Category Archives: teaching

Video Games and the Future of the Digital Humanities: Some Thoughts

Yesterday I readthis article in the New York Times about an MFA program in Video Game design that forms part of the Tisch School of the Arts. According to the article, the program exists alongside Theater, Film, and Television programs. In addition to studying the history of games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat and seeking to gain contemporary design ideas from consoles like the Atari, Students have also embarked on projects like the one in Professor Eric Zimmerman’s class that incorporated historical narrative into a first-person shooter game: “A game that began as a military shooter about the 1937 Battle of Shanghai was, over several months, transformed into an interactive exploration of the fog-of-war recollections of a fictional photojournalist.”
This program offers evidence of an increasing trend within the digital humanities to use gaming and game theory as tools to teach literature. I have seen this trend take hold particularly within my own field of nineteenth-century studies. Work like Michael Suc-Young Schwe’s Jane Austen: Game Theorist (2013) challenges us to think about how game theory and the gaming platform as narrative can deepen close reading and character analysis. Schwe posits that Austen employed the strategic thinking of game theory in her six novels as the basis for the choices her characters made in navigating the various levels of Regency England’s social hierarchy. In view of game design degree programs like the one at NYU, such scholarship can certainly work in tandem with the development of games based on literary texts. Among the most recent are the board game Marrying Mr. Darcy, based on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Sherlock: the Networkan iOS game based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series and its currently popular television adaptation, BBC’c “Sherlock.” Several game developers have also recently launched Storium—the online storytelling game. In response to the interest of educators, the creators are also at work on Storium for Schools—an encouraging development that can prove an exciting teaching tool for anyone interested in using the tools of the digital humanities to galvanize literary studies. Using these tools can allow students to participate in the narrative as active readers and think critically about the role that reader response can have on the outcome of the narrative. Such tools can also neatly dovetail the study of the serialized novel—in particular how the reader responses that impacted the work of novelists like Dickens and Gaskell demonstrate the importance of audience awareness in a similar manner to the online dialogues that occur between fan communities and writers on the internet today.
As somewhat of a DH newbie, I would love to hear from anyone who has used video or board games as teaching tools in literature courses and how students responded to the experiment, so please feel welcome to share any experiences in the comments.

Open Your Eyes: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012

Those of you who know me or who have been following this blog for any length of time know that in addition to being sexy, intelligent, witty, a decent cook, and modest to a fault, I am blind: or rather, I am a person who happens to be blind. There is a difference between being a blind person and a person who happens to be blind, and it is not a subtle one. Every day, we tell ourselves stories about who we are, and those stories shape the images we create of ourselves and the world in which we live. To call myself a blind person would be true, but it would also be a severe understatement—an oversight of the many ingredients that, mixed together, make up the unique flavor of my personality.

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and as I reflect upon the ways in which society defines me by the disable label, I also find myself thinking about the eye-opening moments I have been privileged enough to share with those who have been willing to look beyond that label.

Last spring, I taught a course in 20th Century British Literature, but I was transparent about my passion for my area of specialization—the Nineteenth Century—and especially my Jane Austen fanaticism. One of my students, who I afterward affectionately termed my “Jane Austen student,” came gushing to me after class one day about her trip to England the previous summer and, in particular, her visit to Chawton House—the residence of Jane Austen.
“I have pictures,” she informed me. “If you’d like, I can bring them next class and show you.” Insert very long, uncomfortable pause punctuated by chirping crickets. Class had been in session for roughly four weeks at this point; either this student was terribly unobservant of the Labrador that sat curled at my feet during every lesson, or she needed to have her own eyes checked out. That said, I have non-confrontational tattooed across my forehead, so rather than point out the obvious and add an even thicker layer of awkwardness to an already awkward situation, I smiled and responded, “I’d love to be able to see them.” ‘Hurrah,’ I thought. ‘I am a paragon of inner poise and diplomacy.’ I said “I’d love to be able to see them,” which was, I thought, the truth. I would, but I could not.

“great!” responded my student. (Did she need a bomb to drop on her?). In this case, it was my dog discretely, or not-so-discretely, treading on her foot with his paw.

When I walked into class the following day, I wondered whether or not Jane Austen student would in fact remember to bring her pictures of Chawton and, if she did, how I would explain to her that I would not, in fact, be able to see them, much as I wished to. ‘Idiot,’ I thought. ‘Golden opportunity for a teachable moment here, and because you’re such a politically-correct chickenshit, you’ve let it slip right past.’ As I suspected, Jane Austen student did in fact bring her pictures and suggested walking to my office with me so she could share them. Now the moment had come; there was no way out, but how could I offend her when she’d gone out of her way to bring the pictures and seemed so enthusiastic about sharing them with me?

We walked across campus together, chatting about the weather, classes, my dog—safe subjects. As we drew nearer my office, I was still wondering how I might be able to salvage what was left of this uncomfortable situation and transform it into a teachable moment. While I rarely if ever call attention to my blindness, I try whenever possible to educate my students about how best they can be of service to someone with a disability when the need arises.

When we arrived at my office, I thought I’d let the student initiate the dreaded picture conversation and see what might happen; I was buying time. At this point, “Lovely, but I can’t see it” was still the only thing I could conceivably think of saying. Subtlety is not a virtue I claim to possess in large quantities–in any quantity actually. To my astonishment, with no prompting from me, Jane Austen student brought out her pictures and, flipping through them, proceeded to describe each and every shot to me in detail. It was as if she were simply sharing her adventure with me, using the pictures as a way to refresh her own memory. She must have spent a good hour with me, describing in detail the landscape surrounding Chawton House and sharing the story behind each picture—like the one of the exit-ramp off the highway where she and her friend had accidentally found themselves when her GPS inexplicably switched from the pedestrian setting to the car setting.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this instance, it truly became that, and so much more. In that moment, it was my ignorance, and not my student’s, that had been exposed—my assumption that this girl wouldn’t be able to fathom how to bring the world into view for someone who couldn’t see it.

In honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day, I urge you to check out Gin and Lemonadea wonderfully witty blog by a wonderfully witty woman who, among other things, writes prolifically about living with a disability. She rocks—and (quite literally) rolls.

A Little Birdie Told Me: Academic Research and the Twittersphere

Amidst headlines about the ongoing violence in Syria, the 2012 presidential race, and people (myself included) griping about Facebook’s mandatory rollout of Timeline, I was fortunate to stumble upon this little gem in my Twitter feed: MLA Releases Guidelines for Citing a Tweet.
‘Great,’, I thought. ‘As if taking up arms against the persistence of plagiarism isn’t already challenging enough what with Wikipedia, Google, and the fact that the iPhone has shrunk the world of information to a pocket-sized piece of plastic’. Now we’ve got to contend with Twitter.

You would think that, having spent roughly half of my life becoming increasingly reliant on the Internet, that I’d be a bit less of a Luddite about this most recent acknowledgement of the extent to which internet technology has altered the way we conduct (and in turn cite) research. But the truth is, I needed a moment to pick my jaw up off the floor before I could actually process this information. Several cups of coffee later, with the gears of my brain grinding, I challenged myself to step back and evaluate the situation from a more technologically open-minded perspective. Let’s face it: I blog, I use Facebook, I tweet like a twit, and I’ll be much surprised if I am never called upon to address a question from a student about the correct method for citing a tweet. Thanks to the MLA, I now have a default response.

That being said, there remains the issue of what constitutes legitimate, authoritative sources, and the circumstances under which Twitter might be considered appropriate for academic research. Admittedly, I was hard-pressed to think of such scenarios; as a literature and writing teacher and a Victorian scholar, I’ve never encountered (at least not yet) such a scenario. However, I am aware that in recent years, scholars in my field, as well as fans, have taken to creating accounts on Twitter impersonating—for entertainment as well as edification—fictional characters and their creators, everyone from Wilkie Collins and the great Sherlock Holmes to Mark Darcy of Bridget Jones fame (though he hasn’t tweeted in months…not that I know this, because I don’t follow him or anything). To return to the point, if someone, whether a student or professional scholar, wanted to conduct research focusing on the use of social media such as Twitter for engaging with literature and encouraging the “iPhone generation” to read, this might be a scenario where citing a tweet might be academically appropriate.

To use another example, the course I taught last semester—Writing through Media—and the course I’m currently teaching—Advanced Argumentative Writing—both have a heavy emphasis on the usage of new media tools, including Twitter, as means through which to enrich our writing experiences and create new spaces for readers and writers to interact with one another. I’ve just assigned my Advanced Argumentative Writing students an essay addressing this very topic, and in a context where one is studying the trends of popular media, there might be cause for incorporating Twitter into the research and writing. In that case, the MLA has offered us a solution to a question for which, until now, teachers have had no standard, textbook response.

How do you feel about the acknowledgement of Twitter as potentially suitable for use in academic research? What situations can you think of in which such usage would be called for? How can teachers instruct students about how best to use Twitter as an academic tool? Is Twitter even an internet resource that can offer students legitimate, authoritative information, or should we teach students to treat Twitter as we instruct them to treat Wikipedia–a source of general (though not necessarily verifiable) information?

A Lesson Learned in Luke

It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.- The King and I

My students have an essay due tomorrow, so naturally when I logged onto my e-mail for the first time this morning, I wasn’t surprised to find desperate pleas for help. While I’ve told my students time and again that I can do little for them in the way of major feedback 24 hours before an assignment is due, I’ve resigned myself to the reality of always finding e-mails of the “What should I write my paper on” variety even with the deadline looming. (As an aside, I hate this question more than carrot raisin salad, or the sound of the alarm clock on Monday morning, or…insert anything unpleasant and double the wrath I feel toward it). Similarly frustrating are the students who will send me a draft of a paper the day before its due, asking me to “look it over”. Having been at this job for nearly five years, I think I’ve become fairly skilled at spotting the difference between the student who is genuinely struggling with her writing and the one to whom “look this over” translates to “correct my mistakes so I will get an ‘A'”.

When I opened my e-mail this morning, I discovered a message from a student with a nearly-finished essay that she wanted me to “look over”. I’m not unwilling to provide my students with encouragement and input during the writing process; let’s face it, for most of us, words don’t flow freely from our fingertips like milk and honey from the Promised Land. That said, there must be a practical limit to my kindness; if every student sent me a draft, and I responded to each one, I would effectively be grading it twice; not to mention, I would have little or no time to devote to my dissertation, lesson-planning, writing the book article I’m currently working on, and the myriad of other professional obligations that demand my attention. Then, of course, “teacher” is only one of many hats I wear; I am a friend, a daughter, a sister, an active church-member, and a writer—all of which come bundled with their own set of responsibilities.

With a fortifying sip of coffee, I wrote back to my student and promised a response by the end of the day; trying not to become overwhelmed with my to-do list before I even began to tackle it, I headed over to the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops page for my daily dose of scripture.

Whenever I find myself struggling to answer the question of how my work in academia serves the Lord, I remind myself that Jesus was—and is—a teacher, and today’s lesson was one I was glad I didn’t miss. In today’s Gospel (Luke 17:7-10) Jesus challenges his apostles: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say,
“We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.” Here Jesus reminds us that to truly answer the call to serve others, we cannot merely do what is expected of us; we must go above and beyond the call of duty—work overtime without compensation, so-to-speak. (Though he also reminds us that our reward for all we do will be great in Heaven). I took that to heart as I thought about my work today, and I realized that so much of doing my job successfully demands going above and beyond the call of duty; doing more than what is expected of me, even when it doesn’t suit my convenience. How would it have been if someone with an unclean spirit had appealed to Jesus for healing only to have him tell them “Sorry, closed for business. Tell your demons to take a chill pill and call me in the morning.”? OK, so teaching students the value of sound rhetoric in their daily lives isn’t perhaps as monumental an achievement as, say, the Loaves and the Fishes trick or raising a man from the dead, but I think the idea here is that we’re called to live all aspects of our lives, great and small, with that compassion. True, I’m an imperfect human, and I’m not always going to get it right, but today I’m thankful for the reminder of what I’m striving for.

What are you thankful for today?

Spell-Checkers: the Dust-Buster of Word-Processors

“The computer is only as smart as its user.”
“A computer is a machine that makes very fast, very accurate mistakes.”

We’re all familiar with these expressions, and those of us who’ve chosen the honored profession of teaching are reminded of them every time we sit down to grade a stack of student essays. It’s hardly surprising that the time-saving concept of the spell-checker built into word-processors would be appealing to the iPhone generation, nor that in the age of texting, tweeting, and otherwise communicating in as few words as possible, that students have forgotten how to spell, let alone the value of proofreading. As someone growing increasingly accustomed to writing in academic jargon and battling daily with a word-processor that doesn’t recognize terms like heteronormative and liberatory, I’m constantly reminded that my spell-checker is only one useful tool that aids me in writing—my brain is the other.

I traditionally teach my students what I’ve come to call the “rule of 5”: that is, proofread any piece of writing at least five times. However, it’s become glaringly obvious over the years that to many, if not all of my students, running the spell-checker once constitutes the entirety of best practices in proofreading. The spell-checker, I insist, is the dust-buster of word processors—effective for tidying up your document, but you need something a bit more powerful to make it pristine and presentable. The “rule of 5” as I call it is more time-consuming than actually difficult.

1. Read through the document, spotting and correcting errors manually where you find them.
2. Run the spell-checker to pick up anything you might have missed, checking each change before you accept it to make sure that it is, in fact, the word or phrase you want to use. There’s a reason why the spell-checker offers changes as “suggestions”.
3. Read through the document a second time; when you do this, if you’re reading carefully, you will almost invariably make a few minor adjustments, especially if the spell-checker has insistently removed a comma where there clearly ought to be one, or protested a lack of subject-verb agreement where subject and verb are in fact co-existing quite peacefully.
4. Since you’ve made changes to your document, it’s best to run the dust-buster once more to check for stray crumbs.
5. Now that you’ve done that, read it through once more—preferably out loud—to listen to the flow of your sentences. If you have difficulty reading fluidly, you more than likely need to restructure any awkwardly-worded sentences.

Of course, it’s flat-out naivety on my part to expect students who consider themselves to have gone the extra mile if they run the spell-checker once to do it twice, to say nothing of manually proofreading their documents. More often than not, the results of such carelessness make me want to grind my teeth to splinters, but occasionally I’ll find a gem that offers me a moment of free entertainment in an otherwise tedious task. Allow me to share with you a few of my favorites:

1. When spelling out the number 6, students frequently insert an ‘e’ where they ought to insert an ‘I’. I admit, I’m hardly surprised to find such a slip in so many college students’ papers; calling Dr. Freud. Nevertheless, this is a supreme example of an instance where more than a cursory spell-check is necessary, since the spell-checker is most likely going to pass over the recognized standard word without considering the fact that it hardly fits within the context of the sentence. (Spell-checker minus 1).
2. “It’s a viscous cycle”; I typically run across this one in student essays dealing with the environment or issues of environmental sustainability. For instance: When we waste the earth’s resources, we create a viscous cycle that will continue with future generations. Hmm, a thick, gloopy, glutinous cycle; highly descriptive, I admit, but I think the expression you’re looking for is “vicious cycle”. (Spell-checker minus 2, in case you’re still keeping score).
3. In an essay about Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, a student wrote that Jonathan Harker escaped Castle Dracula and was cared for by a religious covenant. Really? I thought he escaped to a convent. I wasn’t aware that he fled into the desert and struck a deal with the children of Israel to protect him against the evil King Vampire. (Spell-checker minus 3).
4. Also found in a student essay on Dracula: apparently, Dracula was written by Bram Stroker, not Bram Stoker, or so one of my students wrote. The blame here rests squarely on the shoulders of the student, as I’m fairly certain that the spell-checker would have sucked up that particular crumb (mine just did, anyway). I must confess I found this particular typo inappropriately amusing, and couldn’t help chuckling to myself when, upon reading the mistake, I recalled that Bram Stoker died of tertiary syphilis. I allowed my mind to dwell on the delicious irony for several moments before I continued reading.
5. I’ve saved this one for last, as it’s my favorite. Several years ago a student of mine wrote an essay about building accessibility for people with physical disabilities, and said essay contained the word “handicapability”. (I seriously considered sending this one in to the Reader’s Digest). If this were an actual word in standard English, the definition would probably look something like this: Handicapability: noun- the ability to be handicapped or to have a handicap. Well, now that I know I have the ability to be blind—that it’s all about exercising my potential—that really informs my understanding of my handicap. Really; let’s just take a moment to admire how this word effectively renders itself meaningless—the ability to be disabled.

As much as these errors amuse me in the short-term, I ultimately find them unsettling, especially today after reading this article in the Gainesville Sun about Governor Rick Scott’s not-so-brilliant plan to cut Liberal Arts programs (which typically include English departments and university writing programs)from the Florida state university system. What a brilliant plan, Governor Scott; let me know how that works out. What place, I wonder, does Governor Scott think sound literacy skills have in the well-rounded education, and where, I wonder, does he think students acquire such skills?
So, Mr. Governor, go ahead with this cut to the Humanities, but don’t come crying to me when your finely-educated college graduates can’t succeed in the professional arena because they lack even the most rudimentary of literacy skills to write a proper business letter.