Lately I have been thinking a lot about the “interactive” part of narratives of desistance – the negotiation of narratives with others, positive feedback and “identity verification” , and the role of the story audience in determining which narratives are credible and authentic and which are not. I think that this is a point of connection between narrative identity theories of desistance and other, more traditional criminology concepts like informal social control, social bonds, social capital, and many life-course developmental theories of desistance.

At a lunch meeting this week a guest speaker mentioned some of the new brain science on emotions, especially guilt and shame (which reminded me of Pogrebin et al, 2015) and somehow in the course of conversation it came up that MRI technology has shown that narratives “light up” certain sections of the brain. I started thinking about this first in regard to narrative identity and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – I have often wondered about the relationship between cognitive impairment and one’s ability to do the narrative restructuring necessary to “make good” of a life story. I wondered if the ACEs associated with growing up in high crime/violence and economically disadvantaged areas could inhibit the development of these skills and then play out as adult difficulty with re-narrating one’s life to highlight evidence of the good and account for the not-so-good – the ability to process and recall autobiographical memories, create meaning from them, and link them to current events.

I decided to read up on the neuropsychology literature to learn more about this, and as I was pulling and saving articles tonight, I found one about how reading stories can help to increase empathy. Importantly, empathy has both affective and cognitive components:

“The components of empathy include, affective empathy, meaning feeling concern or compassion for another, emotional contagion, or experiencing identical emotions as another, and perspective-taking, or a basic understanding of another’s thoughts and emotions.” – Johnson, 2012: 150

I knew this already, because I’m an avid reader and well aware of the benefits of reading fiction! For some reason, I just never connected that idea to my research interests. But how perfect — perhaps it isn’t just the story we tell to ourselves that helps with desistance, but the empathy that the story evokes from others. Those empathetic others might, say, take a more favorable view of the desisting person, be more understanding and flexible, help to remove some of those barriers to “going straight” — agree to lease an apartment, offer a job, watch the kids, give rides, and all the other incredibly important help that we can offer each other. They may also provide the sought-after identity verification (placing the individual in the identity they are claiming for themselves, as one who is reformed/redeemed) which could give a boost to positive emotions, increased self-esteem and self-efficacy, and a greater “buffer” against setbacks in reentry (e.g. Stone et al, 2016).

But if someone can’t put together an empathy-evoking narrative — not because they don’t have the right material, but because of cognitive impairment that interferes with retrieval of autobiographical memory and narrative processing (e.g. after traumatic brain injury, Marini et al. 2011)– then they won’t benefit from this kind of help except from those already inclined to support them. They may also struggle to achieve identity verification and instead find themselves constantly questioned — interrogated — about why their story doesn’t make sense. It may seem easier, in these cases, to slip back into the story that others are telling about you, stigmatizing as it may be, instead of trying to forge a counternarrative.

Just thinking aloud! I don’t yet have data to explore this in-depth – I have a lot of narratives, but I have never looked at the relationship to any sort of cognitive ability, nor have I specifically explored my participants’ experiences of sharing narratives with others. I’m not sure how to best go about such a project, but I think there is a lot to explore there. I am glad that the narrative criminology work that I find so inspiring and engaging has so many supportive and affirming connections with other disciplines.

The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

— Attributed to Anaïs Nin, possibly Elizabeth Appell.

During my years in graduate school, I became heavily involved in dog training and competition. It was a welcome distraction from the stress of graduate study – it connected me with a network of friends and mentors outside of academia, providing me with an escape from endless talk and fretting about classes, exams, and publishing. It was more than a distraction, though. Through dog training, I learned important lessons about interpersonal relationships and leadership. I learned a lot about the management of fear and anxiety through empathy, setting the stage for success, and minimizing the cost of failure.

I often think about how these lessons apply to helping people exit their criminal careers. It is awkward to talk about, because people don’t immediately understand the relevance of “dog training” work working with reentry populations – “You want to treat people like dogs?” No, I treat dogs like people – learning is learning, after all. The way that I learned to rehabilitate fearful/anxious dogs has nothing to do with “dog” and everything to do with creating a safe environment for learning and growth.

I learned that fear and anxiety are anathema to learning. If I may go full-on nerd for a moment, “Fear is the mind-killer.” The first step to helping a student (here, a dog) overcome fear is to start in a calm, non-distracting environment far from whatever causes the fearful reaction – another dog, for example. Trying to teach a student anything when he is already scared/anxious is destined to fail – no being can learn in that state. So remove the fear.

Another important lesson is that you can’t punish the fear/anxiety out of the student. Punishing the student for fear-based reactions is not going to resolve the fear or anxiety. The best outcome of such an approach is a student who has learned to hide his fearful behavior until he reaches breaking point – this is why you should never punish a dog for growling, for example. You have not taught the dog not to feel fear, you have simply taught him not to show that he is scared – at some point, backed far enough into a corner, he may bite “out of nowhere,” as so many dog bite stories go. You can’t punish away the fear.

It is also ineffective to train through punishment of wrong “answers.” When a student offers a behavior and you punish him for it, you have not taught the student anything useful. You have simply told him that this answer was wrong – but he is no closer to knowing the right answer. He now feels that guessing what you want is likely to be met with punishment. The smarter option may be to do nothing at all. Training through punishment is likely to lead to a “shut down” student who doesn’t know what to do, so does nothing. This makes future training even more difficult, because a student who won’t offer any “try” at all gives you very little to work with to shape your desired behavior.

What does pay off, where training is concerned, is to ignore wrong answers and reinforce the right answers. Ignoring the wrong answers minimizes the cost of failure – the student does not learn that trying might result in punishment, simply that not all tries result in reward. Set your criteria for success (“There is only one right answer,” my trainer would tell me – don’t confuse your dog through inconsistency) and mightily reward correct guesses while ignoring the incorrect guesses. The incorrect guesses are, to quote my trainer again, “just information.” Behavior, even unwanted behavior, is just information. If it isn’t the behavior you were looking for, try to understand why it happened and approach the training differently next time – maybe you pushed too hard, too fast. Maybe you were unclear. Maybe you asked for more than the student could give you in that context (environment, emotional state, etc).

By following these steps, you create an environment where failure is less painful/costly and effort is rewarded. Rather than “shutting down” a student, you end up with a student who will repeatedly offer behaviors in hope of hitting the right one and receiving positive reinforcement. A student who offers behaviors has near-infinite capacity for more learning, because you can seize on that effort and start shaping it toward what you want. For example, once my treats and clicker come out, my dog starts exploring his environment to see what will “pay off.” If I put down a new object, he will approach it and begin to interact with it, because this has paid off in the past – he will bop it with his nose, tap it with a paw, push it, circle around it, all while looking to me to see if he is “right.” Starting with these behaviors, I can start reinforcing and then shifting my criteria in the direction of my desired outcome – ringing a doorbell, standing on two legs on an upturned bucket, or any other seemingly complicated trick.

This all brings me back to reentry and desistance. The risk-oriented approach to community supervision treats clients as “risky” – risks to the state, risks to the public, risks to themselves. We assess their risks, we make decisions about how they will be treated, we give them lists of things to do (“find a job, go to school, get a house”), we punish them for failures. What we rarely recognize is the risk they undertake in reentry and desistance. Changing your friendship network is risky. Cutting ties with old relatives and friends is risky. Disclosing your supervision status to a potential employer or landlord is risky. Entering new social roles and reshaping your identity is risky. Going through therapy or treatment is risky. All carry the threat of discomfort, pain, shame, humiliation. If a client experiences pain and humiliation from trying and failing, perhaps she, too, will end up “shut down,” paralyzed by the thought of trying and failing again. Better off to not take the risk at all.

How, then, could we apply the lessons of positive reinforcement training to create less risky, more learning-supportive conditions for people on probation and parole? Following the lessons above, we could begin by minimizing fear and anxiety. Perhaps we could send stronger messages of support and encouragement. We could alter the physical environment of probation and parole offices to reduce visitor anxiety. We could minimize the “cost” of failure by not punishing small, relatively harmless violations. We could recognize the feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation that are part of the parole experience – the “parole paradox,” to quote one of my favorite papers. We could do more to recognize effort in the right direction – making the “trying” worthwhile. Finally, we could celebrate successes, no matter how small, and boost clients’ self-esteem and desire to try, try again.

 

In the question period of an ASC panel about identity change and desistance, an audience member commented that in looking at this relationship, we should remember that we all change our identities. She rattled off a few examples of her own identity changes, largely focusing on role identities and also on a transition from rebellious teen to matured adult.

I have been thinking about this comment since. In the moment, I wanted to object to it, but I’m not sure why. I think part of it is that I’m not sure we change our identities so frequently – but I think we need to distinguish more clearly between “role identities” and the type of identity that is more personal and enduring. Role identities have, to some extent, existing definitions and blueprints for behavior. Individuals can also adopt more idiosyncratic role identities by taking those existing blueprints and individualizing them to meet their own needs or purposes. For example, a person working as a nurse may take on the definition of this role that focuses on health care and promoting healthy behavior in others, but still smoke cigarettes regularly. She may do this by saying that smoking cigarettes helps her to be a better nurse because nicotine gives her more focus and energy for her tasks, or by saying that yes, she smokes and this is at odds with her health-promotion role, but she does so knowing the risks and making an informed choice, which is in line with her beliefs about patient autonomy. In this way, behaviors that initially seem to fall outside of conventional role identities can be accommodated without too much cognitive dissonance.

Role identities can certainly change as we move between different positions and relationships. Some roles are far more enduring than others – “mother” may be a role occupied for the rest of one’s life, whereas employment-related roles may change from year to year. We may internalize these role identities to varying degrees. I may “perform” the role of a nurse when I am at work but shed that role when I leave, or I may come to see being a nurse as an important part of my life and perhaps a reflection of my core values. In my life story – as in narrative identity theory – I may draw on past experiences to highlight my capacity for caring for others as a sign that I was always meant to be a nurse. In this way, being a nurse may be a reflection of some underlying core value that I hold (being a ‘caring person’), a theme that may repeat throughout my life story, rather than just a role that I have stepped into for a short time but may leave in the future.

This is why I partly disagree with the idea that we all change our identities so frequently. Thinking about this from a narrative identity perspective, we may add scenes or themes to our narratives as we go along, but the big shift in perception required to “re-story” our lives is not an easy task. It requires a reinterpretation of past events, at the minimum, or perhaps even a discounting of events once thought to be important, in favor of highlighting different episodes that show some other personal trait or value. For a desisting offender, this may involve reckoning with serious trauma or transgressions and finding a way to either see these events in a different light or downplay their seriousness in the overall narrative. It also involves remembering and identifying episodes that show some glimmer of the prosocial traits or values that the desisting individual now wants to highlight – not only dredging up these memories, but stitching them back together into some sort of coherent tale that accounts for past deviance and present/future ‘goodness.’

These ideas are important not only identity theories of desistance, but for other explanations of criminal careers. Theories that emphasize structural “turning points” like marriage, parenthood, employment, education, and others would benefit from incorporating some of the role identity literature to elucidate the meaning of these roles, both conventionally and as adapted and individualized by desisting (or persisting) offenders. It is not enough, surely, to just sign a marriage license – instead, it is about the shared and personalized definitions of what it means to be in a marriage and to have or be a “husband” or “wife.” It is not enough to just give birth to a child, it is about the meaning attached to “motherhood” and how a woman conforms to shared definitions of “good motherhood” or adopts an idiosyncratic definition that leaves room for continued law-breaking or substance abuse.

For narrative identity theorists, we could think more about how role identities may eventually be internalized and woven into the narrative fabric. In some ways, work on narrative identity in criminology has become too focused on individual agency and has moved away from its symbolic interactionist roots – in studying how individuals re-story their own lives, we have lost focus on the fact that narratives are not just a product of individual story-telling, but incorporate characters and themes appropriate to the culture and time-period in which the narrative is told. This could include cultural and period-specific meanings attached to certain social roles – it would be interesting, for example, to look at desistance narratives from past time periods and compare them to contemporary narratives, or to do cross-cultural comparative research on desistance narratives to better see the “patchwork” nature of life stories situated in time and place.

A recent discussion in the Facebook group “Teaching with a Sociological Lens” (which is a fantastic group that I highly recommend!) reminded me of how much I love to use podcast episodes in place of or alongside reading assignments when I teach criminal justice topics. Actually, podcasts are just one of many different things that I like to pair with textbook chapters or journal articles – I also like to assign documentary films, newspaper articles, other investigative journalism, websites and web-based games, etc.

I enjoy using podcasts because they are usually much more entertaining and engaging than straight textbook or journal reading assignments. They help students learn by presenting information in a different format and by reinforcing the ideas that we discuss in the course. Be careful not to justify your use of podcasts by leaning on the “learning styles” myth (e.g. ‘visual learners,’ ‘auditory learners’) – instead, you are advancing multisensory learning by combining different ways of taking in information. You can extend this approach even further by using visual aids in class, like diagrams or encouraging students to “sketchnote” (visual notetaking) their reading assignments and lecture notes.

I even found a podcast episode about why you should listen to podcasts. Meta!

Over the last couple of semesters I have amassed an impressive collection of podcasts and individual podcast episodes that I have used or would like to use in class someday. I’m linking them below as a resource for others and, honestly, as a reminder to myself. There are undoubtedly many, many more than I have listed here – if you know of some I’ve missed, please comment so that I can add them to this post!

Warning: I encourage critical listening and so should you. Podcasts are interesting and entertaining, but are not flawless. Encourage your students to identify the hosts and interviewees and assess their credentials. In the classroom, push back on students’ uncritical acceptance of information – pair podcasts with peer-reviewed research to show which ideas are evidence-based and which are opinion or speculation. Use podcasts as an opportunity to teach media literacy and critical thinking skills alongside criminal justice content.

Justice-related Podcasts (multiple episodes)

Ear Hustle: “Ear Hustle brings you the stories of life inside prison, shared and produced by those living it. The podcast is a partnership between Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, and Nigel Poor, a Bay Area artist. The team works in San Quentin’s media lab to produce stories that are sometimes difficult, often funny and always honest, offering a nuanced view of people living within the American prison system.”

Unprisoned: Like Ear Hustle, Unprisoned shares the stories of current and formerly imprisoned people, this time from Louisiana, the world’s prison capital. “Unprisoned shares stories to incite conversation about the ways mass incarceration affects families, communities and notions of justice. What has Louisiana done to become the incarceration capital of the world? Is our criminal justice system making us safer? How are we all passively or actively supporting the current system? What do we want for our future? We listen hard to the ways our criminal justice system engenders financial, legal and personal hardships for families, neighborhoods and larger communities, and how incarceration perpetuates cycles of poverty and violence. We focus in particular on how children — often from a very young age — are caught in the system of correctional control with little hope of ever escaping it, a cultural contradiction that at once elevates youth as exceptional and vulnerable while simultaneously criminalizing them at an alarming rate.”

Criminal (In)Justice:  “Criminal Injustice discusses the always current, sometimes disturbing, frequently confusing and often shocking aspects of the American criminal justice system. Weekly episodes examine issues like police body cameras, racial biases, use of force and incarceration through wide-ranging interviews with national figures in the know. It’s not a lecture hall, and you don’t need a law degree to keep up.” This podcast is hosted by David A. Harris, a distinguished faculty scholar and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, teaching courses in criminal law and criminal procedure.

Criminal: From a Vulture review, “”Criminal” is a true-crime podcast that understands crime as something sociological, historical, even anthropological — that crime is a function of people, time, and place. Each episode tells the story of a crime as a sort of fable, even if the moral lesson at the center seems impossible, unclear, or out of reach. With incredible sound design, marvelous writing, and a boldness in the way it makes its choices, there are fewer shows that feel more alive.” Due to the ‘fable’-like telling of the stories, these episodes may be valuable for those teaching about narrative criminology.

100:1: The Crack Legacy: This new podcast from Audible is available at no extra cost for subscribes to Audible or Amazon Prime. The website states “Our latest documentary series exposes the link between punitive drug laws drawn up during the 80’s war on crack cocaine and contemporary police violence that disproportionately affects black Americans.” This would likely be an amazing resource for anyone teaching about race, crime, drugs, and policy.

Life of the Law: This sociolegal podcast series offers more than 100 episodes exploring “people and their relationship with the law.” They have many different types of episodes, from in-studio discussions of investigative journalism projects, “live law stories” interviews with practitioners, educators, students, and others, and live storytelling events. A quick glance reveals episodes on civil rights and incarceration, the heroin epidemic, and immigration law.

Criminal Justice Research Podcasts from the National Institute of Justice: Did you know that the NIJ had a podcast series? I didn’t. The episodes are available through iTunes and, while they are surely not quite as glitzy and entertaining as some of the other podcasts I have listed here, it’s hard to beat the NIJ as a source of information on US criminal justice research and technology. Episodes feature such titles as “Building Bridges Between Researchers and Practitioners,” “The Importance of Research on Race, Crime and Punishment,” and “State Responses to Mass Incarceration.” The episodes vary in length, anywhere from 4 minutes to over an hour, so there may be opportunities to assign small sections of the lengthier episodes. This podcast looks useful for the teacher-scholar as well as the student!

Radiolab Presents: More Perfect: “How does an elite group of nine people shape everything from marriage and money, to safety and sex for an entire nation? Radiolab’s first ever spin-off series, More Perfect, dives into the rarefied world of the Supreme Court to explain how cases deliberated inside hallowed halls affect lives far away from the bench.”

In the Dark (Season 1): “Child abductions are rare crimes. And they’re typically solved. For 27 years, the investigation into the abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota yielded no answers. In the most comprehensive reporting on this case, APM Reports and reporter Madeleine Baran reveal how law enforcement mishandled one of the most notorious child abductions in the country and how those failures fueled national anxiety about stranger danger, led to the nation’s sex-offender registries and raise questions about crime-solving effectiveness and accountability.”

Actual Innocence: “Actual innocence is a podcast that tells the story of people who served time for crimes they did not commit. Each episode will introduce an exonerated person and the story of how the criminal justice system failed them.  Giving a voice to those who were once robbed of their liberty brings us closer to reform in the justice system… and closer to freedom and justice for the wrongly accused.”

Criminal Justice Episodes of General Podcasts

Talk of the Nation

All Things Considered

This American Life

Tell Me More

Morning Edition

Hidden Brain

Freakonomics

Reveal, by the Center for Investigative Reporting

Intelligence Squared Debates:

In light of Gamergate, I wanted to write something about what gaming has meant to me over the last 16+ years and what we are losing by making the gaming community so exclusive.

When I was 10 years old, a friend of my father’s bought me my first video game. It was a little pet simulation game called Dogz and it was pretty much what it sounds like: players could “adopt” their own little on-screen dogs, feed them, play with them, pet them by holding down the mouse button and sliding the mouse back and forth, even throw little Frisbees and balls across the screen for them to chase down. My animal-crazy self fell instantly in love.

It wasn’t just about the simulated pet ownership, although that was definitely enjoyable. No, it was about what that game opened up for me. I had recently discovered The Internet, and there was a thriving online community of Dogz fans (and later Catz, so then it was just “Petz”). There were forums and chat rooms and “rings” of personal websites devoted to pictures of players’ Petz. Later editions of the game allowed for breeding (scandalous!), which produced all sorts of unique offspring that people were able to trade back and forth through email and download links.

Dogz and Catz. It was a simpler time.
Dogz and Catz. It was a simpler time.

That first game opened up a brand new world to me. To be part of the community, I had to learn how to interact online. I still remember the first time I saw a paragraph of text littered with “=)” and wondered what on Earth “equals parentheses” meant. Someone eventually explained to me that it was a sideways smiley-face – Mind. Blown. I learned how to communicate with others on forums and in chat rooms and I made friendships with people all over the world. At the time, I lived in Australia, but most Petz players were living in the United States or the UK.

I wanted to show off my own Petz, which meant I needed a website. A family friend named David showed me some rudimentary HTML, which I patiently typed into the Notepad program, saved as a .html file, and uploaded to the internet (I can’t even remember where I was hosted now – I think GeoCities, as much as it pains me to admit that!). I learned how to build a website, how to change the background color or image, how to insert and position my pictures, how to manipulate the color and size of the text. Later, I researched online to teach myself more. I learned how to use CSS and how to create my own graphics. Lissa Explains It All was an invaluable resource for me and I can’t even describe the ridiculous glee I am feeling right now because that website is still online. Talk about a blast from the past.

It didn’t stop there. Soon, I learned about “hexing.” See, Petz game files were written in hexadecimal code and could be opened up with any number of free software programs. Clever Petz fans had found out how to open these files and find the section of code that controlled the size, color, and arrangement of the spheres that made up Petz’ bodies. They posted online tutorials and links to hexadecimal color charts, they created their own textures to replace the ones that came with the game, and they created hundreds and hundreds of unique “breeds” of Petz that could be downloaded and added to our games. Forums ran competitions for the coolest hexed Petz and I wanted in, so I learned to code. I downloaded the software and opened up those game files and I learned how to hex. I made my own textures in Photoshop and learned through trial and error not to mess with the numbers outside of certain sections of the file.

The inside of a Petz file. This is what I learned to edit.
The inside of a Petz file. This is what I learned to edit.

At some point, I followed some friends from the Petz community into other types of gaming. Some of the other Petz fans were into chat room role-playing games. These simple games existed in pop-up chat rooms, the old kind with the scrolling screen of text. Players would create online personas and role-play by “posing” through text. The particular game I played was set in a wildlife refuge where we all pretended we were wolves. I would log in there every afternoon to just hang out with friends. This was the game I was playing when, at 13 years old, my family moved from Australia to Michigan, USA. The friends that I made through this little roleplaying game supported me through that move while I made new friends at school.

From there, I followed a couple of friends into more serious text-based roleplaying games called MOOs, short for “MUD, object-oriented,” which doesn’t actually tell you anything about what a MOO is, I realize. A MOO is a text-based roleplaying game where players interact with each other by posing (describing what their character is doing), but more advanced than the simple scrolling chat room in that MOOs generally have coded rooms and objects with which players can interact. The MOO I played, Harper’s Tale, is based on the Dragonriders of Pern series written by Anne McCaffrey. Once again, there was a learning curve while I brought my writing abilities up to par with the other players. In a text-based game, your adventures are only as good as your ability to dynamically describe what is going on and to engage others through your writing. Playing on Harper’s Tale broadened my vocabulary, forcing me to consult a thesaurus so that I could describe my character, her outfit, other objects, her surroundings. I learned not to “powerplay,” which is to pose in a way that forces other characters to go along or to disrupt the scene (e.g., it’s not okay to pose that your character makes another character do something, because it might not be okay with the other character’s player; you should either ask permission first or pose in a way that leaves the other character free to respond as the player wishes). I am grateful to  Harper’s Tale and other MOOs for developing my creative writing skills, because I am sure that I would not have the vocabulary or the writing voice I have today if not for the lessons I learned there.

This is what the screen looks like when playing a MOO. As you can see, it requires imagination.
This is what the screen looks like when playing a MOO. As you can see, it requires imagination.

It was through Harper’s Tale that I made some of my oldest friends. I started playing that game… oof, sixteen years ago, and to this day I am still friends with at least five women I met through HT, amazing, wonderful women who live all over the country but who would not hesitate to open their homes to me if I happened to be in town, and I would do the same for them (actually, that would be totally awesome – HT reunion at my place sometime!).

The final chapter (for now) in my gamer history is my move to “MMORPGs,” massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. By the standards of most who take the “gamer” identity so seriously, MMORPGs were probably my first “real” games. A friend of mine was an avid World of Warcraft player and had been begging me to play with him for years, but I kept putting him off. Finally, I started dating a guy who played and made my own account. That relationship crashed and burned, but my love of the game survived. I enjoyed finally playing a roleplaying game with graphics and things to see. The beauty of the game art amazed me and I loved running around and just exploring. I did everything backwards at first (or so I feel now, now that I know better), but I didn’t mind. I quested, killing the beasts and bad guys, gathering up loot, enjoying the satisfaction of filling up my quest log with “complete” icons. Sure, the chat channels were toxic and full of hate, but they were easy enough to mute. I pretty much kept to myself, sometimes chatting with my friend and his other friends who played, but never really engaging in the “multiplayer” aspect of the game other than staying out of the way of enemy players.

Until I finally – finally! – hit max level. Now the real fun begins, my friend gleefully told me. The game begins at endgame! At max level, I could finally start to go on “raids,” big (at the time, recently decreased from 40-player to 25-player) group dungeon instances where the goal was to kill the really, really big bad guys. The problem was that I couldn’t do it alone. To get ready for raids, you had to group with other players, and grouping with other players meant… wading into the general chat channels.

I will spare you the details of what happened there. Suffice it to say that after loving the game while I played by myself, my attempts to interact with the general population of WoW-players left me in tears. I stopped playing for months. I felt that I would never fit in, nor did I really want to, if that was what it would be like.

Time went on. Another WoW expansion was released and I ventured back, again reveling in the questing and leveling-up but crashing and burning once I got to endgame. Trying to experience endgame content meant being in a group, and – in my experience – being in a group meant putting up with vile, misogynistic, homophobic language, watching others being harassed or being harassed myself. It was hard to organize the group raids through text chat, so many groups liked to use add-on voice chat programs. Female voices were instantly called out, and I noticed that women, if they were in the raid at all, rarely spoke up on voice chat. The overall feeling I got was that this was a male space and that women, if there were any others there at all, had the good sense to stay quiet and just try to enjoy the game.

This went on for months until I stumbled, quite accidentally, into a guild (an organized group of players, with their own chat channels and some other perks) of a different nature. I wanted to raid, I wanted to fully experience the WoW endgame content, but I wasn’t getting anywhere trying to group up with strangers and put up with such hostile environments. I found a guild that seemed to be a good fit. They advertised themselves as a group of adults and their guild rules included strict rules about harassment and oppressive language. I had to apply to get in and I held my breath, waiting for a response. I was admitted on provisional status and my gaming experience turned around.

VICTORY IS OURS! Our first Rhyolith (Heroic) kill. We worked on this for weeks and it was amazing to finally see him go down.
VICTORY IS OURS! Our first Rhyolith (Heroic) kill. We worked on this for weeks and it was amazing to finally see him go down.

I played with that guild for the next few years, until my increasingly demanding schedule (I was finishing my PhD) forced me to step back from my high levels of involvement. With them, I saw endgame content and had access to parts of WoW that I thought I would never see. I was able to develop my skills not only as a player, but as a team member and eventually a team leader. I was responsible for scheduling my group for raid nights, assigning tasks, looking up fight strategies and thinking about how to best use our group members to our advantage, and for resolving conflicts between players. I look back on that time with such overwhelming fondness that I am frequently tempted to reinstall the game and start playing again, but I know that I would quickly get in over my head and want to devote more time to it than I currently have to spare. Maybe someday… maybe.

I write this not as a boring autobiography of my gaming history, but to illustrate a point. My involvement with computer games, from that first simulation game at 10 years old to raiding in World of Warcraft with 24 other players, has been about more than just enjoying the games. I have skills today that I would not have had I not been introduced to gaming. I learned how to communicate effectively online, I learned how to build a website using HTML and CSS, I learned how to interpret and manipulate hexadecimal code, and I learned about graphic design. I expanded my vocabulary and my typing skills while writing 100-200 word poses that had to describe what my character was doing in enough detail that other players could pose their characters in response. I worked on teams with other players to review player applications and to build dragons (HRW SearchCo forever!), and then I worked on teams with other players to bring giant demons to their knees. At every step of the way, I learned new skills that I apply every day in my professional life: how to work with others to solve problems, how to resolve interpersonal conflicts, how to read, write, and code, and how to share my work with the world. At every step of the way, I made friends, lifelong friends I treasure dearly with a strength of feeling to challenge anyone who draws a distinction between “online friends” and “real friends.” There is no distinction for me.

This is what gaming is about to me, and this is what is being lost when women are made to feel unwelcome in the gaming community. When gaming is considered a male activity, when gaming creates and enforces male-only spaces, it means that all of the benefits I reaped from my gaming experiences are not available to another generation of curious young girls. Women are robbed of these experiences and the chance to develop these skills when they are made to feel unwelcome in gaming circles. When I think about the joy I experienced in my years of raiding with my wonderful guild, I am filled with relief that I didn’t let others take that from me (for more than a few months, at least), but I’m also filled with anger that I ever thought that they might. I don’t place the burden on women to “tough it out” or to keep bashing their heads against a wall the way I did. I place the burden on male gamers to be inclusive and not put women through that experience. I commend the players who are already creating friendly and accepting spaces and I encourage them to keep fighting the good fight.

If you’re a WoW player looking for an inclusive guild, I can’t recommend Keine Neuen enough. In my (limited) opinion, you won’t find a better group of folks to share in the joy of WoW. If you’re a guildmaster looking to put together your own inclusive group, I encourage you to check out Keine Neuen’s Guild Behavior Policy to see how they manage to stay so awesome.

Finally, I want to thank all the gamers I have met over the years who have encouraged me, supported me, befriended me, taught me, put up with me – I appreciate it more than you will ever know. Thank you for representing what the gaming community should be, could be, can be, and don’t ever stop speaking out against those who would poison it for others.

I am currently 4,134 words deep into NaNoWriMo 2014 – that’s “National Novel-Writing Month,” for the uninitiated. I say that firmly tongue-in-cheek, because I’m barely initiated myself. I’ve known about NaNoWriMo for years (I seem to be embedded in a social network of creative writers – and I like it that way!) but have never participated. This year, though, I finally had an idea for a story kicking around in my head and I felt that if I didn’t have a challenge like NaNoWriMo to motivate me, I might never actually get any of it down on paper. NaNoWriMo challenges writers to produce a 50,000-word story between November 1 and November 30 – a novel written in one month, see?

It’s not the best idea for me, really. I feel guilty about taking time to write a fictional story when I need to be writing journal articles, and November is a disastrous month to be committing to anything. The biggest national conference for my field is always the third week of November, which requires presentation prep and out-of-state travel, and then we return from that just days before the Thanksgiving holiday, when I always lose at least one workday (which I guess is the point!). So NaNoWriMo falling in November each year has always been a bit of an inconvenience.

Still, as others have pointed out, if you can write this much in a busy month, then imagine what you could get done in a less-busy month! I always imagine saying this with a sort of rictus grin. Anyway, November is not great for me but I am trying it anyway because that’s when everyone else is doing it and I am unhealthily competitive. What’s the point if you’re not playing along with everyone else, right? Besides, I want the “I finished!” badge-thing. (It doesn’t take much to get me going, obviously. I would do it just for the bragging rights.)

NaNoWriMo is a lot to take on, though, and not necessarily suited to the type of writing academics might need to do. Luckily, there are a number of other “writing challenges” that can help to prod you along if you’re stalling out or finding that you’re not making enough time to write. And, for some reason, most of them are in November. Curses!

The first is the Academic Writing Month, AcWriMo, which is very similar to NaNoWriMo but, of course, tailored to academics. AcWriMo is the brainchild of Charlotte Frost of PhD2Published.com, and you can find details of the competition (which encourages you to write 50,000 words in November, like NaNoWriMo) on the website and through the Twitter hashtag #AcWriMo.

There’s also Digital Writing Month, or DigiWriMo. This challenge promotes engagement by encouraging participants to commit to digital writing. It’s more flexible than NaNoWriMo and AcWriMo in that participants can set their own goals and accomplish them as they wish. You can count blogging, Tweeting, Facebook-posting, and any other digital writing you produce, public or not. This project has a very active Twitter fanbase (check #DigiWriMo) – naturally, as Tweets count towards the goal and project discussions are all held there, not on site-specific forums like through NaNoWriMo.

Finally, there’s the cutely-named “A Round of Words in 80 Days,” also known as ROW80. This challenge is tagged as “The writing challenge that knows you have a life” – I like it already!

ROW80 allows you to set your own goal – not just in terms of a word count, but perhaps just writing for a certain amount of time each day, or moving towards completing your next manuscript. Unlike the other month-based competitions, there are four different ROW80 cycles per year that each run for 80 days. If you miss the start of a cycle, you can join in at any time – just jump in, share your goals, and start working on them. The only requirement is that you have a blog where you can set your goal and update your progress. You use your blog to check in twice a week (Wednesdays and Sundays) – a good source of accountability so you don’t start slacking! You can also make use of the #ROW80 hashtag on Twitter.

So there you have it – at least four different writing challenges to help you get motivated. You can use these challenges in addition to or in place of any writing groups you have with friends or colleagues. It’s a great way to meet friends, engage with a much larger writing community, and get some encouragement (and gentle butt-kicking) as you work. It’s nice to feel less isolated – writing can be such a lonely task, and it’s nice to know there’s other people out there staring at their keyboards, too.

There – 772 words towards my #DigiWriMo goal. See how easy that was? Now back to grading!

 

I use mid-semester evaluations to get student feedback not only on my teaching, but on their preparedness and engagement in the course. I find that students often have constructive advice about improvements I could easily make (“more discussion,” “more group activities”) and can be quite introspective about their own performance in the class (“I should speak up more during discussions,” “I need to do more of the reading”).

I find the course evaluation forms used by most institutions are frequently full of questions that don’t make sense for the courses I teach and don’t provide me with information about areas where I could improve. Students often fill out the Likert-type questions but leave the open-ended comments section blank. By asking students to evaluate the course mid-semester and by using my own survey instrument of open-ended and course-specific questions, I can collect important feedback and incorporate it into the second half of the course, rather than finding out at the end of the semester that my lecture slides were unhelpful, that my office hours were inconvenient, or that my favorite tweed teaching blazer is highly unfashionable and should never again leave the darkness of my closet.

This semester I discovered Google Forms, which is part of Google’s suite of online collaborative tools that are connected to the Google Drive service. Other tools include Google Documents, Spreadsheets, Drawings, and Presentations. Think of it like Microsoft Office plus a cloud storage system, all coordinated through your Google account and with the capability to have multiple collaborators editing and sharing the documents. Google Forms allows you to design your own online survey, which can include closed- and open-ended responses, anonymous participation, and easy, digitized data collection. In short, it’s perfectly suited to course evaluations.

You will need a Google account to create and save your form and to access the responses, but survey respondents do not need a Google account to view or respond to your survey.

The excellent functionality of this tool is not immediately apparent. I had to fuss with it a little bit to figure out how to make it work the way I wanted, but that might also be because I never read instructions – there could very well be a comprehensive how-to guide in there somewhere but, pfft, who has time for that?

When you pull up Google Forms, it will present you with a blank form, ready for customization. The first section has three “form settings” options: Show progress bar at the bottom of form pages, Only allow one response per person, and Shuffle question order. I initially selected “Only allow one response per person,” but later discovered that this option requires that survey-takers log in through their Google account. I wanted students to be able to fill out the form anonymously and without signing up for anything, so I went back in and turned this option off.

The next section is where you start building your survey. There are boxes to edit the form title and description. Then you can start building your survey items. I kept my form simple: I wanted to know what I was doing well and where I needed improvement, and I also wanted my students to identify what they were doing well and where they could improve.

“Question title” is where you can enter your question text, so I typed “What do you enjoy about this class?” In the “Help text” box, you can enter any clarifying information about how you would like this question answered. I just wrote “Please be specific!” I wanted open-ended responses, so in the “Question type” menu I selected “Paragraph text.” This option provides the survey respondent with a text submission box. The “Text” question type only provides the respondent with a single-line submission box, so it would be better suited to answers requiring only a few words. Other question types include multiple choice and checkbox formats, and you can also use the “Go to page based on answer” option to include contingency questions. There is also a “Required question” option – checking this means that survey respondents will not be able to submit the survey without answering the question. I checked this option for each of my four items.

When you’re finished with each question, just click “Done” and the website will automatically bring up the same options for Question #2, Question #3, and so on.

The final section of the page allows you to configure what your survey respondents see when they finish the survey. I left the submission confirmation text as it is and made sure the three options below (Show link to submit another response, Publish and show a link to form results, and Allow respondents to edit responses after submitting) were unchecked, because I didn’t want students submitting multiple responses or having access to the survey results.

Once everything is set the way you want it, click “Send form.” You will be provided with an option for sharing the form. You can email it to students right from this page or copy and paste the provided link into an email, put it on a Powerpoint slide, or distribute it in any other way you see fit.

To return to your survey to edit it or view responses, you need to visit your Google Drive account. This was confusing – I initially tried to go back to Google Forms but it would just take me to a new, blank form, and I couldn’t figure out how to access my survey or view the results. Eventually I found it saved in my Drive account. From there, I could open up the form and edit it (which I did, to turn off the “Only allow one response per person” option), view a summary of your results, and export your results into a spreadsheet. My survey was anonymous, so entries were identified by a timestamp.

After your survey has “gone live” and you’ve sent the link to your students (I included mine with instructions for their weekly reaction essays), you can check back to view your responses. As I mentioned, you’ll need to go into your Google Drive storage area to pull up the form again. Once you’re back in the form editor, you will see a “Responses” drop-down menu. From this menu, you can turn off your survey so that it will no longer receive responses, and you can view a summary of your responses or download them into a spreadsheet. You can also “Delete all responses.” The summary of my responses looked like this:

Summary of Responses

You can also have your responses sent into a Google Spreadsheet, which may be useful for those who wish to download the file to their desktops.

This tool made creating, disseminating, and reviewing my mid-semester evaluation results very easy and hassle-free. My evaluation results were very helpful and I have already made some plans to improve my course for my current and future students. I’m excited to continue using Google Forms for evaluations and other classroom activities – for example, I intend to show this tool to my Research Methods class to help them create and administer their own surveys.

Enjoy!