Computers and Writing Talk (2017)

When discussing games, composition scholars have long described the “literacies” that they highlight. James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Language and Learning (2003; 2007) acts as one of the anchor texts to this conversation, and Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’ On Multimodality (2014) provides a more recent example. Using classroom experiences with World of Warcraft, Alexander and Rhodes “argue that gaming offers a rich venue to see multiple literacies—the visual, the technological, and the textual—at play” (129). Doing so, they make some central additions, noting the social and contextual literacies that students draw from, “as students work collaboratively on one text” (146) and pointing to the critical and rhetorical literacies that students may develop as they critique games and the world views they present. The chapter also provides some concrete approaches to working with games in the composition classroom, like literacy narratives and examining games as rhetorical artifacts, fresh additions to the conversation on literacies and videogames.

This work on the practical application of gaming literacies in composition pedagogy—which includes work from Richard Colby, Alice Robinson, and others—offers potential, which I want to build on with this presentation. While many pieces point to the literacies offered by gaming and gamers, game integration with composition tends to rest on simply using games or talking about games in the writing classroom, despite broader models and concepts afforded by games and game studies. Or many pedagogy-based treatments of this nexus require extensive labor. Battlelines, for example, a brilliant multi-authored text on Kairos, offers one of the most complete treatments of gaming and pedagogy by detailing a whole class built on an alternative reality game, but the overhead required likely exceeds the abilities of most adjuncts, grad students, and teaching-heavy faculty positions. Instead, I want to offer a brief way to approach gaming literacies more generally, how they have affected my own pedagogy, and how one can create a reasonable synthesis between composition scholarship and game studies without a major knowledge base in gaming—particularly as these build from deeper ideas from game studies and not games themselves.

(Lit)eracy Review

Before moving fully to practical experiences, I do want to note some of the literacies exemplified in games, as outlined by scholars. On the surface, much of this work connects squarely with transfer approaches to composition pedagogy. As Gee argues, for example, language use is always situated in a particular context of practice, meaning, modalities, etc., which he calls “semiotic domains,” and each of those domains requires different literacies, different “practices” or knowledge to “communicate distinctive types of meanings” (17). With this situated approach, Gee argues we should teach a more reflective, critical set of skills to students, giving students a meta-awareness or flexibility to adapt across situations—not mere content knowledge—with videogames providing a solid model. As he writes, “video games are potentially particularly good places where people can learn to situate meanings through embodied experiences in a complex semiotic domain and meditate on the process” (25). The game makes the player engage, forcing them to work with and within a particularly designed system in order to succeed. And for a person to truly master this interaction, to become a “critical learner” in Gee’s taxonomy, one must learn “to think about the domain at a ‘meta’ level as a complex system of interrelated parts” (22).

Alexander Galloway (2006) puts this process clearest, I think, when discussing Civilization, a nation-building game: “The gamer is. . . learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system.” (90). As Galloway shows, Gee is not alone in this outlook: learning to play a game, particularly if one masters the game, requires systems-level thinking and short-hand familiarity with sizing up situations and reacting appropriately, despite the unpredictable nature of those situations. In Half-Real (2005), another example, Jesper Juul argues that experienced players often have the ability to transfer familiarity with certain mechanics between situations, distinguish between valuable information and noise, and “chunk” information together into larger ideas to ease recall. And Alexander and Rhodes also describe the “transfer” ability and “critical” dimensions possible in gaming literacies.

Collectively, game studies has long noted the paradoxical nature of games that create a unique, emergent situation while carrying the same “rules” or “practices” across situations. Unlike a film or book, which always has the same words as one comes back to it hours or years apart, an individual gaming session can vary wildly, depending on the players involved, the algorithmic input, or the way rules and pieces get mustered in a single situation, despite being the same “game.” Note, I am not saying that books and other related media are a one-way street—reader-response theory and scholars like Michel de Certeau have complicated this fully—but games are uniquely interactive and ephemeral. As John Alberti (2008) writes, for instance, “From the perspective of print-based theories of literacy, gaming is an inherently dialogic discursive space, one that problematizes the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ ‘process’ and ‘product’” (267).

This interactive, uncertain element to gaming, and the literacy it requires, lies at the heart of what gaming can offer composition pedagogy. Games tend to value an adaptability and exploratory outlook, with players testing boundaries and “playing” within more rigid possibilities. This outlook has impacted my own pedagogy, and I want to briefly highlight two assignments drawn from this outlook.

In the Composition Class

The composition classroom is often in an odd, liminal position, where disciplinary genres, audiences, and exigencies mingle in artificial ways. As Elizabeth Wardel’s “Mutt Genres” observes, “When, in a classroom situation, students are asked to write genres outside of those genres’ natural contexts, those genres become pseudotransactional; they no longer do the same work in the world.” Abstracted and muddied by this abstraction, student writing in the composition classroom lacks the reality of writing “in the wild,” as Wardle and others argue, but for games, simulation has never been an issue. So the first obvious approach to writing in a composition class, particularly with genre, is to pursue simulation. In some ways, this approach captures some of the “deep gamification” in models like Battlelines, but one can downsize simulations. As scholarship shows, particularly work by Clay Spinuzzi and David Russell, writing occupies systems, and games, through their procedural nature provide ideal ways to model systems.

In my own pedagogy, this systems modeling takes two main forms. First, for a set of classes—often 2 days—I may put on a particular persona, like a project manager, a client, an administrative authority, a P.R. person, etc., communicating in the genres of a particular system and having students do the same. For a time, they must work with(in) the procedural simulation of a “real” system. In the P.R. example, I give students a few basic texts on the industry and the style of writing. I then give them (in groups) stories to write, one that often requires an exchange over e-mail or a call and a familiarity with University issues. They must write in genres mindful of the situation—professional e-mails, press releases, in-class conversations with “co-workers,” etc. Though it was a bit clunky at first, role-play has a strong tradition in game studies, starting with Huizinga’s emphasis on “disguises,” moving to Roger Caillois’ “imitation” play, and including Bernard Suits’ multiple examples of role-playing. The key, though, is to construct—and therefore simulate—a system.

Also involving the procedural nature of genre, I have also considered what Bernard Suits calls the “institution of a game,” elements of a game that carry across individual game sessions, as this echoes the genre’s own flexible persistence. For this, I employ an activity that often informs a unit project based on genre analysis, having them construct a genre for a particular situation or exigency, giving them a task and situation like a specific speech or application. To do this, much like any design problem, I have them actively consider the purpose, the users, the form the genre may take, etc. Unlike programming or actual game design, students can often employ similar UX and design-based thinking without the computational literacies—or proficiencies—those require. Doing this, I often employ teams, just as one may design an application, and increasingly employ an AGILE approach to design, which involves task management and checking in. As each team designs its “genre” for a particular situation, I have another team analyze it and provide feedback. At the end, we then discuss what populations the genre may be leaving out, what limitations it may have, and how genres are purpose-based and situational, not category-based and universal. My one stumbling block with this is trying to think further how to better contrast the messy ecological formation of genres in the wild with this designed one.

In any case, I am at time and would be happy to discuss this further in Q&A or e-e-mail.



CCR 633: I Can’t Even

I may touch on Swinging the Machine in this post, but I need a space to think through what happened a bit. If I need to write a make-up post, I can, but I simply couldn’t write one tonight.

I think Trump’s policies are destructive and that he is morally dubious, or even repugnant. But, this isn’t what worries me. What worries me is that Trump’s election may legitimize ideologies and discourses that could destroy our democracy as we now conceive it. In this way, I am not worried about Trump per se; I am worried about what people call Trumpism. I don’t think that this destruction is inevitable, but I think that Trump’s election presents a shock to the system and requires a radical examination of “politics.” As Marx said, “all that is solid melts into thin air,” and now, we need to figure out what to do.

Continue reading “CCR 633: I Can’t Even”

“Ain’t no reason things are this way”

I remember I heard the song “Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” in the documentary I Am. The documentary discusses how our negative view of human nature–that it is selfish, competitive, and violent–is too simplistic. Scientifically, argues the documentary, we have plenty of empathetic potential. For example, “mirror neurons” in our brain mimic the mental states of other people when we watch them, filling our own psyche with their feelings. That’s why we often tense up or clutch a limb when we see a video of someone else getting hurt.

With my students, we went over an article on Wednesday about Marxist critique. “I’m not a communist,” I joked with them. But, I stressed, the helpful thing with Marxist critique–and most critique in general–is that it challenges things that seem “normal.” Marxism challenges the view that consumption is good, for example. Critique forces us to question the “normative hubris” that habits bring: that our way of doing something must be the only way. Or maybe it’s the best way. Or maybe the least bad.

But that’s not always true. As Dennen’s song points out, “There Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” sometimes. Sometimes the force of habit and tradition keep us going–even when those habits and traditions lose validity or meaning, like a stalled car still rolling forward.

I’m not saying we should all study critical theory, like Marxism and feminism, but I think that–as Martin Heidegger often pointed out–asking questions can often be the hardest part of thinking. Sometimes the problem loses itself in the folds of the situation, so we don’t even see the problem. It just feels “normal.” That, argues Heidegger, is one role of philosophy: keeping our ideas from calcifying into unquestioned assumptions.

So I often listen to Dennen’s song, and consider how it comforts me in a mournful way. Perhaps it’s the mutual feelings. Perhaps it’s the hope of “love” setting us free. Perhaps its the slow arpeggios and strums carrying his voice. What ever the reason, I wanted to share it:

“There is misfortune in not loving”

I ran into this Camus quote today:

There is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us, today, are dying of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it.

It’s from his essay Return to Tipasa” (1954). I’ve seen it countless times, but for some reason today, it hit hard. Many don’t want to acknowledge that “good” fights often veer “wrong” or that a particular perspective, despite its nobility or truth, obscures another, but Camus did. He regularly critiqued both sides in a struggle, even the “good” side, fighting for “clarity,” which he considered central to his moral code. For Camus, one must be honest with their intentions and not mask them behind noble words. Often, every option has flaws.

I suppose it resonates with my jaded perspective on the activism I see happening sometimes. Often, the fight for fairness or equality, which I fully support, becomes muddied by the hatred that the struggle itself engenders. People start hating the things they fight. This is good when the hatred is justified and tempered by compassion, but when that hatred starts to turn the fight into a struggle of revenge, it is no longer a struggle for justice or for a better world. Simply: it is a struggle for revenge.

Some justifiably feel the need for revenge. I can’t speak for them or pretend that I understand that need, nor can I take a higher moral ground. My situation is not their situation. But when a struggle for justice or fairness or equality becomes a struggle for revenge, it is no longer the same thing it was when it started. We must be honest.


Hey all, in the coming weeks I don’t think I’ll have time to post much as I gear up for PhD applications, thesis writing, and the day-to-day challenges of grading, teaching, and my own classes. Now and then, I may post something or reblog something, but I want to make sure I’m officially focused on academics until break in winter. I hope that you have a beautiful autumn/fall, and in the meantime, here are two links.

First, here’s a link to one of my favorite essays, which I read every fall: Thoreau’s “Autumnal Tints,” one of the last essays he wrote. And while your at it, you might as well check out his piece “On Walking,” which inspired me to read everything I could by him.

Second, here’s a link to an op-ed I wrote about climate change for my school’s paper. And if you’re a Daily Show fan, this clip dovetails nicely from this.

Now, I am off to research Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and grade papers as I prep for student conferences this week. I just hope Thomas Carlyle was right about the redemptive quality of work.

Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:

The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.

But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”

Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.

Continue reading “Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?”

A rainy juxtaposition

A post I wrote for my personal blog,, but I feel it’s definitely applicable for Backyard Philosophy.

millennial blog project

Lightning flashes. Rain hits my window, creating rivulets that slide down slow as molasses.

A peek at some raindrops. A peek at some raindrops.

I’m safe in my room. My hotel room. My own bathroom in the back, my own king-sized bed in the front facing the window. I turn off the TV and my bedside table lamp to make it lighter outside, but sky blue sheer curtains interrupt my view slightly. The air conditioner hums to remind me I can’t open my window to smell the rain.

I’m under the covers, picking at the acne between my eyebrows and trying to string together the web of raindrops on my window to make something work. Anything work.

My parents and brothers have roofs over their heads, even though it isn’t raining where any of them are right now. There’s just one storm cloud over the palace –– yes, palace ––  I call “home.”

I can’t help…

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