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Episode 72:
Mark Sample

In this episode, Mark Sample, associate professor and chair of digital studies at Davidson College talks with Derek Bruff. Sample was the keynote speaker at Vanderbilt’s Learning at Play: a one-day symposium on games for learning and social change. Sample didn’t have a chance to sit down for a Leading Lines interview while he was on campus in November. But he and Derek Bruff got to catch up via Zoom earlier this month, and we are very excited to share that conversation with the Leading Lines audience. He talks about teaching digital studies, designing counterfactual games, and learning through play. As you’ll hear in the interview, Mark Sample is an incredibly thoughtful educator, and we are glad to have him here on the podcast.


Links

Mark Sample’s faculty page
• Mark Sample’s website and blog
• @samplereality on Twitter
Ring™ Log
• Mark Sample’s Twitter bot
Twine
Learning at Play
Learning at Play recaps by Derek Bruff


Transcript

[0:01] (music) 

Derek Bruff: [0:06] This is Leading Lines. I’m Derek Bruff. Last summer I emailed a couple ofcolleagues here at Vanderbiltand pitched an idea, a one day symposium on games for learning and social change. Helen Shin, Assistant Professorof English and Derek Price , doctoral student in German and media studies,were immediately on board.And pretty soon we were making plans forthe event, which we called Learning at Play.Leading Lines listeners may know those names.We interviewed Helen back in episode 24about the digital projectsshe invites her students to create.And we interviewed Derek in episode34 about the games studies podcast, he helped start called, Scholars at Play.With our planning team in place,we started brainstorming potentialkeynote speakers for Learning at Play.At the top of my list was Mark Sample,Associate Professor and Chair of Digital Studies at Davidson College. 

[0:59] I had followed Sample’s work inthe digital humanities for years throughhis informative and sometimesprovocative blogging and tweeting,I wanted to finally meet him inperson and more importantly,to share his work with the Vanderbilt campus.One of the things I admireabout Sample, is that he doesn’t justwrite about games andelectronic literature andalgorithms, and such things.He also creates digital objects,often taking andexperimental and even playful approach.For instance, last fall hecreated something called Ring Log,which imagines what a Ringdoorbell camera might reportas it uses glitchy artificialintelligence object recognition technology, on Halloween night. When you load the website,you see a black background withgreen text that’s ever changing. Ninja assassin, smashed jack-o’-lantern,crying child, unidentified flying object.It’s an addicting and slightlycreepy commentary on the limitsof artificial intelligence andthe problems of surveillance tech. Mark Sample’s games and other experiments make arguments and they make you think and I wanted him to bring his scholarlyplayful work to our symposium.Luckily, everything fell into placeand Mark was able tojoin us for Learning at Play.He shared a really fascinating keynote aboutanother project of his, a work in progress,a counterfactual game built-in Twine thatexplores both the early twentieth century eugenics movement and the early twenty-first centuryscience of gene editing. 

[2:26] Learning at Play turnedinto something pretty spectacularwith games and talks all daylong and a great turnoutfrom the Vanderbilt community and beyond.I had hoped to get Mark Sample onthe podcast while he was in town,but the day turnedout to be so busy that that didn’t happen.But he and I got to catch upvia Zoom earlier this month.And I’m very excited to shareour conversation withthe Leading Lines audience.We talk about teaching digital studies,designing counterfactual games,and learning through play.As you’ll hear in the interview,Mark Sample isan incredibly thoughtful educator,and I’m glad to have him here on the podcast.(music) 

[3:02] Well thanks, Mark, for beingon Leading Lines and thanksagain for coming to campus last fallto join us to talk aboutsome of your work at our Learning at Play event.It was really great to meet you in person, finally.  

Mark Sample: [3:17] It was great to be there.I’m so happy to beinvited and share my work. 

Derek: [3:22] Yeah, it was a fun day.We had a ton of people come out.But I wanted to followup with you and ask some questionsabout your work andkind of how you think abouteducational technology and teachingand learning and digital studies.But I’m going to startwith a question I’ve beenasking some of our guestslatelythat asks you to look back a little bit.Can you tell us about a time yourealized you wanted to be an educator? 

Mark: [3:49] (laughs) That’s a good question, when I wantedto be an educator.So I’ll actually tie thisdirectly to educational technology as well.So my mom was an educator at a public school.She was the special education teacherfor many years in an elementary school,and then later went on to bea guidance counselor in middle school.But about this time,I was maybe I think, in fifth grade.And, you know, the time, the year, was 1982.I’d have to do the math in my head,but it was it was early.And my parents took the plunge to geta home computer becauseI think, at the time,they could write it off as a kindof tax deduction or something because my momwould take it into her classroomseveral times a week for her students to use.And I just, thiswas our first computer wasa TRS 80 color computer.It had 16K of RAM.And I remember feeling reallycool when my dad and I upgraded at the 64K of RAM. It had a cassette player, was how you stored the programs. 

Derek: [5:02] Oh, wow. Ok. 

Mark: [5:03]So it was even before floppy disk.Anyway 

Derek: [5:06] I’m from the five and a quarter inch floppy disc era. 

Mark: [5:12] So my momwould take it take this, the computer intoclass and there’d be these kind ofcartridge games like some sort ofBingo Math Blast or I can’t remember exactly.But then I started making quiz gamesin programming in Basicfor her to take into the students.  And, you know, in hindsight,I’m sure it was like horrible.There’s no kind ofsound pedagogy behind any of that, it was just the novelty of it all. But I mean,that is like literally the first timeI was thinking aboutcomputers in the classroomI was in elementary school myself making these Basic programs for other kids. 

Derek: [5:54] Yeah. That’s fascinating.And I mean, you’veedited a book on Basic, right? 

Mark: [6:00] Yeah. Yeah. So there wasthis ten print within a very,an extended long title.It was this one lineprogram for the Commodore 64,which is also a homecomputer around the same time.And I and nine other authors basically dove deepand tried to seethe entire world withthis one line of code and useit to talk about all sorts ofthings like creative coding, mazes, because the program created a maze, the rise of home computers in the 1980’s and so on. 

Derek: [6:36] Yeah, yeah.Well, and I’m also hearing inthat story something that I’veseen in a lot of your work,which is a willingnessto learn something new andexperiment a little andkind of see what you can do with it. 

Mark: [6:46] Yeah, I think I get bored easily,so I’m probably notthe best poster childfor this because I’ll do somethingand then feellike I’ve kind of gotit and then I’ll move on to something else.But I mean, that’s why workingwithin digital studies,which is kind of like digital humanities,but not necessarily alwaysfocused on digital methodology.It’s more like studyingdigital culture itself.There’s always somethingnew to talk about,and to analyze and critique.So I stay on my toes. 

Derek: [7:21] Yeah. Yeah. I’m wondering,do you think, soyou got your start with computersin an era of Basic, right?And so because I did too. I remember I would go to the Book Fairat school and they had some series of books, it was like sci-fifor third graders or something,but there were  Basic programs printed in the book.And part of the fun was to takeyour book over to your computer and type inthe program and then kind of see what it did.And so it was this kind of,this very interesting interaction.So here’s my question, though.I wonder, do youthink part of your willingness now inyour career to experiment and learna new technology orkind of kick the tires on something, you think that comes fromgetting your start in an era where,it was, I’m tryingthink of the right description,but like so muchnow is encapsulated, right?So you have an app and like you’re,you’re layers and layers away fromthe programming that kindof makes that app work.But when you got your start, it was yeah,ten print, “go to this line,” right? Like everything’s just kind of rightthere in a kind of tinker toy fashion.What are your thoughts on that?Do you think that’saffected how you think about computing? 

Mark: [8:38] I think so. And Iactually talked about thisa lot with my students.And I try not to come across as the kindof grumpy old man like, in my day,we opened up our computers,installed our own RAM and CD drives. But I thinkit’s important for students torealize the shift thathas happened with technology,these kind of walled gardens, and make itever more difficult to,to actually understand what’shappening inside the computer,it becomes a black box.I talk about that concept a lot.So I think a lot of the,my emphasis when it comes toeducational technology is alsotrying to open up that black box, getting people, students to thinkabout what’s happeningunderneath the surface.Because that era definitely influenced me,like knowing that Ican write a small program in Basic.I tried assembly language at the time and had no idea what I was doing,but Basic I could understand. And you know,that physicality of beingable to open up the machine.We also installed a new keyboardon it because it came with this really bad keyboard.But just understanding that that technologywas not, it was yours.I feel like our devices now,in some sense, we feel like we’re justborrowing them from Appleor whoever. And in two years we’ll trade it in and get a new one.It feels like we’re leasing.So I mean, even though we buy it many times,it feels likea lease product because we don’tactually get in and kind of make it our own. 

Derek: [10:18] Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Well, and the software updates, whether we want it to or not, oftenAnd so it’s hard to take the reigns, I think, with some of these devices. Let’s talk a little bit.I’m going to ask you about a couple ofprojects of yours later,but let’s talk aboutmore about kind of how youwork with your students.So you are, youteach in and chairthe digital studies program at Davidson? 

Mark: [10:46] Yes.  

Derek: [10:47] So I’m gonnaask a big questionand see where you take it.How do you go about designing andteaching a digital studies course? 

Mark: [10:57] Well, I mean, I goabout it really the same wayI used to designmy English courses because I used to be inthe English department atGeorge Mason University andslowly kind of incorporated more technology.My classes and my,my official line at the time, I was hiredunder was Contemporary Literature: New Media.So it gave mefree reign to do a lot of things.And eventually I moved evermoreinto New Media,which is what we called it 15 years ago.But my approach is really, and Ithink in some ways this is eveneasier to fallinto a certain kind oftrap when you teach literature classes.Let’s say I was teachinga new literature class,15, 10 years ago, I would often start off by like, oh,here are six novels I really want us toread rather than thinking about,okay, what do I really want us to walkaway from in the class?So there’s a principle and I know, you know,and I’ve written about it,the backwards design.That idea of kindof just really thinking about what,what is the outcome thatyou want in the class.And I know a lot of people react negatively to learning goalsor learning outcomes or objectives.But I think it makes a lot of sense like whatdo I want us to be able todo by the end of the semesteror be able to know what are these kindof enduring concepts that ten years from now,15 years from now, I still wantthe students to rememberThey’re not going to remember the details,but these big broad concepts. 

[12:32] So I started doing thatwith, when I wasteaching my literature classes andwhen I shifted to kind ofmostly entirely digital studies classes,it’s really along the same lines.So when I teach a class,like the Introductionto Digital Studies is a good example.In the wake of 2016,the election of 2016,I felt like I needed to redesign the class.And this was also at the time thatthe QAnon, the rise of the conspiracy group QAnon,I felt like, wow, that’ssomething we need to talk about.So I developed this whole section onconspiracy theories and howthe digital world makesit so easy to propagate,disseminate, anddistort facts and everything.And that was entirely driven by this kind ofenduring concept that I wantedstudents to have at the end of the semester. 

Derek: [13:28] And in that case, what was that concept? 

Mark: [13:32] I mean, the concept was,was really just about how knowledgedisseminates anddistorts through social media. 

Derek: [13:45] So with something like that in mind,what kinds of assignments orprojects or activities do you give students? 

Mark: [13:51]One of the things that I foundreally effectivewas to start working with case studies.This specific class wasa Monday, Wednesday, Friday.So I started having every Fridaybe like a case study day.And so for the firstfew weeks of the course,I developed these case studieswhere students are assigned roles.Like one of the first case studieswas about the dark web,using Tor and getting information online. I assign these students like someone,someone was a hacker,someone who worked for the NSA.Another student was a concerned parent,like just different roles anda little blurb about each role.And the students worked in groups.And there was like some sort ofcrisis that they had tofigure out what the best path forward was.And in the meantime, they also had toget online using Tor,the Tor Browser andkind of like explore the dark web.So I did like threeof these case studies maybe. And I vary them up, like one was a senate hearingabout social mediaand political ads on social media,which was very hot at the time.And then after that,after I gave the students a tasteof how to run these case studies,I made them responsible for making their own.So I divided the students up by groups.And then, like every other weekfor the rest of the semester,there was a case study thatthe students had to host, they had to plan the whole thing.They had to run it in class and manage it.And then at the end the class,or after the simulation was done,they had to write up a whole kind ofsynthesis of what happened,how it went, did itreally measure up to their expectations?Did they wish they had done better?Very meta stuff. And that was really effective.Practically speaking, it workedwell for me because itwas a major assignment,but it came in clusters, so atany given time only had likefive to grade. And thensome of the case studies like Iwill modify to useas my starting case studiesthe next time I teach the course.  

Derek: [16:04] So I wantto unpack that just a little bit.Because I mean,this is similar to some ofthe stuff we were talking about at Learning at Play, these kindof in-class simulations,role play kind of things.So not just a debate,but a debate kind of where students are,are taking on particular roles orparticular perspectives.What value do you see forlearning in a simulation like that?And then part two,why do you ask students to create their own? I suspect those aredifferent but complimentary values. 

Mark: [16:40] So I mean,a couple of things arereally important to me.One, is many times the students are playingroles that are contraryto their own positions.So it forces them to be a little, like if they wantto be successful in the case study,they have to be a little bit empatheticto that point of view.So it forces them to think aboutother perspectives, which Ithink is very valuable.It also puts a little pressure on them.They often like before the case study runs,they have alittle bit of time to kind ofabsorb the roles and doa little bit of research on it.So it gives them a crash courseand thinking aboutthis particular topicand that particular perspective.And the question of why havethe students do their own?I just think even, even when they,the case studies are failures in class andI have a few that had flopped.The students learned so much justfrom that perspective ofhaving to doall the research, try and manage the cloud.They certainly get a deeperappreciation for whatprofessors and faculty doBut also there’s no better way toteach something, to learnsomething than to teach it.I mean, I think that’s beenproven again and again and again.And the case studiesare basically a chance forthe students to become teachers forthe day.  

Derek: [18:01] Yeah, yeah.What are some other things you have studentscreate or produce in your courses?Because I see that as a strong elementof your teaching, that students aremaking a lot of things during the semester. 

Mark: [18:16]They are.So like this semester,I’m teaching a gender and technology classwhich is studying the intersection betweengender and technology and howtechnology is gendered andthe biases built intosocial media algorithms and so on.I mean, it’s, it’s a broad topic and itchanges everyday becausethere’s always so much to talk about.But the, the final project forthis class is going to bethe students working in Twine,which is this game development platformthat I talked about before.And it’s very easy for students togo, or anyone, to go from like 0 to 45,making it kind of choicebased, mostly text-based game.So you can have a, you set up a scenario,give the player certain pathsto navigate through it.And you can have variablesand keeps score and,and do all the stuffthat you can do in games.There’s conditional logic.You can incorporate media. 

Derek: [19:18] So for other children of the eighties,you might think of Choose Your Own Adventure as kind of a starting point.Like you guys do that in Twine,but you can do more than that. 

Mark: [19:26] Exactly. In fact, the more my other classeswere actually reading,Choose Your Own Adventure books, right?My classes areall about me teachingmy middle school years to my students.But anyway, so Twine, studentsare going to have to make like, interact, I’m not calling them games because that puts a lotof pressure on them, or even stories. Vignettes, interactive vignettes to try to capture some,some dynamic wheregender and technology intersect.So we’re going to be talking aboutrepresentation, women in video games, for instance. We’re going to talk about Gamergateand the backlashagainst women inthe game industry, in general.And I wouldn’t be surprisedif some students makethe game from the perspective of say,a female game journalist or somethinglike that, or a trans game designer.So they’ll be.They’ll be small things. We’re going to share them with each other.They’ll be a chance to kind ofpresent to the broader campus.We have this big kind of teaching and learning day atthe end of the semester.But I really,I started doing this because I mean,I do similar projectsin a lot of my classes.Because I feel like my students, at least, they’re pretty strong writers.They know how to do that research essay.They know how to do the kinds of typical kinds of writing that got them intocollege in the first place.They’ve gotten pretty good at. And I don’t feel like they’re ever reallyflexing their muscles anymore, their intellectual muscles.

[21:12] So I like to push them intosomething where they’reout of their comfort zone.But they’re also making somethingthat is designed to be interacted with.Like I think most people write an essayexpecting no one is ever going to read itexcept maybe the professor, right?But you don’t make a game expecting no one to play it, right? It’s inherent in the game that you want it tobe like enjoyable orplayable or at least thought-provoking.So, you know I get some negative reactions sometimes. Students feel like come March and April,they would like to be intheir comfort zone. But in the end I’ve,I’ve just had such a positivereaction from the students.And when the days that we sharetheir games in class like they’re just,they’re excited to share their workin a way that they’re not whenthey share that ten-page essay. 

Derek: [22:08] Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Well, andwe’ve had a few folks on the podcastwho assigned podcastprojects for their students.And one of the reasons isso the students havea better sense of audiencefor their work. They’re creating this audio thing thatis intended to be listened to.And so it does, I think it kind of breaks them out of this,kind of habit of writingfor no one that you’ve described.And so I have thought about games as,you know, also having that flavor, right?That you’re trying to help them.There’s a natural audience for a game, right?I would imagine on some level,even if you don’t, actually,if you’re a student and you’vebuilt a game of some sort,and you don’t actually haveanyone else play it, just knowing that that’swhat it’s intended for,probably helps you think differentlyabout how you’re making your arguments,how you’re constructing things,how you’re putting ideas together. 

Mark: [23:00] Yeah, I mean, I’ve seenstudents working on projects likethis where they they’d like theyget a kick out of playing their own games.And like exploring the choices.And there’s this kind of thrill seeing, “oh, that thing that I tried todo is actually working here.Which I mean, sometimes I think people,like writers, who likereally approach writing asa kind of puzzle process.It’s kind of this intricate design that you’re,you’re bringing into being.I mean, you get some of that pleasurein reading your own writing.But I don’t think most studentsat this level do. 

Derek: [23:40] But they can in a game. 

Mark: [23:43]And it’s their vernacular.So many of them have grown up playing, even ifthey don’t consider themselves gamers, many of them, are familiarwith basic game mechanics and concepts. 

Derek: [23:52] Yeah, yeah. The studentsyou have in digital studies. I’m imagining,I think from our conversationwhen you were on campus, they come from a fairly diverse backgrounds,like you have a few majors,but you also have students who are pickingup these courses or doing a minor. So I’m wondering, canyou talk a little bit about how youteach a class with studentswho have diverse backgrounds, maybe even specificallythe kind of students whohave coding experience versusstudents who don’t. 

Mark: [24:21] So that’s a really good question andI’m kind of living that right now.One of the other classes I’m teachingthis semester is calledElectronic Literature.And it’s, I mean, it’s aboutdigital art, digital fiction.You know, using the medium ofthe story of the computer to tell storiesand poetry in a way that youcan’t in print or other forms.But the class, so it’s in digital studies,but also counts forEnglish, for the English major. And whenwe’re going around the room, on the first day and everyone’s talkingabout their majorsI waspleasantly surprised at how evenlydivided it was between peoplein English and in computer science.So I had this, this pretty nice mix in there.They’re also, excuse me,other majors in there, as well.But I think it’s dominated byEnglish and computer science.And I don’t see those thingsas polar opposites, whatsoever.So in class,like when we’re looking at a specific work,I’ll ask each student to kind ofbring what they know to the table.So the English student might be talking aboutrepresentation or the kindof thematic devices being used.Whereas someone in computer science might beactually more curious aboutwhat’s happening underneath the surface.How does this little mechanism work?And then I’m always pushingthe students to think about form and content.So how, how does that underlying kind ofprocedural logic actuallysupport or maybe not,the, the thematic contentof whatever work that we’re looking at.So I see those things as complimentary a lot. 

[26:00] Some of my other classes likethe Introduction to Digital Studies,it will be a broad mix ofstudents coming from everywhere.A lot of times Ihave computer science studentsin the class who,when we’re talking about privacyor surveillance or data ethics,they’re like, wow, wenever talk aboutthis stuff in computer science.Not because the computer scientistsdon’t care about it,but because they have all this other stuffthey need to get through. 

Derek: [26:25] Right.It’s just not in the curriculum these students have experienced. 

Mark: [26:29] So, so they get to talk about it.But yet they can also bring like when,when someone’s spouting off on, “computers can do this” or “AI is this,” they’ll like chime in and say, “nyou’re misunderstanding what AI is.” So I like, I mean,I think it’s really valuable to beteaching in kind of a liberal arts environment.I’m happy.I know like a lot ofdepartments and programs measuretheir success by majors, like so. And then that’s a trapbecause when your majors decline,even if it’s just a blip, you feel like,oh, we have a problem.I just think in terms of overall enrollment,like how our classes are, they’re brimming, over-spilling sometimes. And I feel like the things thatwe’re teaching in the digital studies classesare so important I want everybodyacross the curriculumto thinking about these things. 

Derek: [27:30] Yeah. Well, andI think that’s the, you know,one of the strengths of a liberal artsenvironment is that itencourages students to major in something,but also to, to think morebroadly and makeconnections to other disciplines.And it also sounds like you’re using,when you have students make something,you’re often using tools thatare more accessible or easy to learn. 

Mark: [27:51] Yeah. 

Derek: [27:52] You’re not assuming a huge programmingbackground among your students. 

Mark: [27:54]Right, I mean, that’s just me.So I have colleagues whoanother colleague in digital studieswho he himself has the experience.So he’s teaching a game development classand it’s like hardcore.They’re working in Unity.And he, you know,there are some prerequisitesto get into the class.But that, you know,that’s like a 300-level class or something.In general though, I do like towork with the toolsthat students can feel a sense ofaccomplishment with, pretty early on.But then there’s still a lot of roomto add finesse andpolish to whatever they’re working on. 

Derek: [28:34] So forsomething like a Twine projects,like in your Genderand Technology course, how much of your class timedo you spend helpingstudents learn to use Twineor troubleshooting or debugging? 

Mark: [28:46] Yeah. That’s a good question.As it is, you know, so I have the syllabusas the ideal planthat I’ve set up in January.We’ll see how it plays outin February and March whenI will probably have to change it.But I kind of stagger things andthis gendered technology classbecause it’s not a,it’s not like focusedon game production or game design.But early in the semester we just,we have this section on, on games.So we’ll start talking aboutrepresentation and games.Games that try and captureexperiences that aren’tseen in mainstream games,different perspectives and identities.And at that point that’s whenI introduce Twine.And I’ll give themkind of like checkpoints thenthroughout the semester.So by, you know, by this point, three weeks from now,you’ll need to have done X, Y,and Z, and so on.And then throughout the semester I’llhave like occasional class dayswhere it’s just like a Twine workshop where I work in class on Twine.  

Derek: [29:52] Yeah. Yeah.That makes sense. And I thinkit sounds like it’s a big enough partof the course that, like you’re willing to spendsome time teaching the tool. 

Mark: [30:03] Yeah. And I think I mean,Twine, I like in particular because it’s been,it’s been such a force in indie game design, where people aremaking games that justlike what’s it liketo go through hormone replacement therapy?Like there’s a game about that.So the topic fits inreally great with gender and technology.But it’s also like we canthink about Twine itself as this kind ofplatform for marginalized voices. 

Derek: [30:39] Yeah, so they’reencountering games designed in Twine, right?And then designing their own. So there’s this nice kind of symmetry there.Let’s talk more,a little bit more about a game as a,as a vehicle for teaching.When you were here on campus,you shared a game you had, you were developing, in Twine, actually, that looked at, well you called it  a counterfactual game.Can you say, kind of describe what that is andhow you think a game like that mightserve as a teaching tool of some sort. 

Mark: [31:11] So a little bit of background on the game.I’m creating this, as you say,a counterfactual game, which isasking like a what if question.And the general question is,what if the gene editingtechnology that we have today, like CRISPR,had been invented atthe height of the eugenics movement inthe 1920’s inthe United States and,and elsewhere in the world.So it’s kind of collapsingthe present onto the past.Where I see, I see echoesof each other in these two time periods.And it seems very relevant today when geneediting and DNA testing, like it’s just kind of allover the place right now.So it’s an important topic.And I feel like is the opportunityto also understand the past better.Just to kind of realize where some ofthe ideas that we have now about,about genes and about DNA and hereditary lines and all that, where they come out of, or at least where they’ve been influenced by.So that’s the kind of background of the game.And, uh, and I like the idea ofa counterfactual game because itjust kind of opens up the door for me to,to play a little bit loose with the facts.I think when I, when I wastalking about this at Vanderbilt,I mentioned a counterfactual novel byColson Whitehead,called The Underground Railroad. And in that novel,The Underground Railroad is an actual railroadthat literally runs underground.He kind of takes that metaphorand literalizes it,and then kind of plays around with it.And when I had seenhim talk about the novel,when it first came out,I went to a readingand a lot of people in theaudience didn’t quite get,they thought he was just a bad historian.They thought he got his facts wrong. 

Derek: [33:15] (laughs) Like a really bad historian.I mean I thought itwas an underground railroadtoo when I learned about it in second grade. 

Mark: [33:20] Yeah. Right. I mean,it’s a mistake that we make.And then he explained it.He said, no, it’s metaphor.I’m working with it.And he said at some point in the Q and A, “I didn’t stick to the facts,but I stuck to the truth.And that line really resonated with me.So I feel like thinking aboutthis counterfactualgame that I’m making, I’m playing a little bit with the factsbut I want to capture the kind of truth of  the era of both the current eraand the 1920s.So I’ve done a lot of researchabout the eugenics movement,about fitter family contests,better baby contests.The kind ofthe push for voluntary and even forsterilization of feeble minded.On the podcasts you’llhave to tell people I’mdoing air quotes right now. “Feeble minded individualsand the people unfit to have children.So it’s involved lot of kind of primarysource research for myself.And one of the things,so going back to the idea of like, wow,what can you learn fromthis game or how could this gamebe kind of valuable teaching tool? 

[34:41] One of my goals for the game is, tomake it a way to interact with archives,like I’m trying to come up with like playable archives.So in the game,some of the early scenes in the game takeplace at the North Carolina State Fair.So I did a lot of research onwhat was going on in the state fairs inthe 1920’s, and many state fairs, not North Carolina,as far as I can tell, hadcontests related to eugenics,fitter family contests,they would have displays about,now we would recognize itas propaganda against immigration,against, you know,there’s a lot of class issuesgoing on, as well.And I want toincorporate some of those primary source,that primary source material into the game.So I’ll have like basically a recreationof one of these posters that,that the player can then interact with.And there’s one scene inthe game where there’s this,this, it was a real-world thing.It was displayed atvarious fairs and expositions and the era, withthese three flashing lightbulbs and they blinked accordingto how often likefit people were born versushow often unfit people were born 

Derek: [36:06Wow. 

Mark: [36:07] versus like some other thing.So the unfit flashed light is flashing like every30 seconds or something andthe one with fit people was being flashedevery seven minutes, I can’t remember exactly the numbers. But anyway in the game, soI can recreate this.And then the player hasa chance to vandalize it.So they’re not, they’re not only kind ofplaying, like kindof interacting with the archives,but they get to like destroy them.So I think it’s a, really, my hope is it’sa really good way tokind of make history come alive.But to alsogive players a chance to like, “So what would youdo if you were in this time period?Like how would you react to this circumstance?” which I think is a good question to ask. 

Derek: [37:03] Yeah. So I could ask a lot of follow-ups,but something that comes to mind is actuallysomething I saw Nick Susanna’stweet a while back.He created the book on flattening.It’s a comic, right?This was actually his PhD dissertation.It’s a comic about kindof learning and visual thinking.And he found that ashe was doing this research, he didn’t want to writea traditional dissertation.He needed the visual medium of comics to kind of representthe ideas that he was trying to put together.But I remember him tweeting this questionlike he was kindof nearing the end of it.He was like, How do I dofootnotes in this medium?And Iimagine you’re facinga similar challenge, right?If you’re creatinga counterfactual game and you want players to interactwith archival material, how do you dofootnotes and how do you help themunderstand what is moreor less factual in what they’re encountering? 

Mark: [38:08] Yeah, no. I have been thinkingabout this because one,it’s just kind of selfish.Like I’ve done a lot of research.I want people to know I’ve done a lot of research. 

Derek: [38:19] You’re not just making this up. 

Mark: [38:20] And I want to citethe sources and I want players to be able to backtrack.So at the very least,there’s going to be an extensive kindof “Aboutthe Game that’s going to includeall the sources and links back to everything.I could. I’m definitelynot at this stage yet.But when it’s completed,it would be interesting to have likethe kind of director’s cut of the gamethat has a second seriesof hyperlinks built into the game,where you could liketouch or hover your mouse overa certain link and maybe a little popup will give more information. I haven’t figured all that out yet.But I am I’m likeI mean,I use Zotero asmy citation, bibliographic management.And so I like all my sourcesare there in Zotero for me to use when I need to.  

Derek: [39:24] Yeah. I dolike the idea of likea director’s cut or to stay inthe medium a little bitlike when you beat a game,like a video game, a console game,often you can go back and play it again on a harder difficulty level.And so to be able to likefinish this game andthen go back with thisother layer to it, I think could be really interesting.Yeah. So I want to ask you about another project, this one goes back a ways.And this is maybe alittle selfish just because I actually talk about this at my workshops a lot. So years ago, I realized it’s been many years now.You wrote a blog post,I think for Prof. Hacker, back in the dayabout how you were teachinga sci-fi course at George Mason.And you had your students watchBlade Runner and live tweet their experience during the week.And I think it’s a really interesting exampleof kind of making student learning visible, kind of in the moment, in waysthat you might not see ina response paper they would write oreven a class discussion later that week.And so looking back on that activity,what’s your assessment of it now and are there elements ofthat activity that youstill use in your teaching? 

Mark: [40:30] Oh, that’s a really good question.And it does go back. That would be like  2010 or 2011, or something like that.And, you know, I’vestopped, for a while there,I was using Twitter in myclasses quite, quite a lot.And I’ve stopped doing thatbecause I don’t, I,myself spend far less timeon social media now.My students definitelydon’t, at least not Twitter.I think they’re on Instagram or Snapchat.But they kind of have a reaction too,they don’t want to really be on Twitter, most of them. So that question of how tocapture that live experience,I think it worked really well.In the case of like, the specific exampleyou’re talking about with with Blade Runner,I had archived all those posts at the time.At the time, Twitter actuallymade it quite easy to,to like capture posts.So I was, not so long ago, upgrading that class blog,which is still around because, you know,unless I upgrade it, it’s going to beinvaded by the latest hacks or whatever.And so I was goingthrough the posts from Blade Runner,I thought, wow, that was really cool.There were some really kind of spoton stuff and some playful things.And I, and I miss that because it helped.I think it helped build a sense of community.It was a different kindof a voice for the students.Like they’ve, they justfelt like they could be freer.They were often more sarcastic,which is I think great because it’slike that attitude is often missingsometimes in classes where they just talk aboutthings in a flat kind of not engaged way. 

[42:19] So I haven’t reallyfound a good way to recapture that.I still have my students blog,which I, I’ve been doingthat for, for years now.But that kind of on the spot typeof, or onthe fly type of lightweight engagementI haven’t doneI’ve thought about,and I know some people who use like Slack,like they’ll create a Slack channel, actually, I just lied.I have used Slack in my classes. One ofmy classes, maybe I’ve done it three years.It’s like a smaller seminar classand we set up a Slack for it.And one year it worked really well.And then the next year,students just weren’t engaged.Like that’s just not how theywanted, I think,communicate or spend their time or it’sa little bit to workish or something.So I have tried torecapture that and I just haven’t beenable to.  

Derek: [43:25] It’s an interesting challenge, right?Technology’s changed the students change.And I think this, this goal of making studentlearning visible in these ways,is really great.But finding the right tool thatfeels comfortable for students,especially if you’re wanting them to kind oflet their guard down a little bit, right? It’s not,it’s not construct140140 character mini essay. right?Like that’s, that’s adifferent kind of assignment on Twitter.But this was meant tobe kind of in the moment, casual. 

[44:00] Well, ok. Well, I’m going to wrap up.I’ve got a couple of questionswe ask all of our guests,and I don’t know,maybe there’s a segue here,but Leading Lines, we say we’re trying to shapethe future of educational technology.I don’t try to predict itbecause I think that’s a fool’s errand. But you know,we’re the folks who, in your case,you’re making things, you’re building things.Where would you liketo see educational technologygo in the next five years?What would you want from that future? 

Mark: [44:33] What I would like,a stronger sense of ownershipof that students feel overtheir technology and the kind of dataexhaust that they emitwhen they’re engagedwith educational technology,whether it’s on course management systemsor class blogs or something.So I feel like really compelledto pursue that andto encourage students to think about that.So when students likeafter the end of the semester,they want to erase their blog post, I’m sad, but I understand, understand that. In termsof like actually in the classroom,you know, I always say,and this is stilltrue like in many of my classrooms,the most important piece of technology isthe wheel on the tables,so that we can movethe tables around the roomand reconfigure ourselves as needed.Because I think thatflexibility is, is really important.And I think a lot of educational technologyactually makes things less flexible.Like we have to contort ourselves in order toconform to what the technology isasking us to do, or expects us to do.So, so wheels are the opposite of that,we can move things around.So any other kindof educational technology I’d,I’d want to use or see in the future wouldbe something that’s that conformsto us and what we need andnot the other way around. 

Derek: [46:15] Yeah, I love that. I love that.I’d said the same thing aboutwheels on chairs,  beingthe most important technology in the room. And that’s actuallymy last question is about one ofyour favorite analogue technologies.I think actuallyanalog educational technology.So I think you’ve justanswered that question as well. 

Mark: [46:33] Although, I do want to puta plug in for the personal whiteboards. 

Derek: [46:38] Yeah, say more.  

Mark: [46:40] Maybe two by three kind of whiteboards slates. So some of the classrooms Iteach in have those and Ioften will have students like do kind ofmakeshift things on those slatesand it’s easy to stand up and share them. That has been one of my favorite non-digital tools. 

Derek: [46:58] Like what would you askstudents to do on that?I’ve talked to some science faculty wholove those small portable whiteboards. 

Mark: [47:08] So in digital studies I have to teach, I’m kind of obligated toteach Black Mirror episodes. 

Derek: [47:11] (laughs) Ok, yeah. 

Mark: [47:16] So sometimes I’ll havestudents like basically we watch, a 30-secondor two-minute clip or something of, they’ve seenthe episode and then theywatch the clip in class.And I’ll have them kind of drawthe key scene fromthat clip and kind of annotate it. And then we stand up andwe go around the room and talk about it.And it’s just, I mean,asking students todraw is kind of like childish,but they really get into it.I find that students always are able totalk more about things when theyhave something concrete to point to.So like, you know,when the class discussion stalls,ask them to write something and then you know they have something to say.  I think doing drawingson the whiteboards is similar. 

Derek: [48:00] Yeah. I love that. I love that.Well, and as someone who, whosketch notes a lot in my own practice,right, to be able to kind of see the scene.And then even if it’sjust stick figures andcircles and boxes,kind of what doyou see that’s important here?And what are you pulling out of this scene?And they have to make those choicesas they draw it.And then to addsome annotations to it so theycan kind of do that critical work as well. I love that.I love that a lot.  

Mark: [48:26] Yeah, it’s fun.  

Derek: [48:28] Well, thank you, Mark. This has been a great conversation.We’re really glad to have you on the podcastand yeah,yeah, thanks for taking sometime today. (music) 

Mark: [48:35] Great, thanks. It was a pleasure being here. 

Derek: [48:52] That was Mark Sample, Associate Professorand Chair of Digital Studies at Davidson College.Thanks to Mark, for takingthe time to talk with me on Leading Lines and to beapart of our Learning at Play event in November.If you’d like to learn more about Mark Sample and see some of his work, head over to his website, samplereality.com.There you’ll find more than a decade ofblog posts along with links tohis scholarly work andcreative projects like that Ring LogI mentioned in the introduction.As someone who spends perhapsmore time on Twitter than I should, I’m partial to the dozens ofTwitter bots he’s created over the years. They keep my Twitter feed lively.For more on Twine and counterfactual games, see my recent blog post recappingMark Sample’s keynote at Learning at Play.See the show notes for a link tothat blog post as well as linksto more about Mark Sampleand the Learning at Play event.You’ll find show notes for thisand every other episode of Leading Lines on our website, leadinglinespod.com.We would love to hear your thoughts onthis episode and the waysthat you use games in teaching.You can reach us via emailat leadinglinespod@vanderbillt.edu or on Twitter @leadinglinespod. Leding Lines is produced bythe Vanderbilt Center for Teachingand the Jean and Alexander Heard libraries.This episode was edited by Rhett McDaniel.Look for new episodes the first and third Monday of each month.I’m your host, Derek Bruff. Thanks for listening. (music) 

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