Games and Grading II: Dan Meyer

I present to you a games and grading post that is about neither games nor grading!

Dan Meyer gave a TEDTalk on his approach to secondary mathematics education: the talk is well worth watching, and it provides a good introduction to inquiry-based approaches to teaching.

I’ll return to Meyer’s talk as I continue this series of post, but for now, I’ll pick up on its literary side. Meyer quotes Deadwood creator David Milch, saying that bad television

creates an impatience, for example, with irresolution. And I’m doing what I can to tell those stories which engage those issues in ways that can engage the imagination so that people don’t feel threatened by it.

This is John Keats’s version of that sentiment:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . . .

I find repeatedly that writers on new media reinvent Keats’s wheel. Is Negative Capability the signature skill of the contemporary workplace?

Games and Grading I: James Paul Gee

Reader, I’m slowly concocting a new way to teach introductory literary studies. Care to join me?

I haven’t posted for a while, in part because I set myself too large a task: to integrate a number of pieces I’ve been watching and reading lately into a big old essay on grading, video games, and inquiry-based learning (a big idea at Grinnell these days–more on that to come).

Instead, I hereby begin a series of shorter posts about the sources for that hypothetical essay. I’ll bring them together later.

I’ll start with this Edutopia interview with James Paul Gee: “Games, not Grades!”

Gee points out that video games are assessment machines, but they don’t alienate their players the way educational assessments alienate students because, Gee argues, games don’t separate learning from assessment.

I find this initial point powerful but too simple: many classroom environments do ties assessment to learning consistently, even if periodic larger assignments constitute the graded material. Gee seems implicitly to assume that and equivalence between assessment and grading.

My objection may be mostly semantic, however, so I’ll move on to what I see as Gee’s two most powerful insights:

1. Course textbooks ought to work like video game manuals, in that they should function as references that help students solve problems they have encountered in a process of exploration. I realize that in advanced seminars, I do teach students to use critical sources in this way, but I have not achieved the same effect in lower-level courses.

2. “Passion communities” such as those who produce fan fiction “tend to set very high standards” for their members, offering copious feedback to help new participants meet those standards.

As this series of posts continues, I will imagine ways in which college English courses might combine these two insights by creating “passion communities” that learn to navigate the texts of literary study with self-guided intensity.

The Kent Tekulve Professorship of English

Last night, a conversation with some colleagues wandered to the subject of named chairs–the appointments of faculty (sometimes with big perks, though not so much at Grinnell) as the X professor of Y. For example, my dissertation director, Stuart Curran, is Vartan Gregorian Professor of English.

I thought chairs might be more attractive if they were actual chairs. Give a distinguished professor the choice between an excellent desk chair or a good recliner for the old office, and we’re in business.

Then it hit me: the way to make chairs flat AWESOME would be to award bullpen cars! In an amazing coincidence, Joe Posnanski addresses this important issue today in a column on home run trots. You’re telling me a scholar won’t publish an extra book or two to ride to class in this?

As bullpen car

No! You are not telling me that!

So I’ll go ahead and inaugurate the blog tag “why I will never be a college president.”

Bonus note: Posnanski’s column links to the Tater Trot Tracker, which reveals that Adam Rosales has run out a regular home run faster than Aubrey Huff of my beloved Giants ran out his inside-the-park home run. Zounds!

New incentives for riding and driving

Tyler Cowen endorses this Interfluidity tweet: “iphones & public transit: i’ve found smartphones increase the opportunity cost of driving, tilt toward public trans. just me?”

I disagree: for me, the smartphone equivalent (an iPod Touch) has increased my productivity and happiness while using mass transit, but I still find using the Touch in a public environment uncomfortable. On the other hand, the ability to play podcasts, and to play them double speed, has dramatically improved my enjoyment of driving. Therefore, although the device has increased the quality of both experiences, the balance tilts more toward driving than it used to.

In both cases, I marvel at the increase in utility and enjoyment of what used to be wasted time.

I suppose the punch line is that I live five blocks from my office.

Laptops in class

Jon Ippolito asks, “Laptops in class: menace or scapegoat?

I add: or no big deal?

Before I started teaching this year, a new colleague asked me whether I allow students to use laptops in the classroom. I replied that I hadn’t given the issue much thought: only one of my past students had used a laptop regularly, and that one had asked for permission based on medical reasons. No problem. Therefore, I said that I probably wouldn’t allow laptops, but I didn’t know whether we would need to address the issue at all.

A week later, when classes began, I had a group of 12 first-year students, and a third of them pulled out laptops on the first day of class.

Having no policy in mind, I told the students about my conversation with the colleague and said that I was willing to give laptops a chance: if I saw them interfering with conversation or distracting students, I explained, I would make a rule against them, and we’d move on.

As it happened, I never noticed the computers causing a problem in that class, or in my others, where they also began to sprout. The students used the laptops sometimes, left them aside other times; in small rooms housing discussion-based classes, the computers functioned as useful supplements to our conversations or simply as tools for reading class materials that would normally have been printed.

I anticipated more problems in part because I’ve seen students in other situations drift into email or solitaire, in part because I know my own weakness for checking email, even when I know I should resist. Perhaps students now have grown accustomed to constant access to the web (via smart phones) and therefore have developed more resistance. Perhaps I was just lucky last semester. I don’t know how this will go in the future.

I do know this, however: when I talk to friends, I increasingly find one or more members of the group pausing to check something on the web–a bit of historical information, a basketball player’s scoring average–to enrich the ongoing conversation. When I attend a meeting or a conference session in which the connecting to the web is unavailable or frowned upon, I feel that constraint as a limit on the conversation’s potential reach.

I do not claim that this feeling is good, only that it is real. For many of today’s 18-year-olds, the feeling must be stronger than it is for me. A lot of us now live an emotional life in which the lack, not the presence, of internet supplements to conversation feels like a needless artifice.

Three things I’d like online research guides to do

Can the research process come to life in a handout?

I participated today in an interesting and productive conversation among librarians, academic support staff, students, and faculty about resources our library has developed for explaining research.

This “Guide to Academic Research” was one of the main pages under discussion. I take the page to be a good example of its kind, in both senses: a typical and well-constructed one. The conversation helped me understand three elements that I find important to the research process and generally missing in guides, even good and thoughtful guides, to that process. (I’m thinking here of relatively compact guides, not book-length treatments that one might use in a research methods course.) Here they are:

1. That the research creates the research question as much (or more) than the research question creates the research. I don’t want my students to understand research as a process that can begin with a topic and research question that form a stable ground for serious reading. We all know that our questions guide our readings, which then refine our questions, and so forth. How can we represent that reciprocity to our students? Can forming the research question be step 1, step 4, step 6, step 9, and so forth?

2. That research requires you not only to “Access useful sources” but also to order the process of reading meaningfully. A good web interface will allow most users to figure out how to find books and articles on a topic. A guide to research could explain logic by which a scholar might order the use of subject-oriented bibliographies, general bibliographies, library catalogs, article databases, and so forth. How can we help our students see the conversation that develops among scholars rather than dropping them into an ocean of keyword-linked data?

3. That good research involves reacting to what you read, or picking up the signals that other authors are sending about the research field. How should you react when an author refers to a classic (seminal, foundational) treatment of a subject? How do you read academic footnotes?

I have developed a handout to address some of these issues for advanced undergraduates, and I’ll try to post a digital version of that document soon. Our conversation today, however, primarily addressed introductory undergraduate courses, and I wonder what teachers and students have found useful in that context.

The Keynes-Hayek rap

If you follow the economics blogopodcastisphere at all, you have probably run into The Keynes-Hayek Rap, which, as the Planet Money podcast explains, emerged from a professional video producer’s response to economist Russ Roberts’s online presence. Pop superstar Ke$ha approves!

On the one hand, the video demonstrates the pedagogical potential of YouTube: even for teachers who resist its Hayekian slant, the video could prompt excellent conversation about Keynes, Hayek, and the video’s representation of their views. On the other hand, I doubt a mediocre version of the same video would be similarly useful; I hypothesize that the video’s pedagogical utility stems largely from its professionalism. Few of us have access to the resources of talent needed for such a project. To me, the video stands as a sign of YouTube’s potential as an academic medium and a reminder that we don’t realize that potential easily.

Time shift

I listen to podcasts. A lot of podcasts, mainly in literature, culture, sports, and humor.

Recently, while listening to something on my iPod Touch, I accidentally hit the “2x” button, which I had not previously noticed, and the podcast began to play twice as fast (without shifting pitch).

Now I listen to most of my podcasts at double speed: I except the ones whose pleasure lies in the cadences of performance. I feel I’m losing almost nothing by speeding up, and what’s not to love about more podcasts?

The experience reminds me of the commonplace idea that people needed some time to realize that the medium of film could do a lot more than simply recording theatrical performances. In this case, I was slow to realize that podcasts have freed me of live radio’s sense that I need to hear words at the same pace they are spoken.

I combine this with my sense that taping and distributing classroom lectures does not work well as a substitute for taking classes in person. Are we experiencing the film-as-taped-theater moment in the history of higher education?

I’m typing this post, for the record

My dictation software arrived earlier this week. Responding to the rave reviews of such software from a colleague (who has used it to write his dissertation, among other things), I have decided to give MacSpeech Dictate a shot. At this point, I have used it for about ten minutes. It works pretty well, I think, but I want to step around the accuracy question–what everybody talks about–and get to three other issues. The first two came up when I mentioned the software to an online community of Grinnell people.

1. One Grinnell alum reported giving up on dictation software because it encourages the composition of short sentences. I had not considered this issue before setting up the software, but now I take the point. If I stick with dictation and want to keep my “writing” style the same in typing and dictation, I will need to suppress my instincts to make my speech syntactically simpler than my writing–or, and this may be the more interesting possibility, I will shift my writing style in the direction of my speaking style. In any case, I can imagine this issue bothering me. I can also imagine, however, that the software will encourage me to speak more deliberately in all situations and (finally) to cut down on my tendency to interrupt myself with “aa” and “um.”

2. One alum has already reported that she finds herself unnerved by remembering my paper comments and imagining me dictating rather than typing them to her. (She illustrates this sentiment with this image.) I bet other students would feel the same way if I call attention to the documents I dictate and those I type. Does this feeling represent a shift in our sense of the relative naturalness of orality, recording, typing, and images? Or did people who received dictated business letters back in Mad Men times find dictation a little creepy, too?

3. People who like dictation software (for reasons other than avoiding repetitive stress pain) generally cite productivity gains. I’m a reasonably good touch typist, though far from a great one. I can imagine dictating a little faster than I type, even accounting for the need to fix more errors in dictation. I think the main difference, however, is emotional: the dictation software expects me to say something, and if I do not, the software tries to figure out what I’m saying anyway. I wonder whether this is the key difference between typing and dictating (for people who like dictating): it switches the writer’s default setting from “don’t write” to “write.” As fans of behavioral psychology know well, switching the default can be a very big deal.

P.S. As I typed this post, I discovered that thinking about dictation software increases my awareness of how much time I spend correcting my typing mistakes. I wonder whether some people’s resistance to dictation stems in part from our tendency to notice the software’s mistakes more than we notice our own.

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