Press Start: Reflecting on My Teaching and Looking Ahead

In 2017, I wrote my first post in the “Press Start” series. The series highlights ways gaming can be incorporated into college-level writing classes. Since that first post, I’ve grown a lot in general and as an educator. I’ve been teaching rhetoric/composition courses for nine years and much has changed, including how I use video games and other media in the classroom.

When I started using video games in my classes in 2015, I went all out. A peer and I designed a course completely designed around video games. Not only were our students asked to play video games and consider gaming culture, but they took part in a course designed as a game. The course structure mirrored that of an open-world RPG. Students started in a “tutorial” where they gained essential knowledge to navigate the course. Once free from the tutorial, they chose their path via quest lines. The quest lines were fashioned around experiences and skillsets. For example, if a student was adept at creating multimedia content, or wanted to learn more about creating such content, they could decide to follow the Visual Forest quest line. This quest line featured assignments such as a graphics assessment, a poster project, and a game design project. Or, if a student wanted to experience a little bit of everything they could mix and match assignments, tailoring the course to their preferences. 

Teaching the class this way was rewarding for both the students and myself. My peer has adopted this approach (with some adjustments) in all of his lower-level composition classes since. I, on the other hand, have not. It’s not that I think the class isn’t viable or that there is something deeply wrong with the structure. For me, it’s been a matter of time. In general that class was a success for me. But it was a whole lot of work. You may be thinking “but isn’t teaching work?” Oh, yes. Teaching is a heck of a lot of work. But this class took that work to another level. It meant keeping track and guiding students taking entirely different approaches and paths through the course. It meant grading assignments without firm deadlines (so the work came in at random and sometimes in a flood). It meant more work than usual. When I moved on after finishing my MA, I worked as an adjunct. As an adjunct I did not feel I had the freedom, time, or support to experiment again in that way. And so, I left the course in the past. It’s something I think about fondly and with excitement because I’d like to run that course again. Or, at least, some iteration of that course.

In the semesters immediately after that course, I taught pretty typical writing classes. Standard essays taught in a standard 16 week writing course. There was nothing particularly unique about those classes, but they were functional and prepared students for the courses that followed. 

It was around 2019 that I rebooted my second-semester writing classes with technology and media in mind. I wanted to give my students more opportunities to explore and experiment with digital rhetoric (this includes things like online writing and writing through media). I gathered various readings and created activities and assignments to guide that exploration. This put me in a great position to design a themed class for the Fall 2021 semester. I accepted a tenure-track position that summer and was given multiple writing courses including one that had to follow a theme. And the theme was up to me! Perfect. After racking my brain for a bit, I decided to stick with what I’ve grown to know well—technology and media. I took what I already developed and expanded it into an entire course.

During that Fall 2021 semester I taught one section of that themed course and during the following semester I taught three sections. With a full year of that course under my belt, I can confidently relay what worked.

Based on conversations with students and in-class feedback, most students connected with the theme of technology and communication. Now, “technology and communication” could cover a great many things, so I’m going to take a moment to explain my approach.

During the first few weeks of the semester, we had conversations about technology—what it is, the roles technology plays in day-to-day life, the potential of technology, risks associated with technology, etc. This got us on the same page, or pages, moving forward. We also talked about how students did not need to love or even like technology in order to do well in the course. In fact, we had many conversations about the negative aspects of technology during the semester. The first writing assignment fell within this introductory period. Students were asked to write a narrative essay that reflected on their use of technology. They had flexibility with this essay. For example, one student wrote about a lack of technology in his life and the jealousy he felt seeing his peers with new phones and the like. Another student wrote about how integral technology was to her familial relationships. 

After those first few weeks, we shifted over to a more formal analysis of technology. Students were tasked with selecting an online platform (any platform) and interrogating how that platform functioned, its purpose, and who it primarily served. This assignment was written up as a report (we practiced different genres of writing in the course) and was based on direct observations of the platforms. Students were encouraged to engage with platform documentation and to interview platform users. Students chose everything from TikTok to Doordash, and seemed to enjoy working with platforms familiar to them. However, not everyone chose familiar platforms. Some people took the assignment as an opportunity to analyze a platform new to them or one they had been curious about.

If you’d like to see the full prompt, let me know!

These two assignments took us to roughly the mid-way point of the semester. In research-based writing courses like this one, I’ve found success asking students to tackle one big research project that takes about half a semester to complete. Such a project is broken down into steps and stages to make it more manageable and students earn points on those steps throughout the process. With this themed course, students had the flexibility to select whatever topic they wanted even if it didn’t fit the framing of “technology and communication.” In addition to this, student projects could take one of the following forms: traditional academic essay, podcast, website, or documentary, so even if a student wrote on a topic outside the theme, (let’s say a student chose the topic of desertification) they still had the opportunity to practice digital rhetoric. These options were enough to help students feel they were making meaningful choices without overwhelming them with options. This assignment was generally successful, especially in the spring semester. Several of the podcast research projects were among the best student work I’ve seen in a class.

After a year of running this themed course, I feel confident in its design and will only be making minor changes for the upcoming semester. The flaw of a class like this is that the theme will not resonate with everyone. And I did have several students who felt ambivalent toward it. This is not surprising. There will never be a class with 100% buyin 100% of the time. However, my plan is to vary the course theme every two years. My thought is this–running a course for a year gives me time to respond to student needs and reactions and to make any major changes. The second year is the finesse period. After that, I’ll switch to a new theme and repeat the process. It might even be interesting to have three or so themes fully developed and tested so that someday I can walk into class at the start of the semester and poll students to see which theme they would like to choose.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have noticed that video games weren’t mentioned at all in my current course design. Video games have become less of a primary focus for me in class and now play a part in examples and in-class activities (for example, I ask my students to create a profile of a gamer as part of an exercise in examining stereotypes). It won’t always be that way though. The school I’m teaching at now has a strong e-sports program. I can envision teaching writing courses with video games for that audience of students. I also intend to revisit that video game course with the open-world design. I still see a lot of value in working with video games. The good news is I’m at a school where I feel supported. And floating the idea of a video game-themed course may be something I do sooner rather than later.

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