Pedagogy and Play: a quick primer, with lots of examples

I’ve been thinking a lot about play recently. In part my thinking is probably driven by having my children migrate from play-based preschools to the avalanche of worksheets that characterizes my local P.S. (and probably yours, whether you know it or not). Why do we oppose ludic spaces and activities to work? Why do we relegate play to the first few years of life? Why do we think of thinking, analyzing, writing, and discussing in ways that are counterposed, explicitly or implicitly, to the realm of the playful?

I’m influenced here by a recent deep dive into the literature on play. For those interested in dipping in a toe, you could do worse that start with Ian Bogost’s Play Anything: Bogost is a game designer and theorist of play, and this book (his most recent) verges on the self-help genre in its investment in the capacity of play to renovate nearly every area of everyday life. More proximate to our work as teachers is Mark Sample’s brief essay in the invaluable MLA “Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities” online volume: there he sketches out playful pedagogy as the countermethod to the orthodox “serious” modes of instruction that dominate education, methods Sample calls “zombie play.”

Fine, but how do we play in the classroom, you might ask? I recently participated in a panel with Lauren Spradlin, a student at the GC who teaches linguistics at Hunter, in which she described a wide range of “small teaching” interventions involving simple games of her own design. Here’s a post on her experiments (and others), and here’s a brief video in which Lauren and I discuss the topic.

In the above links, you’ll also see references to my experiments with Ivanhoe, a concept developed by Jerome McGann, Bethany Nowiskie, and Johanna Drucker at UVA in the early 2000s. Ivanhoe involves the transformation of a fictional text into a “role-playing game,” in which students perform the text, so to speak, by creating a persona in or around the text and writing brief “moves” in the voice of that persona. Ivanhoe requires a much bigger investment of time and energy than the “small teaching” interventions Lauren describes, but it’s a very promising way of mooring the traditional work of the discipline (e.g., close reading, empathic imagination, research in primary and secondary sources) to free-form, improvisatory writing and a playful, open-ended spirit. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in trying this out on your own: it’s very easy to get the game up and running on the CUNY Academic Commons. For examples of how it works, check out the sites where students “played” Melville’s Billy Budd in 2016 or Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Tales last spring. And check out a draft of a piece I’m working on on the broader topic of Ivanhoe, play, and teaching literary research here.

In closing, a word from Roland Barthes, whose thinking about reading and writing as a form of play never fails to inspire me:

In fact, reading, in the sense of consuming, is far from playing with the text. ‘Playing’ must be understood here in all its polysemy: the text itself plays (like a door, like a machine with ‘play’) and the reader plays twice over, playing the Text as one plays a game, looking for a practice which re-produces it, but, in order that that practice not be reduced to a passive, inner mimesis (the Text is precisely that which resists such a reduction), also playing the Text in the musical sense of the term. (“From Work to Text”)

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