I’ve written recently about other aspects of my sabbatical, but in this post I’d like to start thinking semi-publicly about the more traditional goals I’ve set for myself: producing scholarship for potential publication.
In the past, my public work, limited though it has been, has been in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) genre. I’ve published and presented shorter pieces on using digital networked media like video production, social media, and alternate reality games (ARGs) in media studies courses, including thinking about their pedagogical impact on the ways students learn, as well as the practical logistics of getting such projects and assignments up and running in non-media production courses.
In addition, I’ve been doing service-teaching hybrid work at my institution for a while that supports digital networked media use for learning in disciplines outside of media studies (such as education, chemistry, anthropology, and languages) as well as other campus programs like study abroad and career services.
So my thinking for this sabbatical has begun to focus on the intersection of these heavily related areas. Questions that are animating me right now include:
- How seriously can we take the claim that in our digital-networked-media-saturated era, “literacy” must necessarily include “digital literacy” and specifically “digital networked media literacy”?
- Beyond this, how important is the ability to create digital networked media? As a tool for communication? As a vehicle for learning? As a mode of expression?
- Might it be fruitful to think of media production learning the way James Paul Gee writes about “cultural processes” of learning in Situated Language and Learning?
- If this is fruitful, how can we improve the way we approach media production pedagogy in light of this?
First, maybe it’s too obvious to start with 1. – is this not, in 2018, taken for granted? On the contrary, based on conversations I have had with some of my colleagues, this remains a point for which we must continue to make a robust argument. It is not foregone. Perhaps the question is not whether “literacy” includes things digital and networked, but where we should focus our energies in incorporating those things into student learning (and by extension, our pedagogy).
As for 2., it begins with support for the argument that higher education in the U.S. should feature a “liberal education.” For me, this is one that emphasizes strong fundamentals in modes of engaging the world like critical thinking, the scientific method, systems thinking, and creativity. These are strongly supported by fundamental communication skills we each use to express our thoughts and ideas, which have traditionally included reading, writing, and sometimes speaking. If we agree with this outline of an argument, it is not much of a leap to ask whether strong digital networked media literacy isn’t also important to develop for all students as well, and within that package of concepts and skills, certainly producing such media would be a core if not even a capstone element.
On 3., a bit more detail. Gee writes about three broad approaches to language learning, “cultural processes,” “natural” processes, and “instructional” processes. The latter two are approaches with which we are likely more familiar: natural refers to times when we learn “through immersion and activity” (9), while instructional happens between a teacher/instructor and a student. “Cultural” processes, by contrast, hold a kind of middle ground in Gee’s eyes: they are guided by a master, and include things like observing the master. The also feature “good enough” learning for the majority, plus expert learning for a minority. This differs from natural, where “good enough” is what everyone achieves, and instructional, where expert learning is not only common but often expected.
When we turn to consider how well this maps onto the current state of media production (brief pause while I open a draft – now coming soon – of a new post on the production vs. creation vs. making tangent), there are some intriguing contours to consider. First, it seems to me that this is surely where we find ourselves today with social media making. With both text and image creation, most users of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have developed “good enough” knowledge for how to navigate and create new media texts – micro-content posts that include text, still images, and graphics intended for small to medium-sized audiences. Perhaps we are headed toward this with video and interactive media making as well: consider the explosion of non-professional video production in the last year or two – with Twitch, Periscope, Snapchat, to name a few – much less the sea-change of the past decade that Youtube has wrought.
One element to consider is, who is the “master” in these scenarios? I would argue that, not unlike another powerful concept in Gee’s writing, affinity spaces, the master(s) for today’s media makers can be found in chat rooms, forums, and other social spaces online where “those who know (how)” teach those who don’t. But they can also be found on video sharing platforms themselves (especially Youtube), in the form of (what very well may have reached the millions by now) “how-to” videos, on what seems to be every imaginable subject. This sub-genre of typically also non-professional media fascinates me, because in it you find so many who are in need of “good enough” learning about media making because their goal – to serve as a “master” to others seeking knowledge on a topic they know well – includes learning to produce online video only incidentally.
Finally, 4. is really the objective of all of this potential research. I would like to provide fellow media creation teachers – and again, not solely or even primarily those of us with graduate-level training in how to teach this stuff – with new ways of thinking about what services we are providing our students when we teach them the skills for making new media, and how those skills can support the other work they are doing in higher education to develop and grow.
As I mentioned in another post on my (non-research) sabbatical projects we really have no idea how the esports program will actually function as of now (although we’re starting one anyway – it would seem there may be too much possibility of falling behind not to try to stumble our way through the startup). So here are just a few of the things I’m thinking about as I begin to try to organize my own thinking about how best to get this off the ground.
- Practices. Since its a competitive team, of course there must be practices. But will these be primarily face-to-face, synchronous but at a distance (i.e., in dorm rooms and offices but streaming live), or asynchronously as individuals/small groups/teams?
- Matches. Matches themselves will mostly be run using the second method, either in self-organized “scrimmages” or through one of the esports conferences sprouting up (NACE and TESPA are the two big ones right now), but there’s certainly room both on campus and regionally in North Texas where we’re located for the first model as well. How much should we be committing our time to matches versus practice? My wrestling coach in high school was all about “practice as you compete”: our practices usually ended with full matches, both for conditioning but also for skill development. Is that something that will work best for esports? Could it be game-dependent?
- Organization. Some aspects of esports today strike me as akin to Chess in the way they pit individuals against one another in largely-strategic matchups. Others are more like what I imagine Track and Field is like: each game is a distinct event in which some team participants will compete; some very strong competitors may end up competing in more than one event/game, but most will specialize in one. What mental models will be most useful for us in terms of organizing ourselves?
- Support. Who else in our community may be out there interested in helping to make this program a success?
- As a college team (as opposed to a professional one), there surely must be some aspects of the program that connect to things our students are actually learning at our college (as opposed to just being a training ground for future professional work/play). So my faculty colleagues can hopefully help me think through some of those issues as well. Will they be interested in taking time away from their busy schedules to help me engage these questions?
- There are admissions, advancement, and student affairs staff who need to be at least in the loop if not actively helping to steer the program, and of course IT looms quite large in all of this as well. So far, I’ve had really productive conversations with folks from all of these areas of campus, but of course they have their own full-time jobs to deal with as well (and no sabbatical within which to experiment with time allocations). Will it be easier or harder for them to take time to support esports than faculty colleagues?
- What about alums? Do they have a role to play in this endeavor, and if so, what might that be?
- And of course, students: they will be the team in a real sense (especially those who play games I have little or no experience with). But also, there is the much larger segment of the student body who play games regularly but for various reasons won’t be on the team. How can we engage them in ways that are productive and fun?
- Budget. What is reasonable to expect going forward in terms of dollars into the program for the gains we’re hoping to draw from it? To my mind, it is unreasonable to expect college employees – faculty or staff – to provide more than an hour or two a week to the program without additional compensation. So far, the only person that it looks like this “rule” would directly affect is me, but I’m very aware of how committing the time needed to the success of a program like this would create much more problematic conflicts with the work I’ve actually been hired to do for the college. And of course there is the very real fact that esports has a pretty heavy upfront cost (unless we choose a bring-your-own-device model, not something we’ve decided to do with our program). What is the best ratio of gaming stations to team participants? What specs are the most important to focus on if you’re on a budget (and who isn’t)?
Tentative answers to these questions will certainly help us get off the ground in the coming weeks, but we will need to continue thinking about them as we move forward. That is where you come in: what are your thoughts on the roles esports can play at a contemporary small liberal arts college and how we can best support such a program?
As the semester starts to spin up, I keep finding myself having oddly bifurcated thoughts: on the one hand, I’m on sabbatical this fall, so when I see emails and other missives about the semester gearing up, first I have a bit of an internal groan, but then quickly remember “not me…” and feel the shoulder muscles relax a bit.
That said, my intentions for work this semester are themselves bifurcated: I want to be working on some kind of publishable work (more on that in an upcoming post), but I’ve also committed to several pieces of service work that will keep me on campus and fairly engaged with the campus community. Fundamentally, there are four:
First, I’m continuing my role as chair of the Communication, Media, and Theatre department. Not a large amount of work hours, but things tend to crop up, and when they do, they’re often at the level of “mini-crisis”: they need to be addressed fairly immediately, and may require more than one interaction/meeting to resolve.
Second, I’m also continuing my role as faculty Moderator. While technically I’m sure it would have been easy to find someone to substitute this semester, I wanted to keep the momentum going because a) last year was my first year and it’s only a three-year post, b) as the first to serve in this role, I’d like to have a greater hand in shaping expectations for the future, and c) I enjoy doing it. This time commitment is typically a few hours in the days immediately prior to our monthly meetings plus the meetings themselves. Again, not significant, but something to keep me on campus with at least some regularity.
Third, post-Mellon grant, the discussion about digital pedagogy and learning continues on our campus, and still needs someone to shepherd it toward something more sustainable. This is the one of the four that is most contingent on my own willpower: there is likely no one on campus right now who would push me to keep going if I just let it fade away. But to me, that is the strongest reason for finding ways to sustain it: digital learning is important, but also easy to let go in the face of so many other things happening in higher ed. Our community needs someone to keep working to move it forward from the back burners. (One positive note on this: our president gave an opening address earlier this week, and mentioned that he is making an administrative change – moving our head of IT onto our Senior Leadership Team – because “technology sits at the crossroads of everything we do in today’s world.” Hopefully this is a good sign that the new administration is aware of the importance of these issues too.) Time commitment for this is a bit amorphous, but again, is unlikely to become something that completely takes over my days: there just isn’t enough groundswell happening right now. Perhaps in the future….
Finally, I’ve agreed to direct our fledgling esports program, at least in the short term. This one is the one I’m most concerned about. I’m excited to see the college taking an interest in digital games beyond the couple of courses we occasionally offer (two of them mine) that cover the topic. It is also clearly the case that esports have arrived in a serious way: professional and amateur tournaments are cropping up all over (and much of the talk about this kind of thing is that the U.S. is “behind” other countries), media outlets are trying things like dedicated television channels and other companies are seeking startup ventures that are also game-related, viability for platforms like Twitch is arguably inextricably linked to the success of professional gamers streaming daily, and most directly relevant to me, there are already dozens of schools in higher ed with esports programs as we begin the 2018-19 school year. Plus, such programs are perceived among administrators as admissions producers.
All of that said, we’ve spun it up so quickly (in a matter of months, mostly over the summer), that we really have no idea how the program will actually function. (For more of my thoughts on that topic specifically, see this post.) So I’m really not sure what kind of time commitment this will require for me, but I can’t imagine how it won’t at least require regular weekly practices and matches, as well as regular logistics, promotion, and recruiting duties of some sort.
When I write all out like this, it certainly raises some serious questions for me about how much else I’ll be able to get done this semester….Sheesh.
Right now, this is just a placeholder to allow some commenting, but more to come later I hope.
Another summer is upon us, and once again I’m offering my Elements of Media Making course. We always struggle with how to manage summer enrollment here: we can’t seem to figure out the secret sauce that will balance student and faculty interest with the financials of it all. But I do have some students interested, so we’re sallying forth!
One feature of the course is a focus on networked writing – thinking about how to write for a networked audience – so you may see an uptick in my postings here over the next couple of months. Maybe I’ll see you around. 🙂
Now starting my 14th year teaching media studies and production at Austin College. 🙂
If you’re looking for links to course materials for the courses I’m teaching this fall – a freshman seminar on dystopian media, digital video production, and screenwriting, you can find links to those over on the Fall 2017 Courses page.
If you’re wondering what the status of the digital pedagogy initiative at Austin College is, you can find all kinds of resources over at the AC Digital Pedagogy companion site: check those out while we deliberate a bit about which directions to take the initiative in next.
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