Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: A Role-Playing Game for First-Year Compostion

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Murder. Madness. Mayhem. What new horrors lurk in the minds of men and women? Real life is scarier and stranger than any fiction. But an intrepid group of investigators are working to make the world a safer, saner place. No matter how old the crime, no matter how elusive the evidence, no matter how powerful those involved, they will leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth. They have no magical weapons with which to assault the dark things of the world. They simply have their wit, courage, and analytical skills to help them do battle with the horrors they face.

This past week I worked on summarizing the results of my attempt to integrate role-play writing into my second-semester FYC class in an article that I plan to submit for the Fall edition of Virtual Education Journal. For me, reflecting on past classes inevitably leads to a desire to begin planning a new (and hopefully better) iteration. Thankfully, I asked the students to provide me with both anonymous constructive feedback on the class and to talk openly with me about how they would redesign the class if they were taking it a second time. Their feedback had two major themes:

  • While they liked Second Life, many students felt it was too clunky and wasn’t integrated into the class in an effective way
  • Many students expressed a desire to have more f2f role-play

As I began to mull over how best to address the two issues, I decided to focus on finding an alternative to Second Life. I was looking for something with a less daunting learning curve that would allow for more challenge and exploration-based interaction. While nothing really presented itself, I did stumble upon a website that changed the direction of my thinking: Epic Words.

Epic Words functions as a portal for an RPG campaign (an ongoing storyline or set of adventures). A GM (game master) can create a campaign for any RPG and add any registered players to the campaign. The site offers several tools in one central location: character blogs, a campaign wiki, a discussion forum, quest logs, a calendar, a page for awarding and tracking XP, and the ability to create loot that can either be awarded by the GM or purchased by the players from merchants. Intrigued, I began to research the concept of campaigns and the various ways that players use tools and sites outside of the game to continue, reinvent, and hack the game.

As  I browsed through the various campaigns on the site, I began to see just how similar the RPG I had designed for my Spring 2013 FYC II class had been to one of the most popular tabletop RPG’s, Call of CthulhuTaking my cue from the game, I have started to sketch out what I hope will be an engaging and immersive RPG experience for next semester’s FYC II class, remixing and hacking the traditional tabletop RPG as needed.

Roles

In Call of Cthulhu, characters are called investigators. Players select the occupation of their character and establish their attributes via dice rolls. Like my class, the nature of the game naturally lends itself to selecting characters who would normally investigate unusual events, such as detectives, psychologists, scholars, etc. I’ll limit my students to occupations that will work with the texts we have in our literature anthology, but will allow them to suggest modifications if they wish. Students will spend some time developing their character’s backstory, creating an avatar for them, and creating a profile for them on Epic Words.

Guilds

While students really enjoyed working in role-based guilds last Spring, many suggested more inter-role interaction in order to consult with experts on other aspects of their “cases.” So, this time around students will have two guilds: a home guild that will be role-based and an expert guild that will be comprised of representatives from all of the roles who will consult with one another as needed.

Quests

The quests will remain the same: students will read assigned “cases” from the literature anthology, discuss and analyze them with their home guild, and select one case to focus on investigating for each quest. They will present their selected case via a blog post, determining what format their character might choose to write about the case in (case notes, interview transcripts, a newspaper/journal article, etc.), and also read and comment (in-character) on other characters’ blog posts.

Boss Level

Last Spring, students selected 1-2 partners to work with to create a penultimate project on one of the term’s cases. While the projects they created were creative, engaging, and demonstrated a deep level of analysis, next term I plan to push the envelope even further and ask students to work in a craft guild to develop and write a piece of interactive fiction about a selected case in which the player has to take on one of the roles from the class game.

Feedback

There will be no grades in the class. For some of my Spring students, this was frustrating and many of them expressed a need to be able to measure their progress and have an idea of just how successfully they were playing the game (aside from the formative feedback they received from me and their peers). Epic Words provides me with several tools that I can use to provide feedback and progress reports to students.

One form of feedback I’ll use to indicate successful completion of quest-related tasks and puzzles is XP (experience points). This has been very successful this term with my FYC I classes. While this term I’ve had to rely on Blackboard’s grade book  to record XP and provide students with a means of measuring their progress via a leader board (more on this in a subsequent post), next term I can use Epic Words, which will allow students to view their XP on the campaign’s XP page.

A second form of feedback Epic Words allows GM’s to create and award is loot, which has allowed a useful hack of Call of Cthulhu’s investigator attributes and skills. Rather than relying on dice roll to determine the attributes of an investigator, I can do so by awarding them loot for demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as research, analysis, creativity, etc. In addition to awarding them skills, I can also award them cash for participation and completing quests. The players can then use this cash to purchase investigative tools, such as flashlights, fingerprint kits, video recorders, and smartphones, from  a merchant (my merchant is called Doyle & Poe Investigative Merchants). Purchasing investigative tools will make their character more powerful. Again, all of a character’s loot can be tracked in Epic Words.

Endgame

How does completing quests and collecting XP and loot translate into a final grade in the course? In order to demonstrate the quality of their work and learning in the course, students will have to submit a portfolio of their game artifacts: their best blog posts; their XP; their skills, cash, and tools; and their forum and wiki contributions. They can then use this portfolio to advocate for the grade they feel they’ve earned in the course.

Design

Research has found that aesthetics can have a significant impact on motivation, immersion, and engagement among game players. I am planning to spend much more time on the visual design of the course than I did last term. Epic Words allows GM’s the add a background image and change the color scheme for campaign sites, as well as add images to pages. Being a fan of all (weird) things Victorian, including the neo-Victorian and steam punk movements, I think pulling design elements from these aesthetic styles will work well with the theme of the game.

Once I’ve finalized the components of the class and the campaign site, I’ll post updates here. I hope that this post inspires you to create your own RPG and/or try Epic Words as a tool for managing your games-based learning. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, how you’ve integrated RPG into your own classes, or how my post has inspired you to do so.

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Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century Webinar

Paul Cadmus, Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith from death in 1607 while watched by her father, 1939

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century 
Webinar 
August 14, 2012 
1:00 cst 

When several members of Jacksonville State University’s English department began to challenge traditionally held beliefs about undergraduate education, the anthology of Early American Literature, along with many other “norms,” came under close scrutiny for many reasons.

With the GLO Bible as an early model, a team of approximately 30 collaborators began to construct an electronic, media rich anthology combining primary texts of pre-Civil War American Literature from the traditional canon with art, criticism, scholarly commentary, and contemporary audio and video to enhance student centered and challenge based learning.

This ongoing project involves faculty from English and other humanities departments at JSU and other colleges and universities, computer science faculty and other IT experts, broad- based student involvement, and a K-20 consortium.

During this free webinar, the JSU team (Jennifer Foster, Rodney Bailey, and Gena Christopher) will share its vision for the E-thology, a glimpse into this work in progress, and an invitation to become an active participant in what has evolved into much more than an ebook. We will also welcome your questions and comments.

To register for this event, contact Gena Christopher at genac@jsu.edu.

Hacking Literary Analysis: Mashup as the New Canon

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski image via The L Magazine

Debate about the place of literature within the First Year Composition course has been raging for years (Jill DeGraw provides an effective and concise overview of both sides of the debate in “Literature in the Freshman Composition Class”). For me, there are valid points made by both sides. But whether or not I agree that the literary analysis essay is an effective method for teaching students the kind of critical and analytical reading and writing skills that they will need throughout their studies is a moot point; I teach in a department that believes that it is, and I must adhere to the course objectives that those in charge of the FYC program have established. But that’s not to say that I can’t question and test their definition of literature.

In our program, FYC consists of a two-semester sequence: the first semester supplies an introduction to the basics of expository and persuasive writing, while the second semester is a combination introduction to literature and analytical writing course. The objectives for the second semester course are daunting: students are expected to come away with a knowledge of the formal qualities of poetry, drama, and short fiction; have read several examples from each genre; be able to apply their knowledge of the formal qualities of each genre to a critical reading of those examples; be able to articulate their findings in an analytical essay; and be able to conduct research to locate relevant and reliable sources, synthesize those sources, and use them to support a thesis-driven literary analysis of one of the texts studied during the term. Aside from the Herculean nature of accomplishing all of these objectives in fourteen weeks (or in my case eight, since I teach the summer short-term version), there’s the added difficulty of selecting texts that will be both understandable and challenging to students and that they will find relevant or interesting enough to not only read but spend considerable time re-reading, analyzing, perhaps even researching, and eventually writing about at length.

As Andrea Lunsford says of the old practice of having FYC students read and write about literature:

[C]ollege writing courses that asked all students—no matter their own interests or prospective majors—to write about “classic literature” for an entire term or two were almost guaranteed not to connect with the majority of the students in them.

In considering ways to remix my summer short-term second semester FYC class, I was most concerned with the issue of relevancy. I often incorporate pop culture into the course, asking students to apply what they learn about analyzing plays, poems, and short fiction to movies, songs, and music videos, but I wanted to make the literature itself more relevant to the kinds of media that students are exposed to outside of the classroom. The previous term, I had been surprised at how engaged my first semester students had been with creating their own memes as part of their work with DS 106. Personally, I had recently discovered mashups after reading Ryan Cordell’s “Mashups in the Literature Classroom” and had avidly been building a playlist of mashups on my YouTube channel, as well as researching mashup blogs and websites. This research had led me to discover Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is a Remix film series. In a wonderful overlap with my discovery and exploration of the mashup genre and remix theory, I was also reading every graphic novel I could get my hands on in preparation for a course I will be teaching next summer, including Peter Kuper’s Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country from The Sandman series, which includes his take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What began to coalesce in my mind was a course that taught literature as remix/mashup and remix/mashup as literature.

In asking students to explore how works of literature are referenced by, sampled in, and combined with new texts, I hoped to teach them to discern how a knowledge of the literary canon can help them to better understand, appreciate, and critically analyze their own cultural milieu. For the final research project, students would either select a remix or mashup not studied in class to analyze or create their own remix or mashup, using a particular literary theory to inform their work. I knew the course would be very challenging for the students, but, in my opinion, it turned out to be just the right kind of challenge. In this post, I’ll briefly outline how I sequenced the course and share some examples of the students’ final projects.

Course Sequence

I began the term by introducing students to remixes and mashups by providing various examples and having them watch the Everything Is a Remix series. While most students were familiar with music sampling, the majority had never heard of mashups. In order to help ground their understanding of what remixes and mashups “do”, I asked them to use Ryan Cordell’s theory of mashup as a lens:

The best mashups juxtapose materials deliberately; they make the implicit explicit. They expose or highlight underlying features of the source materials-formal, thematic, or stylistic-that casual viewers, listeners, or readers might miss.

I also had students complete a diagnostic piece in which they were asked to apply a specific literary theory to a particular mashup (see the Diagnostic Essay guidelines). I used the results of this diagnostic to design the assignment sequence for the rest of the term. What became apparent from the diagnostic assignment was that students needed a scaffolded sequence that required them to analyze each text separately before tackling a comparative analysis within the context of a remix/mashup.

For the first unit, I asked students to select a poem and its companion illustration from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to analyze. I thought it best to begin with texts that had been remixed purposely by the author and were meant to be read contemporaneously. For each subsequent unit, I first asked them to read, discuss, research, and analyze an original text from our literature reader (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream respectively). Each student was free to select and apply a literary theory of their choosing to the text, but we worked as a community to understand the text and the conversations taking place around it amongst other readers. Students were then introduced to two current texts that either remix or mash the original in some way. Students selected which remix/mashup they wished to focus on and used their analysis of the original as a lens for analyzing the remix/mashup (for Kafka, they could choose between Carlos Atanes short film The Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka or Kuper’s graphic novel; for Shakespeare, they could choose between Gaiman’s comic version or the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

What I’d do differently the next time

It’s not so much what I’d do differently as what I’d do if I had fourteen weeks as opposed to eight. For one, the students needed more time to become grounded in the theoretical underpinnings of remix and mashups. They needed more time to practice analyzing each genre together in class before they worked at doing so on their own. We also needed more time for students to develop, receive feedback on, and revise their analyses to help ensure that they were addressing both texts fully and effectively. Specifically, students would have benefited from more direct instruction in analyzing films and graphic novels. While I provided them with resources to help them do so, they still had difficulty with addressing the unique characteristics of these mediums, especially the visual components and how they highlighted or subsumed aspects of the original texts.

Secondly, I wish that we had had more time to discuss the original texts as remixes themselves (Blake of Barbauld’s Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children, Shakespeare and Kafka of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare of English folk and fairy tales). And I wish that we could have discussed the implications of copyright, creative license, and fair use for remix and mashup practices (and how Blake, Shakespeare, and Kafka did not have to contend with these issues).

Final projects

For me, and I would hazard a guess that for the students as well, the most successful aspect of the course was the final project. Not only were the students’ choices of remixes and mashups both varied and interesting, but their analyses were insightful and engaging. Here’s a list of what the students chose to do with their final projects:

  • a feminist critique of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (which samples but deftly revises Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”)
  • a cultural studies critique of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet
  • a postcolonial critique of the “So You Think You Can Be President” mashup
  • a postcolonial critique of “I Have a Dream” by Common and Will.i.am
  • a cultural studies critique of Weird Al’s “Eat It”
  • a feminist critique of the “Disney Mean Girls” mashup

Only one student chose to create their own mashup. She chose to use a Marxist lens to mash Kuper’s graphic novel version of The Metamorphosis with Modest Mouse’s “Doing the Cockroach.” This is the amazing result:

Resources

If you’re interesting in exploring and incorporating remixes and mashups into your course, here are a few sources that I found helpful in getting started:

The Meta Mashup

Mashup: A Fair Use Defense

DS 106: Ranting about Remix

10 Things Every Creator Should Remember but We Often Forget 

Remix Theory

Political Remix Video

For resources that students can use to create their own remixes and/or mashups, see my post on the course’s blog.

Hip Hop Genius: Remixing Education

In this video, Sam Seidel defines hip hop genius as creative resourcefulness in the face of limited resources, or, as it’s known in hip hop, flipping something out of nothing. He argues for the need to transform schools using hip hop genius.

 

 

These are just a few of the ways Seidel proposes we can use hip hop genius in education that struck me as salient for hybrid pedagogy:

  • the role of sampling/remixing: teachers can borrow from diverse models and improvise innovative blends of educational practices; we don’t have to do the same old thing or follow one model
  • staying fresh: we must do something new and different to remain relevant; this is a continuous process
  • students have brilliant ideas and instincts: as teachers we should respect and build on their ideas and instincts and allow students to engage as creators, not consumers

The aspect of hip hop culture to which I am most drawn is graffiti. As Seidel points out, graffiti artists realized that they didn’t need a private art gallery for their work to be seen. By using the urban landscape as their art gallery, their work could reach a much wider public audience. But this was (and still is) seen as disruptive, so graffiti artists began to use the disruptive nature of their art as a way to voice political and cultural protests (in much the same way that skateboarders are forced to be disruptive because they have been denied spaces within which to practice their art).

Our students now have the public space in which to explore and create, but far too often they are denied these spaces by schools, teachers, and parents because the spaces and what they do within them are viewed as disruptive, when what we should be doing is encouraging and teaching them to use these spaces in ways that are relevant and meaningful to others and that allow them to engage in promoting change and innovation.

We need to empower them to make their hustle positive or they will (continue to) use it as a negative response to our irrelevancy.

photo credit: niznoz via photo pin cc

Remixing College English

Damian Marley & Nas collaborating & sampling African music

I’ve been putting this off for a while. But when you start composing blog posts in your head you know it’s time to start blogging. I’ve been doing that for some time now, but every time I would think to myself, “I make my students blog, I should be blogging, too,” the other voice in my head (the sane one) would respond, “But when do you have the time?” I’m already remixing my classroom, which takes up a lot of my free time (what little I have of it). Do I really want to take precious time away from doing something that I’m so passionate about and that requires so much research, self-training (in technical stuff), planning, and revising? But I just can’t stop writing blog posts in my head and I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, the stuff I’m doing in my classes is really making a difference and maybe, just maybe, others can learn from my successes and my mistakes. So here goes. My first blog post (other than the dozen or so I’ve written in my head).

So, where to begin? Maybe with what I mean by remixing. I think of remixing as meaning various things. There’s the association with rap and hip-hop artists’ sampling and remixing of other music. I certainly do that. But all teachers do. We steal and plagiarize each other’s lessons and syllabi all the time and put our own little spin on them. The first lesson that you learn as a teacher is to never spend time re-inventing the wheel. There’s also the idea of mixing things up, remaking them anew. This kind of remixing is similar to quilting–taking the usable pieces of discarded clothing and fabric and piecing them together in a way that makes them both newly serviceable and newly beautiful, in fact, often more beautiful than they were before. That’s what I’d like to think I’m doing as a college instructor–not only am I finding new utilities for old methods, but I’m putting them together in a totally new and innovative way. That’s the word one of my students from my Spring Hybrid First-Year Composition course used when he was having his mid-term conference with me: innovative. He actually called my class innovative. I’ve been riding on that high for months now.

But it’s not good enough to be innovative. I also have to be effective. That’s the most important thing. And the hardest. But this blog will be a record of my attempts to be both innovative and effective.

This is a video that came across my radar last semester. It struck a nerve with me and I haven’t been able to shake the implications that it has for me, my students, and my teaching.

I think that everything Dr. Tae says is true about learning. And it’s kind of scary because it means that there’s even less that I can do about my students’ learning than I thought. They all learn at their own pace, learning is not always fun for them (and if we think that we can make it fun all the time, then we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure), and failure is guaranteed (at least at first).I have, during a traditional term, 14 weeks to try to teach them how to write well. Or how to analyze a piece of literature and articulate that analysis, with effective supporting details, in writing. Many of them are very poorly prepared for the type of writing I’m asking them to do. Many of them don’t even know how to write a clear and complete sentence. Those who do know how to put together a mechanical five paragraph essay (with 5-7 sentences in each paragraph), pride themselves on making it through twelve years of school without reading a book. And my job is to teach them how to read critically and to analyze what they read. But if they can’t understand the words that are being used in the texts they have to read, it’s hard for them to do that. And when you factor in these realities with the realities of learning that Dr. Tae so brilliantly articulates, the task before us becomes overwhelming. But not impossible.

I’ve been remixing my classes for about a year now, staring last Fall with my first hybrid classes. And in that year, I have witnessed the possibilities that open up when you open yourself and your teaching up to the students’ points of view and the potential that they have. They are living in what many are calling the greatest age of information revolution since the invention of the printing press. They are a generation with the world at their fingertips. And many of them want to do something with their potential and their possibilities. As Dylan said, “The order is rapidly fading.” The old ways of reading, thinking, writing, and learning are being transformed, remixed, and, in some cases, abandoned. And we’re going to have to “get out of the new [road]” if we can’t adapt to and adopt it as our own. Our students are already on it and they are not able or willing to turn around and change their direction. That’s a challenge that we’re going to have to meet. And I’m trying. It’s hard and time-consuming but I have never felt more like a teacher.