Dec 182023

So it turns out that “I don’t want to teach” is just another example of The Joy of Being Wrong, a series of self-limiting beliefs that I’m crossing off one by one. Turns out that with the right conditions I like it quite a bit and I will probably do more of it when opportunities present! In the meanwhile, I’ll be helping organize Toronto Games Week, prepping my next graphic novel for publication and keeping my antenna up for interesting collaborations or jobs. If you’re interested in my teaching experience, here’s the full story…

This fall, the fall of my 51st year, I went back to school. I had always been fairly determined not to teach, but this September after being laid off from my game industry job and after being encouraged by some old friends who worked there, I ended up in front of nearly a hundred first year students in a lecture hall at York University.

It had been thirty years since I had been there as a student, but I remembered well my skepticism as a teenager — now the tables were turned, as they always are if you live long enough. I’ve done more public speaking than most, and know that even the slightest whiff of bullshit or talking-for-talking-sake from my own breath grinds me to a halt. But I’m a moderately engaging speaker if I care about my subject, and care about communicating it to an audience — people respond to urgency and passion.

Luckily, the subject — Writing For Games and Interactive Media — was something I have been challenged by over the years, and have some hard-earned insights to show for it. So week to week I built a curriculum that started with these core concepts and then led into putting them into practice.

I discovered the pleasure of breaking down narrative design insights into engaging slides, and then the satisfaction of seeing these ideas “land” with my students. (I also experienced the opposite, where I completely fucked up a tutorial and left most students confused. But I was able to pick up on it and address it in future classes.) Most of my previous speaking gigs had been about my creative work where my self-consciousness distracted me from registering the audience reaction, aside from negatives like people leaving or yawning. By lecturing every week for twelve weeks I became aware of a combination of micro-movements and gestures — a focus, body language, and response to questions — that gave me a better idea as to what was working and what wasn’t.

It really helped that the students really wanted to be there. When we did a survey 70% of them wanted in-person rather than remote classes. Plus, it was their very first semester at university, after missing a chunk of their high school experience due to the pandemic. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s about videogames, which many of them love but had never got to look at through a critical lens. I would have loved a class like this that combined writing and games. These ideas might be really helpful for them if they ended up being game creators, and if not would also give them new ways to appreciate narrative design in the games they played.

So I think it really comes down to the subject. When I thought about teaching before I had only thought about creative writing, which came to me easily and I don’t enjoy thinking analytically about. Narrative design and game design in general is a second language, so to speak, so I had struggled more with it — and consequently enjoy helping others along, and have some tricks I learned to help them along the way. 

I had two excellent TAs who ran the discussion labs in smaller groups and did the marking which meant I could focus on prepping and delivering the lectures. Because they did this front line emotional work, I could be more distant, providing mostly higher level guidance. In the future I might choose to get more engaged with the students individually — I could see how that could be interesting — but this time I was relieved to have a certain amount of space. I did make a big push for my students to engage with the community, so I look forward to seeing some of them filter through to the events I attend and organize — as peers, where I have less authority and responsibility over them.

Thanks to my pals Taien and Patricio who tipped me off about the job, and to my union which means I have an excellent benefit package a full five months after my contract ends.

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