Week 11/12 Reflections

With pecha kucha presentations complete in 252 and 298, it is time to reflect on how they all went down. For the most part, I was impressed with what students put together. As expected, there were some technical difficulties, but nothing that was too damaging to any one presentation. Many utilized images and phrases to their advantage, capturing not only the spirit of pecha kucha but also providing better explanation of their ideas. I was also better able to see how these creative and critical topics of interest mattered to students. Whether working from a script, notes or memory, the importance of their projects was often quite clear. "This means something to me," said many of the presentations, "and here's why." Of course, there were a few that showed a lack of practice, preparation and/or respect for pecha kucha, but even these showed deeper concern and interest in particular topics. I have even greater anticipation now for the drafts of their projects due Week 13.

Despite the hiccups encountered, the most recent 513 session represented a return to form. Thanks in large part to the last two student facilitations, both of which were presentation-heavy but otherwise handled well, there was again some real engagement with issues concerning online identity and the technologies utilized to foster it. Cynicism and skepticism were present in the comments of certain students, but not without foundation. The Internet can be an overwhelming, if not scary, place, and it has the potential to become even more so as it and the surrounding user-cultures/societies continue to change. This is not to imply a doom-and-gloom future, though, as I think just as much potential exists for creative, positive utilization, which is something I hope students know and understand as a result of taking this course. Perhaps their pecha kucha presentations in two weeks will reveal this...

Delicious (Almost) Every Other Day 11.24.09

Finding more in 'most': Scientific study of an everyday word
"...the exact meaning of plain language isn't always easy to find. Even simple words like 'most' and 'least' can vary greatly in definition and interpretation, and are difficult to put into precise numbers."

Local Bookstores, Social Hubs and Mutualization
"Like record stores and video rental places, physical bookstores simply can’t compete for breadth of offering and, also like the social changes around music and moving images, the internet is strengthening rather than weakening the ability of niches and sub-cultures to see themselves reflected in long-form writing."

The Videogame Debate: Bad for Behaviour, Good for Learning?
"...research suggests that appropriate use of recreational and educational video games can facilitate learning and the development of important skills. "

Half man, half machine: The cyborgs are coming
"Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed ultra slim and flexible electronic circuits on silk that dissolve once implanted inside the body leaving the electronics behind to do their thing."

The I's Don't Have it
"The Internet makes everybody a linguist, the same way it turns us all into medical diagnosticians and tracers of lost persons. Counting words has become a favorite way to track a trend, uncover a hidden meaning or cut a long text down to size."

Conference Humiliation: They're Tweeting Behind Your Back
"The microblogging service Twitter is changing a staple of academic life from a one-way presentation into a real-time conversation. Flub a talk badly enough and you now risk mobilizing a scrum of digital-spitball-slinging snark-masters."

Can Science Fight Media Disinformation?
"In the 24/7 Internet world, people make lots of claims. Science provides a guide for testing them."

Your Brain On Books
"...the human brain is a much more constrained organ than we think, and that it places strong limits on the range of possible cultural forms. Essentially, the brain did not evolve for culture, but culture evolved to be learnable by the brain."

Games 'permit' virtual war crimes
"Video games depicting war have come under fire for flouting laws governing armed conflicts."

(Skilled) Self-Presentation
"Presenting knowledge or arguments effectively involves putting together a lot of different sub-skills on the fly."

Teaching With Twitter: Not For The Faint Of Heart
"...asking 250 students to post questions on Twitter during a class doesn't risk life or limb. But it can cause ego damage if the mob of students...gets disorderly online."

Week 10/11 Reflections

The near end-of-the-semester doldrums dissipated with the introduction of the final project in ENG 252 and ENG 298. Both courses appear to have some late life left in them as a result. Project requirements ask for students to focus on an issue of their interest within the focus of the course, writing studies and game studies respectively. Beyond posting initial proposals to their blogs for peer and instructor approval, the final project asks for pecha kucha presentations prior to a first project draft. There was some initial resistance to this aspect alone, with students expressing surprise at the strict requirements and others suggesting slight variations of the established rules. For perhaps the first time in the semester, I was immovable to any suggested changes, which some interpreted as anger or frustration. Class sessions focused on the discussion of final projects proved to be some of the most energetic and interesting of the semester, but not just because I kept saying no to possible variants of pecha kucha. The level of engagement missing from previous weeks made a triumphant return, I think, as students thought aloud and online about possibilities. Freed of blogging and reading about predetermined subjects, which I intended as preparation for final projects, many students showed great willingness to move forward in creative and critical ways.

For as glad as I am about students taking to their final projects with some degree of gusto, I'm concerned about the timing of such work. It is normal for most all college-level courses to conclude with some larger project, but the effect of this often means overwhelming students more than usual. While we might justify such work by saying that which does not kill us makes us stronger, I want to entertain the idea of having students complete final projects in future courses two weeks before the semester's end. In earlier posts, I observed how the constant grind of blogging and reading didn't sharpen students' resolve but dulled their senses. Perhaps an earlier introduction of the final project could work as a preemptive attack then. Having a calmer last two weeks, too, would also leave students more time to reflect on the course and their performance as well as to complete their final projects in other courses.

Such a change would be most welcome in 513, given reactions to my suggestion of taking a figurative, collective deep breath after the completion of midterm essays. While I think some viewed this as another step toward full dissolution, I'm hopeful that the next session will be more of a return to proper form. Right now, I think the course suffered and, to a certain degree, continues to suffer under the weight of great expectations, both mine and those of certain students, and also how some of those expectations remained unspoken for the majority of the semester. As observed in previous reflective posts, the level of prescription could, and perhaps should, have been higher from the beginning. The majority of the class still appears to be learning and getting something helpful out of the course. At this point, the lone apparent sensible thing for any of us to do is just ride out the avalanche.

Delicious Every Other Day 11.18.09

Twittering the Student Experience
"An experiment into the use of social media at the University of Leicester has shown that Twitter, an online blogging service, can act as an exceptional communication tool within academia."

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live In The Matrix
"To recreate a brain/mind in silico, whether a cyborg body or a computer frame, is equally problematic. Large portions of the brain process and interpret signals from the body and the environment. Without a body, these functions will flail around and can result in the brain... well, losing its mind."

Educator Use Of Social Networking Lags Behind Interest
"The final results of an extensive nationwide survey on educator use of social networking were published last week, and it appears that more than six educators in ten are at least interested enough in the growing medium to register on one or more sites."

Choose Your Own Freshman Comp
"Freshmen are required to take this six-credit seminar, which is organized around a specific topic. Students spend three hours with a full-time faculty member focusing on the specific topic and then another three hours with a writing instructor -- typically a graduate English or writing student -- who uses content from the topic section to teach college composition."

How Not to Write Fiction: Style and Evidence in Qualitative Research Studies
"I had begun to read research studies, and I found that good research studies – the ones that were solidly grounded, well written, and intellectually curious – were more interesting than fiction to me."

Venezuela bans violent video games: a first-person guest essay
"The law is just the latest nail in the coffin of Venezuelans' right of dissent and broader civil liberties. A pitiful attempt to blame video games and toys for the widespread lethal violence in our country, instead of a defective judicial structure, systemic corruption and governmental (purposeful?) ineptitude to deal with the problem."

The truth about videogame addiction
"Tabloid headlines gorge themselves on this kind of stuff. These tragic events are just a handful of instances among millions, perhaps billions, of gaming lives, but they're easily exploded out of all proportion by the hype-seeking missile of cheap journalism."

The History of the Internet in a Nutshell
"...considering how much of an influence the Internet has in our daily lives, how many of us actually know the story of how it got its start?"

Week 9 Reflections

Course frustrations culminated in an abrupt assignment adjustment this past week. The decision to eliminate the fourth and final observation from ENG 252 came from suffering through the third round of submissions, both oral and written, which were enough evidence that the once interesting idea had gone stale. In future incarnations, there will be two total observations required, one oral and one written, in which students analyze and compare representations of writers and writing, composers and composing. Asking for four such observations from students this semester was just too much for all parties involved.

In contrast, the last student-led reading group session went well. Despite the "boring" and "painful" focus on forms of professional writing, the ensuing whole-class discussion was enlightening and productive. Student discussion leaders offered some very good observations on the importance of putting together cover letters, personal statements and resumes. What I appreciated most was the introduction of a writing activity asking students to compose resumes for cartoon characters. I found this to be an appealing assignment for many reasons. Students in my Winter 2010 technical writing course shouldn't be surprised to encounter some variation of this.

Discussion in ENG 298 was better this week, even though it remained apparent that whole-class discussion has lost significant momentum. The same six or seven students contributed to the conversation; the other two-thirds sat in relative silence with some variance in terms of attention and engagement. As mentioned in my previous reflective post, I am quite glad to be moving forward with the final game studies project because it changes the entire point of holding class. Course goals will soon be even more common and students will need to rely as much on each other as they might me for critical feedback on their work.

I had some expectation that my lunch meeting with three ENG 298 students might turn to their thoughts on the final game studies project, but we ended up just talking about videogames. I was surprised and energized by their questions about the relationship between learning and videogames, about my own starry-eyed aspirations for changing the very structure of college-level courses to better fit what's most successful in RPGs like Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and FPSs like Left 4 Dead. Perhaps that will be a course I guide sometime in the future.

For now, though, I'm skeptical and worried about ENG 513. It appears on the edge of full dissolution. I realize this is my fault; I've mentioned reasons in previous posts. The first few facilitations were of such high quality; perhaps it was naive of me to assume such a level could be maintained. It's almost as if the course began as a modest snowball that took on greater mass each week until it became what it is now. As facilitations became less cohesive endeavors, marked by unexpected comments and uncomfortable silences, an avalanche took shape, and now I wonder if I should try in vain to slow the descent or just ride it out to the end and then climb up and out. This is not to say that some aspects of the past few facilitations haven't been helpful, but these parts seem fewer and farther between.

Then again, these observations might be little more than evidence of how I'm being too hard on myself, the course, the students. The melodramatic nature of my words here are designed to draw attention, of course, but there is a strong element of truth as well. As always, I welcome comments that further this conversation.

Delicious Every Other Day 11.4.09

Professionalization in the academy [Harvard Magazine]
"...the more self-limiting the profession, the harder it is to acquire the credential and enter into practice, and the tighter the identification between the individual practitioner and the discipline."

The golden age of infinite music [BBC]
"...as the great digital revolution rolls on, bands are no longer having to compete for people's money. Instead, they're jockeying for our time. And the field is huge, crossing not just genres, but eras."

Going Offline In Search Of Freedom [NYTimes.com]
"If we’re inundated with data, our brains’ synthesizing functions are overwhelmed by the effort to keep up. And the original purpose — deeper knowledge of a subject — is lost."

Privacy is dead, and social media hold smoking gun [CNN]
"It's easy to see the associated risks of a life-logging device. From stalkers to identity theft, recording such information (and to unlock its true value, posting it online) makes us vulnerable to all manner of bad actors.But what about the cost of not sharing? In the online realm, that might mean you simply don't exist."

What sociologist Erving Goffman could tell us about social networking and Internet identity [O'Reilly Radar]
"That the Internet suppresses implicit signals such as body language, and maps poorly to high-context cultures, is well known. But what we can learn from Goffman is that the elimination of all these nuances reduces the effectiveness of team behavior when they interact in groups with other participants who have differing interests or viewpoints."

Google Wave: we came, we saw, we played D&D [Ars Technica]
"...there seems to be an emerging consensus that Google Wave has as much RPG potential as any platform since the venerable and proverbial tabletop."

The Science of Retweets on Twitter [PR 2.0]
"Retweets, in my opinion, are one of the most sincere forms of recognition and validation, empowering users to pay it forward through the recognition of noteworthy content."

Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter [Wired]
"It’s easy to write off Twitter as a happy accident, a right-place, right-time fluke. But that misses the point. When Twitter’s creators designed the service, they made a series of crucial and deliberate decisions — ones that seem brilliant in retrospect — that created the conditions that allow users to innovate."

The power of tweets [Guardian]
"So is Twitter a neat way of keeping in contact with your mates? One of the most effective promotional device yet invented? A powerful new tool for democracy, enabling abuses to be exposed and offenders to be defeated? Or (in this country at least) a liberal rent-a-mob bent on hanging out to dry those who express an opinion that differs from their own?"

Some thoughts on Twitter vs. Facebook Status Updates [apophenia]
"[The] difference between the two has to do with the brokering of status. With Facebook, the dominant norm is about people at a similar level of status interacting. On Twitter, there's all sorts of complicated ways in which status is brokered."

Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think? [NPR]
"Social network users assume a degree of privacy within their circle of friends — but it's not a safe assumption to make."

Week 8 Reflections

Change is imminent in the two undergraduate courses I'm guiding this semester. The week after next will be witness to a rather significant shift. Students' responsibilities will no longer involve readings predetermined by me or their classmates. Blogging requirements will lessen to once a week. In place of this work will be a narrowed focus upon final projects comprised of three constituent parts. I think the pace of both courses will quicken as a result. This already leads me to feel as though more than half the semester is over, that I should already begin relating here some course revisions.

Foremost in my mind right now is how I wasn't prescriptive enough regarding the student reading groups in ENG 252. Future student groups will be required to come up with specific questions designed to promote discussion. Beginning a whole-class conversation with a generic "So, whaddya think of the readings?" is only successful for so long, even if the instructor asked. As mentioned in previous reflective posts, I find little fault falling upon the students who led these in-class discussions. It was much more my responsibility to provide adequate guidance and I simply didn't. There needs to be more of a balance struck between students' writing interests and my own course intentions. This semester has already been a significant witness to me erring too far on the side of caution in this regard. Overly concerned with not telling students how and what to think about writing and videogames, perhaps I've sacrificed having them learn in deeper, more meaningful ways. In other words, I fear these undergraduate courses are challenging only in terms of the required amount of written work (if at all).

This is a bit of a nagging concern for ENG 513, too, but it could just be that time in the semester. Literature reviews are due by the start of our next class, and I know how taxing such documents can be on graduate students' time. I should reserve any further judgment until after all literature reviews are in and I've had a moment or three to look over them.

A Rough Patch (Conclusion)

The agency and immediacy Fallout 3 provides to the player in terms of morality and survival and just how meaningful it can be to be good or evil in this particular post-apocalyptic environment are also characteristics noted by Allen Cook in the column, “Hero of the Wastes.” The player “can truly revel in the epic nature of [their] betrayal of humanity” or feel as though they have “contributed substantially to the well-being of mankind by simply handing some guy a cheap bottle of water.” Although Egocentric is a karmic title the game reserves for the player marking a neutral path through the Capital Wasteland, Cook implies that the entire experience is about ego: “I’m the hero because I’m the one with the tools, the knowledge, the know-how…I am the arbiter of history because I’m the only one who knows it, which means I’m the only one who can write it.” It is because of the greater agency and influence provided to the player from the beginning of the game that prompts the question of what they will do. This is a point on which Duncan Fyfe explains in the blog post, “Escape From Vault 101,” observing that “making moral decisions isn’t a feature designed to encourage replayability, it’s arguably the entire point [of playing the game].” All falls upon the quality of the character being developed by the player, and if they “try and approximate the moral and legal standards of today, then that’s a statement in itself.” In a way, the player becomes similar not only to Ellison’s Vic but also to J.G. Ballard’s Traven in “The Terminal Beach,” how the player’s time in the Capital Wasteland becomes “completely existential, an absolute break separating one moment from the next like two quantal events” (131). Furthermore, the player’s actions come to mirror those taken by Randy Bragg in Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, for “in everything he did, now, he found he looked into the needs of the future” (173). Such characteristics compose the essence of survival in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

In Dale Bailey’s referential and self-aware post-apocalyptic tale, “The End Of The World As We Know It,” he identifies three varieties of main characters typical to such stories: the rugged individualist whose self-reliance and knowledge of firearms puts them “on their way to Re-Establishing Western Civilization” (287), the post-apocalyptic bandit who is not “displeased by the expanded opportunities to rape and pillage” (287) and the world-weary sophisticate who needs no further description. With its strong elements of choice and freedom coupled with a simple, but effective system of morality, Fallout 3 allows, and perhaps even encourages, the player to be each of these characters, if not all three. No matter the player’s particular karmic bent, expertise will tend “towards the ultraviolent" (Langan 311). With myriad opportunities for damnation and salvation, maintaining neutrality in the Capital Wasteland can be a rather fruitless, if not futile, endeavor. Perhaps this is what the post-apocalyptic scenario offered by Fallout 3 is most suggestive of, that ascribing to a moral code, be it harmful or helpful to those encountered, is most essential for survival.


...in focusing our and our students' reflections and writing on a practice such as gaming, we are both honoring an emerging interest among many students and helping students work in platforms that, in some cases, mimic the kinds of writing environments and situations that students might find themselves in outside our classes...Moreoever, my emphasis on inviting students to consider connections across modes of writing and writing environments cuts to the heart of what we as compositionists should be doing: offering students a diversity of writing experiences and encouraging them to become more conscious writers--that is, writers rhetorically aware of how audience, genre, and tone work in a variety of writing environments.

--Jonathan Alexander, "Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Classroom: Some Possibilities for Transformation"