Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Awkward Moments

A short collection of social awkwardness as experienced by a game-designer-turned-educator, in no particular order:
  • Having several students admit that they played a game you worked on, when you know the game in question wasn't particularly good. (Additional awkwardness: when the game in question is M-rated, and you know that the students were underage when they played it.)

  • Giving a game design constraint for an in-class exercise, and repeatedly being asked questions about the exact boundaries of the constraint... and realizing simultaneously that my students are trying to weasel out of the constraint (and that I should be annoyed), and also that my students are trying to precisely define the constraint (which is an important skill for game designers, and something I should be proud of).

  • Witnessing a student fall asleep in class, and hoping that it's because the student got no sleep and not because I've really become that boring. (Additional awkwardness: waking the student up, and hoping that I done it in a way that I haven't cruelly humiliated them.)

  • Assigning a homework that's not only easy but actually fun, and seeing that half the class didn't bother to complete it. And then wondering if my definition of "fun" has changed.

  • Writing something out (an assignment, a syllabus, an email, etc.) that I thought was clear as could be, and having students not understand it. This either means I'm not as good a writer as I thought, or that my students aren't functionally literate, or that my students are lazy... and no matter which it is, there's nothing I can be happy about.


ellF said...

Especially with something as specialized as game design, I can't imagine enrolling in a class devoted to learning the skill and then slacking off. I can understand it if you're a student who's entirely bored by some required class, but not this.

Out of curiosity, what level is this at? Undergraduate? Graduate?

Ian Schreiber said...

This is undergraduate level, and intro-level classes. Not all students have drunk the game development kool-aid yet, as it were. Many are still laboring under the delusion that "game development" or "game design" = "sitting around playing games all day".

These aren't required classes, but neither are all of the students necessarily married to the major.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Welcome to being an older generation person, Ian.

Virtually all students, even grads, will slack off sometimes these days, unfortunately. It's become part of the culture.

Teens habitually push any boundaries they're set. I call it nitpicking. They're like "rules lawyers" who deliberately misunderstand the intent of rules. At least, they do this with someone as old or older than their parents, like me. It's not personal, they do it to everyone who's older. Trying to compensate for feeling powerless and overly-monitored, I guess.

Don't take the sleeping personally. I tell students the first day, if they fall asleep, their body is telling them something, and they ought to pay attention. Often I don't wake them--I remember one class, everyone (except me) had left before the sleeper awoke. Probably as good a lesson as he could get in the circumstances.

Unfortunately, many young people ARE functionally illiterate, because they don't care whether they understand what they're reading, so they don't try to understand fully. I tell them that straight up. But if they're foolish enough to not care to read, telling them they're functionally illiterate isn't likely to change their minds, is it?

Remember, in high school students have no responsibility, it's the teacher's job to somehow make them learn, and the teacher is blamed if the student doesn't pass the EOC test. It's just carrying over to college.

So we do what we can, and hope the light comes on (or was already on, in some cases).

Depends on what school you're at, too. Community college students aren't comparable to students at Duke or Wake Forest or Albion or other such schools. The ones with self-motivation rarely end up in CC. Cherish the ones you get who are motivated or can be motivated.

Ian Schreiber said...

Lewis, I was with you up until the point where you said that Community College students aren't self-motivated, since in fact I do teach some of my classes at CC.

Yes, there are some students like that -- they couldn't cut it at a "real" school so they go to CC expecting it to be easier. These students will tend to struggle in my classes; game development is hard at any level :)

But there are also advanced high-school students, the ones that will probably end up at a great four-year school, but they're taking some CC classes for credit while they wait to graduate HS. These tend to be very motivated -- CC classes are more difficult than HS classes, so it wouldn't be worth their time otherwise.

And then there are the financially-savvy students who enter CC with every intention of transferring to a four-year school, but they realize that their general education classes are going to be pretty much the same anywhere and the tuition is cheaper at CC, so they may as well get those out of the way when they're not paying $50K/year. These students also tend to be very motivated, as they're taking charge of not just their classes but also their living expenses.

I guess I should say that all of the things mentioned in this post were rare events, none of this stuff happens every day.

Anonymous said...

Hey, how about the awkward student-stumbling-across-your-blog moment, eh? Speaking from the trenches, please don't take offense when us slackers doze off in your classes. I can remember plenty of times where I didn't have time to sleep, so I would drink a cup of coffee, man-up and go to class anyway. The teacher would be giving the "how to win at life forever" lecture and I would still doze off, most of the time completely unintentionally.

Not to say that some kids aren't jerks. But speaking on behalf of us finicky insomniacs: we run ourselves into the ground and sleep in your class because we care!

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Ian, I don't think we differ on this ("cherish the ones you get who are motivated or can be motivated"). It's a question of tendency. When I taught networking and my average aged student was 24 or 25 (which was the average community college aged student at the time), the self-motivation was much more noticeable than it is now with game creation students who average 18 or 19 (I have classes of high school students taking college classes). The difference in self-motivation between a 16 year old and a 17 year old (HS junior and senior) is dramatic, and the older people get (up to a point), the more likely they are to be self-motivated. I remember one teacher who much preferred evening classes because she felt the evening students were older and more motivated than the day students, and that was probably true.

But compare community college students to Elon or Albion students (to use some well-known small schools), and the overall difference is striking, even though the ages are similar.

Anonymous said...

I started reading this blog last night, while looking for game design teaching positions. There are interesting comments here. But I have to say that Comm Coll is a smart financial decision to save A LOT of money. I am from Italy but currently in the States. I am totally against this universities that cost 20k a year. education is supposed to be affordable for everybody. That's one thing I can't stand. If I had kids I'd send them to a CC to start off.

About the sleeping in class. It is true that most students just wait the last day to do their work. But at times the workload is highly unbalanced. There are period of the semester when there's hardly anything to do, and then all of a sudden you barely have time to breath. I was lucky that while in grad school I had very understanding and wise professors that distributed the work load so you didn't have to pull all-nighters the last week of the semester.

Anonymous said...

Being slightly of the age of generation in question (24) and currently attending one of Ian's classes I would like to show the other side of the story. In fact I swear one of these questions is pretty much talking about me in particular.

I have had the unfortunate experience of falling asleep in class, and apparently snoring at that. This was not due to boredom or lack of interest but sheer sleep deprivation. I work a full time 40 hour work and the only days I have off are the two days I go to classes. When instructors say that we have time to work over the weekend on it that elicits a small chuckle from me. My weekend usually involves working at my job and staying up late trying to finish up for school. Last quarter I stayed awake for 86 hours with only a four hour sleep break at one point. Going from work to my PC to finish the final design doc and then straight back to work. Granted I had legal medicinal help but the whole ordeal was not a great one. Even amongst all of that I only managed to finish 9 of the 13 required points and at least 2-4 not to the strength that I was happy with. My body's biological clock is tuned to fall asleep at 1:30 in the morning at the latest. This is hell on me trying to catch a bus for class I have to get up at 6:30 for. So those of us who fall asleep, please look not with disdain or pity; merely understanding that some of us are trying our damnedest to juggle what we love (the gaming industry) and what we must (yet another day in the proverbial coal mines).

As for pushing the rules of what can and can't be done, I personally want to know the fine minutia of what are my limits. Usually the limits help direct me down a clearly defined path of what to do rather than limit me. Tell me to just make a game and I'm more often than not lost with the endless possibilities. Tell me what some constraints are and options are closed off more and more options open up to me. So when you say, “The end goal can't be to kill all of the opposing forces.” and I respond, “Can the goal be to assassinate just one particular piece?” I'm merely trying to see what paths are still open to me. Then again I had teachers who were sadistic in the way they worded true and false questions and soon learned to question EVERYTHING.

As for the comment on Community Colleges: I would love to find a cheap school that offered classes in something other than art and programming for games near here; but alas, those are few and far between. Even finding a program for game production that isn't number crunching or art based is difficult enough as it is. Every adviser and college rep that I told about game design launched into about how great their C++ and Maya classes were not understanding the exacerbated sigh coming from me. So some of us are thrilled that a local and (relatively) inexpensive finally has what we are looking for.

Ian Schreiber said...

@Anonymous: Actually I don't find it awkward to see students (current or former) on my blog. If my students are googling me to find out more about me, I must be doing something right :)
In most of my classes I go so far as to post my blog as a link on Blackboard, usually near the end of term.

@Lewis: I think it's more of a U-shaped curve than a line. I think you're right that in general, older students are more motivated (not that I get many fortysomethings taking video game classes). But in my experience the students at the HS level tend to be more motivated than average too, which is why they're taking CC classes while still in HS.

@Fabio: Welcome to the blog :). You're right, there are a variety of reasons why some of these things might happen. I might say that the uncertainty of the cause is what makes it feel so awkward.

@Lee: No, I'm not talking about any one person specifically. None of the things mentioned are isolated incidents. I said they were rare, not unique :)