With a background in media production ranging from 16mm filmmaking to analog game design, one of my central goals in teaching is to open students up to an appreciation of craft. I am a strong believer that one of the best tools in the pedagogical toolbox is the judicious application of the question, “why is this put together the way it is?” This may take the form of, “why would the filmmaker choose this angle over another?” Alternately, it could take the form of, “why did this writer support their claim in this particular way?” As I have taught in different contexts, my “why” questions have shifted. While teaching students at DePaul University or the University of Chicago, I have used “why” questions to home in on the specific processes of making, across various media. When teaching students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, themselves makers, the situation is flipped. Here, I aim to instill an awareness of rhetorical prose as a craft—that is, as a creative act, to be approached with both rigor and instinct, much as one would approach art making. In both cases, the challenge is to get students to understand art-making and writing as a series of complex decisions between unequal options. Pulling attention past what a game mechanic or film scene may mean, or what a claim may be, I want students to grasp how games and films make meaning, and how papers advance arguments. Even in advanced courses pursuing high-level theoretical or philosophical analyses, these basic “why” and “how” questions can serve as a foundation, allowing other avenues of inquiry to break off as tributaries, and establishing an organic link between formal and theoretical analysis.
I have used this type of craft-centric pedagogy across undergraduate courses at a diverse array of schools. At the University of Chicago, I taught one self-designed advanced-level undergraduate course, entitled “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames.” Through a close, comparative look at how scenes are staged in each medium, and variations in manifestations of genre conventions, this course explored the two-way influence games and cinema have exerted on one another over the past several decades. I also taught “Introduction to Film,” and one section of the Media Aesthetics sequence of the Humanities first-year general education core—an introduction to basic issues and methods in media theory, spanning readings in philosophy (Plato, Aristotle), critical theory (Benjamin, Freud), and English literature (Wilde). At DePaul University, I taught “Introduction to Mass Communication,” adding lessons on journalism, television, and social media to my previous repertoire. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I have taught multiple sections of First-Year Seminar, a required undergraduate course that provides basic instruction in English writing, close reading, and composition. Taking advantage of the freedom afforded to instructors of this course, I have designed a diverse array of seminars, most of which incorporate some element of digital media. My course “Moving Images and Arguments” is a course on rhetoric with a comparative media scope, where students discuss everything from the essayistic tradition in video art to politically charged independent videogames. “Comedy and the Moving Image” combines an overview of philosophical theories of humor with an examination of issues of performance, politics, and medium-specificity in visual comedy. “Frames, Claims, and Videogames,” meanwhile, represented the first course that I taught entirely devoted to games, without a broader focus on comparative media or digital media studies, with a special focus on political arguments using games, and political arguments about games.
As an instructor, I find it important to use technology to provide different entrance points for students with different backgrounds, interests, and competencies. I accompany my lectures with varied audiovisual presentations created in Prezi, a browser-based visual presentation software. Being online, Prezi ensures the continued accessibility of visual aids outside of class for students to review materials at their own pace. Dropbox enables the sharing of streaming video files for student use. Course blogs and discussion board posts offer an opportunity for a decentralized assignment structure that can be tightly integrated into in-class discussions. (I have additional pedagogical uses for my professional blog, including hosting a resource I have built to facilitate the teaching of digital games.) These tools have been invaluable for addressing the needs of students. Posting visual presentations online before class has even begun, so that students can follow along on their computer as I speak, has helped accommodate the needs of students with a range of disabilities. At the School of the Art Institute, occasionally the majority of students in my classes have been international, with English as their second language. Here, discussion board posts have proven to be a necessity when engaging with students who are still building confidence in their spoken English skills.
I strongly believe that courses in visual media (and, in particular, new digital media) should never hold their subject matter at an arm’s length, but instead integrate it into both presentations and assignments, taking full advantage of our evolving technological landscape. In pursuit of this aim, I continue to be actively involved in media production, building new skill sets that inform and feed into my pedagogy. Prior to my graduate work, I served as a professional video editor and compositor, and taught video production at the high school level. In recent years, my focus has shifted to game design. As the game design facilitator for the 2016 Hexacago Health Academy youth summer program, I taught design fundamentals to high school students, advising them as they created educational board games, and then accompanying them as they promoted these games at Bit Bash, a Chicago independent games festival. In addition to analogue game design, I am also teaching myself to code, a skill that I put to use as the teaching assistant for “Framing, Re-framing, and Un-framing Cinema.” In this University of Chicago course, taught by Tom Gunning in collaboration with the artist collective OpenEndedGroup, students develop new digital humanities tools for film analysis that utilize recent developments in machine vision and virtual reality. These interactions with various registers of artistic and technical craft have inspired new experimentations with, and refinements of, my pedagogical methods—most prominently, pushing students beyond the confines of the traditional written assignment. Within the sphere of popular game criticism, video-based critique and analysis look poised to overtake more traditional written forms. I firmly believe that academic scholarship must keep pace with such popular developments, or else diminish in relevance. In this spirit, rather than assigning a traditional term paper for “Introduction to Film,” I accepted a broad range of visual-based analytical work, from blog posts with animated GIFs to full-on video essays. Rather than just being something students memorize for a quiz, here the vocabulary of cinema becomes the toolset students much rhetorically marshal in service of analytical claims.
However, for all of my investment in technology, I also recognize that sometimes, in order to be responsive to the needs of students, and to best foster an inclusive classroom environment, it must be jettisoned. For instance, in Spring 2016, I was prepping a lecture on internet culture’s entanglement in recent debates about campus climate for my DePaul University Intro to Mass Communication course. DePaul had recently invited Brietbart contributor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus—an early stop on his now-infamous 2016–2017 tour of college campuses, brought to national attention after protests at Berkeley. As has frequently been the case at Yiannopoulos events, protesters shut down the event in protest of his inflammatory racist and misogynist comments. In retaliation, the school became the target of racist vandalism. Already considering the timeliness of the class’ lesson, my class preparation was interrupted when Black Lives Matter protesters unfurled a banner across the hall from my classroom, chanting for the University president’s resignation. As the chant continued during my class, echoing through the walls of the building, my prepared visual presentation no longer seemed adequate. Remembering DePaul’s Vincentian commitment to integrating the abstract and the practical in matters of pedagogy, I decided the time had come to improvise. Jotting a few topics on the dry erase board, I told the class that, while they should keep the issues of the week’s reading in mind, I was more interested in hearing personal stories of students’ interactions with the Yiannopoulos event, the protests, and the subsequent vandalism. Many women in my class brought up sexist remarks they had observed firsthand at the event, and Black and Latinx students spoke of feeling unsafe on campus in the wake of the event. I invited as many students as possible to share their lived experience, and my students were appreciative of this—one of them wrote in course evaluations, “He really lets his students direct the class, which is something I had never seen before.” During this class session, I allowed disagreement to emerge as long as it was civil and productive, and made no attempt to take control of this freeform discussion beyond occasionally pointing out resonances with course reading to provide small nudges of direction.
I was invigorated by this lively class session, and resolved to apply what I had learned from it into future course design. Three weeks after the class, I pitched a syllabus for a course entitled “New Media Communities and the Politics of Speech.” Driven by student group projects and in-class debates, this course deals with issues of online harassment, the experience of marginalized communities on the internet, and how “trolling” culture has affected our current political climate. After all, truly learning from students goes beyond changing one’s lesson for a day. Ideally, this process should not end with dropping one’s plans for a single class session, but should also inform how one plans future classes.