Monday, September 26, 2011

Two Research Ideas

One of my first assignments here at Stanford was to draft a possible research question and propose a methodology to use in answering that question.  Because I have multiple interests, I wrote two.

The Dialogic Pedagogy of St. John's College


What is a dialogue? Obviously there is plenty of research about how to support dialogue in the classroom, and the role of discussions in learning. From my own limited experience, however, as a graduate student and as a teacher, there is a tremendous difference between dialogue as it is conceived in such research and dialogue as it occurs in, particularly, the classrooms of St. John's College.

As a graduate of St. John's, I have first hand experience in those classrooms. Far from providing answers, my experience only raises more questions. What is it about the culture, the pedagogy, and the organization of learning at St. John's that makes their classrooms unique? How is it that students in the St. John's seminar are able to speak so directly to each other about such complicated texts with minimal Professorial intervention? Or are they actually able to do so, after all? What is the relationship between the dialogic pedagogy of the college and its Great Books curriculum? Do they support each other, are they separable, or do they detract from each other? Perhaps most importantly: what, if anything, does the pedagogy – as distinct from the curriculum – have to teach educational systems at large?

All of these questions interest me, and they serve as a backdrop for a possible research agenda. In the short term, however, I want to focus particularly on undergraduate programs and dialogue. That is, I want to address this question: What constitutes a dialogue at St. John's, and how is it distinct from dialogues in other undergraduate academic environments?


In order to begin to answer that questions, an initial qualitative, ethnographic foray into the college would be invaluable. A visit to the Santa Fe campus would allow me to conduct interviews with current students and faculty, as well as observe seminars in action with a researcher's – rather than a student's – eye. Video analysis of seminars could also be helpful, though that would require both the necessary equipment and approval from the school (recording of seminars is traditionally forbidden). While direct observation and interviews would only be possible when present, with permission and help I might be able to record video of a seminar or seminars throughout a semester or more.

In addition to doing qualitative data collection at St. John's, I would want to follow a similar interview and observation (and/or video analysis) protocol at another or other institutions. Perhaps the most feasible option would be to look at undergraduate courses at Stanford, as well as another local college or university (such as San Jose State). I would strive to find courses which describe themselves as “seminars” and which intend to use discussion-based pedagogies. I would strive, at this stage, to match specific content across the colleges in question.

Having collected my data, I would code and analyze in the qualitative tradition, with an eye towards answering my initial question, but also with the hope of discovering the appropriate path towards addressing the deeper questions that inspire my research.

Design in Game Development and Curriculum Construction

J.P. Gee, among others, has noticed that game developers do an excellent job of scaffolding learning into their products. That is, gamers learn how to play the game from simply playing it, whether because there is a built-in tutorial, or because the mechanics of the game are somehow made obvious by experimentation, or because the game is similar enough to other games in the genre that new players can be expected to transfer skills and strategies. Regardless, learning to play a game is a significant portion of what makes games fun.

School environments and activities, on the other hand, are frequently designed with a much more acute eye for learning, but too often without the same success. What, then, is it about the game design process that makes games so effective? How does that process differ from the curriculum and educational design process? Is the difference cultural, mechanical, or philosophical? 

I'm particularly interested in an analysis of the design process game and curriculum development, as it pertains to learning in those respective environments. The question is not, then, whether students learn better from games, or what games do so effectively. It is how games are designed and how that process differs in education.


I believe this question lends itself to an ethnographic approach. On the one hand, ethnography of a game development studio – or, indeed, a multitude of studios, as different studios likely have different design processes – and on the other, a similar ethnography of a school or other academic institution engaged in curriculum and activity design. Many public schools, of course, have little say in the details of their curricula, so perhaps a textbook company or other curriculum developer (Foss, for example) would serve as an interesting foil instead.
Spending time observing and interviewing participants in the design processes in these two environments, I would hope to discover what, if any, vocabulary is shared, and what is different. I would also hope to see to what degree learning is an explicit or implicit part of the design process. I expect a variety of other notable differences might arise as well, in terms of relationship to prototyping, the degree to which the process itself arises organically during development, and the passion and engagement of the people working on the design, among other things.


Ultimately, my hope is that the game design process might hold some keys as to how educators might help to unlock the powerful learning potential of games in education, without forcing us to conclude that boring “educational games,” irrelevant commercial games, or tacky gamification are the only options. That is, perhaps traditional learning might be benefit at the level of design from contact with the game design world. And, in reverse, perhaps the game design world can benefit from contact with the education design process.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Future of the Blog

As I am about to begin working on my PhD in Education at Stanford University, I have been reflecting on this blog and the role it will play in my studies. While I was an MA student I wrote here frequently, and I expect I'll continue to write frequently as a PhD student. I feel, however, that I put an undue amount of pressure on myself to produce content for this blog at a fairly regular rate. Undue because, ultimately, I have a very small readership (though I very much appreciate those of you who do read the blog regularly), and thus mostly am writing for myself.

The upshot of all of this reflection is that, while I'm not planning on discontinuing the blog by any stretch, I'm planning on scaling it back significantly. Instead of my target of two posts a week, I'm hoping to get to a post every now and again... Maybe one every couple of weeks. I'm still going to work on my Beethoven project, of course, as time and willpower permit, and likewise with my still nascent novel (which has been more difficult than I anticipated), and I fully anticipate occasional game ravings, political rants, and educational reflections to make their way to this space. But the pace at which I've tried to write here over the past couple of years will be lessened because, well, there's just too much else to do.

In particular, there's too much else to read. Not only will I be taking on a heavy PhD reading load, but I've found that the Internet is bustling with great writing, and the decision to be an active producer of writing sometimes gets in the way of my desire to read more. With that in mind, I want to encourage my readers to take a look at Dirk Hayhurst, at Eric Nusbaum, at Joe Posnanski. These are writers who I follow (or have recently begun to follow) and who are teaching me - whether they intend to or not - to write better.

Perhaps what I'm trying to say is this. As an undergraduate I read a lot and wrote a little. Since then, I've written a lot and read not as much. Now I think it's time for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction, and a few years from now I'll pick up the pen (or the keyboard) and become a writer again. Of course, that's not really a dichotomy - one may write and read a lot at the same time - but I nevertheless feel that one's focus naturally tends towards one or the other at any given time. For now, it's back to being a reader and a student.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ferrero, Sequoia, and Finding a Home

Juan Carlos Ferrero used to be the best tennis player in the world.  Back in 2003, in the middle of that five-year vacuum between Sampras and Federer, Ferrero joined Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and even, briefly, Andre Agassi in taking his turn at the top of the tennis-ranking mountain.  Now Ferrero is 31, still young by the standards of society, but positively ancient in the world of tennis.

Ferrero fell short of the quarterfinals at this years U.S. Open after losing to the colorfully named Janko Tipsarevic.  And had he managed to win that match, an almost certain defeat at the hands of current world number one Novak Djokovic waited at the other end.  Regardless, the Tipsarevic match I have little to say about, except that it was a hard-fought four setter.  The match before it was the interesting one.


On our way to San Diego, my wife and I suddenly found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Now that's no surprise in Southern California, but in this case the traffic was particularly bad.  The highway, it turns out, was on fire.  Or, rather, a fire raged on both sides of I-15 in Victorville, just north of the northern reaches of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  After two and a half hours of trying to find a way around the flames, we turned North instead, setting out on an unexpected path.

We ended up in Lake Isabella, on the doorstep of Sequoia National Forest.  Big trees, we thought.  We want to see big trees.  We rolled into a shabby old motel near the lake at almost 10:00 PM, after starting our day in Flagstaff, Arizona, and called it a minor, if unexpected, victory.


Gael Monfils might be the most entertaining player on the ATP World Tour.  He dives to make his shots, he lopes around the court, he pouts, he yells, he engages in a subtle rope-a-dope that announcers - and, in theory, his opponents - mistake for nonchalance.  Above all, he plays with joy and the curse of grace, and so the crowd loves him and is yet frustrated by his failure to be better.

The "curse of grace" is a term Joe Posnanski uses to describe Carlos Beltran.  Some athletes are so gifted, so refined, so graceful at what they do that they appear not to be trying.  If only, we think, he would try a little harder, he'd be truly great.  Gael Mofils tries hard.  You don't become as good a tennis player as he is (#7 in the World entering the U.S. Open) without practicing hours and hours and hours a day, without pushing yourself, without learning how to give more than you think you have.  And yet he looks like he's not trying, because he's just that graceful, and because - despite the criticism it brings - he wants you to think that he's not trying.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, whose own grace is largely a memory by now, beat Gael Monfils in five sets last week.


After a long drive through the Kern River valley, up into the mountains, we finally arrived at the big trees.  The first one lurked behind a turn on the road, eliciting cries of surprise and awe as we passed.  Even if you've watched Planet Earth, even if you've seen one of the countless pictures of the Giant Sequoias, nothing can prepare you for actually seeing one.

We happily paid to park next to the somewhat touristy Trail of 100 Giants trailhead.  Rarely - though moreso in National Parks than anywhere else - the touristy vibe of a place is irrelevant to its own internal grace.  The Giant Sequoias along the trail we walked were in no way lessened by the paved path that weaved between them, nor by the screaming of children unaccustomed to a screen-less walk through a natural monument.

One child in particular screamed and screamed and screamed.  He didn't want to go towards the leaning tree, or away from something he liked, or along a path near so many bees.  The exact nature of his protest was hard to make out, but it was, I'm certain, directional.  It seemed to me, above all, that he didn't want to confront the Sequoias.  No child is able to comprehend those trees.  Indeed, probably no adult can really understand what it means for a tree to be 1,500 years old.  Constantine is ancient history; the birth of a Sequoia, even more so.

Infinity is not nearly as overwhelming a concept as finite but large.  The Sequoias are giants - too big to see the top of, over a dozen feet in diameter at the base, sometimes scarred with burn marks as large as an entire cedar tree - but it is their relationship to time, more than space, that truly impresses.  What can a child do but cry when confronted with a 75-year-old baby of a Sequoia that's older than Granpa, and yet at only the beginning of its young life?


Monfils played as Monfils plays.  Ferrero played as he is forced to at his age.  After a gritty first set tiebreaker, Monfils power and agility won out in tight second and third sets.  He looked to be in command of the match, but he plays an expensive brand of tennis.  Every dive, every collapse, the effort of chasing down so many of Ferrero's well-placed shots caught up with Monfils.  He still held serve in most every game down the stretch of the final two sets, but a break here and a break there, and Ferrero closed out the match 6-4, 6-4 in the final two sets.

Tennis - especially at a Major Tournament like the Open - is a grueling sport.  As important as power, speed, and agility are, stamina and the ability to pace oneself are just as important.  Ferrero rarely overexerted himself in his match with Monfils, playing just hard enough to push the Frenchman, just pesky enough to stay in the first three sets and steal one of them.  Then, by the time the fourth set rolled around the match was already well over three hours old, and Monfils's grace and nonchalance turned into fatigue, and Ferrero showed the instinct that allows you to be the best in the world, if only for a short time.


The tree we spent the most time with was dead.  It had fallen well over 100 years ago, and yet it had barely decayed.  For the Sequoias even death moves in slow motion.  Lying on the ground, it's easier to appreciate the sheer size of one of these Giants.  Walking from base to tip is roughly equivalent to traversing three tennis courts.  Climbing onto the curved peak affords one a view of a dangerous fall.  Bringing the virtually imperceptible giants to human scale only further reinforces how unfathomably huge they are standing up.

On the exposed faces of the fallen Sequoia people had scrawled initials, expressions of undying love, crude jokes, and brief political rants.  It's tempting to be upset about the human need to spoil natural beauty, but in this case anger is as perfectly irrelevant as the illegible carvings.  These trees do not exist on any human scale, and our petty efforts to make them ours - by writing on them, or by protecting them from writing - misses their point.  Indeed, they do not have, in any human sense, a point.  They are merely trees.  What power we exert over or in service of them says more about us than it does about them.


 I wonder about players like Juan Carlos Ferrero.  What motivates him to keep playing when he knows that he stands little chance against the Roger Federers and Rafael Nadals and Novak Djokovics of the modern game?  As time passes the gap between himself and the top players grows, and as new top players find their way to the peak of their own games, Ferrero will continue to be the same Ferrero who reached his peak in 2003, and has been fighting to maintain a semblance of that greatness ever since.  Sure, another big paycheck, another endorsement deal or two can't hurt, but defeat does hurt for a champion.

"The love of the game" is a hackneyed and inadequate response to the question.  Of course Ferrero loves the game, and of course he believes in himself.  Somewhere, though, in the back of his mind, he has to know that the victories left to him are the ones that are not won during prime time, with the lights shining on him and the TV cameras rolling.  He might beat Gael Monfils, who is number seven in the world, but that is still a minor, unexpected victory.  Maybe, though, even for a former world champion, that's all that matters sometimes.


Now we're searching for a home in the South Bay.  The trees are behind us.  Their monolithic presence has given way to human concerns: a place to sleep, food to eat, a toilet to shit in.  As we search we've been forced to reconnect with commerce, with the artificial rules and regulations of the social contract, with the cultural codes that run even deeper than that, with the games that you have to play.  The U.S. Open is still on TV.

And what is a home, really?  It's a place to stay, but - as the saying goes - you can carry it on your back.  It's a transitory phenomenon, a place defined by its residents, a moment.  And yet the question "Where do you live" usually elicits a one word response: Honolulu, Denver, San Francisco.  These capital-letter stand-ins for the particular moments we spend in our homes speak to eternity, a time that spans our own lives.  In the end, a home is both the moment and the eternity, the place and the Place.  Perhaps we don't always look for these things, but we find them anyway.  Or, anyway, they find us.


What does Juan Carlos Ferrero have to do with the Sequoias?  Nothing, really.  Ferrero operates on a human scale, searching for a victory this week, and another one next week.  His career as a tennis player will be over soon, even though it only just started, even by the standards of a normal human "career."  The Sequoias, on the other hand, lie mostly outside of human perception.  Comprehending what it means for anything to exist for 1,500 years is essentially impossible for a creature that lives less than 100 years.  Eternity is not the precise word, but it might as well be.

As I search for a home, I'm really searching for a place where I can filter my perceptions, understand my interactions, and ground my existence.  Wrapped up in a home is an understanding of home in its moments and in its eternities.  Ferrero and the Sequoias are experiences I filter through myself, and as I look for a home, I look for a way of understanding not the meaning of tennis or really big trees, but rather something about myself.  I know where I am going, what I am going to do, and perhaps even a little bit about who I am.  Still, there's something else that a home represents in time, in space, and in understanding.

That something is wrapped up in eternity and in moments, in trees and tennis courts, and, above all, in the way we move through it all.