Blog Post

A Teaching Problem: The Content/Analysis Divide

(cross-posted in full from my blog: I'd love to hear from those of you who've had experience in the classroom with a struggle to "go meta" with your students)


Betty Hayes and I just finished teaching our second week of RDG440: Computer Games, Literacy and Learning (here's the current syllabus), and we've come across a fascinating and challenging problem: a chasm between how we-as-academics talk about games and how our students-as-players (and as-designers) do. This is the first of two posts: this one is mostly aimed at academic and teaching colleagues, to sketch out the problem we made for ourselves and invite ideas about solutions. The second will be primarily for our students, to start the skeleton of a bridge across our chasm.

First, as I said to our students Wednesday, this isn't a "LOL NOOBS" or "bad dog!" issue. Rather, it's exactly what the class is about: different ways to consume and produce meaning around games.What confounded us was the discovery that our unquestioned assumptions and our students' just did not meet up in class this week.

They're a bright, energetic, highly motivated bunch: discussion the first week was lively, even before class among a bunch of strangers, and they've taken to our gameplay eagerly. They're almost all either from the Digital Cultures or Game Design certificate programs, and most all either avid gamers or professionals in training, or both.

We're interdisciplinary scholars who don't do design or programming at all: our interests are in games in various social contexts, and the meaning and use of games. We don't (primarily) talk about games: we talk about talk about games. And the class is an exploration of talking about games, with a heavy emphasis in the production, more than the consumption, side of games literacy: being able to understand talk about games from a broad range of perspectives and disciplines, but mostly being able to make meaning about games.

For our first week we assigned three readings: a chapter from Tom Bissell's Extra Lives on Fallout 3, a couple chapters from Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun primarily about brains, and a post of mine from this blog about my philosophy of teaching games studies. The idea was to show a range of discourses about games, of different language and style, and of focus, from the personal to the scientific to the socio-political. It went well: everybody had good stuff to say, and it looked like we were off to an exciting start.

Monday was a holiday here; the assignment for Wednesday was to read and analyze the arguments in Brown v. EMA, the recent Supreme Court case which held that a California state law banning the sale of violent video games to minors without guardian consent was an unconstitutional restraint on free speech.

I'd established it as a hard read, but an important one, saying that the opinions in the case set out arguments we'd be working with all semester. Since none of our students come from social science majors, I assigned the Wikipedia article on the case as background. Their assignment was to write a question/comment about the arguments in the case. They also had their first weekly blog assignment, to write about the family, school and other messages about games they'd gotten growing up.

All but one of our students' questions focused not on the arguments of the case but on their own thoughts about children and violent video games. It wasn't like they willfully blew off the assignment: they said interesting and sophisticated things, just not at all on the topic we thought we'd assigned.

We were astonished and troubled: we weren't at all interested in kids and violent videogames, and saw that issue as largely unrelated to the subject matter of the class - making and consuming meaning about games. We spent a few hours of lesson planning turning this bug into a feature: we crafted a class session introducing the concept of discourse, presenting a range of examples of "talking about games," from a jargon-heavy theorycrafting forum post to a selection from the case in dense legalese. Then I did a "reading from within the discourse" of the case, outlining the arguments, why they mattered and how we'll be coming back to them.

Then we asked what they thought about those arguments.... and we got opinions about kids and violent videogames.

What we saw was that we were talking about the meta level and they weren't: our subject was "talking about games," and their subject was "games."

I puzzled about this extensively, then had a long talk in the evening with technosage, who's trained as an art historian, legal anthropologist and teacher, and she had a wealth of critical insights.

One: We offered up the case way, way too early in the semester for an undergrad class. In trying to come back and fix our mistake, we said great stuff about how a Supreme Court opinion is like a forum post, with cross talk that cuts out the original poster, side issues coming in and dropping out of the thread, and a specialized language. At week 10 or so, after they've read and analyzed forum posts and blog comment threads, that could have been something meaningful. In week 2 it was just noise.

Two: The way we framed the two assignments led to the outcome. Our blog assignment asked for personal experience, and stories about... kids and violent videogames. That established a context for their reading of the case which was the exact opposite of what we wanted. We should have paired it with some readings on the concept of different discourses around a common subject.  Also, even though we were tediously explicit about the Wikipedia article being a booster step into the case, they all chose to interpret it as "there are two readings; write about any one; of course write about the one-page plain-English piece instead of the 90 page stew of strange jargon."

OK, that was what how we created what we got. The other element we'd not taken into account was that - particularly for design and programming students - most all of their college experience has been being told facts and learning to use tools, and virtually none of the "critically engage with texts" stuff that humanities and social science students do. We never questioned our assumption that they had upper-division level skills in those fields, though we knew their training had actually been radically different.

So we stumbled into a chasm: we merrily went along thinking that Brown v. EMA was obviously a clash of  discourses rooted in the cultural history of entertainment media and moral panics, a cautious STS approach, and experimental psychology, while they quite reasonably thought that a judicial decision about a law on kids and violent videogames was about.... kids and violent videogames.

I'd love thoughts, experience and solutions from other teacher-folk who may have encountered this chasm in their own teaching: please comment! In the next post, I'll lay out - primarily for our students - some of the approaches technosage and I came up with for building a bridge across that content/analysis chasm.


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