Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sentence and Solaas

Hi all,
So, the thing I want to talk about right now is Alex’s “Digitizing Chaucerian Debate.” I’ve had the pleasure in the past to see this type of creative, role-playing blog posting in action, and to lead a corner of it myself. In my first semester of this MA program, I TA’d for Alex’s Arthurian Literature class. It was a large group; we were divided into four different subgroups – one under each TA and each named for a different heraldic animal from Arthurian legend (mine were the Eagles). Each group had the same characters from the entirety of Arthurian legend to choose from, ranging from Arthur and Merlin to Hank and Sandy from Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Although I did not see my students quite “grapple... in textual combat” or “hatch… subplots within and between texts as the course proceeded” (Mueller 197), I did see a level of enchantment, rigor, and play with the texts throughout the semester that I do not believe would have existed had there not been some sort of creative/analytical blend.
            Throughout my semester, I had students who braved writing in archaic dialects and verse (always hilarious), students who developed a strong relationship with their avatar over the course of the semester (the student who picked Sir Kay is especially memorable, for by the end he was irreconcilably cantankerous in his blog comments), and even students who used the creative platform to investigate pressing social issues (one exceptional student placed her character, Ygrene, in the story The Saga of the Mantle as a way of investigating the feminist implications of the piece). Overall, it was obviously apparent that these students were, through roleplaying and having a decided lens to read and play through, engaging with the texts and the concepts within them in a way I have not seen in any other classroom I’ve been in. Even the “problem students” felt it their duty to post on their given day – it was the only assignment of the whole semester that generated no late submissions.
            But this leaves me wondering how something like this, a blog posting system based around character-driven avatars, could be adapted to a classroom that does not have a dynamic set of interrelated characters. Are there some (Literature? Humanities? School?) classroom situations that are wholly unsuitable to this type of collaborative discussion? This is something I’ve thought about much since that class, and the resurgence in Alex’s article for this week made me think this Blog post format was the best place to figure it out. So how about it? Do you guys think that this type of engagement can be augmented to any type of classroom (even if any=any Humanities class)? How about just any English classroom? Literature class?
            My gut instinct, as well as Alex’s warning description of the first time he tried this blog format in his Brit Lit survey course (196), makes me think that in order for this to work, there needs to be some sort of creative aspect, some point of view that the student can reliably latch onto and springboard off of. I don’t think it need be so restrictive as all the characters in the same ‘canon’ such as it was for my Arthurian Lit. class. Alex’s “Quitting Your Classmates,” with its bevy of characters from the history of English literature, has Satan discoursing with our dear Miller (197-198), as well as many other examples of things only the nerdiest of Lit majors would write. And I think this might be able to be expanded where the syllabus includes primarily (or even exclusively) nonfiction – instead of characters from stories, students could be ideologies from the essays.
            The irreducible limit I reach is with point of view. I’m not sure this type of environment would be useful (unless drastically altered so as to be nearly unrecognizable) in a classroom environment that did not have varying positions for the students to use as basis with which to investigate their own opinion. I would, however, love for anyone to come up with a scenario where this would work outside of these parameters. Got anything?

Thanks, and see you all Tuesday,

P.S. Here’s a link to my group, the Eagles’, blog page. Take a look if you’re interested: 


  1. Really interesting blog and group page Jeremiah!

    I actually think that an interactive blog could be useful across content areas. But to me, an interactive blog would be least useful in a math class. If you were teaching biology every student could be assigned a part of a cell or an organism in an ecosystem and then be posed discussion questions and have to respond as their part of the cell or their organism within that ecosystem. If you were teaching chemistry every student could be assigned an element and then word/math problems could be posted online and students would have to respond from the point of view of their element- i.e. “How would their element react in a given chemical reaction? And explain your reasoning…” For history if you were studying ancient civilizations, medieval times, or different governing systems, you could assign each student a role within the society (emperor, merchant, slave, doctor, etc.) and have them discuss problems like “You are about to be under an attack from a neighboring kingdom- how do you prepare?” Or, “Your town is preparing to send a handful of knights along on the second crusade. What can you contribute to this effort? How does the crusade affect you?” In a language class to compare similarities and differences in culture you could assign students roles like “Imagine you are a 10th grader in Spain and your lunch hour was eliminated to match that of a typical American student’s school schedule. How would this change your daily routine? How would you react? Why?” And then of course switch the roles around and have some people be parents, teachers, etc. I am having trouble with imagining how this would work in a math or physics class- physics you could potentially assign students different forces like velocity, gravity, etc. and ask them to explain their role in a posed problem about projectiles and discuss how their roles coincide with other forces on the same object.
    Either way interactive blogs are a great way to get students thinking “outside of the box” on certain issues. As was noted in DeVoss, it is definitely important to outline what is expected and acceptable use for these online class forums in an AUP. But interactive blogs have the potential to be useful across content areas and might even be extremely helpful in explaining how an ecosystem or chemical reaction works for a student who is having a really hard time grasping the concept from multiple perspectives. An online blog with assumed identities might be most fun in a literature class where you have the ability to assume creative characters, but it is really useful in almost every subject.

  2. Thanks so much, Jerimiah, for enthusiastically discussing my piece and explaining your perspective on how it works in action! As you noted, our King Arthur students didn't quite actualize the blog's full potential, but I was still encouraged to see the high level of engagement this "ecology" (to use DeVoss et al's language) provided. While the class I describe in the article was one of the best examples of my role-playing blog, I think the best one occurred during my second year of teaching at UMB, the first time I tried the "Roundtable" blog. It was a course filled with English majors, so I think that was a big factor in its success, but I also think the material of Arthurian legend is especially appropriate for such a role-playing/debate-based approach. As you point out, role play may not be appropriate in all learning ecologies. Yet, I tend to agree with Marisa that most academic subjects could employ this format in some way, even if it just asks students to assume the perspectives of particular theorists in their fields, be it Euclid or Newton.

  3. Jeremiah, I really like the focus on role playing. I would have to agree with Alex and Marisa that most academic subjects are fitting areas to use role play as a form of pedagogy. In the English classroom I believe that it is more likely to see role play, since students of the humanities are often asked to see things from various viewpoints in order to make sense of complex texts. Therefore, it is almost natural to ask how things may seem if placed in the shoes of another person. However, I have also seen teachers in Math and Science ask students to take on roles within their classrooms. For example, a Geometry teacher in my school (middle school) has students pretend to be the teacher, going around the building videotaping themselves teach concepts to other students and teachers (little did they know, I'm also certified to teach Math). Afterwards, students are asked to critique their teaching methods, just as teachers reflect on their own practices. Through this exercise students better understand the concepts and also have some sort of experience reflecting on their own process. I know it is not to the same extent as Alex's class, but it is still a form of creative role play that helps students get the content. As long as the objectives and goals are clear from the start, I find role play in any form does increase engagement.

    In a sense, Mike Rose is also asking his students to role play - once as a normal grad student, next as a reporter. While it is not the same as stepping in the shoes of a fictional character, the experience does help his students have a new lens through which they can write. Through the experience, Rose says students gain a "hybrid professional identity" where they are able to see the benefits of writing both for the scholars and the public (289). I know the focus of the Rose piece is on audience, but I think it could easily also be about role play or simulation as well. By role playing, we are always looking to whom we are speaking and also taking into the context, the medium, etc. I guess it just depends on whether or not we, as teachers, can find the ways in which to create opportunities for role play. From my experience, not all teachers welcome role play with open arms. You may get comments like, "that's cute" or "how creative," but more and more evidence suggests that students do hold on to more content when in such creative exercises/environments.

  4. Jeremiah, I am so glad you choose Alex's article to speak about, because to me there's really so much to this project that I think we can find use in. I also believe that if you stray a little from the specifics of how Alex's assignment is set up, you could find a use to use it in most subject area's. I also really like Brian's point about how Rose also is asking his students to role play in his essay, as I personally didn't connect the two really until Brian pointed it out. I think role play is something that we can easily be asking students to do in many occasions that may not at first seem like role playing until you get the full breadth of an assignment.

    I think the most interesting and illuminating point Alex made about the project is how it allows students to engage between texts in a new, innovative and interesting way that they might not have done before. The nature of the exercise allows it to happen organically and individually, which I know is something that is key to my philosophy (as it continues to develop) on teaching. I would agree with Jeremiah, that student's buying into something like this likely depends on a creative decision they are able to find and make with their character which will be uniquely different with each student. I think this, combined with the ability to be somewhat anonymous throughout the semester, allows students the full agency to buy in, which is essential for the success of a project like this. I am honestly very much looking forward to trying something like this in a classroom at some point in the future.

  5. Thanks so much for a great post Jeremiah! I was really happy to see that you dug in to Alex’s article and this awesome technique for getting students to engage with literature. I love this idea, and it was great to hear about your first-hand experience with the activity. I agree with the other commenters that this technique could definitely be used for a number of disciplines, but I am (selfishly) especially excited about how it could be used in an English classroom. I love how this activity allows students to explore perspective and point of view, and to draw connections between various characters and texts that they might not otherwise have reached. Like you said, I do think it would work best in a course where the relevant texts are united by a certain theme or focus. But on the other hand, even a version of this activity that employed totally disparate sources could still give students unique insights into their chosen character’s perspective and motivations, as well as the setting, place, and themes illustrated in the other texts referenced. (I wonder what Elizabeth Bennett might think of Holden Caulfield.)

    I also really appreciate the connection that Brian drew between this activity and Mike Rose’s article. While Alex asked his students to approach a piece of literature through the perspective of a fictional character, Rose also asked his students to adopt a new and different perspective when they revised their writing in order to clarify the goals of the composition and communicate effectively to a different audience. I think that the exercise of taking on or approaching an activity from a different point of view can be an incredibly effective way to help students see a new aspect of a familiar challenge, or expand their skills in a new and different way, that there are countless ways we could explore this model in our classes.

    It was also interesting to think about this activity in light of DeVoss's chapter on "digital ecologies." Obviously in this day and age we know that most of our students (especially at the middle and high school levels) live a good amount of their lives online. Online expression, discussion, information sharing, and social networking are a significant part of how our students interact socially, and we should do everything that we can as instructors to teach our students how to maintain respect and civility throughout all of their digital interactions. An activity like the one that Alex described, or any others that allow students to digitally respond to and comment on each others' work is a perfect opportunity to remind our students that their conduct in a digital environment is just as important as it would be in a physical one. As DeVoss states, "speech that is inappropriate for class is not appropriate for your blog" (73). Perhaps by encouraging students to engage and debate with another in a forum with clear and enforced acceptable use policies we can encourage our students to maintain those same standards of behavior in their other online interactions.

  6. Thanks, Jerimiah! I too am glad that you chose to write about “Digitizing Chaucerian Debate,” and were able to give us a first hand experience about this type of role playing in the classroom. I love this exercise, and think it is probably the best example I’ve read thus far of using technology not just as a tool, but to as means for students to “become more productive across many domains” (DeVoss 83). This type of learning lends itself well to the humanities, but I agree with my classmates that it’s applicable to other subjects as well. Not only is it compatible with different subject areas, it also seems that it can potentially bridge topics in a way that a traditional classroom can’t. By asking students to mimic the voices, and assume the identities of the characters they are reading about, reading and writing becomes a more kinesthetic process. Even if this exercise is only incorporated into one book, or one lesson throughout the whole school year, it can potentially provide the framework for students to seek for, or at least be interested in a more comprehensive understanding of the literature they read.

    Two of the contributing elements to the success of this class seem to be “the guise of the avatar and the asynchronous nature of blogging” (Mueller 198). The first allows students to feel safe and comfortable discussing controversial subject matters. Students who otherwise wouldn’t participate in class might feel more comfortable when speaking as an anonymous fictional character. DeVoss talks about how students involved in Youth Voices “do not act as solitary authors; they learn how to become digital writers participating in a community” (85). As she notes, this type of community gives students a direct audience, rather than an imaginary one. Also, because these types of exercises are still new for everyone, and appear less formal that a traditional paper, students may feel they have more creative freedom when they “quit” the classroom and step into another role.

  7. Jeremiah, well done! While I was reading Alex's article I was wondering about how this type of project might look from others' perspectives -- needless to say, your blog is a great example!

    I'm always looking for new ways to engage my students so that they are marrying creativity and analysis, and this idea of assigning characters and getting them to interact is just awesome. Moreover, I can already picture just how amped my students would be if given "secret" identities, instructed to post as these characters for a term, and then allowed a class period to make grand reveals. The electricity in a classroom full of seventeen- and eighteen-year olds would be astounding.

    It seems that many of us, myself included, value the opportunities provided by role-playing. I think Erik summed it up nicely: "The nature of the exercise allows it to happen organically and individually..." Although I've yet to create such a blog as outlined by Alex (or rocked by Jeremiah), I have definitely given students opportunities to thrust themselves into the texts. In fact, one of my most successful assignments of this year came at the end of a unit on detective fiction.

    First, I gave my AP Literature students three different texts which could possibly (this made for great in-class discussion) considered detective fiction: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Hounds of Baskerville” episode of BBC’s Sherlock. Then, I asked the students to construct a scenario in which they would have to hire detectives, only to find out that their options were limited to the three we’d encountered. From here, the students wrote papers in which each character was analyzed in terms of detective fiction’s conventions, with one ultimately being chosen as most appropriate for their particular cases. Although this assignment falls short of Alex’s blog idea, it showed me just how enthusiastic students can become when immersing themselves in the worlds of the narratives we study.

    Side-note: I’m already brainstorming a way to this avatar-blog next year for Moby-Dick (the AP Literature summer reading requirement at my school). Perhaps I could task the students with creating their new identities as crewmembers of the Pequod, beginning their first posts with “Call me (insert) new name,” and then interacting with one another while integrating Melville’s texts. Hrm. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

  8. Thanks Jarimiah! I agree with others that your post is really interesting, and I really appreciate that you share your first-hand experience in Alex’s course with us!

    As the other classmates, I also think Alex’s use of role playing and interactive blog stands out in all the pedagogies I’ve learned so far in the two teaching courses I’m currently attending. It perfectly synthesizes in-class learning with the prevalent cyber culture. I’m all for the two determinants for the success of such an innovative course that Jen has pointed out: “the guise of the avatar and the asynchronous nature of blogging” (Mueller 198). I’m excited about “the guise of the avatar”, which provides students with a certain point of view, thus they would not be desperate to comment or criticize on a subject matter, a reading or something else. I still remember that when I was an English major freshman, the first thing brought up by my American writing teacher is to find a POV, and it was mentioned over and over again during my college. The role-assigned blogging activity can be a great help for teaching student to see how POV can affect our reading and writing process (it suddenly reminds me of the poem Marisa recited in her digital story, which can also be used as an assistive tool to teach POV), so that students will leave the course being used to adopting a POV before they start talking or writing. They will also learn how to cooperate with others and thus be “responsible contributors to the network” (DeVoss 84).

    In terms of using this pedagogy in other academic subjects, I agree with Brian that the role play can be extensively used in many creative ways, not only assigning students with one particular character of the story, or with an constituting element of an event or organization, but it can also be deployed in a macro way. Brian provides a good example of students playing teachers, and I also think that when it comes to literary criticism, students can adopt one of the theorists’ view and deconstruct the original story variously.

    Anyway, thank for all your ideas and suggestions! I will definitely use the strategy in my future class

  9. In response you your question, I think I agree with the consensus that this sort of assignment has a place in most subjects. Admittedly, with some subjects better than in others, and determining quality seems to be whether or not perspective plays a role in the subject. Certainly any of the humanities could be easily taught. The sciences seem the most dubious, but perhaps taking up the persona of scientist on either side of a contentious, and yet unanswered, question would be a way of applying this strategy.

    Of course, this sort of assignment has the obvious benefit of getting students interested, and talking, about the text or subject they are studying. There is, however, another benefit to this sort of assignment. I had not thought of the connection with Rose as much until I saw Brian’s response. It seems that teaching students to write in an academic setting can often be limiting. It is difficult to get students to think about transferring the writing ability to a context outside of simply writing for English class. I try to get my students to recognize that they are writing in the same way that the writers we are reading are, but this is a struggle. They look at an essay or article and consider the ideas that are in it, and don’t seem to wonder why it does not have thesis at the end of the first paragraph, and body paragraphs, and a conclusion that summarizes what has just been written. We discuss this, but it does not seem to sink in. A way of impressing Rose’s idea of writing for different audiences into students may be to have them write in different media, for different audiences (in different voices). In this way, a blog assignment might do more than simply get students talking about a text, it may get them thinking about how their writing must change for the context it is in.

  10. Jeremiah,

    Thanks for the exciting questions and for sharing your personal experience working with Alex on a blog project — you certainly have a lot of insight here.

    Alex, thanks for sharing the awesome article, this is a truly exciting idea and the student work produced that you share in that piece is amazing! One thing I wasn’t sure about — do the identities of the students behind the avatars actually remain a secret? I wasn’t sure of this initially, but then when you said “students had an opportunity to out themselves in a final seminar assignment” (199) it seemed as if their identities were concealed.

    This adds another dramatic dimension that would be a lot of fun, but I wonder, logistically, how it would work. Do students identities really stay secret? Don’t they bubble up in class discussion? Also, I know if I was engaging in heated debate with another avatar on the blog I would want to know who they were and would sleuth for my own satisfaction. It seems like if the mystery were to be maintained, special care would need to be taken. But like I said, I do think that would add another exciting layer for students and would be particularly beneficial to shy students who thrive under genuine anonymity insofar as they are “afforded […] safe identities and discursive modes to explore and disagree about answers to difficult questions” (198).

    Jeremiah, I love your idea about employing this with non-fiction content and having the students give voice to ideologies. Interestingly enough, I was doing just that last night in a consortium course I’m taking at MIT this semester. Its a feminist theory course and we were engaging with some complicated arguments about standpoint epistemology and the “proper” construction of the knowing subject. We had four related texts which both converged and diverged on this topic so we got into groups of four and each one of us was assigned the voice of a theorist (which we were advised to try not to break from). Then we were given a very particular and concrete problem (rape on college campuses) complete with statistical information and information about cultural climates and educational efforts. So, our task was to form the theoretical question that would be asked by each of our theorists in service of solving this problem.

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  12. Things ended up getting very heated! Someone even apologized and said, “its not ME its just what (theorist) would say!” I judged this a rousing success. Of course this was in a classroom, face to face, without the dimension of the blog. Interestingly though, a character seems to give people certain authority even when it doesn’t conceal their real identity — they seem to feel less limited to being accountable for being “correct” in some sense and can take confidence in thinking “well I know what this person would say, even if I’m not sure yet just what I would want to say.”

    I also think it helps to have some really solid footing for the characters to move around on. It sounds like you may have given very particular topics for discussion, Alex, which I would find very helpful. It seems like especially initially, to get them started, compelling and direct prompts would be an important part of this process. In the fem. theory context, it was interesting to be problem solving in character.

    I appreciate how you bring the salience of the technological format into your piece, Alex — “the blog avatars authorize imaginative readings and produce new texts on a pilgrimage in cyberspace” (199). Roleplaying has long been recognized to be a value tool in the classroom but the online nature and the remove of the blog adds a whole new dimension. I like the idea of it as a “space” that is separate from the classroom. Perhaps, inherent in that remove are possibilities unhampered by the sometimes oppressive associations of the “classroom.”

  13. I have heard murmurs about Alex’s roleplaying class, having had the pleasure of speaking to former students who were directly involved, so I was thrilled to find out that Jeremiah picked Alex’s article as something to discuss. Everyone’s thoughts and observations on the question posed made me re-evaluate my own thoughts on the subject. While I have never had the pleasure of written role-play in class, I do creative exercises with a group of friends that constitutes written role-play. I have nothing but positive experiences with it, having done this since 2004 and found it has really enabled me to change and evolve the way I both think about texts and write. Thinking about what a class may benefit from it made me realise that I actually have encountered a form of it in class, but one more closely linked to acting than writing. While less reliant on technology, running a physical role-play in class—such as Brian’s experiences from maths and science classes and my own experiences acting out the negotiations around the Treaty of Versailles in history class—could easily be translated into a textual role-play taking place on a blog. While Brian’s example was focused more on how the students found the teaching, my own experience ended up with the class comparing what the actual results of the Treaty was compared to what we ended up with—considering the how’s and why’s and reflecting on our justifications for making our choices.

    When Jeremiah asked the question of whether or not this written role-playing tactic would be useful beyond the setting Alex had, I immediately thought that it wouldn’t. Reading the comments my thoughts on this gradually changed. It is possible, certainly, but it would come down to the material being handled. In my own example, History, we were dealing with the countries who all had goals and certain opinions on the other players. We had to know the specifics of the roles we were adopting, France had to know who they holding a grudge against and Great Britain had to be familiar with the general hopes they had hanging on the Treaty. For us, the nations were the characters, just like Alex’s class had Milton’s Satan and Chaucer’s Miller. Like Marisa observed, I don’t think maths would benefit from this approach—numbers are numbers after all and there is a right or wrong answer. Subjects in areas like history, literature, and philosophy would lend themselves well, as there are roles and perspectives and different characters with different goals. Alex’s observation that a class could use Newton as one perspective to teach theories does imply that it can be applied to many things if the teacher is clever with their tactics.

    Many of the comments have brought up DeVoss’s Digital Ecologies. DeVoss’s observations on class layout particularly resonated with me, having spent much time in computer labs during my undergrad. It also makes me consider the variables we encounter with students. Many will be vocal in class while others will be less so. One story I heard of Alex’s class was the quiet student in class who turned out to be the most active on the role-playing blogs, surprising, which highlights how the blogging format allows shyer students to take advantage of the class format and really explore in a way they may not be able to in a “normal” class environment.

  14. Thanks Jerimiah for such a thought-provoking post and for being courageous enough to respond to Alex's article! ;)

    My students love role-playing assignments and I love doing them! I find that role-playing teaches students, across disciplines, about how to find common elements they share and how to situate themselves within the text itself. I find the most engaging courses are those that I find ways to incorporate the other courses my students are taking (I am an English teacher, so typically this involves History and related elective courses, such as Theology, Philosophy, and Moral Lessons in Literature (TPMLL), Holocaust, Contemporary Literature, etc.), although I occasionally can swing Biology or Physics, and try to do some "charade mash-ups" by showing them videos or movies after their first go through to foster their engagement. I have tried to do a blog format lesson through the school's database (because they did not give me permission to use Blogger or anything else because they have their own platform) and I found their blog platform to be convaluted and difficult to use for the students because each post required moderation and that students update their page in order to see newer posts. I am going to try to use the blog platform again, because I am just crazy enough to try something a few times before I write something off.

    I will add that this article this week and the posts from our peers have offered some really interesting ideas for further development. I cannot wait to use some of these ideas in my own teaching practices (maybe this will make for an interesting Socratic seminar!). Maybe some day I will be able to use the blog-type lesson, but until then I will make note of all these ideas.



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