Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What would I do in a semester? What would I do in year?

This evening, I have the pleasure of attending a meeting to discuss the state and future of the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry at Ball State University. Long-time readers will remember that I was  fellow in Spring 2012, mentoring the multidisciplinary undergraduate team Root Beer Float Studio who created Museum Assistant: Design an Exhibit. We transformed the upper floor of a mansion into an independent game development studio with a unique academic mission. This was the most important and defining experience of my career as a professor; there's a real sense in which everything I have done since then has been attempts and experiments in recreating parts of the truly immersive VBC experience. In preparation for tonight's meeting, I was sent the recently-completed external evaluation of the center. Reading this report reminded me how truly superlative the VBC is: it is truly exceptional, unique in higher education. I have been telling people since then that if I could run projects like that every semester, that's what I would do.

Along with the external evaluation, I was sent this question to consider:
If you were given an entire semester, or even an entire academic year, to teach/work on/investigate anything with students, what would it be? What would you do with your time? Why?
My first reaction when I saw this question was, "I would do what I did in Spring 2012, but I would do it even better." The overall scheme from 2012 was a good one: I designed a one-week intensive introduction to educational game design, and we moved very rapidly into an agile approach for building and testing prototypes. With the scheduling freedom that the VBC provides, we were able to couple our production work with reading groups and academic inquiry. I brought in speakers from across campus to talk about game design, games journalism, and storytelling. I spent most of my time embedded with the team, mixing roles of mentor, coach, and producer. Since 2012, I have learned even more about all of these roles, which is why I think I could do it even better now than I did then.

I went back and read the question again, and that's when I saw the "or even an entire academic year" clause. In one semester, a student at the VBC might earn 15 credit hours, or earn something like a minor in game design and development. This gives a good academic-conceptual bounding box for what students might be able to do after completing the semester: they should have a firm foundation, but they should not necessarily be expected to develop proficiency, maybe not even competency, let alone expertise (drawing upon the Dreyfus model definitions). In two semesters, that's potentially 30 credit hours, and it starts to look like a small major. There could be real opportunities to not only make grand mistakes, but to learn from them and then do something even better. I believe in the university as a "safe fail" environment—it's good that students can learn through their failures here, because that's essentially why they are here. With more time, though, you increase the chances that maybe you could make something with extrinsic value. Whether that means widespread dissemination, commercialization, or formation of LLCs, I don't know. Fundamentally, if I had a year at the VBC, I would follow the same kind of pattern I did before, but the scale and scope would be roughly doubled.

The question leads into my broad ideas for how higher education could be reformed. Fundamentally, the best part of undergraduate education is inquisitive students working with active scholars in interesting contexts. Everything else is artifice. A colleague and I wrote about this for an internal report some ten years ago, that in order to innovate, the university needs a skunkworks where students and faculty can engage in collaborative reflective practice. This kind of talk makes the bureaucrats nervous, but their concerns, though legitimate, are accidental to education: credit-hours, accreditation, core distributions, majors, etc. By contrast, the essential issue is guiding students to recognize truth and beauty. That's where I like to spend my effort.

In the next two days, I have the Security & Software Engineering Research Center Showcase, the VBC dinner, and a Google I/O Extended meetup. Should be a thought-provoking few days of "break"!

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