Notes on a Bullshit Class

I’m teaching a course this quarter called “How to Combat Online Bullshit.” I have three students in it, at least one of whom is a deep thinker, and all three of whom are genuinely interested in the topic.

In preparation for the class, I’ve found just an ungodly number of resources on the Internet, thanks to Pres. Trump’s somewhat casual relationship with what most people call “truth,” the proliferation of Russian-generated “fake news” during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and the renewed commitment of most schools to teach students to be critical consumers of both corporate dominated and independently generated media. I read a lot of those resources, bookmarked a bunch more, and started scanning for common threads.

I also read an academic treatise titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfort, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, to provide a more theoretical perspective on the topic. Frankfort argues that “bullshit” differs from “lies” in that lies have some concern for the truth (if only to better integrate with it as a lie), whereas bullshit could not care less about what is true and what is not — it’s only motive is to convey an impression of the bullshitter, to provide the listener with the understanding that regardless of whether the bullshitter is correct, he or she is, at the very least, being sincere, and his or her sincerity is more important than whether he or she is right.

One can’t help but think of Pres. Trump again, whose every public appearance seems designed to convey a sense of authenticity and sincerity but whose every word and action only demonstrates the opposite. He doesn’t care if you fact-check him, because it doesn’t matter if he’s right. What matters is that he believes it, and that his audience believe he wouldn’t lie to them about that.

But my students have more to worry about than bullshit. An entire industry of willful miscommunication exists: headlines, articles, videos, tweets, Instagram photos, fake friend requests…there’s an entire economic niche of bot programmers, media copywriters, religious hucksters, and political malefactors whose financial futures depend on their ability to trick other human beings into believing things that are demonstrably false.

As media consumers, we charge face-first into these well-funded armies of bullshitters and liars each time we turn on the news or scan our feeds for headlines. If the truth is to be victorious, we must fight the bullshit and lies with everything we’ve got, and that doesn’t just mean rage and fervor; it also means with an understanding of how beliefs work, and how opinions can best be changed. It means respecting the dignity of people who have been hornswoggled, and sympathizing with the difficulty of admitting that one’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. It means understanding the modes of logic, and knowing when to include healthy doses of ethos and pathos in your argument. Finally, it means recognizing when the continuation of a discussion does more harm than the ending of it.

We all have responsibilities in this battle for the truth, but the goal for all of us must be the same. It isn’t to establish “our truth” as the dominator of discussions. It’s to re-instill the right of truth in the abstract, to remind people that words and deeds and facts and numbers matter. It’s our duty as critical consumers of information to respect the experiment that can be verified, the mountain that can’t be moved, and the logic that makes an argument valid and clear.

The process of doing so is not always simple. It can be time consuming and frustrating to chase after the truth, and even more frustrating to explain to someone else how they too can find it. But the difficulty does not release us from the duty.

It is a just war that we fight, and fight it we must.

Otherwise, and I don’t say this lightly: all that humanity has gained will be lost.

Using Dungeons & Dragons in the Classroom

This post is for teachers who are interested in using Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom. This is not to convince you that doing so is a good thing. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles on the web to persuade you of the educational value of roleplaying games; we don’t need one more of them.

But we do seem to need an article where a teacher takes the time to explain how he actually uses Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom — not the why, but the how.

I’ve been using Dungeons & Dragons as an educator for three years now, but until I started using it in the classroom, I had never played a single game. Two of my co-teachers used it one quarter, and I was lucky enough to share a corner of their classroom at the time. Through observation, I was able to learn the dynamics of the game without having to play the game.

The following quarter, I took over as Dungeon Master. It would be my first time at the table.

What I learned during my observation period was that Dungeons & Dragons is based on storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you know the rules because there are plenty of ways to look them up, but it does matter that you understand the rules of storytelling.

For the past three years, instead of asking my students to learn about storytelling from reading works of literature, I’ve embedded them in the very fabric of it, asking them to make their own heroic decisions instead of reflecting on the heroic decisions of some third-party character. Through the effects of their actions on the story, they’ve experienced when narrative tension is working and when it is not; they’ve experienced the way a character’s motivations bring them into conflict with other people; and they’ve developed an appreciation for imaginative details, sensing when too much is too much and when too little is not enough.

In addition, playing the game increased their sense of self-worth. When their characters succeeded in the fantasy world, they received the same flood of accomplishment as their characters, which provided them with a visceral understanding of narrative catharsis and the chemical reward that comes from fulfilling a goal.

I didn’t do anything special during these first three years; all I did was play the game. I didn’t attach the game to any academic standard or break it down into a series of lessons. At the start of each course, I didn’t waste time explaining to the students why we were doing this. I greeted them as they walked in the door, opened our two copies of The Players Handbook (5th Edition), and asked them to follow the steps outlined in the book to create their first character. I didn’t ask if they knew how to play the game. I just told them to get started.

The first few times I ran a campaign, I found pre-designed quests on the Internet. I didn’t know much about campaigns, but I learned that there’s something called The Adventurer’s League, an official venue of Dungeons & Dragons. Restraining my search to campaigns that carried the seal of the league, I found enough (free) campaigns to get us started.

(The company behind Dungeons & Dragons recently launched a website called The Dungeon Master’s Guild, where players from around the world can share campaigns and resources, review each other’s work, and earn their reputation as DMs; you can think of it as an App Store for D&D — and it makes it a heck of a lot easier to find pre-designed campaigns nowadays).

After our first few campaigns, one of my students asked if he could be the Dungeon Master for our next game. I immediately agreed, told him how to find a campaign on the Internet, and a week later, off we went. This would be my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons from the characters’ side of the table. It was great. I didn’t push an agenda on either the DM or the other players. I simply sat with them as a peer and played the game.

A few months later, when I returned to the Dungeon Master’s chair, I didn’t want to use a pre-generated campaign. I had played enough times, I’d decided, to attempt a campaign of my own. I did not bring an educational agenda to this process. I imagined something I thought would be fun, and then I set out to create it.

At the time, I was reading several books on the French Revolution, and I decided to create a campaign where the player-characters would assist in a political revolution. I dressed the story in the obligatory accoutrements of medieval fantasy (instead of the peasants rising up against their king, a town of dwarves would rise up against their human overlords, the highest of whom would be a ). I then developed major plot points for the story and prepared a few battle encounters that I suspected the player-characters would want to engage in.

After about five or six hours of solid preparation, I was ready to lead what became a six-month long adventure. While the students didn’t have any homework, I found that I did. To stay at least a few steps ahead of them, narrative wise, I spent about an hour each week crafting the next few days’ worth of adventures. It was a creative prep for me, however, so it didn’t feel much like work — I wasn’t planning a lesson as much as writing a story. Prepping for class took time, yes, but the time it took was fun.

Last year, I taught two sections of Dungeons & Dragons. The first group had played together for a while, but the second included students who had never played before. To reduce my prep load, I taught my advanced students how to design campaigns on their own, showing them various topics in the Dungeon Masters Guide, advising them to consider the motivations of their non-player characters, and asking them to reconsider various details of their worlds, but mostly, I taught them how to be efficient with informational texts and how to stay a few steps ahead of their characters.

One student didn’t get to finish his campaign. Unfortunately, I’m only running one section this quarter and some of the players haven’t developed the social-emotional skills to be led by another student. So instead of letting him lead a campaign of his own, I am working with him on an independent project where he will prepare a campaign for publication on The DMs Guild. This student is a graduating senior, and I’m trying to show him how he can make a little bit of money if he’s willing to follow his passion.

The other section is a mix of experienced players and beginners, and because of that mix, I’ve decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of having the students spend the first few days with their heads in The Players Handbook (a necessary stage when creating a character), I’m going to have them play the experience of creating their characters.

I’m not going to tell them about any of the races or classes. I want them to birth their characters with their imaginations. If they imagine a crocodile with wings who can also weave magic, I want to honor that personification and ask them to honor it as well. We’re going to dramatize the process of developing proficiencies and skills, gaining gold and equipment, and earning the power of magic. They’re going live the experience of their backstories, and through that, they’ll learn how to develop themselves and their characters into daring adventurers. My students are rural and mostly poverty-stricken, but they’re going to experience, if only in their fantasies, the process a person must go through if they want something more out of life.

If you’re a teacher who is already persuaded to try roleplaying games in your classroom and you’re wondering how to do it, this is what worked for me: I simply sat down with the students and played.

Now, a little caveat. I teach at an independent school in Vermont, so I’m not accountable to the strict array of standards that apply to most public schools. My school’s standards include a large variety of social-emotional skills — e.g., cooperation, creative problem-solving, leadership, ethical decision making, the ability to empathize, etc. — and almost all of them can be satisfied by playing a standard game of Dungeons & Dragons. Thankfully, I don’t have a curriculum coordinator breathing down my neck.

But I imagine with just a hint of ingenuity that a motivated public school teacher could connect Dungeons & Dragons to whatever standards they are required to follow.

If you’re an English Language Arts teacher, I’ve asked my students keep a journal of their character’s adventures. I’ve asked them to write original backstories for their characters. I’ve quizzed them on their ability to find, read, and comprehend the sometimes-complex information in the text of their Handbooks. Dungeons & Dragons is a communications-based game; there’s enough in for the English Language Arts.

This year, as part of the experience of playing their backstory, I am going to ask each player to consider the social contexts of their hometown. They’ll decide on a governing structure for their town, detail its economy, and populate it with a greater or lesser sense of political diversity. Instead of analyzing existing societies, the students will create ones of their own.

My idea is to expand the range of skills the students develop by including a deeper connection to the social sphere. This will have the added benefit of increasing the academic value of the course because I’m targeting some of the standards my school has for Social Studies (most of which apply to any school’s standards for Social Studies).

The difficulty will be in integrating one character’s sphere with another and all the characters’ spheres with each other, but it’s necessary if they’re to experience the narrative catharsis previous students experienced. School starts tomorrow and I haven’t quite solved this one yet, but I trust the solution will come before its absence becomes a challenge (teaching, after all, does include a bit of faith).

But in the meantime, I’m just excited to get started.

I hope, sometime in the future, you will be to.

So I lost my job last week.

I have (had) two jobs. The first is the one I usually blog about, the one where I help build a democratic school that addresses the development of the whole child, including the development of his or her or ze’s social-emotional skills. It’s a real gas.

The second job, the one I lost last week, is the one where I provide high-level guidance to college students on the craft of creative writing. The college where I’ve taught for the past eight years faces a crisis-level enrollment challenge and, as an adjunct in the humanities, I’ve just felt, in my wallet, the force of that challenge.

It’s a great college. It not only does exactly what it says it does, but it does so with real passion and force. The professors generally walk the walk, and the staff members I’ve interacted with have all been genuinely kind and helpful. The entire philosophy of the college is that we are all members of various communities, and it’s imperative that we act in a knowledgeable and deliberate way to improve the lives of all the members of those communities and not just ourselves. The people I’ve met and worked with at the college strive to do exactly that.

Unfortunately, this will be the first semester in a very long time when I can’t count myself among them. And that disappoints me.

Luckily, the people I just described are not just my colleagues; they’re also my neighbors and my friends, so I can continue to count myself as a person in their wider communities.

There’s another reason I am disappointed though. Two more reasons, actually. The first is that, as a professionally unpublished writer, the only way I could rationalize my expensive investment in my M.F.A. was by pointing to the fact that an M.F.A. is the minimum requirement to become a writing professor, so if I wasn’t able to pay back the investment through publishing, I’d be able to do so through teaching. But now I don’t even have that. So yeah, that’s a disappointment.

The third reason is that, for the first time in eight years, I was going to do a wholesale strip-down of my bread-and-butter course: an introduction to creative writing aimed at non-major students to get them interested in the major.

Teaching at the college level is different than teaching at the high school level (and incredibly different from the middle school level). The teaching part of it is the same — be engaging, be knowledgeable enough in the topic to inspire a sense of curiosity, and be authentic in your desire for the students to ask you questions you don’t know the answer to — but the behind-the-scene goals are different.

In high school (and even more so in middle school), students don’t have the right to ignore you. That doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t ignore you; it means that, at the end of the day, society requires them to be there, and its willing to back that requirement up with force. Put simply, in high school (and even more so in middle school) students have a lot less choice.

At the college level — primarily in the first two years, when most students still haven’t invested enough time or money to feel compelled by responsibility — every student you meet must be coaxed to move on to the next level.

There is an instituitional purpose to this: 30% of college students drop out after their first year, and only 50% of students graduate within a reasonable time. With those as statistical truths, all members of the college — including the faculty — must do their best to help students want to stay in school.

But there is also a departmental-level impetus. As a teacher not only in the humanities, but also in one of the softest of soft subjects, I have to include within my responsibilities the need to attract students to my subject matter. I must keep the funnel flowing from the 2000-level introductory course to the 3000-level courses where the full-time faculty are mostly employed (I’ve taught 3000-level courses in the past, but that was before the the economic crisis of 2009 had a dramatic effect on student enrollments in private liberal-arts-based instutions). While education is always the primary responsibility, this need to sell the major is also always there.

This is not a critique. I live in the real world and would have it no other way: at every level, at every point, an artist must sing for her supper. I get it, and I love it. That is not the point here (but for more on that point, read this essay by an anonymous adjunct instructor).

The point is that, for the first time in eight years, I was about to launch a brand new product, and now I’m being told that I won’t even be given the chance.

I’m not taking it personally because no one has yet told me that I should. I know the college’s financial situation, and I understand that, as an adjunct, I am the definition of low-hanging fruit, so I have no hard feelings at all.

But I really wanted to give this new course a try.

It is still an introduction to creative writing, but instead of breaking the semester down by genre — six weeks of fiction, five weeks of poetry, and three to four weeks of screenwriting or creative nonfiction (depending on the semester) — I was going to blend them all together and teach not a genre of creative writing but creative writing itself.

From a business perspective, the goal of the course is to convince non-majors to continue doing work in the major — i.e, to convince new customers to become repeat customers. For the past years, my sales pitch has been akin to an analysis. I wanted to expose the students to ideas and notions about creative writing that they hadn’t yet heard before, to show them, in some way, what it means to take the craft of writing seriously.

My competitors were the high schools. I had to be able to take them deeper into the concept of creative writing than anything they’d done in high school, to make them feel as if they were, in some way, being led behind the curtain.

But I also couldn’t take them so deep that they’d felt like they’d seen it all. The end of the semester had to leave them wanting more.

This upcoming semester though, I wanted to change it up. Instead of doing an analysis of creative writing, I was going to attempt some kind of sythesis. Instead of digging deep into the concept, I was going to dance them atop it, spin them from one place to another with enough joy and verve to trip the light fantastic, leaving them, at the end of the semester, with an artist’s sense of the possibilities, not of what goes on behind the curtain, but of what can be accomplished on stage.

I’m still not 100% sure how I was going to do it. The semester starts in about four or five weeks and my plan was to work on it during the first full week of August when I take a writer’s retreat in my own home (my wife and daughter are visiting my in-laws while I stay home with no obligation but to write, and to write in a serious and purposive way…and, I suppose, to feed and bathe myself as well).

The college course wasn’t the only thing I was planning to work on next week, but it was one of them, and I was very much looking forward to it.

I had a fantasy where, instead of writing a syllabus for the course, I would write a kind of pamphlet, a short and to-the-point kind of textbook whose style would blend Strunk & White’s with Wittgenstein’s to create a style all my own.

In the eight years I’ve been teaching the course, I’ve yet to use a textbook. I figured maybe it was time to write my own.

While I still might attempt it next week, I don’t have the pressure of a deadline now. And that disappoints me too.

Oh well. Here’s hoping the course comes back to life in the Spring.

Pouring Love

 

During the next two months (and then some), I’ll spend around four hours a week working one-on-one with a young person who suffers from schizophrenia. I’ll also spend time with students who are diagnosed with a variety of other social and emotional disorders (not to mention learning disorders), but it’s the student with schizophrenia who will require the most from me.

This young person is almost completely detached from reality. They suffer from delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, catatonic behavior, and disorganized speech. At any given moment, the student might break out into a terrified or stress-induced screaming or crying fit.

But…and this is a big but…this student is perhaps one of the strongest people I’ve ever met because, to some extent, they are aware of how they must appear to other people, and yet, they still come to school every day, and even on their worst days, they fight and struggle to make sure they make it to our building.

Can you imagine knowing — knowing! —  that at some point every day you were going to have a mental, emotional, and physical breakdown, and yet still finding the strength to get out of bed and go to school each day?

This student is incredible. Absolutely incredible. They sing, they paint, they read, they write. And yes, they have harrowing breakdowns, but they also find some reason, every day, to be kind and thoughtful to others, to stand up for themselves and for those they think are wronged, and to be genuinely appreciative of the talents and kindness of those around them. I don’t think more than a day or two has passed without them finding someone else in the school to let that person know how gifted or beautiful they are.

The student is a walking ball of light. It’s just that, sometimes, the light gets very dim. But that’s when it becomes my job — and the job of my colleagues — to help this student find their way out of the dark.

What’s encouraging is that, from what I have seen, the student is treated extremely well by their peers. Those who are too young or too self-involved to understand what’s happening generally stay out of the student’s way, and those who have a sense of what’s happening seem to be very supportive, offering themselves up with a level of kindness and service that impresses me to no end. We recently had to evacuate one of our buildings because the student’s breakdown was so disturbing (our school buildings are pretty small), but none of the other students complained about having to leave their classroom, nor did they hold it against the student once the episode was over. And remember, more than half of the kids at my school are here because they have a history of being unable to get along with others.

The way the student’s peers have stepped up has been amazing and inspiring to watch. That goes for my colleagues as well. In a staff meeting the other day, as we discussed ways to help the student, one of my colleagues summed up our responsibility as, “We need to just pour love on this kid right now.” We’re not doctors or psychologists; we can’t prescribe medication, and while we can effectively provide a layman’s version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which the DSM 5 recommends for schizophrenia disorder), we aren’t trained psychologists. We are, however, humans who have decided to spend our days helping the next generation grow into healthy adults, and we can “pour love on this kid.”

I know that the next few weeks (and let’s be honest, months and possibly years) won’t be easy with this student. But to a large extent, I am looking forward to it. While we obviously want this student to get as much help as they can, I also think that with the student body we have and the staff we have, this is also a good and supportive place for them to come every day.