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.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Rationally debating nazis is bad

During the course of the discussions surrounding the punching or non-punching of nazis, many references have been made to the notion of rational debate. Words are stronger than fists, as it were, and it is better to use words whenever possible. Especially when considered in the long term - sticks and stones ain't got nothing on the longevity of words.

I do not think the proponents of rational debate understand what it is they are proposing.

To put it in its most brutal form: waking up to a world where parliament is engaged in rational debate regarding the extermination of the Jews would be a nightmare. Especially if they applied all the tools of rationality - weighing the benefits to the costs, comparing different methods of achieving the goal, searching the remaining nazi records for useful information on practical implementation.

These are not things you want to see rationally debated. You want them as far away from the range of available topics of conversation as possible. Ideally, you want the topic so fat removed from consideration that even thinking about it becomes an exercise in speculative fiction. It is not a topic for discussion.

Imagine, however, that it was a topic for discussion. Every day. All the time. To such a degree that when you try to go about your business, you are approached by someone who very politely asks if you have considered exterminating the Jews today. They have a pamphlet, you see, and a book of reasons why today is the day to start thinking that, yeah, maybe there are too many Jews around. Maybe they actually are a problem that needs to be solved, once and for all. After all, you've been hearing about it for so long, there might just be something to it.

If you at this point think to yourself that there is no set of circumstances which would make you consider the extermination of Jews to be a good idea on rational grounds, then you have fully understood why rational debate is not an option. The notion of rational debate assumes that the topic at hand is in the best interest of those who participate in the discussion, and if it is in your best interest to see Jews exterminated -

Well then, my friend, I have some bad news for you.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Punching nazis is good

A strange discussion is taking place at the moment. An anonymous gentleman punch a very public nazi, and the altercation was captured on tape. The video subsequently went viral, and a great many opponents of nazism celebrated the event. Moreover, they encouraged people to do more of it. To, in no uncertain terms, punch more nazis.

Make no mistake. Punching nazis is good. Do more of it.

This part is not strange. Up to this point, things are rather straightforward. Punch, video, viral. This needs no explanation. However, it needs to be mentioned in order to cement your understanding of the strange part.

The strange part is that there seems to be a not insubstantial number of individuals who disagree with the sentiment that punching nazis is a public good that should be encouraged. Who, upon encountering statements in support of further punching, instantly and with vigor, object that violence is not an acceptable response to the situation. Following from this, they object that it is equally not acceptable to encourage enthusiastic punching of additional nazis that happen to be within reach.

Why this sudden urge to defend the nazis? What gives?

The short answer is that decent people oppose violence, and thus do not want to encourage it. Punching a nazi is an act of violence, and thus they do not want to encourage such actions. It is a simple principle, and they act on it. It is, in short, the decent thing to do.

Thing is. The very existence of organized nazis who act in public is an act of violence in and of itself. Nazism as an ideology has a very clearly defined goal, and that goal is to make the lives of inferior races a living hell up until the point where state policies can be enacted to systematically eradicate these races. This is the explicit goal, and every ounce of influence accumulated by those who follow this ideology will be used to further this goal. The inferior races are to be purged, to create living space for the master race. Compromise is not an option.

This is what they want. This is what they say they want. This is why they put pictures of literally Hitler on their propaganda material. This is not in any way a hidden secret.

Allowing nazis to go about their business undisturbed has the unintended consequence of allowing them to go about their business. They can hold meetings, distribute propaganda material and recruit more followers. They can go through all the steps required to get from here to their goal, undisturbed. Left to their own devices, they can get shit done.

It might be argued that it would be more prudent to try to reason with them. That words are better than fists. That reasoned debate still has a role to play in this.

My counterargument is that history happened, and we recorded it. It is very possible to find out what the nazis did. The cultural production of whole generations went into hammering in the importance of never allowing what they did happen again. Books, movies, monuments, essays, plays, songs, poems - those who want to know have it within their reach to find out. There is no excuse for not knowing.

Those who, in spite of this, come across the nazi point of view and think it agreeable, have already discarded the lessons of history. They know what they are doing, but they are doing it anyway. Telling them what they already know will not change their minds.

Punching them, however, has the effect of stopping what they are doing. It's hard to organize the second Holocaust when being punched.

And that is the point.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The proper amount of attention

You know those local artists who dedicate their lives to their art? Who work ceaselessly on their projects, utilizing all the time and resources at their disposal in a single-minded pursuit of doing the work. Who, at the end of the day, look back on what they have accomplished and deep within their souls know that the world needs more of it. Who live and breathe art as surely as everyone else breathes air.

You know the kind. Those who never actually succeed in getting anywhere, and at most impact the most immediate neighbors. Those who get chosen when the producers of local television scrapes the barrel for what to feature next, and whose daytime programs have audiences counted in double digits.

You have seen those shows. Right before you zap over to another channel, because who cares, right?

I want you to have this category of people as a template. They work hard, are earnest in their efforts, and get absolutely no recognition for it. They are, for all intents and purposes, literal nobodies.

This is the template for how to treat neo-nazis (and their alt right alter egos). This is the proper amount of attention to give them. This is the baseline.

If you are in tune with the current zeitgeist, you might instinctively think that there is some element of free speech at play here. Resist this instinct - the biggest problem with neo-nazis is not that people have not heard their arguments. To the contrary: an entire generation of a whole continent got to hear it point blank, and wrote extensively about why that particular ideology is a bad idea all around. The message has been heard; spreading it even further would not bring any additional insight into the present condition.

Ask instead why the issue of free speech actualized at the mention of neo-nazis rather than the ineffectual local artist. Examine the assumptions at work in that line of thinking, and put some critical distance between it and yourself.

Then go find one of those local artists. Chances are they actually do have useful insights into the present condition, in wait of someone to notice them. -