Ian Bogost interviewed on Figure/Ground
by Adam Robbert
I’ve been quite busy lately with work and research projects that I haven’t had the time throw up many new posts. I’ll be back in the swing within a few days, but I couldn’t resist sharing a bit of Ian Bogost’s recent interview with Figure/Ground. I’m in the middle of doing some great research whilst just barely paying the rent, an exciting dichotomy to be sure, and little quotes like this remind me why I find working in these areas so exciting. Its good to know some people have the write idea:
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?
I teach computational media, which is a hard task, because expertise demands mastery of so many different skills: close reading, critical writing, technical proficiency, and background knowledge in a diversity of areas. Unlike more traditional disciplines, students enter our field with widely varying preparation and interests. It is tempting to allow each to work to his or her skills and interests, but this is a wrong-headed approach. For example, game studies and design require both breadth and depth, and the only way to inspire desire for such knowledge is to set the bar very high, to incorporate earnest questions into every classroom, and to see one’s students as colleagues rather than as disciples. Three values then: expectations, problems, and apprenticeship.
Expectations: Good teachers demand extremely high performance. Every field is different, but for me, that involves critical writing, history, technical adeptness, creative lucidity, and public speaking. It’s easy for faculty to gripe about grade inflation and attention deficit and privilege, but it’s fairly easy to combat these challenges just by setting high expectations. When you do, students respond by reaching beyond their abilities, learning to seek help when they require it, and iterating on ideas rather than settling for the first one. I offer students a clear path to “doing fine”—a perfectly reasonable goal—and give them a strong incentive to strive for excellence. I have a whole lecture about this that I use on the first day of my lower-division courses, in which I explain why I will award the grade of “C” to students who do what I ask them for.
Problems: universities are stupidly structured, suffering still under the disciplinary separateness of departments and colleges that compete under nested shrouds of complex institutional politics. Kate Hayles once suggested an alternative in which students might declare “problems” instead of majors, and in fact I suggested a related approach to “networked research” in the final chapter of my book Unit Operations. In the absence of a solution like the ones Hayles and I (and others) envision, I’ve tried to put this practice to work as best I can within the existing infrastructure of the institution. At a place like Georgia Tech there’s a lot more flexibility to do this—one of the benefits of working at a technical institute over a traditional university.
Teaching has to center around problems rather than material, and good teachers inviting students to ask a question along with them. Whenever possible, I purposefully design my courses around questions for which I myself do not have definitive answers, but about which I have earnest curiosity. The approach not only helps me learn from my students, but also allows my students to learn how scholars approach research—and how professionals approach creative and technical problems.
Apprenticeship: The best teachers strive to pursue an apprenticeship model for teaching and advisement. In addition to problem-based instruction, I work closely on research with my graduate students, including extensive collaborative writing and publishing. While it is common to collaborate with the students one is bankrolling in the lab environments of the science and engineering disciplines, it is less common to work productively with students in the humanities and social sciences. And even in the sciences, graduate students are treated more like employees in a research lab than like equals.
I’ve tried to develop close working relationships with my graduate students, collaborating with them on published research as much as possible. This is a serious pursuit and not merely an occasional sideline; for example, I have recently co-authored a book on games and journalism (Newsgames: Journalism at Play, MIT Press 2010) with two of my doctoral students, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer. Such efforts pay off particularly well early in a graduate student’s career, since the student takes away concrete lessons on producing extensive, professional scholarship. Teaching becomes a process of developing colleagues, not of training up underlings.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Be contemporary. Have impact. Strive for it. Be of the world. Move it. Be bold, don’t hold back. Then the moment you think you’ve been bold, be bolder.
We are all alive today, ever so briefly here now, not then, not ago, not in some dreamworld of a hypothetical future. Whatever you do, you must make it contemporary. Make it matter now. You must give us a new path to tread, even if it carries the footfalls of old soles. You must not be immune to the weird urgency of today. This lesson applies no matter the subject of one’s interest and expertise, whether it be videogames or Hittite or chansons de geste or whatever else.
Some will object that to respond to current trends assures instrumentalism, a foolish desire to remain ever more current at the expense of true values and virtues. But why must it be an all or nothing gambit? I often wonder why scholars in the liberal arts seem so reviled by the tiny slice of the universe fate has cut for them that they want so desperately to escape back into a favorite yore or up into a notional abstraction.
A piece of specific advice in this regard for graduate students in particular: if you’re not experiencing tension with your advisor, you’re doing it wrong. To succeed, you have to scrape off some tiny sliver of novelty and whittle it into treasure. Paying homage to a committee’s collective comfort may appease them, and it may even ease your burden in completing the degree. But it won’t lead to success. Success comes from breaking free of the past—even the very last sunset—and forging on elsewhere. While some considerable measure of pragmatism must be mustered in order to get through the whole ordeal, don’t shy away from the discomfort of disapproval. Embrace it.