instruction.

Before such analysis, though, it is important if not necessary to acknowledge that the pervasiveness and scope of both techne and play remain points of contention. This acknowledgement is not to imply a lack of similarities between the two; in fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. As signifiers, play “stands for a category of very diverse happenings” (Sutton-Smith 3) and techne acts as the name for the activities and skills of the craftsman as well as for the arts of the mind (Heidegger 1977). In other words, both are sort of catch-all descriptors for various and sundry things. Of course, divergent ideas about techne and play can cause confusion, but such divergence can also allow for greater understanding.

As such, many have been encouraged rather than dissuaded from alternate understandings of each term. For instance, Sutton-Smith (2001) observes how rhetorics of play are influenced by historical sources, particular functions, specialized advocates, and the contexts of specific academic disciplines. Much the same occurs with techne, given views of it as a mode of revealing (Ong 1982), as the suggestion of learning within a tradition (Hodgkin 1990), as possessing aesthetic and technical characteristics (Rutsky 1999), as a kind of control over chance (Gordon 2002), as a situational bridge over the gap between theory and practice (Dubinsky 2002), as techniques for situating bodies in contexts (Hawk 2004). Decidedly neutral interpretations are as impossible for play as they might be for techne, given how ambiguity creeps into "the relationship between how they are perceived and how they are experienced" (Sutton-Smith 216). Roger Caillois' definition of play is illustrative here as he describes it as "an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money" (5-6) while also emphasizing it as essential to social development. While absent are arguments about techne as wasteful, Winner (1983) and Rosen (1993) each assert its inseparability from society. So, if we might perceive of play as “characterized by quirkiness, redundancy and flexibility” (Sutton-Smith 229), attempts to paint techne in a similar light should be acceptable.

As this edited collection overall attests, videogames represent an area in which we might explore epistemology and possible applications to composition pedagogy. In a way, I think this reveals the imperative that we go beyond the acknowledgement and awareness advocated by Selfe (1999) and implement approaches that encourage and complement new ways of making meaning. In seeing techne as play, videogames work as a collective example, inviting a rethinking of composition pedagogy, a re-imagining of approaches and sequences designed to promote active, critical thinking. Again, what follows is an exploratory analysis of three gaming instances that reveal techne as play and, in turn, indicate a writing-instruction model that leads to learning rather than just skills dispensation. 

On Weeks 1&2 #112CWR #342VS #513DR

Two weeks into the semester and I'm still talking too much. I suppose that doing so is important/necessary in helping all students understand all course aspects while moving forward. Talking more in #342VS and #513DR also makes sense because I designed each course as an introduction to an academic field of inquiry. As students may not know that much about videogame studies or digital rhetoric, I suppose I'm the resident expert. Furthermore, as students may not know much about tweeting (for academic purposes or otherwise), I'm the one to dominate their Twitter timelines. I remain concerned about precedent, though. If I'm the one introducing, modeling, and outlining everything, what reason will students have to rely on each other later? That first day of class gives so much power to the instructor. I suppose at least some of the rest of the semester will be spent giving that power back to students. I expect many to resist.

The tools I ask students to use is decided in part by this awareness. In addition to Twitter, which is perhaps the lone constant over the last 3 years of teaching, students in all courses this semester are using Pen.io. I also provided each #112CWR student with a Field Notes memo book for in-class writing and to maintain a more direct line of communication with me. 

Part of the reason for the switch to Pen.io concerns how last semester's blogs became more and more informal. I didn't do much to discourage this because I think that one of the best ways to get better at writing is to write a lot. Blogging can be a productive aspect to almost any kind of writing-oriented class, but I wanted to do something different this semester. I wanted to do something different because Posterous, while a rather solid blogging platform, underwent significant changes and became a full-fledged social network. As I wouldn't be asking or requiring students to use any of the new features, I figured there might be something else that was simple and easy to use.

For the most part, I think Pen.io's proven me right. It's pretty close to featureless (but allows for HTML), which is fine for what I'm asking. While talking too much about course particulars, I explained to students how it might be helpful to view their Pen.io work as comprising an online portfolio, the idea of which I first explored while an M.A. student at TAMU-CC. Some of the more tech-savvy students miss having an autosave feature as well as any way to implement Google Analytics, but the majority across #112CWR, #342VS, and #513DR don't seem to have found any substantial lack in the service. With a substantive Pen.io page and 5 tweets due every week, I think all students will be able to maintain online presence as required without difficulty. 

Now, regarding the sustained use of Twitter, I was very close to eliminating the "experiment" hedge of the Twitter assignment. As a communicative format and as a distribution channel, Twitter's become a vital part of my professional work. If I wasn't on Twitter, I can't imagine how many important discussions related to digital rhetoric and videogame studies I'd be wholly unaware of. I don't know how else I'd be able to keep up with all that's going on. This is not to imply that all one needs is Twitter, but what's to be found there can lead one down important avenues to elsewhere. If #112CWR students elect to do away with Twitter as a course requirement, I'll understand. If #342VS or #513DR students elect the same, though, I imagine I'll feel like a failure. 

Of course, I may only feel that way because of how I designed these courses, i.e., what works for me. Using Field Notes memo books to ask questions, jot down ideas, and think things through works for me. Twitter works for me. Pen.io works for me. In this respect, I suppose I'm teaching students to be like me. Again, I expect many to resist (and they should…probably).

Videogame Studies Project, updated winter 2012 #342vs

[amended from Mark Sample]

The default final project for ENG 342 is a series of Pen.io pages of at least 2000 words offering a critical interpretation of a videogame or of some phenomenon central to the social significance of videogames. Outside research and using sources from established scholarly journals and/or books are required.

Consider formal and narrative elements of gameplay as well as the dynamic between them. Remember that form includes rules, interface, graphics, music, and sound effects, while narrative concerns evocative symbolism, cultural assumptions, explicit or implicit ideology, and so on. Beware, too, the game's procedural rhetoric.

Which videogame and/or social phenomenon you examine for this project is up to you. A game as old as Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 could be just as satisfying as...well, Goldeneye 007: Reloaded. There are plenty of top-notch indie games, too, and a good source for discovering them is Play This Thing.

The bare minimum number of scholarly sources for this project is five. Think of your work as entering the ongoing conversation about videogames, either generally or more specifically in regards to a title, a genre, or a common issue. Scholarly sources are necessary for understanding how that conversation has developed thus far. Your entrance into the conversation will be marked by clarifying or disagreeing with what’s been said before and/or by exposing a critical issue that has so far been overlooked. You may cite your sources in APA, Chicago, or MLA style as long as you are accurate and consistent.


Alternative Final Project
As an alternative final project, you are welcome to design your own (small) videogame, using development tools available online like MIT’s Scratch or Inform (if you're interested in interactive fiction). The content and design are up to you, but the game should be a self-aware game that incorporates, reflects upon, and even challenges what we’ve discussed this semester. If you choose to design a game, please run your ideas by me sooner than later. 

If you decide to pursue an alternative final project, you will also write an artist’s statement to introduce your game. This statement will be an essay of at least 1000 words that outlines the goals of your project. In your statement, please consider the following questions:

  • What were you trying to achieve? 
  • What effect or meanings were you after? 
  • What subtextual meanings were you trying to evoke? 
  • Why did the project take the form it did? 
  • What was your decision-making process regarding design? 
  • Why did you do what you did and how do those choices mesh with the themes or goals of your work? 
  • What difficulties and/or epiphanies occurred as you created your project? 
  • What would you do differently next time?

With your game and your statement, I’ll be looking for evidence that you absorbed and thought about many of the issues discussed this semester regarding play, games, ludology, procedurality, and so on.

ENG 342 Videogame Studies schedule, updated winter 2012 #342vs

All due dates and required readings are tentative

Week 1 - Expectations & Introductions
Expectations and introductions
Read: grading contract, syllabus, Pen.io guidelines, Twitter guidelines

Due: Twitter and Pen.io account creation and first tweet/page
Read:  Aarseth - “Computer Game Studies, Year One,” Kazemi - “How Not To Write A College Essay About Videogames," Bissell and Ferrari - “On Videogame Criticism
Introduction to Approaches to Videogame Studies (AVS)

Week 2 - Games & Play
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Read: Caillois - “The Definition of Play,” “The Classification of Games,” and “The Social Function of Games,” Koster - “What Games Are” 

Pen.io page(s) discussion and visitation
Read: Koster - “What Games Teach Us,” Gee - “Semiotic Domains” 

Week 3 - Games & Play
Due: Pen.io page(s) (AVS)
Read: Koster - “What Games Aren’t,” Huizinga - “The Play-Element in Contemporary Civilization”

Read: Jones “Introduction to The Meaning of Videogames” & Juul - “Introduction to Half Real” 

Week 4 - Games & Play
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Read:  Jones - “Collecting Katamari” & Wark - “On Katamari Damacy

Read: Bogost - “An Alternative to Fun,” Frasca - “Videogames of the Oppressed
Group facilitation: Candace L., Brandi M., Kurtis B.

Week 5 - Ludology & Procedurality
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Read: Frasca - “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology,” Aarseth - “Genre Trouble

Read: Bogost - “The Rhetoric of Videogames,” Galloway - “Gamic Action, Four Moments,”

Week 6 - Culture & Industry

Due: Pen.io page(s)
Read: Aoyama & Izushi - “Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? Technological, cultural, and social foundations of the Japanese videogame industry” & Consalvo - “Console video games and global corporations : Creating a hybrid culture”

Read: Kerr - “The spatialisation of the digital games industry: Lessons from Ireland”
Group facilitation: Mike K., Wes D., Jessi N., Zeke Z.

Week 7 - Gender & Race
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Read: Cassell - “Genderizing HCI” & Schleiner - “Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons? Gender and Gender-Role Subversion in Computer Adventure Games” 

Read: DiSalvo - “Learning in Context: Digital Games and Young Black Men” & DeVane & Squire - “The Meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”
Group facilitation: Kyle B., Michael B., Hannah K.E., Ken K., Jonathan S.

Week 8 - Violence
Due: Pen.io page(s) (Play Aloud)
Read: Anderson, et al - “Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Day & Hall - “Déjà vu: From Comic Books to Video Games: Legislative Reliance on ‘Soft Science’ to Protect against Uncertain Societal Harm Linked to Violence v. The First Amendment”
Group facilitation: Andrew R., Andrew S., Heather B., Zack A.


Week 10 - Videogame Studies Project (VSP)
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Read: Mayra - “Preparing for a Game Studies Project" 
Introduction to Videogame Studies Project

Research session 

Week 11 - VSP - Pecha Kucha!
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Due: VSP PK proposals - CANCELED

Due: VSP PK proposals - Ken, Kyle, Candace, Brandi, Kurt , Heather, Andrew, Jessi

Week 12 - VSP - Pecha Kucha!
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Due: VSP PK proposals - Michael B., Zeke, Jonathan, Michael K., Wes, Zak, Hannah

Research session

Week 13 - VSP - Peer review!
Due: Pen.io page(s)
Due: VSP drafts - Ken, Kyle, Candace, Brandi, Kurt , Heather, Andrew, Jessi
Peer review

Due: VSP drafts - Michael B., Zeke, Jonathan, Michael K., Wes, Zak, Hannah
Peer review

Week 14 - VSP - Peer review!
Due: Pen.io page(s)  
Due: VSP drafts - Ken, Kyle, Candace, Brandi, Kurt , Heather, Andrew, Jessi

Due: VSP drafts - Michael B., Zeke, Jonathan, Michael K., Wes, Zak, Hannah

Week 15 - Reflections & Revisions
Due: All revisions to Pen.io page(s)

Due: Self-evaluative essay (email to instructor) 

Discipline-Specific Scholarship, updated winter 2012 #112cwr

Having read, researched, compiled, annotated, commented, and reflected on academic sources related to your intended major/profession, we should have a better foundational knowledge of what constitutes quality and/or expertise within a specific field of study. Part of this greater understanding concerns expectations of quality and/or expertise in writing for future courses. Now is the time to apply that knowledge toward a specific end.

Using sources from the Pop Up and Mashup Scholarship assignments as models (and/or as references), compose a piece adhering to the conventions, arguments, and styles of writing associated with your major/intended profession. This can be any kind of a piece appearing in one of the major journals in your field of study. It could be a substantial book review, a research essay, or a critique of a past article. 

The piece composed should showcase an argument similar to those appearing in discipline-specific journals. The piece composed should also showcase positive format and style characteristics similar to those highlighted during the Mashup and Pop Up Scholarship assignments. So, while you should adhere to the default 2400-word requirement, the main requirements for this assignment are those specified by dominant journals in your field of study. If you have any trouble getting started, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Part 1 (pecha kucha, due 3.13, 3.15, 3.20, 3.22). In a 6-minute, 40-second presentation, propose and summarize your approach to this assignment, including discourse adoption and potential source support.

Part 2 (online, due 3.27, 3.29). In a series of Pen.io pages, execute your proposal in time for instructor and peer review.

Part 3 (online, due 4.3, 4.10). In light of comments received during instructor and peer review, revise and update your Pen.io pages.