March 17, 2013

Writing as Playing Around.

My college major was among the most rigorous on the planet.

Based on the Oxford Philosophy, Politics, and Economics course, we had one 5-7 page paper due every Friday of our sophomore year.  Other students referred to the College of Social Studies, as it was officially titled, as the “college of suicidal sophomores.” My first trimester was a train wreck, but by the end, I had earned one professor’s highest accolades.

How did I go from being nearly kicked out of the program to having my professor ask me to be her teaching assistant and suggest I have the potential to become a professional scholar? It wasn’t through working harder, paying better attention in class or managing my time better. It was by playing around.

By infusing a spirit of play into my work, I came up with creative takes on the assignment while exceeding my teacher’s expectations. Stanford University Education professor Elliot Eisner argues that play is an important element for the cognitive development of children. The same principles that apply in elementary school apply in higher education and professional life.

When the sophomore year economics tutorial began, I was not excited. The Econ 101 course I took freshman year involved more numbers and graphs than I cared for. The first two papers I wrote were straight traditional academic papers. One late night in the computer lab, a CSS senior revealed to me a secret tip: he urged me to be creative; to write about trade between planets instead of countries or to write an imaginary letter to a politician. I tried both and got hooked. Eisner describes how different senses of the word play could appear in school and the benefits that can come with them.

Play Around: Imagining New Possibilities.

To “play around” is to explore how things are and could be. Play in this regard involves a sense of openness that leads to discovery. To bring my assignments to life, I created a few characters and a world far from our own and set out to see if the characters could solve the problem using the theory presented in class (or if some opposing theory could not provide a better solution). In two of my favorite papers, I used antagonistic characters to embody opposing viewpoints. I wanted each character to present the depth of each perspective. I did not know exactly how the story would end. I was exploring. Characters took on a life of their own and I had to rush to record what they did and said fast enough before I fell behind the action. As Eisner says, surprise is the reward of imagination at work.

Play a Game: Innovate Solutions.

Playing a game involves improving within socially defined common rules. Academic disciplines, Eisner writes, are like games.  Students literally try to score as many points as they can. That which earns points is defined by “a set of shared conventions about methods and evidence.” Scoring points in novel ways is rewarded, as long as those ways meet certain requirements. To play around can be expansive in that it encourages new and creative thinking, while playing a game can be disciplined in that it encourages working rigorously within limits.

The requirements of my CSS assignments allowed me to gamify my homework. We did not get grades but every week we received teacher comments. We had to base our papers on a topic and set of readings, but we were free to do as we chose beyond that.  While playing in my academic work, I was returning to the text to see how to relate my writing to the assigned theory.

Ultimately, this process didn’t only aid my personal exploration, but also my understanding of the content. Play, Eisner explains, is a way to make sense out of things. I found it much easier to consider a moral or economic argument in terms of the perspective, thoughts, emotions and decisions of a single character as opposed to an abstraction of society as a whole. I grew beyond my teenage habit of seeking some bold theory to fix all the problems of Western society. Instead, I grappled with the dilemma of a character with whom I could relate. At the end of the semester, my professor wrote on my final evaluation that I seemed to be developing into a “true intellectual,” thinking critically about both sides of an issue.

Put on a Play: Engaging Your Community.

A play can be understood as a performance “designed to delight, inform, edify, or in some other way, stimulate.” My essays entertained me and I thought they might entertain others. I shared by papers with friends. While I never shared a regular school paper with peers, I thought that the narrative element could make them bearable, if not enjoyable.

This process provided a precursor to my first foray into developing a voice as a blogger. As Executive Director of a non-profit today, I ask myself how a spirit of play in writing and other aspects of my work could solve similar ends. How can I explore options and opportunities through written reflection? What can I do within the framework of the blog post or newspaper editorial to promote my organization’s mission? How can I engage a community, inviting them to join us in addressing a social challenge?


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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