Learning on a limb

Crow On Willow Woodblock printAs I’ve noted before, academia can be full of pretty strange transitions – the leap from grad student to professor is an enormous one. A year and a half in, and I can say with some confidence I’m getting settled, but of course – this is not an overnight process. I’m lucky to be at a university where I have a lot of latitude with my teaching, so in addition to drilling down on my core classes (like the general modern East Asian history survey course, which I teach once a year), I’ve been experimenting with classes I may or may not ever teach again. But just because I don’t get a perfectly working syllabus out of a course doesn’t mean it’s a waste of a prep. I taught a slightly harebrained course on memory & culture in 20th century East Asia this past fall, and while I don’t think I’d ever try and do that again (at least, not as I had it set up!), I did get some fantastic feedback from my students regarding readings and films, general structure and themes, etc. that I will be incorporating into future courses. I try hard to be upfront with my students that a lot of things (like their professor) are works in progress & like soliciting feedback on what they liked (or didn’t), and I’ve generally been rewarded with really helpful commentary. So at least at the end of a semester, I can usually say I went out on a limb, it didn’t entirely work, but hey: I learned a lot & next time will be better.

For the semester starting in a few days, I’ll be out on a limb again – one that I’m pretty excited to be on. I’ll be teaching a seminar on games and play, from weiqi to videogames & many points in between. I’ve been pretty amped about the course & in unusual fashion, actually had my syllabus more or less worked out by the beginning of November – two months early! This is really pretty out there for me – although I’ve cruised around the edges of game studies since I started grad school, it’s not an area where I’ve had any sustained, formal training. I’ve picked things up as I’ve gone along; I’m lucky enough to have a plethora of brilliant people in my life who have a lot more experience than me, and are generous with sharing experiences and strategies. When it comes down to it, I’m a Chinese historian who happens to have some background (however limited) in skirting the edges of the academic community & the industry. I am interested in games and play across time and space, which is one reason I wanted to teach this class: a chance for me to push myself a bit, and get outside my sinologist box (although our reading list does tilt towards East Asia, it’s by no means an Asian history class).

I did teach a senior capstone last spring (which in my corner of the department, is sort of a hybrid of sit-around-and-talk-about-monographs seminar & research seminar) on “games and play,” which taught me a lot about the perils of basing a history course around the subject. Armed with memories of that experience, I decided I was going to try something radically different (for me). I figured out my general goals for the course – a biggie was getting everyone writing better and more about these products that don’t get a lot of treatment in most history classes – and also pondered some of the pitfalls from last spring, as well as my other classes. I’m still getting my legs as far as running a seminar goes (facilitating discussion for a 3 hour block each week is a very different beast than a lecture course, even one that includes a lot of discussion), so I wanted to channel as much of the “extraneous” conversation in as productive a manner as possible.

One of the challenges of the last seminar was integrating people who had a lot of experience with games or sports, and people who didn’t. We spent a lot of time meandering off subject & while I hate to put an end to interesting conversation, I frequently found myself going ‘OK, back to the book!’. This is something I don’t really have to deal with in “my” classes – although teaching gender in Asia does give rise to more of the “Well, in my experience …” conversations – and I’m still learning how to guide and refocus conversation. But it is a seminar on games and play, and I want everyone to be able to engage with the material in ways that make sense to them & also allow them to explore their own interests within the broader framework. So why not build all that into the course? Maybe having a sanctioned – graded – outlet would help us manage seminar time more productively.

As a result, I’ve laid out a course that’s definitely not radical by any stretch of the imagination, but is a big experiment for me personally. I’ve moved us off the university course management software & back to my comfortable home base of a WordPress backend – that’s a story for another day in and of itself – and in lieu of the usual types of writing assignments I give, have provided a “choose your own grading adventure” menu of options, ranging from book reviews to long form essays to Let’s Plays. There’s no final paper, just a final long-form essay à la many of my posts in this blog: while I don’t think I’ll ever move entirely away from the formal “academic” undergrad final paper, I don’t think there’s any reason thoughtful, well-written, properly cited, interesting writing can’t happen in a more relaxed format. I’d rather read high-quality, perhaps slightly more casual writing (of course, the ideal – in some respects – is both, but I learned a lot about writing on cultural objects by writing more informally, and that has carried over to my formal writing). And I want students to be able to deploy the digital tools and resources at their disposal if they so choose: somewhat more difficult to do in a PDF or Word doc!

It’s going to be more work for my students (and me), but I hope it will prove satisfying. It could turn out to be an utter disaster, but it will be a learning experience either way, and I am confident that I’ve got a pretty interesting, diverse crop of readings that I’m very excited about. I’m hoping to blog a bit about the experience, to ponder what works and what doesn’t, though since I’m in the thick of revising my dissertation, other writing needs to take a backseat (somewhat to my chagrin). Regardless of the ultimate success or not, it’s going to be a fun adventure – one I’m really looking forward to, and one that reminds me how much I enjoy teaching. There are many pleasures of solitary research work, to be sure – but having a space for collaborative experimentation is its own particular joy.

Pigs

Top image, Ohara Koson, “Crow Perched on a Tree Branch” from the Freer & Sackler

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