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Looking ahead to my next Tutorial [1,2] (#973)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, teaching, long

It’s been about a decade since I last taught Tutorial [3]. As I mentioned recently, I’d very much [4] like to teach it again this fall. Admittedly, I would have liked to have taught it again at some time in the past decade [5]. However, things got in the way [6].

I started planning for my next Tutorial about five years ago. I even wrote about it on [Plans]. I did a bit of digging and found my notes from spring 2014. Since [Plans] postings evolve, I don’t what I started with. But here’s what I had on my Plan in early June 2014.

Brainstorming on Tutorial

I’m hoping to teach Tutorial in Fall 2015, so it’s time to start brainstorming about what I’ll teach. Plans seems like as good a place as any to start to think out loud about what I’d teach. I’ll take any feedback folks provide - comments on potential topics listed below, thoughts on other topics that might be good (some of you probably know me well enough to suggest topics), whatever

Inventory: I’ve taught intellectual property three times, freedom and authority on the Internet once (but that partially morphed into intellectual property), and hypermedia once. I’m not going to teach IP again. My skills at approaching material (and in teaching writing) tend to focus on more on build arguments from the literature than on close textual reading. (My lack of skills in literary analysis were re-remphasized in the recent RECG workshop that I did with Steve Andrews.) I want to attract a broad variety of students - CS tutorials tend to be quite gender imbalanced (I’ve never taught to only men, but some of my colleagues have). I want to teach about things that interest me and that I care about.

Clarification: One of my concerns is that if I, as a CS prof, teach something with a high geek value, it will further gender the course (or at least potential students’ perception of the course).

Clarification: Almost all of these are things that I’m relatively passionate about, or at least interested in learning more about.

Data Storytelling. Stolen from [MasonH00]. Fun. Interesting. Important. Perhaps too much like a stats class, or like what I hope to morph CSC 151 into in some future year.

Nonlinear Narratives. Return to that original tutorial topic from oh so many years ago, but with more of a focus on narrative, which gives me the opportunity to include video games and such. Perhaps including video games makes it too gendered. Perhaps too much close textual reading.

Board Games. (Some variant of Homo Ludens is the natural name.) I’ve supervised two guided readings. I know a decent amount about the history. I know that there are women at Grinnell who play board games, but this strikes me as a gendered area. I’m not sure how deep the literature on board games is, either. (There are some nice histories, and some books on design, but not really any good deep analyses.)

Algorithmic Art (or Evolutionary Art or some variant thereof). Stuff I care about and do. A really rich literature, including a rich historical literature (well - historical == 1960’s). I could draw upon the Radical Bricolage paper to have students do very different analyses of works. But is this treading too much on Art History’s domain? And the reading group on this issue went, well, mixed. (Okay, [Stone] and I spent way too much time arguing about what art is.)

3D Printing and Maker Culture. Suggested by [Anonymized]’s comment on my algorithmic art idea.

Sequential Art. Yeah, I like comic strips. I could have students read How to Read Nancy, one of Scott McCloud’s books, Eisner’s Sequential Art, and then we could do close analyses of individual strips or something similar. Also an opportunity to do different kinds of assignments. Seems to veer a little close to close textual reading. Could suck the fun out of reading comics. (Does anyone read comics any more?) Not sure that there’s a deep literature that we could use (in terms of scholarly articles that are accessible to the students and to me), but there has been some recent work on what the Internet has unleashed, everything from the egalitarianism of Webcomics to the new opportunities for storytelling revealed by things like some recent XKCD’s or Pup ponders the heat death of the universe. (Followup: I think I’d prefer to focus on strips rather than GNs.) (Followup: [Anonymized] suggests Comics and Social Justice.)

Social Media. Stuff I study (sometimes). Deep and interesting literature. An excuse to get my students on Plans. But not stuff I use all that much.

Design. Really [DavisJan]’s area, but something that’s interesting to approach from engineering, aesthetic, and HCI perspectives.

Unspecified or (Design your Own). Are you willing to take a risk? Rather than having a preset theme, the theme of this tutorial will be what the members of the tutorial agree upon in the first week.

Buffy. There is a reasonable literature out there (although some can be a bit shallow). Perhaps a bit dated?

Anyway, just thinking out loud. I’ll take any feedback you want to provide, including things as simple as I’d take that Tutorial and I know you Sam; that Tutorial would suck.

Those notes represent a host of conversations on [Plans]. I’ve included the comments I received from others at the end of this musing. Rereading them was a pleasant experience. I’d forgotten about quite how wonderful [Plans] was [7]. Not only did I have comments from alumni and current students I knew but I also got comments from people who saw parts of the discussions on other people’s plans [8].

In any case, things did not work out as I had hoped, and I did not teach Tutorial in Fall 2015. In the years since, I’ve primarily remembered my list as Board Games, Comic Strips, and something like Nonlinear Narrative. I’d forgotten about the rest, or perhaps I assumed that I had dismissed the topics.

I’ve continued to think about these topics. I’ve even gathered a variety of books on board games, as well as way too many board games. On the comic strip front, I considered focusing on a particular strip, such as Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which is beautiful, funny, and politically challenging. Gus Arriola’s Gordo, the first strip by a Mexican-American, would also be interesting to discuss, but I’m not sure that I have the broad cultural literacy to do that.

In looking for things I might use for the Gordo Tutorial, I recently stumbled upon Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez. A Tutorial on one of Los Bros Hernandez could also be interesting. There are two collected volumes of Maggie and Hopey that raise a whole host of issues about youth, various cultures, rock music, wrestling, and more. Or I could have the students look at Gilbert’s magic realism, even though I found it a bit less compelling. The one-volume Palomar appears to be out of print, as does its sequel, Luba. However, it appears that used copies of Luba are readily available.

If I allow reality to intervene, I need to admit that none of these would make a good Tutorial topic. While one or two entering students may have heard of Pogo, or Gordo, or Los Bros, most will have not. The same holds for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I might encounter a few more students who have heard about that show and the innovations it represents. But if I teach a Tutorial on one of those topics, I’ll likely find that the majority of students in my Tutorial would have chosen it for other reasons. Since some students choose Tutorial not based on the topic but rather based on the instructor, as in, I want to be a CS major, I should take a Tutorial taught by a CS prof. I’d rather have students who are interested in the topic. Henry Walker tells me that he got a very different distribution of students in his Limits of Computing Tutorial students the one year in which departments were not included in the list of Tutorials. Of course, with the growth of the Interweb, our ability to limit context is, well, limited.

What about nonlinear narratives? That topic seems like it has potential. It certainly draws upon my long-standing interest in hypertext and hypertext literature. It would allow me to bring in a variety of other kinds of writing. However, I believe that to many, nonlinear narrative mostly means a particular kind of video game, and I have no interest in teaching a Tutorial about video games. Perhaps it’s time to find another topic.

This past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fiftieth anniversary of the open curriculum [9] and Tutorial. I consider it important that Grinnell celebrates these core parts of our education. I went so far as to suggest that we have a symposium entitled something like Grinnell’s Open Curriculum and Liberal Arts Education in the 21st Century. That suggestion did not meet with much favor. However, I realized that it would make a good Tutorial topic. I can see some potential excitement in having the students put together a book on that topic, perhaps including not only their final papers from Tutorial but also some that we solicit from others [10]. I’d certainly expect to enjoy my interactions with students who chose the topic; the ones who chose it intentionally would likely have appropriate curiosity and the ones who chose it because a CS faculty member was teaching it would likely benefit from the opportunity to broaden their worldview. I suppose it’s time to start reading through some of the books I’ve gathered on the topic throughout the years.

Or maybe I’ll change my mind again in the four or so months [12] until I have to choose a topic.

Postscript: I have managed to pick up more than a dozen copies of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace to loan to my Tutorial students. I’m trying to decide if I also want to use The Craft of Research, or perhaps even to substitute the latter book.

Appendix: Here are the anonymized comments I received, or at least the ones I managed to gather at the time. [Plans] was a great place to get feedback from thoughtful, intelligent, Grinnellians [14].

[rebelsky]- You might try to have a conversation with [anonymized] about the board game literature before he leaves Grinnell in a few weeks for a tenure-track job in game academia.

[rebelsky] all of those classes sound amazing. i especially like the data storytelling one - and that topic seems to be of growing importance. i also love the algorithmic art idea. basically, i think you should pick an idea that you are most passionate about - those are always far and away the best classes.

[rebelsky], I don’t have any course that I specifically think would be good, but I am really intrigued by the idea of a tutorial on narrative (and many of your ideas seem to revolve around the idea of how we build narratives–whether through the act of playing games through to their conclusions, analyzing data to build a picture, or just listening to/telling stories). In fact, even the Unspecified course is an attempt to build a intentional learning community that builds its own narrative about itself. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it seems that there is a pattern here, so maybe you can broaden your approach.

[rebelsky]: Thanks! I read the descriptions thoroughly when I was choosing and read the previous tutorials around as well. I also read on ratemyprofessor (yes I know it’s terrible but still I was nervous) about the Professors teaching them, and then talked to current students on the facebook group about what tutorials sounded good/what professors were great/etc. One thing I noticed that popped up there was people said that if you wanted or were even considering majoring in the sciences, you’d want a science advisor. I’d say that putting something in about discussing gender issues could be cool, particularly if you’re throwing video games into the description of the tutorial.

[rebelsky]: I’d lovelovelove Data Storytelling (but I’m a geek and love data analysis). I would take that and love it so much. Also Board Games. I’m not sure how you’d really be able to do something about the gender imbalance without kind of having something big about gender imbalance and you trying to avoid that..I’m not sure. Maybe something like people of all experience and knowledge welcome? I felt a lot more comfortable taking CS after talking to Professor Walker and he said that really everyone would be on equal footing in 151 and how knowledge won’t be assumed. That might just be me though, I’m sorry for not being very helpful here.

[rebelsky] re: tutorial ideas:

  • gaming: talk to [anonymized] and [anonymized] before they leave Grinnell! I bet they could help point you in the right direction on this topic.
  • comics: there are a lot of plansians who love comics and graphic novels, [anonymized], [anonymized], and [anonymized] spring to mind, but others should chime in. And you can have Johnny Cavalier creator and professional cartoonist [cannon] (and his brother, also a Grinalum, I believe) visit your class!

[rebelsky] - I’d definitely take Data Story-Telling, Non-Linear Narratives, Board Games (this one especially), Sequential Art or Social Media. None of those seem inherently off-putting to women, and I think there are ways you could brand the tutorial as to emphasize your inclusivity (though I’m not sure exactly what they are - I agree with [anonymized] that explicitly welcoming people who don’t know what they’re doing will help).

I’m also curious as to why you’re concerned about close reading. Aren’t tutorials intended to make sure first years have a good handle on analytic writing?

[rebelsky] - Yeah, that all makes sense. It was the not mentioning the department kind of thing that I meant. I think we discussed at CS table that there are very small things that make a huge difference in how comfortable women are in traditionally male-dominated environments, though I don’t think you can add potted plants to a tutorial description :)

I know [anonymized], my sister, is currently reading tutorial descriptions quite closely! (In contrast, I think I just said, eh, that one looks kinda cool, and ended up really really lucky.)

[rebelsky] re: comics The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay.

[rebelsky] - Algorithmic Art sounds really interesting to me. I made a 3d printer and most of what I’d like to make I’d consider Algorithmic Art. My brother is really into fractal generation and electric sheep.

[rebelsky], I think you’d teach a really interesting sequential art class. I also think that that is a class that you could readily structure to be less gendered. I actually think that a data storytelling class (getting folks to use large amounts of data to tell interesting stories) would be a really, really useful thing, and also something that you’d be great teaching.

[rebelsky] - Perhaps a course that forces students to take highly charged issues and analyze arguments they don’t necessarily agree with. It’s easy to come into a college environment, especially one with a strong liberal (or conservative) bias, and get excited about popular causes without having those positions ever seriously (logically) challenged. One of the biggest advantages that I had coming to Grinnell with minority opinions was that I was able to refine my beliefs, adapting or abandoning concepts that I realized I was holding onto out of tradition or emotion and further developing those that stood up to the challenges by identifying why the arguments were strong.

The natural reaction of many students will be to get into heated, emotional debates or to quickly abandon any position they are asked to examine that goes against their preconceptions; this is good, because it would give you the opportunity to catch them in the act and challenge them to dig deeper and really take a hard look at both sides. Students would have to lower their defenses, expose their own beliefs to scrutiny, and reconsider how they approach such debates. The idea isn’t to drive students to a pre-ordained conclusion, or to teach them how to win an argument, but rather guide them so that they are able to deconstruct and analyze unfamiliar or unpopular positions that they might otherwise dismiss out of hand. That was one of the top two or three lessons I learned in college (and one I’m still working on years later), and I think it would have been a really powerful tool to have right off the bat in my first semester instead of waiting a few years to really challenge myself.

A few issues off the top of my head: The NSA/Snowden affair (or whatever relevant privacy vs. security issue is hot in F15), IP rights vs. freedom of expression, net neutrality, energy policy and environmentalism, etc. Those are more on the tame end of things; depending on how the students respond and how well you might be able to take it up to 11 by getting into things like gender issues, though with so many exposed nerves it might be better to keep things (relatively) abstract rather than risking getting too personal, especially considering that several students may have had a rough time with such issues in the past …

Once you’ve set the stage for how to have a rational conversation, I can also see a discussion on satire coming into play in the second half of the course, looking at the effectiveness of using extreme arguments to expose their own flaws and the risks involved (e.g. The Colbert Report being taken at face value, or the fact that Machiavelli has a reputation today for preaching power despite the fact that The Prince was satirical). Also maybe a discussion on the pros and cons of various media for communicating those ideas effectively and the common pitfalls associated with each (e.g. Poe’s law, Godwin’s law, the importance of taking ownership of opinions vs. hiding in anonymity, etc.).

Hey [rebelsky] if you do something about comics and are talking about non-linear comics, you should check out Ryan North’s choose-your-own-adventure Hamlet! It’s pretty amazing; it’s one of the most highly funded kickstarters of all time, all the art is done by indie/webcomics people, and it’s aimed at making Shakespeare more accessible to teens. I have an eighth grader reading it right now and she is totally hooked!

[rebelsky] Re: non-linear narratives. There’s been lots of growth in recent years in theatre and performance pieces that are non-linear, and in fact are structured more like video games. The most prominent example is Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, but there are many others. Also, I personally would take the hell out of a Buffy tutorial, but then again, whenever I make Buffy references, undergrads never know what the hell I’m talking about.

[rebelsky]: If I were a first-year again, and those were the available tutorial subjects, I would jump at Nonlinear Narratives.

[rebelsky] - I wrote a really fun paper in one of my anthropology courses about games and play across species (for entertainment, social bonding, role learning, physical skill adaptation, etc.). If you want to expand outside of board games, you can always take that perspective which would include a better gender balance, IMHO. [NAME] mentioned at reunion that she is really getting into algorithmic art. If you don’t have her contact info, I can get it to you for maybe prying into her reaction to the topic (as a former math grad).

[rebelsky] I love the Unspecified idea! I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to sign up for something like that when I was a first year, but it sounds really amazing to me now.

[rebelsky]: The idea of a Data Storytelling tutorial sounds awesome and might get new students interested in computer science. Finding narratives in big data seems like it is my job these days–I would have loved that class!

[rebelsky], do you know what else you would likely teach Fall 2015? I suppose that may partly depend on how next year’s hiring goes. I think the idea of a collaboratively constructed Tutorial is pretty neat, but I also have some concerns about the on-the-fly planning it will require. I imagine that although some of the structure could be pre-determined regardless of the first-week decisions, but it seems like this would require a lot of just-in-time planning on your part. It seems like such a plan could easily go off the rails if you have other obligations that take an unexpected amount of time (or even for regularly scheduled but time-consuming tasks…like exam grading) or if you and your students discover they are more likely to succeed with more pre-planned structure. I guess I would want you to have high confidence in your ability to make it work in the face of the various obstacles you will inevitably face–unpredictable students, grading, service obligations, etc.

[rebelsky] Two cents on the Tutorial discussion: I would teach your passion. Students notice when professors care about the topic they are teaching. The other classes are great, but those classes are amazing. I think Algorithmic Art would pull a really interesting group. Design your own seems most risky, but very cool. I find board games to not be as gender-biased as people think they are. All of them sound great, and make me wish I could take tutorial again.

[rebelsky], I think a sequential art one could be incredibly fun, especially if you include webcomics. Some other suggestions (who are just super good) from outside the internet/gamer nerd corner of webcomics: Octopus Pie, Bad Machinery, Dresden Codak, and Hark a Vagrant (particularly Beaton’s autobio stuff like Ducks, which can be a bit harder to track down).

[rebelsky] I saw through [anonymous] that you were thinking about tutorial topics possibly including narratives that can be found in big data. I worked at the Adler Planetarium and directly with the Citizen Science department that is home to most of the developers of the website. I oversee their grant compliance and am not at all technical, but they have worked with a bunch of science teams to create website projects where regular citizens can help do real science research by sorting through big data that computers can’t. You should check it out and if you want to contact anyone there just let me know. I’ll be out on leave very soon, but would still be able to make the connection at minimum.

[rebelsky] Studies show that half of video gamers are… drumroll, women. That video games are a male hobby is a myth. For that matter, it’s also a myth that it’s mostly teenager boys. It probably always has been. I know of no studies on board games, but I suspect it’s a similar case (at least based on anecdote and lived experience). I’m glad you didn’t think that of comics (the vast majority of my 400 site long webcomic reading list are female-identifying).

[rebelsky] Much has changed in 10 years. Also, nothing has changed, in some ways. But there’s kind of a huge conversation going on at all levels of the gaming world about women in gaming (both as players and as developers). The stereotype is definitely breaking down, and rapidly. Store clerks are getting fired for discriminating against female shoppers. Highly sexualized games are getting eviscerated in the press. And many, many people are asking why Samus Aran is still the only female Space Marine we can point to (there’s been a surge in female leads of indie games, though). The casual game developers have basically done away with the stereotype completely. Big Fish wrote an interesting article on catering to the middle aged woman market (their main audience, and damn if they aren’t successful).

[rebelsky] via [anonymous] and [anonymous]: I didn’t have you at Grinnell (I’m a humanities kid), but I just wanted to say that I love your idea of an unspecified tutorial. Perhaps you could begin by asking students to read a text that gets them thinking about the purposes of education (I love Public Goods, Private Goods by sociologist David Labaree) and then invite them to think about the goals of education, the goals of a liberal arts education and the goals of the tutorial course as they democratically (?) construct the syllabus. It seems like that structure could invite students to engage in the kinds of reflective practices that will serve them well throughout their time at Grinnell.

[rebelsky] what about something that explores how HCI intersects with critical film analysis? That’s probably not the best way to put it. I just loved film analysis in college and think that there’s a lot of ways it intersects with things, like, say, video games. Like how there’s this concept of immersion in both areas but it means wildly different things, from attaining the dream state in the viewer in film as opposed to something like the natural extension sensation that adept video game players get (as if the game were a tool or a part of the body). Or consider the ways that video games use metaphor to try and make intuitive sense to the player. IDK, food for thought.

[Rebelsky] re. Sequential art as a tutorial idea: there’s a LOT you could do with this. Scott McCloud is great. You should check out the recent documentary Stripped about comics and the death of newspapers. Email me if you need a link (not on Plans much myself these days). There are a TON of webcomics out there that a lot of people read. Again, please email me and/or [anonymized] if you would like recommendations. You also mentioned not wanting to be too gendered. There are a lot of webcomics written by and for women, as well as an increasimg number of graphic novels. Manga is, and has been for a long time, huge with girls. American comics, much less so. I imagine there must be scholarly literature out there looking at why, or perhaps that could be one approach for your tutorial.

I am also a woman who plays board games. Often the only woman in the group. I don’t know of any in-depth literature on the topic, but there are some good resources for good reviews of games. Once we see how my mother-in-law’s surgery goes tomorrow I can send you some more info if you want.

[rebelsky]: I never took comp sci (or anything sci, really) in college, but I would sign up for a class on 3D printing and maker culture. I work in the craft field and that’s a really hot topic for debate right now and you’ll definitely find a lot of commentary on it (my colleagues and I would be happy to point you in the direction of some things if you wanted). Even though I come from an art history and craft background I’d be pretty interested in learning more about it from a more scientific/technology viewpoint too. Also, I’m glad you’re interested in coming up with a topic that will spur interest from women.

[rebelsky], I love board games and so do most of my female friends, if that makes any difference. I agree with [anonymized] that comics would be very timely and interesting, with lots of literature and lots of articles written by webcomic artists of various flavors. And I know Scott McCloud and his wife - he’s about to go on another US tour, and I bet he’d make a stop in Grinnell.

[Rebelsky]- Data storytelling sounds great, especially coming from an education perspective. People love talking about data right now, but most people are terrible at communicating with data and making it meaningful to others. You would have spoke great material now that Five Thirty Eight launched and Nate Silver continues his path towards world domination.

[rebelsky] Maybe the Nonlinear Narratives, Board Games, and Social Media topics could be lumped together under some sort of Interactive Storytelling and Social Interaction Design heading? You could have them think about, e.g., board/card games like chess and Dominion, tabletop RPGs like D&D, computer games like Myst or Civ V, MMORPGs like WoW, sports (bonus awesome-prof points if you bring them to Dag sessions), social media platforms like Plans (have them write an essay on how to recruit new users!), or even invite in a theater prof to teach improv comedy for a day. Then they would analyze what makes these things compelling or not. And if you can’t find readings about this sort of tied-together-by-a-theme collection, you’re not trying.

[rebelsky] To be fair, I’m pretty sure Steve Andrews’ close textual analysis skills could put almost anyone to shame, including many other professors. You can probably still do close reading well enough to teach it to first-years. (This was one of the great reliefs of teaching for me: to discover that now, instead of measuring my skills against those of my peers, or worse yet, my professors, I just have to be better at writing/reading than a ninth grader.)

Aren’t Grinnellians wonderful?

First up, I want to get Public Goods, Private Goods by sociologist David Labaree. His A Perfect Mess is on my buy then read list. I see that he’s now at Stanford, too.

I note that a few folks commented on something I’d written about teaching close reading. I forget what it was. But I do think that Tutorial has a host of responsibilities, and I believe that if one is teaching some kind of literature, even comics, then one has a responsibility to help students develop skills at close reading.

[1] I do realize that most people do not capitalize Tutorial. Nonetheless, I prefer to do so because I am naming a particular kind of tutorial, the Grinnell Tutorial.

[2] Yes, middle child, I realize that it is bad form to have notes for the title of a work. This instance is another in which I choose to violate custom.

[3] I checked; my last Tutorial was in Fall 2010.

[4] It appears that Grammarly does not like really but is okay with very much.

[5] I taught five Tutorials in the fourteen or so years between starting in Fall 1997 and Fall 2010, at an appropriate rate of about one Tutorial every three years. I’ve taught none since. It makes me sad.

[6] Things include the following:

  • We had a huge jump in CS enrollments without a corresponding increase in CS faculty, which meant that we often had to ask to be excused from Tutorial.
  • We hired new faculty to replace Henry and Janet, and they needed the opportunity to teach Tutorial.
  • My other senior colleagues got priority in a few years; I don’t recall why.

[7] And perhaps still is.

[8] The conversational structure of Plans takes some time to get used to. Perhaps I’ll write about it some day.

[9] Currently known as the Individually Advised Curriculum, formerly known as the No-Requirements Curriculum. I like Open. It’s simpler and perhaps more powerful.

[10] Doesn’t having my Tutorial students solicit chapters from others sound like a great way to challenge [11] them, particularly if I have them write an introduction to those chapters?

[11] Or perhaps torture.

[12] Let’s hope it’s only four months. I really want to teach Tutorial next year. I know that one colleague stayed Chair of their department so that they didn’t have to teach Tutorial. I wonder if I can convince my colleagues that I’m only willing to serve as Chair if they allow me to teach Tutorial.

[14] Yes, I realize that I could just write Grinnellians and the thoughtful and intelligent would generally be implied. I don’t mind being a bit redundant.

Version 1.0 of 2020-01-01.