Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Authenticity, Learning Communities and Playing Games

Is playing games an inauthentic or authentic activity? Does it encourage us to be "fake" toward each other, using the arts of deception and trickery, and viewing others as "the enemy"? Or does it encourage authentic engagement with others? Or does it do both?  Is college just a game to be played, to "get over" by BS-ing our way through? Or can college be a site for authentic learning?

These are questions that occur to me as I approach teaching the Game Design class again. I think that this class can inspire genuine engagement in students, and I have seen that happen.  But some people refuse to be a part of the program.  Last term, it was clear that two groups of students were not as committed to excellence in the course as others. They appeared to treatthe course as "an easy A," spent class time checking Facebook, and were shocked when they did not receive the grades they had expected.

The worst team in that regard all lived on the same dorm floor. And they seemed to have entered into a conspiracy of mediocrity with each other, agreeing to do as little as necessary to get by. When they received the lowest grade in the course, they either pretended to be surprised or genuinely did not recognize that goofing off in class and turning in half-finished work was not acceptable.

As I did last year, I have attempted again to divide the class into six teams based mostly on where they live (maximizing geographic proximity), with the idea that each team might thus more easily be able to work together outside of class. All members of Team One, for example, even live on the same dorm room this year. My secret hope is that grouping people together by where they live, the dream of an authentic "learning community" might be realized, where discussion of classroom topics might happen in spaces outside of the classroom.

So far I have some doubts, but I'm always hopeful. Already some members of the same team have asked if they really need to bother doing different individual proposals since they are all going to collaborate anyway...

There is a lot that stands in the way of the learning community ideal, not least what Michael Moffatt (in the 1980s book Coming of Age in New Jersey) called the discourse of "Undergraduate Cynical."  Moffatt spent a year living in a Rutgers dorm, studying life on his floor.  One thing he discovered is that, no matter what the Deans might hope for, the dorm was never a place that fostered intellectual or academic discussion.  As Moffatt writes:
Imagine, for instance, that you were an undergraduate who had been reading a sonnet by the poet Shelley for a classroom assignment, and that it had really swept you away. Unless you enjoyed being a figure of fun, you would not have dared to articulate your feelings for the poem with any honesty in the average peer-group talk in the average dorm lounge.
As Moffatt found, dorms can be a downright anti-intellectual space where, ironically, any lofty attempt at genuine reflection on the world of knowledge -- such as expressing pleasure on discovering Shelley's poetry -- was sure to be shot down as an expression of "inauthentic" belief in "inauthentic" institutions.  In the discourse of "undergraduate cynical," there is no authenticity outside the space of the dorm room, where you get to be yourself.

Rebekah Nathan (in My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student) confirms that undergraduate cynical is, if anything, even more firmly entrenched among college students, creating obstacles for any genuine collective engagement with the life of the mind. As Aaron Swartz nicely summarizes in his review of Nathan's book:
[A]ctually caring about the material is deeply frowned upon, and the only questions you're permitted to ask of a teacher are about the details of grading and assignments... Signs and talks geared to incoming students explain that one must "work the teachers" by talking to them, getting them to recognize you so they will give you hints about tests and go easy on you when you need exceptions. "I take the information I need from the professor", one highly-successful student tells Nathan, explaining what that consists of: "how they're going to grade you and what they think is important". Everything is seen as part of the game, not worthwhile for its own sake.
"Playing the game" of college success is seen in the discourse of undergraduate cynical as always a way of "getting over" -- which is reaching the goal of career and "life" after college with the least effort possible. In their book Educated in Romance: Women, Achievement, and College Culture, Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart describe three common attitudes toward college among the women they studied, which they called "getting over," "doing well," and authentically "learning from experts." Students who are "getting over" just want to do what is absolutely necessary to get their degrees and therefore see school work as an obstacle to their goal to be "gotten over" by whatever means necessary (short of actually working hard or engaging with the material). Those out to "do well" have basically the same focus on grades and graduation as those out to "get over," they just work a lot harder because they want to get an A. They have set loftier goals for themselves than the "getting over" crowd, so they envision higher obstacles to get over (like admission to med school). Undergraduate cynical tends to favor "getting over" as the most social leveling attitude (because it's the one most likely to diminish expectations among peers and faculty in a socially reinforcing loop of highest grades for least effort), but it acknowledges "doing well" as a valid desire. What undergraduate cynical cannot abide, or perhaps what it cannot understand, is any authentic desire to "learn from experts." In fact, undergraduate cynical basically does not encourage athenticity of any kind, since the basic ideology it supports suggests that all things are game playing.  So any expression of authentic engagement must itself be a pose or a sham -- just brown nosing for teacher.

The truth is, however, that those out to "learn from experts" not only want to do well at the game, they want to understand how the game works and why people play. They want to grasp the bigger picture by not just engaging in discourse but by fashioning a meta-discourse that comes with higher knowledge and real learning. They also want to understand excellence, not only so they can gain rewards but so they can understand and appreciate what is truly good.

If undergraduate cynical supports a conspiracy of mediocrity by claiming that everything is inauthentic, then perhaps a class that gets students authentically engaged with the subject can break through the barriers of resistance that this discourse helps to erect to bring students to an authentic engagement with knowledge.

This year, to help defeat conspiracies of mediocrity I introduced a "leadership bonus," whereby the individuals who develop the best ideas as chosen by the group will get a 5 point bonus.  Students who do not succeed at leadership will ultimately not be able to get the highest grade.  This competition should inspire the pursuit of excellence.  And it should make it harder for everyone to just accept the mediocre as the norm.

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