Friday, August 26, 2016

Romans... in Space! (Introduction)

Last spring semester, I had the opportunity to try something new in my Advanced Public Speaking class: I built the course around a game-like simulation with role-playing and some war-game and resource management elements.

While I'd done a version of the course a year earlier, including some of the innovations I planned to include in Spring 2016, only 8 students registered and the course wasn't as well developed. This time, I spent most of my winter break from classes writing a more complete set of rules and mechanics for the simulation, and lining up its core concept: Roman praetorian families competing for wealth in our solar system's asteroid belt.

The course began with a full complement of 20 students, and absolutely no one dropped the course. This is unprecedented in my experience. For the game I divided the students into five "families," each of which would compete (and/or cooperate) with the others to earn wealth and reputation. Wealth could be acquired through mining asteroids or pirating other families' ships and selling them for scrap. Reputation could be acquired by engaging in social intrigue of various sorts: spying, rumor-mongering, and so forth. Each score was recorded as a number of points, and combined to create the total score.

One of the greatest challenges I faced in running this class was keeping the "class" and "game" portions independent of each other. While it's not immediately clear why such separation is important, try to think about it this way. The course has some pretty clear learning outcomes, and these must be achieved regardless of course format. I have to meet them, just as any other instructor would. My incorporation of RPG content into the course is sort of an aberration. So, focusing too much on the game would detract from students' ability to learn to deliver various types of speeches needed to pass the class. My fix involved making the "game" portion of the course happen outside of classtime (for the most part), while using it to provide a context (and some content) for the actual speech activities.

Below, I've included the FAQs from my syllabus.

Next post I'll explore more details of my approach to the course, and in subsequent posts I'll explain the rules, how they were implemented, and some of the research emerging from the course.

FAQs

Here are some preemptive responses to questions you might have about how this class is organized. Please be sure to raise any others that come to mind, as we move along in the semester.

What do you mean by "participation" in this game thing, and how does it apply to my grade?
At various points in this syllabus, I have made reference to your participation in this course. Let me take some time to describe what I mean, in greater detail. Participation means showing up, being on time, taking part in discussions of texts and readings. Participation includes just showing up for class, but it also means that you participate actively in class activities. So, this course will include participation in two other elements: (1) Participation in Simulation and (2) Participation in Role-playing. These elements will be discussed in the next two FAQs.

You will receive a grade based on your participation in this class. It's worth 100 points of the 1000 total points available. Roughly half of the grade is for attendance and half of it is for your engagement with our simulation. You should take part willingly and enthusiastically, and engage effectively with other students, both in an out of class.

What is a simulation and how do I participate?
In the clearest possible terms, a simulation is a real-seeming (but speculative) scenario. Your participation usually occurs in some sort of role, in order to pretend that it's real and that you can affect events as they unfold. Simulations are used for teaching a variety of things, especially applied tasks, like performing CPR, or dealing with customers, or responding to an emergency situation. Lots of people use simulations to prepare for things they expect to encounter in the world, to be ready (as much as they can) when they do so.

In this course I hope to create a simulated situation that requires you to use your speaking skills to inform, persuade, and make decisions in a small-group context. The simulation provides a sense of a larger context in which the speaking occurs and the decisions are made. You will compete and cooperate with others to respond to the situations and events encountered as part of the unfolding "story" of the simulation. My role will be to write and adjudicate the simulation, and to provide "real-world" responses to your own actions' impact on the simulated world.

How will I interact with this simulation?
Each student will be assigned a role: A particular person whom you will "play" almost like an actor playing a part in a play or film. You will use the boundaries of your role as a guide to your particular participation in the simulation. You will pretend to be that person in the simulation, and you should remain "in-character" as you do so, role-playing the part.

Of course you also will be engaged in speaking and other classroom activities. Those, too, will require some degree of in-character play. Just roll with it, and take the opportunity to see how this kind of role-taking affects your speaking persona. In fact, you might be surprised how often you do this, anyway, in different contexts and with different people.

What is role-playing?
Role-playing is "playing pretend," basically. Every kid at some point pretends to be something—a character in a book or movie, a person with a particular job, etc.—and it's a big part of learning how to be a person living in a world with other people. Even fanciful role-playing allows us to try out ways of being in the world that are not necessarily familiar or comfortable, and to expand the repertoire of responses we can have to the people, situations, and events we will encounter in our lives.

The purpose of the role-playing in this simulation is to help you get your head around what it means to speak in context. You're not just giving a speech for a grade. Rather, you're pursuing your own interests, your family's interests, and the interests of the Empire. The speaking is happening in a deep, fictional context. You will have a part in that context.

How do I participate in role-playing?
You will play a "character" who is a member of an influential family, but is also an individual with particular beliefs, attitudes, and personal motivations, and who also has social and cultural obligations. The student playing that role must do his or her best to represent that character, and leverage that character's resources and means of persuasion in order to influence outcomes in the scenario.

No one player has everything she needs to succeed. No one faction of players can succeed without the cooperation of the others. This means that your individual interests will conflict, your factional interests may be at odds, but you must somehow find a compromise in order to accomplish what you must.

Why are we doing this?
It is my belief that the best learning comes from a feeling of involvement in what one is trying to learn. A "normal" public speaking assignment doesn't ask much more of you than to do a bit of research, to write a speech outline and develop visual aids, and to present the result in front of the class. However, most people don't spend a lot of time presenting academic-style speeches in their jobs and social lives. Instead, we apply our communicative skills in ways that are usually less formal, but also more impactful upon our work, our relationships, and our careers. Both are important styles of communication, and you need to be competent in each.

By taking part in this simulation, you are going to learn some important formal skills in communication. You will do research to provide you with information about how to respond to the situations produced by the class's interactive simulation. These will result in formal speeches, like the Informative Speech and Policy Speech assignments. You also will need to be able to argue your positions informally, in assignments involving deliberation or debate. For these assignments, you will need to be able to respond to the speech of others. Having a role to play makes that easier, because your knowledge of the situation, your place in it, and your relationships with other student "players" helps you understand what you might say, your motivations for speaking, and what you hope to accomplish (beyond completing the assignment).

So, each student will take the role of a particular person whose interests are impacted somewhat differently by the decisions made for dealing with game-based situations. You must represent your interests, find compromise (when and if possible), and take some course of action (or inaction). Your responses will affect the situation. I will decide how it is affected. Your speech will have consequences, just as in life, but in a more dramatic (and dramatized) fashion.

What role do you play, Johnson?
I am the Game Master (GM). My job is to adjudicate the game, handle the game mechanics, keep track of progress, keep score, and ensure that you stay engaged in the simulation. I will determine in-game effects of your various speeches, if there are any. I know what you must do to "win" and a have a set of rules to make that happen. I also (of course) will need to evaluate your speaking activities and written work. My main focus, though, will be to create an environment with unresolved tensions—i.e., plot crises, narrative tension—that you must deal with. It is my hope that such things will amplify the sense of immersion in the simulation achieved by students in this class: I want you to be engaged in what happens here.

How will we be able to affect the outcomes of the simulation?
I will treat your in-game actions as real, and will incorporate them into the simulation as they occur. Some of the actions will have little effect, but others may be consequential, even critical. I also will take into account elements of the speeches you give in class, using them to craft the overall narrative. Each game turn is something like an episode of a soap opera. Your actions in each turn help to create the game narrative as we play.

What does it mean to "win," and how does one do so?
"Winning" means accumulating score. You will do this in two categories: Wealth and Reputation. At the end of play, the highest scoring family wins. I also will ask you to pick the top three speakers for each speech assignment, and award a limited number of bonus points to participation based on those tallies. I will calculate that score separately.

What sorts of research do we need to do?
You will need to understand what history shows us about various relevant historical periods, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. You also will need to have some understanding of humankind's present and future in space, and some knowledge of a philosophy called, "transhumanism." I will suggest some readings to get you started (see below), but you also will complete specific research assignments to expand upon that information. For example, each student will give an Informative Speech in response to a particular research question, provided by me. Your research will be in the particular area covered by that research question, and you should become the class expert on that topic.


As each member of the class contributes his or her research to the discussion, the larger picture will become clearer. It is my hope that the Informative Speeches will grow directly into related Policy Speeches.