Leading the Way
For Kendall Gerdes, Teaching Rhetoric Is All in the Game—Make That Videogame
Written by Toni Salama
Kendall Gerdes will be the first to tell you that her class can be a challenge: many new software programs to learn; surprising levels of record-keeping, evaluation and analysis; active participation not just with the professor but with all of the other students, who attend both in the physical classroom and online. There's no grade until the end of the semester, and students have to argue for the grade they want.
All of this comes packaged in an English composition class where they play videogames.
"It's a lot to get used to at first," says Gerdes, an assistant professor of Technical Communication & Rhetoric who joined the Department of English in 2016. In the two years since then, she has become Texas Tech University's choice to compete in the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program and has received the College of Arts & Sciences' 2018 Teaching Innovation Award.
Her advanced writing-intensive course "ENGL 4360: Studies in Composition: Weird Videogames!" explores videogames as a topic for reflection and rhetoric. Her teaching style requires students to evaluate themselves as well as the subject matter.
"The way that assignments and grading work in my class is a little unusual, but I'm a huge fan of this method, which is called the Learning Record," says Gerdes, who also is director of the department's Media Lab. "It's a big part of my teaching philosophy ... it's a really flexible variation of portfolio grading."
Course goals are fourfold:
- to understand the art of rhetoric, or persuasion, and analyze how a specific videogame makes arguments by way of its rules;
- to understand writing as a process by using varied composing strategies;
- to understand writing as invention, a way of exploring ideas, figuring out what to say, including the arguments of videogames; and
- achieving digital literacy through using the varied online tools of the course, including each student's building of a video game using a software called Twine.
In Gerdes' Weird Videogames class, she assigns no letter grades to students' work throughout the semester. Rather, the total grade for the course comes from a final essay in which the student argues for the desired letter grade, based on evidence and rhetorical analysis of what was learned.
Students begin the course by taking stock of the knowledge and skills they bring into it. "It's a short reflection where students write about the goals of the course—and those are in the syllabus—and they give themselves a letter grade in each area," Gerdes explains. "This just tells me where they think they're starting. And it also gets them used to grading themselves."
Then, throughout the semester, they submit weekly journals about videogames played in light of class discussions, assigned reading, and coarse goals. Gerdes provides written feedback for the more intensive assignments: a videogame review, a videogame research paper, and an author's statement of the videogame the student will create. These, Gerdes says, are like the main assignments found in any other rhetoric class. "I comment on it, and I give the same kind of feedback as I'd give if I were slapping on a letter grade. But I don't give a letter grade or a number grade," she says. "I call it in my syllabus evaluated writing—the work that I'm giving feedback on."
A midterm essay, with lots of feedback from the professor and a suggested letter grade, serves as a sort of practice run in preparation for the final. But the final essay receives the only grade for the course.
"The secret to the Learning Record is students are writing essays—once at the midterm and once at the final—pretty much the same assignment, in which they argue for the grade they think they've earned," Gerdes says. "So I evaluate those. At the midterm, I'll say, 'You asked me for a B+. This is more like a C+. Here's what you need to do to improve before the end of the semester.' I tell them basically the mid-term grade is advisory, it's just between me and the student, and it comes to represent their performance on the Learning Record midterm."
In the midterm and the final, students must show evidence for what they've learned in each of the course goals and then explain how that warrants the grade that they're asking for.
"So they have criteria that they apply—I give them that—and they have the course goals. And then they have something called The Dimensions of Learning, which are basically the vocabulary that The Learning Record uses to talk about how people learn in different ways," Gerdes explains.
For example, Creativity & Imagination is one Dimension of Learning. "Maybe you didn't learn a whole lot about how to make games in a highly technical way, and you just sort of used the basic default format, but you did something really creative and took risks. Well, that's a way that people learn, right?" Gerdes says. "Not everybody needs to master all the technical skills, although Technical Skills is another Dimension of Learning."
Other dimensions include Prior & Emerging Experience, Content Knowledge, and Reflection. Students use those dimensions to talk about their experience in Gerdes' class.
"Their experiences are all different. They may have learned a lot about rhetoric—so now they have all kinds of new Content Knowledge—and maybe they have a lot more confidence in their digital literacy," she says. "Different goals, different ways of learning them."
The midterm and final essays also give Gerdes a strong picture of how students have experienced her class, what they have learned from it, and what they have put into it, she says.
"The effort that students pour into their work doesn't always show up as an A+ product, but maybe they did more work than they've done in any of their other writing classes. So they can talk about that and maybe why didn't the result come out the way they wanted," she says. "I get to see all of that when I'm grading. It's a great way to end the semester, too, with your students telling you how much they learned in your class. Some students will say, 'I loved these in-class discussions, that's really how I connect with stuff.' Some students will say, 'I needed more of this other kind of attention or direction.' So it gives me a good picture, too, of how I am impacting my students as a teacher."
The strength of the Learning Record as a grading model is that it can work for any subject, Gerdes says. "The grade criteria stay the same, the Dimensions of Learning stay the same, but in any class you can adapt the course goals to whatever you're teaching."
Gerdes began using the Learning Record at the University of Texas at Austin in 2011, when she was a grad student teaching first-year writing. "I jumped straight into The Learning Record my first time solo in the classroom." Since then, she has used it to teach a range of courses. "Students feel like it lets them present their best work, and also that there's no pressure for that best work to necessarily be an A," she says. "It lets students see: 'Oh, these are the criteria. This is the amount of work I'm putting in. This is what I get out of it.' "
The Means<p>In the Technical Communication & Rhetoric Program, digital literacy is built into the degree plan. The Weird Videogames class delivers that though a variety of platforms. The course is what Gerdes describes as synchronous/hybrid, meaning that students in the physical classroom and students online all meet at the same time.
"In our classrooms where we teach hybrid courses, we have a long seminar table and a big screen, usually mounted on the wall, and a poly-directional microphone and camera," Gerdes says. "So we use Zoom video conferencing software so that everybody's basically together." Online students login to listen, talk and see what's going on in the classroom. Students seated around the conference table can see their online classmates on the big screen.
Everyone in the class uses Slack, a digital messaging platform, as the de facto course website. "My students can log in. They can message each other. They can message me," she explains. "There's a channel just for chat, and there's one for sharing links, and there's one for me to send them reminders on assignments." They use Dropbox for uploads and downloads.
Becoming proficient with those tools are part of the goals of the course. "It's a lot to get used to, and it takes a good week or two before students have all their settings correct," Gerdes says. "But those are also the kinds of tools students will use in the workplace. They will have experience with technologies that look good on their resumes or in interviews."
Then there are the videogames themselves.
Many games are assigned to be played for homework. Students aren't necessarily required to play the games through to the end, but they are expected to discuss them in class or text about them over Slack.
"We start the class with a game called 'Never Alone,' which is a little indie studio game that was made by an Inuit culture," Gerdes says. This videogame involves an Inuit girl, and the fox that joins her, in trying to save her village from a blizzard. The player can "control" both characters, who need each other to progress through the game. As each level is solved, an archival video of an aspect of Inuit culture, such as scrimshaw carving, appears. "They are showing you the history of artifacts you are playing with in the game. And who knew you could do that with a game?" she says. "So this is education and archiving that is taking this insular culture and preserving it and sharing it with people who otherwise might not come into contact with those practices."
Among the games on the play list is a spatial puzzle that allows the player to teleport from one enclosed virtual room to another by shooting openings—the portals—in not-always-logical spots around the chamber and with not-always-expected results. "Mountain" challenges what constitutes a videogame because the player, like the mountain, takes no action whatsoever. "Depression Quest" is an interactive fiction where players take on the role of a person suffering from depression, finding themselves with fewer and fewer choices as the character's depression worsens. "Students really connect with that one," Gerdes says. "It's obviously something that you want to talk about very carefully in a classroom. But I also think it's a time when students see how powerful games can be as a vehicle for teaching us about different kinds of life experiences."
In class, students might play "Myst," the classic fantasy-adventure puzzle launched in the 1990's that changed home computing. "You moved your computer from the office to the family room so that everybody could play Myst together," Gerdes says. "Some people bought computers with CD-ROMs for the first time so that they could play Myst." She says she loves playing this game with her students and is amused when they ask why there is so much reading in the game. "The game is very bookish; it's about writing and language. But it was so influential, and so much of how games are now comes from Myst."
The class spends a week playing a collaborative game called "Don't Starve." Gerdes describes it as fast-paced and frenzied, where many things are happening all at once. "You're trying to keep your character alive, keep him safe from monsters, keep him fed. They have to be near a campfire at night or the monsters could get them. There's just so many things going on in this game, and when you're in it absorbs your total attention. And it's really fun to play in a room with the other people you're playing, and we have our online students on the microphone."
Before you know it, people are looking on one another's screens, asking each other for items that will help keep their character alive. "They just start teaching each other how to play as they figure it out one piece at a time. That is really fun," Gerdes says. "And it lets us look at how video games are social and ask, 'What do you get out of games as a team?' "
The game playing culminates in the students each designing their own videogame using an open-source software called Twine. "You can learn it in 20 minutes," Gerdes says.
Each game in the course is chosen for its ability to shed light on reading assignments and for its potential to get the students asking, and answering, rhetorical questions such as: What arguments do videogames make through their structure of rules? How do games make the player feel? In which ways do videogames help people learn? What counts as a game? Who are games for?
The class is made up of students who represent a range of gaming backgrounds, from those who have no experience at all to those who are avid gamers, Gerdes says.
"I've taught it three times, and I've had students of all kinds enrolled," she explains. Some students have enrolled because the course meets their degree requirements. Some sign up after seeing the flyer for the videogames class. Others come after hearing about the course from a friend and are intrigued by playing games and talking about them in class. Still others have been taken by surprise at finding themselves in a course where videogames are played. Gerdes says that is all to the good.
"Because a lot of the games we play are not really mainstream games, everybody is getting something new," she says. "And I like having a mixed level of experience and even enthusiasm for games because everybody is coming to see video games differently at the same time."
At its heart, though, this is not a course in videogames but in English composition. "Really, videogames are a vehicle for me to teach my students about rhetoric and about writing," Gerdes says. "So I think having that mixed experience level is also a way for them to teach each other."
This article originally was published, in abbreviated form, in Arts & Sciences magazine, Spring 2019 edition.