ISA Creative Teaching Workshops

At the ISA’s annual convention last month, ALPS members led two of the Creative Teaching Workshops organized by Carolyn Shaw of Wichita State University. My colleague Sally Gomaa and I led the Teaching the World Through Authentic Writing Assignments workshop. Here are a few of our thoughts on the experience:

First, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd. Sally and I met Carolyn, Simon Rofe, and Mary Jane Parmentier in person for the first time and reconnected with some of the ALPS crew. But participants in our workshop took diversity to an entirely different level — graduate students to senior faculty from a variety of academic disciplines, at least eleven different nationalities, and employment or study at a wide range in institutional environments.

This diversity demonstrated the truth that there is no universally-applicable solution to making students learn, whether through writing or any other means. Case in point: in the U.S. system of higher education, I am free to formally assess my students as frequently and in whatever manner I want, which allows me to use writing assignments as a stick to force students to read information that I provide. People who work in other systems don’t have this freedom, and writing exercises might have to be organized as ungraded classroom activities — which assumes students 1) attend class regularly, 2) see value in the activities. Another example: the instructor might not be  teaching in his or her primary language, which complicates the process of evaluating and providing feedback on students’ writing.

A second observation: the standard conference panel is a terrible way to learn about new pedagogical strategies. Its “I talk, you listen” format contradicts nearly every principle of active learning. Our panel, about teaching, was the usual affair with little time for give-and-take with the handful of people in the audience. The contrast with our workshop, where a much larger group of people applied themselves individually and collaboratively, frequently lobbing “What if we tried this?” and “Have you thought about this?” questions at each other, was stark. Nearly all of us teach, and for many if not most of us, teaching occupies the majority of our work time. So why are conferences structured to be mostly irrelevant to the careers of most academics? (Nina, Amanda, and Simon have discussed this subject previously).

Last item, related to the previous one: as is my habit, I did some participant observation while walking the hotel hallways and attending events. I noticed the young, bright-eyed, sharp-dressed graduate students, performing the rituals that they have been led to believe will gain them entry to the professoriate. It made me feel a bit queasy, because for many there will not be a pot of career gold at the end of the graduate school rainbow. The labor market for academics in many fields has collapsed. From my position of privilege as a tenured faculty member, I write about this subject periodically, like Cassandra of Troy. For someone else’s perspective on how the academy in the USA exploits the (sometimes willfully) naive, read Kevin Birmingham’s essay in The Chronicle.

Choice Points, Outcomes and Chance

This is part 5 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

This post is dedicated to what could be the most important game mechanic: decision-making. One of the main challenges in teaching ethics is connecting moral theories to the kinds of decisions that students are likely to face once they graduate. The issue is not merely pedagogical but also substantial: it’s not always clear, or a matter of consensus, what a given theory would instruct us to do in a specific context. Some theorists think that ethical decision-making is not at all a matter of applying the right theory in the right way but a matter of exercising judgement or exhibiting virtue – you can’t know the right thing to do until you’re actually in the situation to make a decision.

Caverna: a family of dwarves specializing in growing wheat and sheep.

If you’re struggling with these issues, game design can help because games are all about making interesting decisions. Games are basically structures for play and what they structure is usually decision-making; the restrictions posed by well-designed games don’t stand in the way of meaningful decision-making but instead facilitate it. You may be inclined to ask your students a lot of open-ended questions, but if the goal of a class is to force students to confront a difficult trade-off in moral values, you are better off with a restricted set of options. This is exactly why so many philosophers construct bizarre and unrealistic thought-experiments to make their arguments, and it is also why students often try to substitute an easier question for the one that forces the difficult trade-off. Game designers recommend thinking about the choice points you give your students. Instead of leaving it up to students to choose whether to exercise moral judgement, create situations that force it. Continue reading

Summer Peace-Building Symposiums

This summer, the International Peace & Security Institute, the Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center, and the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology are cooperating on two symposiums that will teach practical skills in peacebuilding. The Bologna symposium focuses on conflict prevention, resolution, and reconciliation, while the Sarajevo symposium is on post-conflict transitions. Additional details are here.

Written and Unwritten Rules

This is part 4 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

I have defined games as systems in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in measurable outcomes. Previously I discussed the artificiality, thinking about drawing students into the magic circle, and the different types of conflict we can build our activities around. Next  we have rules and outcomes will be covered in a future post.

Terra Mystica

Teachers know that it’s very important to give clear instructions for their assignments, though we don’t always spend a lot of time thinking about the best to make sure our students understand the assignments. Board game designers have thought a lot about this. As Rob Daviau, one of the most innovative designers out there, has noted: board games are probably the only form of entertainment that requires you to take a reading comprehension test followed by an oral defense in order to get to the fun. So board game designers are very interested in making sure people don’t tune out before they finish reading the rules. Here’s what they say is important about rules: Continue reading

Cooperative and Semi-Cooperative Games

This is part 3 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

Salen and Zimmerman define the term ‘game’ as follows:

A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a measureable outcome.

There is a lot that can be unpacked here but for now let’s focus on the idea of artificial conflict. First, conflict in games is artificial. This doesn’t mean that the conflict in games isn’t real – indeed, they are half-real. Winning a game is a real experience but the conflict between players takes place in a fictional world whose boundaries are clearly separated from reality (using ‘magic circle’ techniques).

Pandemic: save the world or lose (together) trying.

Conflict in games does not mean violence. In games, and specifically in board games, conflict actually requires a great deal of cooperation: players have to agree on the rules, or accept a way to adjudicate them in cases of disagreement or ambiguity.

When we’re thinking of conflict in games, we often think of the individuals competing against each other, as in Chess or Risk. That model can sometimes be useful if you’re trying to simulate a situation where every person is out for themselves, but often I find the model of group vs. system to be more relevant for a classroom environment. The recent renaissance of board games is driven to a great extent by cooperative games, where people play collectively against the game, winning or losing together. For example, in Pandemic, players take roles such as medic, scientist and dispatcher in a heroic attempt to save the world from four contagious diseases. Continue reading

The Golden Rule and the Magic Circle

This is part 2 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

To skirt theoretical controversies and avoid convoluted technicalities, I define game mechanics broadly to cover any game elements that designers use to shape gameplay. Mechanics are ‘tricks of the trade’ – concepts, ideas, principles – ways to organize a game’s rules and players’ interactions to achieve a compelling, engaging and fun experience.

Lancaster: bigger knights can take smaller knights.

The first and most important concept in designing games and learning activities – the golden rule of game design – is that you want to match the theme with the mechanics. Whatever you have students do as part of their assignment must make sense in terms of the world the assignment is supposed to emulate. The general idea is that actions students make in the classroom have to make sense in the fictional world your exercise creates. For example, in the board game Lancaster players take turns placing cubes on the board to gain resources. This is typical of a certain genre of games, called worker placement, a famous example of which is a game about farming called Agricola. There is a difference between the two games. In Agricola, when a player places a cube on the spot that produces wheat, no one else can get wheat that turn. This rule makes sense for farming – if someone bought all the wheat in the market, you don’t get any wheat for a while. But in Lancaster, the cubes are knights, and they come in different sizes (marked by numbers) – a knight of size 3 can push over any knight of smaller size, taking their spot at the castle. This simple rule change makes sense because we know knights will push each other while farmers won’t. The rules (‘you can/can’t push people out of spots on the board’) match the story superimposed by the game. Continue reading

The Change All Around, Part 2

An ideal teaching environment

In my second post about factors that are affecting my teaching this semester, I’m going to zoom out to the institutional environment. When the spring semester ends, I will have taught seven distinct courses, two of which were online and in two sections each, so a total of nine classes for the academic year. I am also a department chair, for which I receive one course release each semester. My contractual teaching load is seven courses per academic year, so as calculated by the university, the overload teaching and department chair duties boost my workload by 57 percent. Yet in relation to my salary, I am only compensated an additional 18 percent.

Economically this is irrational, so why do it? Continue reading