Serious Fun

Though it put me into a serious week-long hustle to catch up on all sorts of work (hence the paucity of entries here lately), Edward Castronova’s Ludium conference at Indiana University’s Center for the Study of Synthetic Worlds was easily the most interesting academic meeting I’ve been to in years.

The conference was structured by dividing the participants up into five teams, each of which was composed of visiting academics from a number of disciplines, executives and programmers from the computer games industry, and local Indiana University faculty. The basic structure of the meeting was that each group was tasked in a series of time-constrained “games” to construct interesting, viable, affordable proposals for research projects using synthetic or virtual worlds, culminating in a major proposal from each group.

Nothing was at stake except pride, though put enough people with an interest in games, play and computing together in a setting like this one and you can bet they’ll take anything labelled as a “game” pretty seriously, which in fact by and large the participants did. But the results certainly beat listening to a bunch of people read 25-page papers in a monotone, or for that matter, watching a canned PowerPoint presentation where the presenter reads each bullet point verbatim as it crosses the screen. There was a lot of intellectual gravity to the deliberations, but also a good deal of spontaneous creativity and fun. The collaborative structure also kept the academics from burdening the industry participants with irrelevantly monastic scholasticism while also keeping the programmers and executives from constraining the results to pure marketability and practicality.

It might seem that the structure of the meeting could only work for this kind of topic, but having thought about it for a week, I think any professional meeting or workshop could benefit from having some content that was “short-term collaborative”, that was aimed at spontaneous, speculative discussion. For example, imagine a meeting of the American Historical Association where five small workshop groups of historians (from grad students to senior professors) had to brainstorm a list of the ten most influential works of social history and then submit their list to a voting audience to determine the most authoritative or interesting list. I’m just thinking here off the top of my head, but I can see the possibilities, as long as you could find a way to keep the participants from getting overly defensive about turf issues or prestige.

I’m also increasingly enamored of trying to teach with these kinds of exercises as a major part of what I ask students to do. If I think about the usual kind of final exam, the alleged virtue of having students take a timed exam is supposedly to test their abilities to deploy remembered concrete knowledge in a time-constrained context. I really wonder more and more if an essay question is the best way to do that. One of the amazing things for me at the Ludium meeting was watching the speed and clarity of the way the industry participants tended to think about problems, and how quickly they wrestled difficult issues into some kind of concrete and clearly communicable form. If students at an institution like Swarthmore learn how to do the same, at least in the humanities, it’s often going to be entirely on their own, outside of their courses. But there’s no reason why that should be: we could easily be trying to get students to tap into that set of skills, and evaluating them on their performance. The only problem is that it would take us being able to teach and appreciate such skills, and I’m not sure that all that many scholars in the humanities here or elsewhere are prepared to do so.

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9 Responses to Serious Fun

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, I’m, not sure what you have in mind here: which “skills” are the ones that an essay exam may not be the best way to cultivate? Based on your hypothetical AHA meeting, it would appear that what you’re thinking of is something like “rapid response in a collective context” — something like a collective oral exam?

    If so — and I’m not at all sure I’ve grasped your point — that sounds like a very Steven Johnson kind of argument: i.e., that we need to teach students the skills associated with a quick assessment — a “scan” — of a field or web of information. And maybe that would be worthwhile. My inclination, though, is to say that in our culture young people have more than enough opportunities to gain those skills. what they need instead is the ability to reflect on the costs and benefits of attaining those skills, to subject these highly visual and (to coin a word) orientational ways of processing information to inquiry and critique. In other words, I’m reluctant to give any less emphasis to the ancient skill of marshaling knowledge in the service of a linearly-developed argument — especially given that that skill has in the current context an exceptionally strong power to develop critique.

  2. You could even carry out large-scale research tasks: hold the meeting at a site with a really good archive on a topic of interest (presidential papers, a big event; there’s a collection of US Occupation of Japan documents in Maryland that’s always begging for scholars to come by), set a few “team leader” senior scholars and at the end of a week or so you could have a 9/11 report-style history….

  3. Laura says:

    I think the hardest part, as you say, is creating the assignments. It’s hard to create an assignment for students that involves this kind of “playing” that also achieves certain goals. It takes a lot of time to think about it and then, probably, a few trial and error sessions. I can, though, an entire collection of such things at some point.

  4. tozier says:

    I’ve attended a few noteworthy and effective meetings, on several scales, run with an Open Space approach. On the face of it, Open Space meetings are even less structured and have even less of an apparent “goal”, but in practice they’re remarkably focused, efficient, and productive.

    What sucks most is that whenever I point academic colleagues to it, even ones that think they understand emergent problem-solving, they feel it’ll swerve off into meandering conversation. But it doesn’t; it almost can’t.

    I’ve brought this up before; can you tell?

    Sigh. I’ll have to just run a bunch until people come to understand.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Bill, I think you’ve got it–this is partially about security blankets, clutched tight, a defensively held vision of what counts as “productivity”.

    Alan, I guess this is at least somewhat close to some of what Steven Johnson is saying in his newest book. But when I think about my own classes, I feel as if I’m doing plenty of service to the development of linear argument through writing when I assign essays, which I do in pretty much every class I teach. I’m just thinking that when it’s time to get to a final exam, and I’m doing a timed exercise, I need to think again about what it is that I’m actually testing for, what the good of a time constraint actually is. What impressed me about some of the industry participants in the Ludium conference was the combination of intellectual skill, fast processing and clarity of presentation. By itself, that might eventually be a problem–you’d miss some subtleties–but in combination with the academic instinct to complicate and problematize, it struck me as pretty fertile. I just feel that in a liberal-arts college like Swarthmore, we don’t do much to work with the fast processing/quick scan/clarity skill set.

    Jonathan makes me think that another good version of this at an AHA might be to gather together 5-8 teams of historians to come up with 2-3 ideal research proposals that they’d like to see future graduate students tackle, with the concept being that you’d make the entire set of proposals “open source” after you were done.

  6. isorkin1 says:

    Isn’t that the function of better classroom discussions? That you have people thinking of new ideas and bouncing them off eachother during class. I certainly never come into class knowing what the precise topic of dicussion will be; and thus, to contribute, I have to think of things and figure out how to say them quickly.

    But perhaps you mean something broader than the ability to come up with random insights quickly?

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Tim. I’m in complete agreement with your suggestions regarding conferences, and I think this has a lot of potential for certain kind sof course sin the humanities as well. As someone who teaches literary theory and the history of criticism — also at a liberal-arts college — I can see the appeal of some assignment that assesses the ability to make (extemporaneously) historical and/or thematic connections among a wide range of thinkers and ideas. Now if I can figure out a proper implementation. . . .

  8. Alan Jacobs says:

    . . . kinds of courses in . . . [slow down, dude]

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Isaac, it’s what the best prepared students do in discussions, but there isn’t much effort in many classes to put all students in the position to do that, and certainly no effort that I know of to *teach* students how to participate in discussions. They do so or not accordingly to their own proclivities and the discussion management style of the professor.

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