Dan Perkel's Stuff on the Web

Category: youth (page 2 of 3)

Spring semester is underway

Spring semester started this week at Berkeley. But, if most of last fall felt like Spring and Summer, Spring semester feels like winter. It’s no snow belt (though there is snow on Mt. Diablo), but I felt almost as warm in Dayton, Ohio a few weeks ago as I do now.

I don’t update this blog very much as my two readers are aware. But every semester I try to start up again, so I thought I’d do a little update to kick this one off. For me it’s the beginning of my last phase of grad school. I’ve been here longer than I spent as an undergraduate. But last semester, I passed my qualifying exams, which ended a not-so-fun semester of working seven days a week and missing most of my friends (who work strenuous days jobs, but get paid and get to take most weekends and evenings off).

To give you a picture of what last semester felt like, picture poor Smeagol:

“And we wept, precious. We wept, to be so alone… And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.”

Yep. That was me. Beady eyes and all. (Thanks to these folks for being number one on Google for the search “we forgot the taste of bread.”)

But somehow the worst part was all over by Thanksgiving and by the time I took my quals a few weeks later, I was more Deagol than Smeagol, and by the time I passed my quals, I was more Merry, than Deagol. Now, I’m just me (here endeth the silly LOTR references), ready to finish my dissertation proposal, begin research in earnest, and live a normal life again. Yee-haw.

I’m not supposed to take any more classes (though Berkeley still requires us all to have 12 units of something or other), but I can’t help myself and will try to get some classroom time to help me structure my life a bit. I’m also continuing to work with my research group as we try to figure out what’s going in the everyday technological lives of American youth.

On that note, a couple of my colleagues (CJ Pascoe and danah boyd) were interviewed for last night’s Frontline — “Growing up Online.” It’s all online now and I think it’s definitely worth watching. It’s not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s more nuanced and compelling than a lot of the other stuff I’ve seen on TV on this topic. The stories were quite powerful and while I’ve been reading contrasting opinions on the balance of positive and negative portrayals of young people’s engagements online, I found the many of the statements made by the young people and their parents transcended the positive/negative debate. I hope this show sparks more discussions between parents and their children and sets a different tone for discussing these issues.

Copy, Paste, Remix: Profile Codes on MySpace (Talk from ICA 2007)

Back in May I attended the annual conference for the International Communications Association for the first time. It was held in San Francisco, which made it quite convenient. danah boyd and I presented a talk based on some of our research on looking at home kids put together their MySpace profiles. The context for the talk was a panel entitled “The Rise of Remix Culture: Identity, Power, and Imagination.” I wasn’t really a part of the panel organization process, and so going into the preparations for the talk, I found myself wondering what “remix culture” really meant. While I have used the term “remix” in the past as a way of describing some specific practices on MySpace, I wasn’t (and still am not) a big fan of it as an adjective a specific form of culture or as a new form of cultural expression. As it turned out, my co-panelists, Mark Latonero, Aram Sinnreich, and Marissa Gluck, also offered some of their own criticisms of the term, which made me feel a bit less like an outsider.

Here is the text from the talk. It’s not that long, but to make it even shorter here is the basic gist: With respect to the teenagers that danah and I have talked to on our separate efforts, we have noticed a few patterns in how teenagers describe how they first learned to make their profiles and how they put them together. A MySpace profile isn’t really “mine.” That’s not just a cynical way of saying it’s Rupert Murdoch’s, either. Rather, a profile is the product of collective effort and collective technical resources that is ongoing. When teenagers (and adults as well) copy and paste code to create their profiles, they are not really remixing media, at least not in the way many people use the term “remix.” Rather, they are mixing code. This is not a trivial difference.

The result is that they are mixing pointers to other people’s materials, or at least materials that are technical managed and perhaps even “owned” by others. And this leads to some interesting tensions when savvy, snarky, and irritated media hosters have to deal with those who are stealing their bandwidth (see this guy and this guy though both contain some not so pretty pictures including a quite disturbing one in the second). Presidential hopeful John McCain ran into some trouble on his MySpace page this past March.

Given the nature of the practices and the tensions that come as a result, I don’t feel that comfortable simply lumping what teenagers are up to on MySpace and the resulting network of media into some unknown concept of “Remix Culture.” Rather, I’d like to understand what is different about MySpace profile customization than other cultural practices, such as remixing music or video.

Text from the talk.

Big kids vs. little kids at a Pokemon tourney

Ryan forwarded me these two links regarding an adult’s (Gabe) participation at a Pokemon tournament (courtesy of Penny Arcade). Gabe wrongly suspected that there would be other adults there also and his reflections on participating, not just watching, are quite interesting, especially with regard to the different reasons people seemed to have for choosing their Pokemon teams (“cute” vs. powers and strategy) and also his battle with a slightly less big kid.

What I really liked though is 12-year-old Nausica’s response to his story.

Says 12-year-old “Nausica”:

Then the older guys came, I dunno how old they were but they were much older then most of the other kids there, they pretty much ruined the fun of it for everyone else there. I guess they weren’t really mean, but how they acted sounded alot like the boy you described…

So afterwards I really didn’t wanna play pokemon very much, and I thought I was gonna stop playing, cause I only really play to have fun, not to beat everyone else. Then today my mom (who is a big fan) showed me what you wrote, and it made me feel a million times better!!!

I couldn’t believe I almost let some jerks take away my love of pokemon!

It reminded me something that I’ve heard repeatedly from a few of my colleagues in the Digital Youth project: that we can’t idealize or romanticize kids’ social worlds uncritically. Kids have to grapple with politics and power in out of school, out of home, activities as well.

Gabe noted that he’d be “smiling for the rest of the week.” I think I might also!

On a related note:

I know someone who has either Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism (not quite sure which and the Wikipedia article on Asperger’s notes some controversy on how to classify). He’s now an engineering undergrad at a large state university, but when in high school he loved playing Pokemon tournaments. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but he was (and I assume is) a really nice kid who I think probably loved to play with kids who were younger than him.

I remember him playing in a local tourney in Dayton, OH (at a card store?) when he came for a vacation; he was proud that he won the tournament and I couldn’t understand at the time why he would be excited about being kids who were several years younger. But, I think he saw them as social peers and there was nothing strange about it. Just yesterday, a friend of mine mentioned the amount of high-functioning autistic kids she has worked with in various internships who loved playing in Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments because it didn’t require eye contact, but I barely know what I am talking about here. I’d be curious to read more about this.

Creativity and gaps in participation

I wrote up a “Stories from the Field” for the Digital Youth Research website regarding my recent interactions with two teenagers. One came from a couple of hours interviewing in his home. The other from participant observation, which involved many hours of interaction and discussion. Here’s the teaser:

Michael and James. Two teenage boys in the Bay Area, James from a poor area of San Francisco, Michael from a wealthier home in Oakland. Each uses the Interent and other digital technologies as a part of their social lives and their interest in art and technology. Like most of their friends, each has a MySpace profile, though their use of the site differs dramatically and can only be understood in light of their other hobbies. Their differing levels of access to social and technical resources is in line with what some call a “participation gap,” but as I describe in detail below, this might run the risk of, at best, an over-simplification of their digitally-enhanced creative interests, and at worst, a privileging of the value of one of the boy’s interests and activities over the other’s.

And, here’s the story.

As I’m not much of a blogger, I didn’t know if it was bad form to post the same thing in two places or to even point this post over to that one. Maybe it depends on the genre of the blog or even the subject matter?

Anyhow, if anyone is out there reading this and wants to comment, it would be great to hear your thoughts and would be even better to see them on the Digital Youth site rather than here. I am much more into the idea of contributing more regularly to a group blog than this one.

UPDATE: Turns out the comments are turned off on the Digital Youth site, so for now, if you do have any comments, post them here!

What 21st century debates regarding literacy could learn from 19th century ones

I recently read Jenny Cook-Gumperz’s historical account of the relationship between schooling and literacy (“Literacy and Schooling” in The Social Construction of Literacy*). Drawing on the work of other historians of literacy, Cook-Gumperz argues that history shows that widespread reading and writing in Europe and the U.S. occurred prior to the advent of schooling and formal institutions to teach them. There are two components to this account that I found particularly surprising and compelling because they directly speak to some of the contemporary debate and discussions–both in academia and in school policy makers’ offices–concerning the role of new media, schooling, and what might be meant by “new literacies.”

The first has to do with the scope of the term “literacy.” There are a number of research traditions concerning literacy, such as information literacy, media literacy, and others. Researchers over the past few decades have started to take note of the emergence of multiple forms of literacy, rather than just one. Furthermore, even outside of research people have started to talk about “visual literacy,” “media literacy,” “math literacy” (or numeracy), “computer literacy,” “web literacy,” and others. So today we have a sense that literacy should be always thought of as literacies, in the plural. There are multiple forms of literacy and depending on local contexts, the skills, knowledge, and tools that people bring to the practice of literacy are also multiple. What Cook-Gumperz shows in her work is that prior to “professional schooling,” almost 200 years ago, there was also a sense that “literacy” meant many things. In other words, it was schooling, or “schooled literacy,” that prior to the last couple of decades that gave us the sense that literacy was just about the abstract ability to read and write, a unitary thing.

So what were people reading and writing in the centuries prior to schooling? This question of form and content of reading and writing practices leads me to the second part of Cook-Gumperz’s overall argument that is key in light of today’s discussion of new media and literacy. Widespread literacy in Europe and America centered around multiple forms of popular culture: “broadsheets, ballads, and political tracts provided a key means for political discussion and recreation…” (p. 24). In fact it was the perceived fear of dangerous effects of popular culture by the elite coupled with the perceived liberating and empowering effects of reading and writing by others that paradoxically came together to fuel the movement towards the establishment of schools that would teach literacy.

In contemporary debate, especially regarding the internet, media production software, and other tools in the hands of public, many have noted the relationship between these new forms of media and popular culture and have hoped to find a way to harness the enthusiasm for popular culture and somehow institutionalize it through schools. The goal: find a way to incorporate what motivates young people outside of the classroom into the classroom, both in terms of the kind of subject matter and the technologies that young people today are interested in.

My point here is not to comment on whether or not this mission can be successful or not, or even if it’s a good approach to thinking about learning. Rather, the point is to raise the question of whether or not we are a semblance of repetition of history. Certainly, many are concerned and afraid of what negative effects new media and technologies are having on today’s youth. And others laud the possibility that new technologies and popular culture can and will unlock their creative imaginations. Finally, there are others that will see the use of these new media as critical to the skills required to compete in the so-called “new economy” workforce. I can’t help read Cook-Gumperz’s account of the Western history of literacy and wonder: if these interests all align and particular uses of new media become validated by society through institutionalization and schooling will we see a return to a more singular view of literacy, one that broadens the acceptable tools of literacy but not the acceptable social practices, that some scholars have been fighting for decades?

*Note, I read the chapter in the first edition. Apparently, she has spent some time re-writing the version for this second edition, but my understanding is that the basic argument is the same.

Fall 2006: Denmark, Informal Learning, Quality, and more Literacy

At the end of last semester, Ryan, Megan, and I sat around and talked about how it would be useful to write a nice semester recap, a chance to reflect on what we’ve been up to. I usually do this as a sort of “progress report” for my advisors, but Ryan said that he was thinking about blogging his, and I found what he wrote really interesting; even though I thought I knew everything he did this semester, it’s a lot different to read someone’s reflections than just hear what they have to say everyday about what has been going on. So, I thought I’d follow suit and write my own Fall 2006 recap.

When classes started again, it didn’t feel like I was at a beginning. I was in the middle of writing human subjects proposals for various Digital Youth projects and preparing for my first conference presentation at the DREAM Conference of Digital Media and Informal Learning. The conference was held at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. It was attended mainly by Europeans, the majority of whom were from Scandanvia. It was a great experience for me, because I was so unfamiliar with most of their work. I also met many interesting doctoral students, some with work that surprisingly similar to mine, such as Oystein Gilje’s, and others that were quite different. I really enjoyed the presentation of this paper on game design and toy theater by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh.

My presentation on my “Copy and Paste Literacy” paper went well, in that I got some good feedback from people with a lot more experience than I do. Some people really liked the ideas presented, some people didn’t get it, and I think some people thought that I was kind of out of my element. I’m trying out Slideshare and thought I’d include my presentation (warning: without notes, I’m not sure how useful it is…):

(As an aside, the “Copy and Paste Show” on Rhizome decided to include my paper on the reading list. The rest of the show is a bit more interesting, though. Check it out…)

Usually people say that the best part of a conference are the conversations that happen in the halls and the connections you can make between your work and others. That was a great part of my time in Denmark, but I have to say that my favorite moments were hearing some of the keynote talks, especially the keynote roundtable where James Gee, Julian Sefton-Green, Sonia Livingstone, and Glynda Hull spoke very candidly about their views on topics. One of which took aim at the title of the conference.

Already, I had begun to pick up a lot of chatter of people questioning the continuing usefulness of the distinctions between “formal learning,” “informal learning,” and “non-formal learning.” Julian Sefton-Green (author of the 2004 Futuralab report on the topic of informal learning outside of school claimed on his blog before the conference that he would be arguing that the term “informal learning has become a way of describing the value of digital technologies but that the term has no real meaning—there is only learning” (http://www.julianseftongreen.net/?p=12).

This issue was the first on the table at the Keynote speakers’ roundtable. When asked to comment on the usefulness of the distinction, Hull argued that that we should just toss out the distinction. I think she said something to the effect that looking at contexts for learning doesn’t include or exclude either informal or formal. Sefton-Green followed up by saying that the term came out of a perceived historical necessity: people had been focusing so much on learning in classrooms that they had been completely ignoring learning everywhere else. But now, what difference does it really make? Now, there is only learning or not learning. Livingstone argued that we should be looking at what kinds of institutions organize learning. Finally, Gee weighed in by acknowledging that while the concept of “informal learning” may have had some value, we also can’t ignore some of the problems it has caused, primarily that for a while people had ignored all of the teaching that goes on between people in “informal learning.” He argued that “teaching is always going on.” The literature on informal learning, he claims, has largely ignored the parents’ “curriculum.” Livingstone later said that an important question may be to look for what is continuous across a range of contexts.

I had already been a bit concerned about the notion of “informal learning” going into the conference, but this conversation and others at the conference made me really concerned. It’s a term that seems to resonate in many circles, and was a part of the thinking behind the Digital Youth project. So, I don’t know if it’s worth trying to change people’s minds about it. But how should I use it, if at all, in my own work? In response to one of Gee’s point above, we probably have a valuable contribution to make in thinking about the teaching between peers, “technementors” (see Freshquest by Megan Finn et al.), parents, and siblings. Many of our projects are trying to address this issue and have been from the start.

The week after returning from Denmark seemed like the real beginning to my semester as I scrambled to catch up on classes and start new stages of my research. The smartest decision I made was to add Paul Duguid’s and Geoff Nunberg’s class on the “Quality of Information” to my schedule, despite having to play major catch up. There are very few people that I have met who can deliver 2-3 hour lectures that are incredibly interesting and entertaining, yet each of them did an amazing job. I ended up writing a paper on the search for quality information about the video game Bully, which launched last October but was on some people’s radar for much of the year and half between the actual release date and the original game announcement way back in May of 2005. The original focus of the paper was on how members of a Bully fan site negotiated and made sense of the variety of rumors and misinformation, but I slowly turned to pouring through the version history of the Wikipedia article on Bully and noting how the article evolved with respect to a few pieces of information, including the release date, the rating, and the game’s presmise. I didn’t reach any grand conclusions, but I did get the sense that on Wikipedia the model is that information is assumed to be quality until someone makes an edit. Lack of discussion, verification, or change over time implies quality. However, on the fansite, lack of verification, comment, or discussion usually seemed to indicate a lack of quality. The notion of “quality” comes only from interaction, discussion, and active verification. I can’t generalize to other Wikipedia articles, but my research left me a bit more confused and ambivalent about the site (despite the fact that I still use it). I think that someone needs to do a detailed study on the site by looking at how people actually read and use Wikipedia articles in their everyday practices, not by studying what is in the articles themselves.

Another class I took last semester was my second on the topic of literacy. Taught by Laura Sterponi, this is one of the core classes taught in the School of Education for their doctoral program in Language, Literacy, and Culture and consists of a heavy dose of theory and writing on a range of literacy related topics. The class had many small writing assignments and no major project to complete the semester, but I wrote a paper for my third class on Computer-Mediated Communication, that tried to show the relevance of the study of literacy to thinking about CMC. The basic point of the paper was to argue that scholars who have been researching literacy have been studying “mediated communication” in the form of writing (and more recently other media). In my CMC class Coye Cheshire and Andrew Fiore repeatedly made the point that it’s important when thinking about CMC to think about the “mediated communication” part of the acronym and to not get too distracted by the “computer” part. Therefore, the relationship between literacy and CMC seemed clear to me, but required a lot of thinking and writing.

All of this has helped me think about my ongoing work on literacy practices on MySpace, though I don’t have any grand statements to make here. I spent roughly ten hours a week last semester doing participant observation at a youth and technology center where I had a chance to watch how some teenagers use MySpace in their “natural” environment for using it. My thought is that one way, by no means not the only way, to understand online social networking is not by just studying online interactions, but by talking to people and observing them and their tools as the use them. This isn’t that novel a proposition, but it is challenging to make it all work. The jury’s still out for me on where this research is taking me.

One place where I hope it’s taking me is the development of a good dissertation topic. I feel myself playing the role of a stereotypical PhD student in this regard…where everything is fairly interesting, but nothing seems captivating enough to want to spend years on, only to one day suddenly realize that there is life after dissertation, so I might as well just pick something…anything. My plan is to find that something soon. This semester will be difficult, but fun, I think.

However, I am refreshed after a great winter break. I’m glad I took some time off over break to learn to ski (it’s taken me way too long to get off the little bunny hills. Now I have to get off the slightly bigger bunny hills.). I also had a first trip to Hearst Castle and a first time attending an Indian Wedding. Each of those firsts have its own stories for my friends and family.

Well, maybe something for this site as well. The most fascinating part of my Hearst Castle trip was learning more about the working relationship between Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. While I recognized her name from various Berkeley sites, I didn’t know much about her. The tour guide talked mostly about Hearst, while the exhibits and other materials talked a great deal about Morgan as well. However, what I saw is how much Hearst Castle is a product of the their collaboration. The creativity and “genius” was not so much in the vision of Hearst or the execution of Morgan, but in the interplay of their ideas and work over the course of many years. And of course, it is likely that there are others in this story who are critical but who remain nameless. If I were to do a historical paper on collaboration and creativity, I might start with the building of this castle.

Why is collaborative media production for kids important?

A (former) colleague of mine, noting what I write on my bio, asked me the following question:

“In three sentences of less – ‘Why is collaborative media production for kids important?'”

My response:

I think it’s important for kids to have opportunities to learn to produce media, beyond film and text, because it provides another outlet for creative expression and a hook into participating in various communities outside of their classrooms. Not only might they learn technical skills that prove useful down the road, they learn how to learn, and potentially engage in a deep committed learning. Doing all of this with other people, kids or adults, provides three additional benefits: a) some research in learning argues that people learn better when working with others; b) it provides a social experience that may be increase motivation and desire to participate; and c) perhaps most importantly, I think that working with others help spark some who are not the “solo genius type” to be more creative and actually produce better quality work (not to mention other benefits of just learning how to work with others and experience a chance to understand diverse view points).

Copy and Paste Literacy: Literacy Practices in the Production of a MySpace Profile – An Overview

Last summer, I had a chance to watch a group of teenagers use MySpace during their breaks while attending a summer program. I wondered what sorts of technical skills they were getting hooked into in the process of figuring out how to customize their pages using HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). I wanted to know how this process of profile creation and maintenance could be seen as some new form of literacy (if at all).

Over the past six months, I have pursued this while learning a lot about different perspectives of what “literacy” even means to different people. Surprising in some ways, not surprising in others, the whole notion of “literacy” is highly contested. To some, it’s about the technical skills you learn in the process of consuming or producing media (a broader way of looking at reading and writing text). To others, literacy is a social process that has more to do with how people come to learn the language, tools, and conventions of engaging with particular communities. “Literacy,” then is not singular. There are many different literacies to learn.

I have just finished a paper in which I explore the production of a MySpace profile by using a model of literacy that tries to reconcile the social perspectives and the technical ones (see Andrea diSessa’s Changing Minds: Computers, Learning, and Literacy).

In the paper, I argue that:

  • The appearance of a MySpace profile can be attributed to both social and technical factors that are difficult to disentangle.
  • It might be the case that learning to use HTML and CSS is an important technical skill to learn as part of participating in communities on the web. But, even though MySpace provides a hook into this world, the way in which they have implemented the site makes me believe that it’s not an environment where learning these languages can thrive.
  • However, a more important technical skill required to participate in various communities is the ability to copy and paste links to media of all different forms. These media links have a critical role to play in how a profile looks visually, how people project themselves, and how people communicate with each other (including links in comments). Most importantly in terms of thinking about literacy, just because copying and pasting is a relatively “simpler” skill than coding, doesn’t mean it should be considered a less significant practice. Sometimes, its the simple, almost unnoticeable, actions that are the ones that spread quickly.
  • A consequence of this perspective of the importance of copying and pasting of links, is that it throws up a theoretical challenge to notions of “reading” and “writing,” “consuming” and “producing.” I argue that we need some new terms to help us think about practices like copying and pasting which seem to be neither media consumption nor media production, neither reading nor writing.

Luckily for us, some pretty smart people like Mimi Ito, Henry Jenkins, their predecessors, and contemporaries have already been talking about this for quite a while. They have used terms like “participation” and “remix” that help us see the value of the production of MySpace profiles in a way that theories of literacy have not quite grasped yet.

I will be presenting the paper at a conference on informal learning and digital media in Denmark in September. In the meantime, here is a copy for your reading enjoyment. If you have any feedback, comment away. I’d love the input.

Spelling, Geography, and Competition

8:42am – The national spelling bee is underway. CNN showed a few of the participants this morning. I heard on sports talk radio that this year ESPN will not be showing the Bee. Rather, it’s broadcast partner ABC will be showing it to cable and non-cable audiences alike this weekend. This comes in the wake of a Hollywood movie, Akeelah and the Bee, and the successful documentary Spellbound from 2001. Kids competing against each other in national competition to spell words is now a Big Deal. I am ambivalent about the Spelling Bee.

I like the idea of national attention on smart kids and on academics. But, I wonder if that’s what we are really getting with the national coverage. Does anyone care about the intellectual aspect of the Bee? Or do we just care about the event as a sporting event? Does this motivate kids around the world to do better in school? Do kids look at these other kids as heroes to be emulated as they do our sports stars? Or is this mainly entertainment for adults? I don’t know enough about the Bee to be to critical. I just wonder.

Last week, a New York Times column about the National Geography Bee caught my eye. I had never heard of the National Geography Bee. In it, Charles Passy (a staffwriter from the Palm Beach Post and parent of a participant at the regional level of the Geography Bee), makes a compelling argument that the National Geography Bee should receive more attention than it does, and that it is actually a better competition, from a learning point of view, than the spelling bee. Not only does the Geography Bee teach us “about the world we live” (the implication being that this is a better outcome than knowing how to spell words), but that “the bee itself requires a different method of preparation.” In other words, the process of preparing for the Geography Bee is a qualitatively better learning experience than the process of preparing for the Spelling Bee. Here’s are his reasons:

Spelling Bee contestants get a word list. Geography Bee contestants must fend for themselves. “They must be more creative and resourceful, relying on a combination of atlases, almanacs and publications. They also usually become voracious newspaper readers…”

The questions “require different levels of thinking.” It’s goes beyond “memorization or etymology.” There is some memorization involved, but you also have to know about the relationships between nations, cultures, and people and their environment. The questions can come in a wide variety of forms.

Passy concludes with this explicit comparison between the two bees:

True, spelling is a gateway to understanding language, but what possible value is there to knowing how to spell “appoggiatura” (a musical embellishment) and “pococurante” (an indifferent person), to name two of the more recent winning words? By contrast, knowing about Cuba or Russia means knowing about Communism, the political ideology that has informed much of America’s foreign policy in the past half-century.

And yet the spelling bee continues to receive all the attention. Perhaps that’s because spelling is a tantalizingly easy concept to grasp. You either spell a word right or you don’t. The answers are all in the dictionary.

Geography, on the other hand, asks more. But it offers more in return: to know the world is to know how to make it a better place, from a path to peace in war-torn regions to a promise to conserve our planet’s natural resources.

I don’t know if I buy that all participants at every level can get out of the Geography Bee what the author is claiming is possible, but I guess there is something compelling about this vision for the importance of a Bee about something a bit more socially, culturally, and politically relevant than just spelling words.

The author’s point, though, aligns itself with a column in today’s New York Times by Emily Stagg, a three time finalist in the Spelling Bee. In her column, she argues for adding for other aspects to the Spelling competition. In her words, the Spelling Bee no longer emphasizes the right “real world skills.” An alternative, she proposes, is a “Definitions Bee.”

I am also not sure I agree that the Spelling Bee is more popular simply because it’s “easier to grasp.” Rather, I am guessing that it has to do with the fact that ESPN started making a big deal about it in the early 1990s, just as the National Geography Bee was getting underway, and that the Spelling Bee has been going on for a long time (78 years). Anyone who went to school in this country participated at some level (perhaps just in their home room).

Two days after I read the column about the Geography Bee, I happened to catch the last round on PBS (Alex Trebek of Jeopardy was the host). I was amazed by range of questions. I only knew a couple of the questions that I saw asked. I liked the fact that participants could miss once and still have a shot at winning. I was also intrigued that the handful of participants I saw competing at the end were all of south-asian descent, probably first generation Americans if not immigrants themselves. By the time I saw the top finishers awarded their scholarship checks, I was all ready to sing the praises of the Geography Bee as vociferously as the author of that column.

But, then I read the following from a letter to the New York Times:

I agree with Mr. Passy that the National Geographic Geography Bee beats a spelling bee any day and that we need more global learning.

But the Geography Bee is not the way to do it. As a former teacher who administered the bee for four years, I would vote to abolish it completely.

First, the learning Mr. Passy highlights should be part of real history curriculums, not outside preparation for a one-day event. Second, recognizing Kola Peninsula in Russia actually says nothing about a student’s ability to recognize Stalinism or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Finally, and most important, all this ultracompetitive bee did for my students — fourth and fifth graders — was make one kid happy and the rest either indifferent or on the verge of tears.

While the Geography Bee still seems better in many ways than the Spelling Bee, what I hadn’t considered very carefully is that it is still an intense competition. In fact, if it were to somehow eclipse the Spelling Bee it would still be 11-13 year-olds on national television under the spotlight competing to win.

I remember when I was a kid and participated in the spelling bee in my class room, school, and in my district. There was a time that I could remember which word knocked me out every year. I remember when ESPN2 started showing the spelling bee on TV. I found myself unable to watch these kids struggling to get through each letter and each word, under what seemed to be an incredible amount of pressure. A few years earlier, I had felt the pressure when I choked on a word as one of the last remaining in my district. I can’t imagine what I would have felt if I knew that people could be watching me on TV.

But, i know people who love when ESPN shows the spelling bee (and the highlights on Sportscenter). They find it thoroughly entertaining. I understand why. It’s a sport. You marvel at the ability of people much younger than you to memorize some words and decipher others based on their etymologies, definitions, and how they are used in a sentence. It takes intelligence, commitment, and dedication to do well. It’s heartbreaking when a charming kid fails. It’s aggravating and exciting when a kid who seems “a little too sure of him/herself” does well. At the same moment when you are marveling at the abilities of kids, you find yourself forgetting that they are just kids, not professional athletes, who get paid to be in the spotlight and to entertain the nation.

Both Bees emphasize and reinforce an assumption that is a big part of the American education system: “learning” and “competition” go hand in hand. Not every teacher, student, or administrator may believe this, but it seems to be a part of our culture. Why is this? What alternatives are there? Can we make knowledge of etymology, geography, and international culture important without resorting to the public spectacle of sports?

Games: What do “We” create?

Thanks to unmediated.org and Emily at Smart Mobs, I was turned on to the current issue of Wired and its focus on video games. Will Wright, creator of the Sims and the soon-to-be-released Spore, guest edits parts of the issue and provides a compelling article/editorial that highlights aspects of video games that, he argues, deserve more attention.

Of course, this piece is not, and can not be, and in-depth analysis of all of the themes that Wright touches on momentarily before jumping to the next theme; after all, it’s a brief thought piece for a publication that reaches a wide audience. Therefore, while I take a critical perspective on the article, I am aware that I am most likely not Wright’s primary audience (as an graduate student who has seen many of these themes before) and that Wright, I am sure, has a lot more he could have said on each of these themes.

Near the beginning, he addresses a relationship between play and games that is often difficult to nail down. When researching what kids and teenagers do with technology outside of classrooms, relating these activities to “play” is not only helpful, but is often “accurate,” in the sense that people, young and old, do play with ideas, artifacts, each other, and their environments. But, making the jump from play to “games” has been something that I have struggled with. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, has shaped much of my thinking, but the conversation about what “is” or “is not” a game has not gone away. He captures how kids develop games from play in a way that I have not seen expressed quite so nicely or succinctly:

As we play, we learn. And as we grow, our play gets more complicated. We add rules and goals. The result is something we call games.

Wright’s definition seems to be this: games = play + “rules and goals.” And the agency seems to be in the hands of the game creators: “we add rules and goals.” This idea of “we” is interesting, because it can be read to be a group of individual kids who make up these rules and goals for themselves or it can be thought up as groups of kids, siblings, or families who somehow collaborate (consciously or unconsciously) to make up these rules, or perhaps it can be thought of as “society” as a whole.

As I think about kids growing older, I wonder if we start to give up some of this agency. Do we stop making up games for ourselves and start playing within the rules and goals established by others? I loved playing soccer as a kid, but that is/was a game that I had very little to say with respect to the goals, rules, or how I was supposed to play. But, what about an arguably more complex game, such as how to learn how to get into relationships. Right away, I can hear people argue “dating” is not really a “game.” But, it has goals, it has rules, and there certainly is (or can be) a lot of play involved. But, we don’t all agree on the rules or the goals (often with disastrous consequences, but sometimes surprisingly nice ones). Who creates these rules? Do we passively inherit them from our older siblings, from the media, from our cultures? Or do we pick and choose what we like and recreate this game by a modified set of rules each time? Where does the “agency” lie (if anywhere)?

Wright argues that today’s video games, at least the ones that do in fact take advantage of our “second processor…the player’s imagination,” players can use their own creativity to change and modify the game worlds in which they play. These types of games harness player creativity in a variety of ways, ranging from letting players build new levels, letting them add new characters, allowing them to choose their own roles, and so forth.

Wait. Re-read the previous sentence. Note that I have fallen into a trap that Wright does repeatedly throughout his article. Like Wright, I have made “games” the subject of the sentence. (Honestly, I didn’t do it on purpose as a rhetorical device.) In Wright’s article: “games include,” “games will start,” “games have the potential,” “games entices,” and it gets a bit more scary near the end of the essay. Sometimes, this language is necessary and useful. However, I think it should be used carefully. People build games, so every time one sees games as a subject, it may be helpful to think “the people who build games.” In his defense, Wright does mention “game designers” a few times. The point here, though, is that even though these newer forms of games increase the creative possibilities for players (I did it again!), in many cases someone else, usually a large number of people, have encoded the goals, rules, and structure for all of this game play, creativity, and “self-expression.” Not everything is in the hands of the player. I don’t think that our newfound agency within a game world is all an illusion, but I don’t think we necessarily making up our own goals and rules, our own games, as we may have done as kids.

As I alluded to earlier, Wright ends his essay on a scary note for me:

Soon games will start to build simple models of us, the players. They will learn what we like to do, what we’re good at, what interests and challenges us. They will observe us. They will record the decisions we make, consider how we solve problems, and evaluate how skilled we are in various circumstances. Over time, these games will become able to modify themselves to better “fit” each individual. They will adjust their difficulty on the fly, bring in new content, and create story lines. Much of this original material will be created by other players, and the system will move it to those it determines will enjoy it most.

This morning, a friend of mine and I were discussing if the notion of “technological determinism,” the idea that technology is inevitably moving forward in a certain direction and that technology impacts society as if technology were a force outside of society that “impacts” it without the society having much to say or do about it. She was wondering if the whole concept was something that social scientists have made up to bash down, a straw man of sorts. When I read Will Wright’s last paragraph, I realized that technological determinism is alive and well (and actually I think it has its utility as a way of thinking about to study the interplay between us and our tools, but that’s for another essay). Even more troubling to me than the determinism in this last paragraph, though, is how much it seems to contrast with the one I quoted earlier, the one I liked so much:

As we play, we learn. And as we grow, our play gets more complicated. We add rules and goals. The result is something we call games.

As little kids, “we” create games out of our own play. As we grow older, we play the games that “game designers” create (including video games). In the future, whose games will we play?

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