Monday, March 6, 2017

What cyborg Harry Potter can teach us about teaching

After revisiting the recount of my masters thesis, I realized that it is rather German. That is to say, it goes on at length to establish some general principle, but then doesn't bother to give examples of how this principle is realized. Which is a style of writing well suited for some purposes, but, let's face it, is also rather annoying. So let's contextualize this general principle for a spell, by relating fan fiction to the subject of history.

The general principle is that people learn by doing things that they are interested in doing. This happens automatically, without the addition of directed conscious effort. When someone does something, the doing of that thing places them in situations and frames of mind which facilitate the process of learning, and the more doing that takes place, the more learning subsequently follows. Being interested bring with it the propensity of doing more of it, and of paying attention whilst doing it. It is, in most cases, a self-perpetuating process.

This is rather straightforward, and the biggest drawback with this line of thinking is that it takes too many words to convey with regards to how straightforward it is. You begin reading, work through the verbiage, and then conclude at the end that it would have been sufficient to just say "you learn by doing". Which is true, but it also goes to show how much effort you have to put in to convey something straightforward. In retrospect, it is obvious, but you have to go through the process before it becomes retrospectively obvious.

Thus, we have what we need to get to work: the general principle of learning by doing, and the notion of retroactive obviousness. Let's move on to fan fiction and the subject of history. Specifically, let's move on to how the notion of 'canon' relates to the teaching of history.

Canon, in the context of fan fiction, denotes a particular set of works which can be considered official or true (as far as fictional depictions are true). In the case of, say, Harry Potter, the books written by Rowling are canonical, and the specific words found within these books carry significance in that they are the source material from which all knowledge of the fictional universe are garnered. Any further discussion about the Harry Potter universe will have to take these books as written, and conform to the limits imposed by Rowling having written them in a specific way instead of another.

Or, to put it another way: it is canonical that Harry Potter is a wizard that attended Hogwarts, a school for magically proficient youngsters. It is, however, not canon that Harry at a young age underwent a series of radical medical procedures which replaced everything but his visible exterior with cybernetic machinery, and that he is a robot that passes for a human child. The former is canon, the latter I just made up. Those who want to talk about what happened in the narrative universe of Harry Potter have to stick to what actually happened in the narrative - which is to say, the source material, as written.

Any particular work of fan fiction set in a particular narrative universe has to be related to the source material, in various ways. The fan work has to cohere with the source material (i.e. be about wizard Harry rather than cyborg Harry), and it has to cohere enough that assumptions from/about the source material carry over to the fan work. The closer to the source material a fan work manages to cohere, the more interesting things it has to say about the canonical narrative universe.

This introduces an element of evaluation to the act of reading fan fiction (and even more so to writing it). The act of reading also becomes an act of comparing - does the fan work cohere with the source material, and if there are inconsistencies, where are they? A critical reader can move back and forth between the different texts to find out whether they cohere, contradict or - more interestingly - pose further questions about the source material that are revealed through the act of writing the particular work in question.

Whether or not a reader actually makes the effort to make such comparisons depends entirely upon their level of interest. But, as we stated at the top of this post, people do the things they are interested in, and it is by doing the things they are interested in that they end up learning what they actually learn.

Thus, those who are interested in fan fiction about Harry Potter will eventually learn the skills associated with comparing a fan work with canonical works, by virtue of following their interest. They will find out which works are considered canonical, which works are not canonical and which works occupy ambiguous gray areas between these two poles. Or how to handle situations where canonical works disagree - such as when the books and their movie adaptations contradict each other. Which canonical authority has preference?

If you are a teacher of history, then these are the very questions you wish your students to engage with. Not about Harry Potter, mind, but about the general validity of narratives told about the past. Which works are canonical, which are not, and what do you do with all the gray sources in between? Which statements about the past can be substantiated with references to the source material, and which are but speculation? How do you position yourself as a critical reader with regards to the source material at hand? What do you do when you encounter a text about a historical equivalent of cyborg Harry? These are questions that practitioners of fan fiction engage with, albeit not always explicitly.

The pedagogical challenge that follows from the general principle that learning follows from doing what you are interested in, is to identify what students are interested in and which skill sets they have developed during the course of following their interests. By doing this, a teacher can utilize the retroactive obviousness inherent in applying what a student already knows to new situations. Rather than restarting from square one, we do something more interesting.

Fortunately, everyone is interested in something.  But that goes without saying.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Roundabout canons

Every academic discipline has a canon. That is to say, a series of texts that most of those who are active in the field have read, or at least have some sort of working understanding of. The exact composition of these texts vary from field to field (and over time), but at any given moment you can be sure that there is a set of books most practitioners within a particular field of knowledge knows about. The canon as a general category, whilst undefined in its particulars, still exists.

It is markedly more defined at local levels. It is especially defined at local sites of education, where there are syllabi that explicitly specify which texts are included in the mandatory coursework. Teachers are expected to know these texts well enough to teach them, and students are expected to read them well enough to mobilize some parts of their content through some sort of practice. Such as writing an essay on just what the mandatory texts have to say.

Invariably, there will be some students who are just not feeling it when it comes to going through the academic motions. Invariably, these students will turn to the internet for an easy way out. Invariably, some of these students will yoink a text from the internet and turn it in as if it were their own.

Thing is. If the texts and/or the subject matter remains the same over the years, patterns will emerge. Students will be faced with the same task of producing some work on a topic, and they will conduct the same web searches year after year. And, if general laziness is a constant, they will find the same first-page results and turn them in, unaware of their participation in an ever more established tradition. [A fun sidenote: I have a few blog posts which receive a boost in traffic two times a year, which coincide very closely to when their subject matter is taught at my local university.]

What I wonder is - how many times does a particular web-copied text need to be turned in before those in charge of grading start to recognize it? Or, phrased another way: how many iterations does it take for these easy-to-find texts to become part of the local canon?

A canon is wider than merely those lists found in official documents, such as syllabi. Informal inclusion is a very real phenomena, and when a particular text keeps showing up again and again and again -

Now there is food for thought.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Postmodernism, a primer

There has been a lot of talk about postmodernism lately, and the only thing larger than the distaste for it is the confusion about what it actually is. While it might be tempting to label this as a postmodern state of things, it's not. It's just confused, and confusion is not postmodernism. The latter might lead to the former, but that is the extent of the connection between the two.

If you've ever read a textbook that in some way deals with postmodernism, then you've probably encountered the introductory statement that the word consists of two parts - post and modernism. Post- as a prefix means that whatever it is fixed to happened in the past. When it is fixed to modernism, we get a word that means "the stuff that happened after modernism". Modernism came first, then postmodernism - in that order.

There are two main reasons for including introductory remarks of this kind. The first is that it has become tradition and convention at this point, and it's easier to latch on to what has already been established than to be creative. The second is that you cannot treat postmodernism as an entity unto itself - it has to be understood in relation to what came before. If you do not understand modernity, you will not understand postmodernity. The one came from the other, and it could not have happened in any other way.

It is vitally important to underscore this intimate relationship. It is a historical progression which is not merely chronological - the tendencies and practices set in motion in the modern time period kept going in the postmodern time period. They are linked, similar and connected.

The modern project was (and is) one of enlightened critical thinking. Traditional institutions, mainly those of monarchies and churches, were no longer to be seen as the absolute authorities when it came to the truth. Instead of relying on ancient authorities (or very present authorities, as it were), the moderns wanted to rely on science and reason.

An example of this shift from ancient authority to a more modern way of thinking is Galileo and the notion that the Earth goes around the sun. Using the tools at hand, Galileo figured out that Earth is not the center of the solar system. The traditional authorities, who held that the Earth was in fact the center, did not agree, and much ado was made about it. In the end, you know how it all turned out.

This ambition to test things by means of science and reason wasn't limited to one person and one particular way of looking at things. Over time, it became the default mode for everything - everything could be questioned, measured, re-examined and put to the test. Those things that were found to not hold up to the standards of scientific testing were thrown out, and those things that did hold up were expanded upon.

The scientific implications of this are fairly obvious: you can get a whole lot more done if you are allowed to freely use the scientific method, without having to make sure everything you find corresponds to what the authorities want you to say. Science builds on science alone, and its findings are all the more robust for it.

The social implications, however, are less straightforward. If long-held beliefs about the cosmos as a whole could be questioned and challenged, then so could long-held beliefs about things of a smaller and more private nature. If the church was wrong about the Earth being at the center of the solar system, then it might also be wrong about marriage, sexuality, and other social institutions. Everything is up for questioning. Everything.

This process of questioning everything kept going, and over time more and more things that were once taken for granted were put to the task of defending themselves. Everything that was once solid melted away, and what came instead was something completely different. Where once kings and bishops ruled, there are now scientists and bureaucrats. And marketers.

Mind you, this is all part of modernity. This is the part that came before postmodernism became a thing. Postmodernism is what happened after this process had been around for a while and become the status quo.

The thing about questioning everything is that you can't really keep doing it forever. At some point, you arrive at the conclusion that some questions have been answered once and for all, and thus that there is no need to go back to them. You begin to take things for granted, and enshrine them as the way things are supposed to be. There are other, more important things to do than reinventing the wheel. There is an order to things and a tradition to consider, both of which are as they should be. The product of modernity is a new range of authorities which dictate what is to be taken for granted and what is to be questioned.

Postmodernism is a return to the very modern urge to question everything and make present institutions answer for themselves. It is, in essence, a return to the modern impulse to trust reason and science rather than tradition or authority - even if these very same traditions and authorities have used reason and science in the process of becoming what they are. But instead of asking whether the Earth revolves around the sun or not, it asks: why do we do the things we do the way we do them, and might there not be a better way to go about it?

Postmodernism happened after the modern project. Post-modernism. But it is still very modern. It is modernity turned upon itself.

If you, after having read this, are slightly more confused about postmodernism, then that is good. It will have primed you for this next statement:

Academics stopped talking about postmodernism some decades ago, and are baffled at its return to fame in news and popular culture.

As final words, I say only this: its resurgence is not postmodern. It is merely confusing. -

Friday, February 17, 2017

All is good that is good

It is often said that it is impossible to argue about taste. De gustibus non est disputandum. Some people like some things, other people like other things, and no amount of arguing is going to change this one indisputable state of things. This is where it is at, and thus here we are.

Nevertheless, we often find ourselves in situations where we want to convey why we like something. In matters of literal taste, the argument is simple: just present the person we want to convince with a tasting of the good stuff, and let the taste buds do their thing. Either we succeed or we do not; the outcome depends entirely on factors outside our control. Regardless of outcome, the attempt was made.

When it comes to more abstract things, such as music or writing, a similar approach is also available. Give someone a tasting of the music and writing, and see how they react. Either they get it, and your work is done, or they don't get it, and -

It is possible you at this point want to argue why that thing you like is good. Why the poem your friend is utterly indifferent to is actually amazing, why that song owns the sky and everything below it - why they should like it, too.

This situation presents something of a problem. If you really really like something, then its awesomeness is so self-evident and obvious that it is difficult to find some mean of reducing it to mere words or communicative motions. No discursive gesture would convey just how good it is, and attempts to convey it anyway often stray into unrelated territories, causing confusion or disagreement. Which, one might reasonably assume, is the opposite of what you wanted to accomplish.

A first move from here might be to simply state that you like the thing. This may or may not be useful information to the other person - it all depends on your particular relationship and suchlike. But it provides a baseline for further attempts to convey the goodness.

A second move might be to say that someone else likes the thing. Preferably, this third person is someone you both like and acknowledge as someone whose opinion matters. If they like it, then there's got to be something to it, right?

A third move might be to make a more generalized claim about mass (or niche) appeal. If it's famous, then it must be good, or it wouldn't be famous; if it's niche, then it must also be good, as it is an expression of the virtues of the niche.

As lines of argument go, these are rather flawed. But they are also very common. They are human.

Thing is. Giving reasons for why things are good or bad is hard. There are no readily available frameworks for it, and those frameworks that do exist require a non-trivial amount of effort to get in to. Most of them hide behind camouflage strategies such as the name "literary critique", and get progressively more invisible from there.

Maybe the proper thing to do is to cut our friends some slack. Give them the benefit of the doubt when their eyes get that enthusiastic gleam. -

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A thought

The strange thing about thoughts is that most of them are irrelevant. You think them, they flow through the mechanisms of cognition, and then nothing. Nothing comes of it. In the grand scheme of things, whatever thought happened in those irrelevant moments could be replaced by any other thought, and nothing would have changed. Thoughts occupy time, and that is about all they do.

Except, of course, when they do more than that.

Thing is. Most thoughts are never recorded. They happen, take place, and are gone. Some of them are important, some are irreverent, some would make a difference if only they were jotted down somewhere.

But we never get around to thinking we ought to record them. And then they are gone.

Just thought I'd remind you that you still have the option.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

That thesis I wrote about fan fiction and computer games: a summary

As you might recall, I recently wrote a summary of my bachelor's thesis in education, in which I abstracted the nuts and bolts and told you the good stuff that came out of the process. Since then, I managed to write a follow up master's thesis about fan fiction and computer games, and what follows below is a similar summary. But before we get to the fan fiction and computer games, some general introductory remarks about education are in order.

Schools aim to teach things. This is not just a tautology, but also a mission statement. Every school has a set of explicit goals of what students are to learn during the course of their education. The curriculum states these goals and the way to reach them, often in explicit terms.

Students are graded depending on how well they have achieved these goals. If you ask a lay person about education, they will usually arrive at some sort of correlation between performance and grades. They will also, with varying degrees of explicitness, place the burden of effort upon the students. A well-performing student gets good grades, while a poor-performing student gets bad grades. It is up to the student to achieve, effort and perform - school is but the arena wherein such feats are to be accomplished. On graduation day, the student receives a paper which states in objective terms what they know and do not know, and to what degree they know what they know. [I use the word 'student' throughout this post, even though it is framed mostly in terms of pupils. I mention this here to preempt confusion.]

What is in a curriculum matters, as does the way it is taught, and the reasons it is included in the catalogue of things to know. A student becomes what he or she does, shaped by the manner in which these things are done. The way in which something is taught shapes both what is learnt and what kind of person emerges after the process of education is completed.

The core statement of my master's thesis was, as it so often is in the field of pedagogy, taken from Dewey. Loosely paraphrased, it is as follows: education is only effective in so far as it relates to the interests of those doing the learning. Learning is not a guaranteed outcome of partaking in an educational situation; especially not if what counts as "learning" is "absorbing the intended subject matter at hand in this particular learning situation". Though - and Dewey would back me up here - it is very possible that a student might learn that a particular teacher's voice is particularly conducive to falling asleep, and that this might be strategically used for restorative purposes.

We have now introduced the core concepts: educational goals, educational evaluation, the organization of the educational process, and student interest. We are almost ready to get to the fan fiction and computer games part. But first, some more discussion about goals and evaluation.

A common way to test what students know and do not know is, as you might have suspected, tests. The specifics vary, but the general principle is to sit students down in a room and subject them to a number of questions. If they manage to produce answers to these questions, a good grade is given; if they do not, a bad grade is given. This is thought to be a fair and proper way to evaluate what students know or do not know, and thus it is widely used as a basis for determining whether students have in fact achieved the goals of their education or not.

Thing is. These tests only measure whether or not a particular student have mastered the art of responding to test questions or not. They do not measure competencies outside the scope of the questions asked and the genre of answers deemed appropriate to those questions. They most certainly do not measure whether a student is interested in the narrow and specialized discipline of providing appropriate answers to evaluative tests.

This opens up for the possibility that a student might possess the desired skill or knowledge (as expressed in the goals of their particular educational setting), but not the will, desire or capability to express it in the form the test demands. If they find the test boring, they might just outright refuse to participate. If they find the test to be an insult to their intelligence, they might produce answers that deviate from the desired form. Or, if they do not understand the questions, they might simply not know what to do.

If the aim of education is to teach a particular skill, then the evaluation of whether a particular student has acquired this skill or not needs to take into account other expressions than test results alone. There are many ways to the same goal, and educational settings have a tendency to delegitimize those ways that are not explicitly stated in the educational process. And this is where we get to the fan fiction and computer games.

My thesis looked specifically at literacy and the goals associated with the teaching of it. While the specifics of what "literacy" means varies from place to place, to general gist of it tends to be to read a text and act on what is found within. In the case of fiction, it tends to be something along the lines of relating what happens in the narrative to other happenings, be it in the real or the narrative world. In the case of non-fiction, it tends to be along the lines of finding useful information and implementing it in some way. In both cases, reading comprehension is at the fore - if the student can relate the content of the text to other things, then they have displayed literacy.

Fan fiction is a clear example of this. If the educational goal is to teach a kid how to write, then it does not matter if the thing they are writing is fan fiction. The skills they acquire in the process of writing about Harry Potter are the same as when they write about anything else, by virtue of writing being writing. Moreover, as they become more proficient in what they do, they acquire other skills as well: referencing the source material, using it in a faithful way, understanding the limitations imposed by writing in the Harry Potter setting, etc. The more time they spend reading and writing fan fiction, the more time they spend reading and writing - which is an explicit goal in the education of literacy.

The same goes for computer games. Given games of enough complexity, there will come a time when it is necessary to consult a wiki. Whether it be to see how to complete a particular quest, accomplish a particular goal or master a particular mechanic, eventually the wiki will become a reference point. If the educational goal is to teach how to use reference material, then such a natural leap to using reference material is paydirt. It is the desired result.

The point here is not to let kids write fan fiction or play computer games (though it could be). The point is that these are but two examples of ways to reach the stated goals of literacy education - to read, write, and to use various forms of source material for instrumental reasons. The key is to look at what the students are interested in, and then to look at what they do when they do what they are interested in. If they write fan fiction and discuss it with their (online or offline) friends, then this is a great starting point for further literacy education. Similarly, if they frequently alt-tab to a wiki to accomplish a certain goal within a game, then this facility to use text-based resources can be expanded upon. While they do not know that they are learning how to read, write and find useful information, you as a teacher know, and you can use this as a starting point to get them to their intended destination.

The key is to let interest guide the way. Learning happens by doing what you are interested in, and the more avenues you have to act on that interest, the more learning has the potential to happen. It is up to schools to find ways to channel existing interest into learning/doing: by setting up discussions for this week's fan fic output, to gently mention that the library has books on the subject that covers things not in the wiki, etc. And, eventually, when their interest in a particular book or game has faded, the opportunity arises to introduce new topics of interest to similarly improve the desired skillsets.

An important aspect of focusing on the interest of the students is to recognize that they do not do what they do in order to learn the stated goal of the syllabi that apply to them. They engage in their interests in the social contexts these interests find themselves - in fan fiction communities, on gaming forums, in dedicated wikis etc. These places do not necessarily have the same priorities as the educational settings the student find themselves in. They are different sites of knowledge, who follow different situational rules, and might have different ways to go about the same activity. A fan fiction community is understandably focused on producing good fiction, with a definition of "good" that is defined by the genre of, indeed, fan fiction. Fiction written in a school setting is expected to conform to different norms and standards. Even though the activity is the same (writing), the social context differs in such a way that being able to perform in one context does not automatically translate into an ability to perform in the other.

A metapoint is that kids will do what they are interested in doing anyway, regardless of whether these interests are actualized in a school setting or not. Kids are always interested in things, but these things might not be on the curriculum in a form easily translated to the context of their interests. More importantly, there is the larger question of whether they are allowed to express what they know or not. A student who can navigate the subtle genres of fan fiction with ease (and who enjoys literary nuances which require years of practice to appreciate) might simply not give a flying fig about Hemingway, and thus flunk the test on him - and be graded accordingly.

If the goal is to teach literacy, then encourage interests that lead to literacy. Mutatis mutandis for other subjects - find what the students are interested in, and proceed from there. Then allow for expressions of mastery that are not explicitly made to be easily quantifiable. Standardized tests make it easy to compare tests results, but they have a hard time measuring non-standardized knowledge. If such tests are the only allowed means of expressing mastery in a subject, then schools institutionally and needlessly bar many students from expressing their actually existing knowledge in a socially recognized manner.

In the end, it all comes down to one thing: whether the goal is for students to learn, or for them to perform well on tests.

The difference is not subtle.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Future history, juxtaposed

Recently, my local university library switched cataloguing system, from our local Swedish SAB system to the Dewey decimal system. However, the transition was not made all at once, but rather is done sections at a time. New books are entered into the new system, while old books remain as they are, with some migration from old to new according to rules mostly inscrutable to us students and patrons.

This means that there are two sections for every subject, one old and one new. Interestingly enough, the difference between the two is distinct enough to tell a tale of its own. The old sections mainly contain classics, postmodernism and cyberoptimism. The new sections are, as you might expect, up to date.

Walking from the old sections to the new is akin to walking from the past to the future. However, the future is a very particular future, with a very particular set of events that shaped how things came to pass. We know these events, as we lived through them and have them in living memory. We remember what we did on 11/9 when we heard the news about the twin towers; we remember the aftermath. These things are reflected in the titles of the new shelves, as well they should be.

The old shelves, however, tell a different story. The classics are timeless, and point towards some universal truth or other. The postmodernists do their darnedest to deconstruct settled notions of universality and truth, so as to open up the space to actualizing new universals and new truths - those of our own making, as it were, rather than those we happened to inherit. The cyberoptimists are all enthused about the coming of the computers, and what it could, would, should mean in terms of a better future.

The future was up for grabs, and it was up to people like you and me to make the effort to make it a place worth living.

I suspect the library at some point will complete the transition from the old system to the new one, and that this inadvertent contrast between what was, what could be and what is will become but a memory. But for a little while longer, it will remain possible to observe the difference by physically moving around. Future history, juxtaposed.

It behooves us to notice these things.