In case you haven’t heard… I’m leaving! I’m leaving my job at Brunel and the United Kingdom in general for a new life in the New World. I’ve thus far avoided most mentions of the change on social media because I wanted to say my goodbyes in person- and because 140 characters is rarely enough to discuss anything, much less a total change of lifestyle. So here we are- a blog post.
Rather than use this space to discuss my reasons for moving, which can be summed up in a single word: family, I’ve decided to use my word count to instead discuss the nomadic nature of academic life. Let’s begin with a magical example from my past, shall we?
In the third year of my undergraduate degree, I remember finding out my favourite professor was leaving our university. She was my favourite professor not only because she taught a module called Death and Dying, by which my young gothic self was totally enraptured, but also because she was straight out of Hogwarts. She wore a plain black outfit to every class and made up for the lack of colour in her garments with fabulous accessories. She would wear a ring on every finger and silver linked belt studded with matching semi-precious stones. One class it would be turquoise, the next class tigerseye, the next jasper, and so on. She had style.
One day, towards the end of term, she interrupted her usual overview of that week’s content to inform us she would not be returning to the university the following autumn. Her exact words, I still remember them, were “I’ve very much enjoyed my time here, but two years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Siberia”. I’m sure she qualified the last part of the statement with an explanation of what she planned to do in Siberia, but I was so dumbfounded that I forgot to listen. Two years? A long time? She couldn’t be serious… How can you do anything in two years?
Now this professor was certainly quirky, so I think the ‘two years’ and ‘Siberia’ thing are fairly unique to her, but the general sentiment stuck with me. The nature of academic life can be a nomadic one. It might not always be possible or desirable to put down roots in the city you take a job. Whilst I know plenty colleagues who have settled down and stuck to one university for the majority of their professional lives, I know an equal number who bounce from place to place. In some cases this is down to the necessity of following funding, in others it is taking advantage of opportunities to work with specific people, and in a good number of cases, it is down to an unfortunate increase in zero hour contracts and budget cuts. And, I suppose, it is also possible that some folks just like roaming the planet. I probably fall into the this latter category.
For those of us who have made career moves overseas, the constant pain of saying goodbye is a familiar one. I’m sure it is also painful to say adios to family when you live a city, state, or province away, but short-long distances have to be better than long-long distances. Living and working overseas for me has meant that twice a year for the past eight years I’ve made an absolute ass of myself at the Sky Harbor airport crying and hugging family members goodbye. Although it also sucks to say goodbye to friends and colleagues before I go on holiday, I’ve thus far managed to spare the good folks at Heathrow from my ugly-crying. When I board the plane this time, however, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hold back.
But that’s academic life for a good number of us. We move around, we spread knowledge, we travel. And, even if our family and job are in the same city, we still experience a steady stream of greetings and farewells during conference season. When you’re an academic, you probably have a good number of academic friends, and given the probabilty they’re nomads like you, the chances of running into each other can be so slim they feel more like internet buddies than real-life friends.
So why choose this life? Because it is worth the pain. Every year is an exciting adventure which leads to the discovery of new ideas, new research, and new people. And isn’t discovery why we’re in this business?
And so dear internet friends, to paraphrase a famous professor, I’ve very much enjoyed my time in the United Kingdom, but eight years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Utah. Who knows, maybe I’ll even put down some roots there.
I have finally gotten around to the inevitable World of Warcraft movie blog post. I know it comes a couple weeks too late (the film was released on 30 May in the UK after all), but a late review seems fitting given the film itself is 10 years too late. Had the film come out in 2006, perhaps coinciding with The Burning Crusade expansion release, it would likely have had a much bigger and more positive response and I probably would have blogged about it sooner. Blogs existed back then, right? 😉
As it is, the film has been tanking the aggro of plenty of negative reviews (27% on RottenTomatoes, FYI). In addition to proclaiming it ‘unwatchable’, Variety magazine wrote, “It shouldn’t take a mage to foresee that this pricey and preposterous adaptation of an online gaming phenomenon was preordained for artistic mediocrity.” Not to be pedantic, but mages can’t predict the future in Warcraft lore- that’s more of a shammy thing. Accuracy of game references aside, the primary critiques seem to be that 1) the film takes itself too seriously, and 2) it is inaccessible to non-players. In my opinion, and I am not a scholar of film by any means, I completely agree with the first critique and completely disagree with the second.
Let’s start with the first. The film was far too serious to be associated with the Warcraft brand. Sure the game’s lore often deals with serious themes and the Warcraft novels, which provide much more background than the game series by the way, question grave themes like racism, genocide, faith, and tradition, the games themselves do not feel somber. Blizzard’s brand has always been the lighter side of fantasy, both figuratively and literally.
When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, its aesthetics were a departure from the faux-realistic art style of Dark Age of Camelot and the high fantasy trappings of Everquest 2. Visually, it was a departure from the drab greens and browns of even its own Warcraft RTS series (although Reign of Chaos comes close to sharing WoW’s bright blues and reds). WoW allowed you to play gnomes with tufts of cotton-candy coloured hair, dance on mailboxes, and annoy fellow players with in-game items like the toy train that made everyone in the vicinity /train. Scattered among life-or-death battles in Azeroth are exclamations of “Me not that kind of orc!” or “You no take candle!” The fact characters could /silly is a testament to the cheerful feeling and form of WoW that made it so distinctive from other fantasy RPGs.
It therefore comes as a total shock that, aside from a few well-placed Easter eggs, the film feels humourless. This is reflected in all the reviews calling it boring. I won’t bother to cite them all here, just look on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is drab and lacks the bright visual stimulation of its MMO counterpart. It tries for gritty and grown up without realising that viewers have Game of Thrones for that. A huge opportunity was missed to bring the cheeky and cheerful charm of the game to the silver screen.
Now that I’ve been somewhat agreeable, let me disagree with the second critique that the film left non-players in the dust. To me, albeit I’ve been a WoW player since 2004 and a roleplayer at that, the film was no more ‘inaccessible’ to non-players than the Game of Thrones TV show is to non-book readers. Yes, you have to pay attention. Yes, the names are tricky to say. Yes, you might get a sense that not all threads are being tied up for you like the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Its a fantasy film based on a fantasy world which has over 35 novels written about it, its going to have a lot going on and a lot of characters moving relatively quickly.
I actually think the film was too watered down for non-player audiences. The few memorable highlights for me were when we caught a glimpse of a murloc, when a sheep spell was used, and when a cork with iconic blue and red feathers was seen bobbing in a river. The film could’ve gone further with the in-jokes and game references. I would have liked to see a mage get scared and spam arcane blast until they OOM’d, or I would have died laughing if Lothar had asked Medivh to conjure refreshments after he climbed the stairs of Karazhan. Now I’m not saying that a Warcraft film should go full Barrens chat, but a few nods to the game’s humour would go a long way.
The ultimate verdict? Although the film misses good opportunities for fan service and humour, it is entertaining enough to merit the ticket price.
Foreword: This post mixes my personal experience with an academic framework to discuss the loss of a dear friend and the mess of emotions digital lives create. It uncomfortably straddles the private/public, personal/professional divide and this is intentional- it reflects the friendship I had with the deceased. I post it publicly for catharsis and in memoriam of the lost friend. No identifying information is provided out of respect for those who are grieving, so please be courteous and respectful when leaving comments/discussing.
I had just sat down with a water bottle and a book to wait for my grandmother. She had fallen and injured her shoulder on a Monday afternoon in a (and I mean this in the best way possible) rural town in Northern Mexico. Our options for out-of-hours treatment were an emergency room or a sports therapy masseuse, so we went for the latter.
Knowing I’d be in for an hour wait, I decided to perch myself in some shade overlooking the Sea of Cortez and read about peculiar children and imaginary monsters with the sound of the tide in my ears. Exceptionally hot for May, the beach in front of the spa was deserted and peaceful. My phone auto-connected to the local WiFi (I may have been there before…) and my tranquil reading was interrupted by Facebook notifications galore. A sinking feeling settled in my gut when I saw one message was from a friend I’d not spoken to since I moved to London. Apprehensively, I touched his disembodied head on the screen and read the message. A friend, who I had also not spoken to since the move, had tragically passed away.
I won’t mention specifics or go into details here out of respect for those who are grieving. Also, I don’t think details are necessary for the point I want to make, which is, the loss of friends is inevitable, but finding out through social media is a surreal experience.
I clicked the side button on my phone to shut off the screen, sat it on the table next to me and looked out at the sea. I remember thinking what seemed like a peaceful, sunny afternoon only moments ago suddenly felt sinister. The tranquil quiet I’d enjoyed moments before suddenly seemed a deliberate, silent malice engineered so that racing thoughts could become an amplified cacophony. I remember feeling tears slide down my cheeks, but I don’t remember wiping them away. In retrospect, I suppose the breeze off the ocean took care of that for me.
After an unspecified amount of time I picked my phone back up and responded the only way I could, “I’m sorry to hear that. Fuck. Thanks for letting me know.” My response is almost amusing now. A mix of measured, reasoned and polite with raw and incredulous, and really, that’s a good way to describe communication through the medium of Facebook Messenger.
This friend is not the only I have lost, and they are not the only passing I have discovered through social media. That I have experienced loss in virtual spaces before doesn’t make the discovery of death any less strange and it doesn’t make the ensuing experience any less surreal in its painfulness. Seeing dead names tagged or the accounts of the recently-passed active through requiem posts is like seeing a ghost. A fragment, a shell, a piece of the person passes before your eyes as you scroll through your newsfeed and your heart catches in your throat and you can’t breathe because for a split second your bastard brain makes you think they’re back. It is uncanny. Literally uncanny. They’re existing, and yet not. They are trapped in a time capsule that is ever present, ever changing and ever updating itself. That you must bear witness to these updates seems cruel, even as you are sitting on a beach in the usually cheerful Mexican sun.
A few more drab sentences were exchanged that afternoon between myself and the bearer of bad news. Polite, yet raw. I remember closing my eyes tight and pressing my head against the beach chair I was sitting on and thinking ‘This isn’t real’. It was, of course, real. Unfortunately real. Catching the time when I opened my eyes, I realised I needed to collect my grandmother (who is fine by the way) from her appointment and get on with the challenges of my own reality as it was unfolding halfway across the world from where the loss occurred.
Removed by timezones, oceans, countries, and languages, I was baffled by how ‘real’ the news felt as intangible as it was. I wished I had a letter to hold in my hand. As odd as it sounds, I wished a courier pigeon flew all the way across the Atlantic (and almost to the Pacific) to drop off a piece of parchment for me to hold because that would have made the news easier to take I suppose. It would make more sense if I could feel the weight of such heavy news in my hand. It would have been nice to have a letter to crumble or clench in a fist, but I had only the ephemeral waves of WiFi going through the air and to my phone, and those waves are weightless. Unlike the waves crashing against the sandy beach, they don’t even make sound. Not that sound is tangible, but, well, it at least hints that there is something or someone there and makes you feel less alone.
As I sit in my flat accompanied by the click-clack of laptop typing almost a month later, the finality of the death has thoroughly sunk into my brain. Although the death has crossed my mind almost every day for one reason or another, the surreal feeling of loss on the beach that afternoon in May is gone. A bit of time has provided the distance necessary to reflect on how the Facebook medium is the message (you just knew I’d cite McLuhan, didn’t you?), but also to reflect on how loss is experienced in the virtual world.
As a scholar of videogames, I experience virtual loss every time my avatar misses a jump (I’m notoriously bad at platformers), but this is different. This is real loss experienced, at least in part, through a virtual medium. Typically in games, and in techno-mediated-life in general, loss is usually inconsequential. Whilst moderately annoying or inconveniencing, the on-screen death of a character or the loss of a file (with some major notable exceptions) is not an insurmountable blow. It is a setback, yes, but it is not the final end. There is always an option to restart from the last save, or system restore to last operable point, but not when it is a human who has been lost. There is no undo, no restart, no ctrl+z that can bring them back. For me this makes the situation feel even more confusing and brutal.
To wrap this piece up, let me be clear: I do not fault the medium, the message, or the sender for the delivery of bad news. That would be utterly ludicrous. I don’t fault anyone or anything for the circle of life. In the end, as Kelly has said, we all become worm food. (Oh, sorry, I should have included a spoiler alert for Life). Of course some folks believe death is a beginning rather than an end, and that’s cool, but I won’t go into that here. Rather I want to end by saying the experience of loss is a privilege (and a curse) afforded to those who live long enough to experience it. I am much more aware of the life around me, even as it occurs on virtual platforms, because of having experienced loss. The ‘Memories’, timehops, tags, and memorial posts we all witness daily are virtual gravestones which mark out life; and the ache in the chest and the sting in the eye we have when we see them is a physical manifestation of our humanity as gifted to us by these virtual reminders. There is no stronger evidence of how the virtual and real are intertwined than in the example of death via Facebook notification.
And here is where this blog post ends for my living, breathing readers. The message below is only for my worm-food friend on the assumption the recently deceased are as tech-savvy in death as they were in life.
Until next time,
My dear comrade, this blog post comes nowhere near the commemoration I would have liked to give you. I think a stern carving of your frowning face in marble to preside over a library of under-funded, over-caffeinated postgrads would have been ideal, but alas… Funds don’t allow. I hope I have achieved the appropriate word-cocktail of scholastic, cheeky, and vulgar that I know you always enjoyed. If not, please come haunt me because I miss you.
Kelly has convinced me that Pinterest is an MMO. No, really, think about it. It is online, accessed by millions worldwide (10 million users in 2011), based in fantasy, and even gives you quests in the form of recipes and projects. It has fully replaced my pre-sleep gaming hour and this baffled me until I, with the help of Kelly, looked at why it feels so game-y.
Very little on Pinterest simulates everyday life but rather an idealised world full of gorgeously styled homes (decorated by you), pristine antique furniture (reupholstered by you), adorable animals (raised and groomed by you), and calorie-free cakes made from fanciful ingredients (baked by you). Or at least that’s what my slice of Pinterest looks like.
More than just presenting catalog-quality homes and gardens and families for the pleasure of the Pinner, Pinterest suggests that you too can have it all. Most images are accompanied by a brief description of how it was achieved or where to buy. Even artwork is accompanied by a DeviantArt, Etsy or blog link which offers opportunities to purchase or re-create. Even if these opportunities are not followed, Pins invite the Pinner to imagine a fantasy world where they own a sea-side home, have the time to make gluten-free, honey-glazed lemon bars, or design avant-garde fashions.
There is an assumption on the part of the Pinner, and academic research which hints at this by Gilbert et al (2013), that a Pin does not a project make. To Pin something is to mark it for later. “Oh, I might get around to making this. Maybe on a rainy Sunday when there’s nothing on TV…” I’m not sure firm stats exist concerning how many Pins translate to actual projects, but I’d imagine it is less than 10%.
In an ever-growing quest to indulge my epicuriousness, I decided to try to take some of these ephemeral recipes and make them a reality. As you can see from the picture above, it went well. Rather than going for the mundane, I decided to tackle the wonderful and weird world of paleo, raw, and gluten-free baking. This is of particular interest because these recipes target those trying to lose weight in addition to those who have a restrictive diet due to medical issues. The key, fantastic message encrusted within each is that you too can have it all! Dieters, don’t worry, there’s a way to make cookie dough healthy! Yes, you read it right. If you just put the effort in, you can eat the most sinful things all the time without guilt or weight gain! Don’t even get me started on what a load of rubbish this is. It isn’t healthy. Even if you use bananas, coconut oil and palm sugar, cookie dough is a sometimes-treat, not a twice-daily snack.
Anyway, before I get to my recipes and pictures, the most immediate issue I need to raise is the near-impossibility of gathering ingredients in terms of availability and cost. Honestly, the Pins might as well have suggested I substitute fairy dust for sugar and snow from the eaves of Santa’s workshop for flour. The ‘healthy’ replacements typically recommended include the aforementioned coconut oil and palm sugar in addition to almond flour, unflavoured whey protein powder, medjool dates, tapioca flour, and almond milk. Most of these aren’t impossible to find- larger groceries stores will have most ingredients- but depending on where you live, you might need a trip to the health food shop. Also, these are EXPENSIVE. 500g of coconut flour is £3.99 compared to 1.5kg of wheat flour for only £0.80. These recipes are simply not sustainable for the average person, further emphasising the ‘sometimes-treat’ reality of cooking with this section of Pinterest.
The rest of this blog post contains the results of a weekend trying out the fantastic. Pictures included. I’ve rated each recipe according to ease and taste.
This recipe is the epitome of Pinterest. A load of health food mixed and served in a mason jar. I’ll just leave it at that. Recipe here.
Ease: It is literally pouring raw ingredients into a mason jar and then shaking it. Fairly fool-proof. I used raspberries instead of bananas because I’m a free-thinker.
Taste: It tastes like mushy oatmeal in yoghurt. I honestly don’t know why I expected any different.
Paleo Carrot Cake
I love carrot cake and I’m quite good at making it… normally. Instead of making the frosting, I opted for fatfree yoghurt the first time (pictures) and low-fat soft cheese the second time because it was easier and just as tasty. Probs means it is no longer paleo, but I don’t really understand paleo anyway. All you want is some tang to cut through the sweet. Oh, look at me talking like I’m Amanda Freitag on Chopped. Recipe here.
Ease: This was no more difficult to make than a ‘normal’ carrot cake. Except for the coconut oil. Coconut oil is a solid below 24 degrees C. And I don’t mean solid like how butter is a solid when you keep it in a fridge. I mean solid as in candle wax. You have to chip it out of the glass jar it comes in with a spoon or soak the jar in warm water to soften it. It is messy and time consuming. The little flakes of solid oil get everywhere, including your hands. Guess what that means? Butter-er-coconut-oil-fingers! Coconut oil belongs in Lush products, not food.
Taste: The texture was nice, which according to my gluten-free friends is a real issue with baking. It wasn’t grainy or sandy but bouncy, light and spongy. The problem was, as you can see from my face, the taste. I doubled the recommended cinnamon, added nutmeg and allspice and still found it bland. Perplexing as the coconut flour and oil smells so good when it is baking and the batter tasted awesome. Yeah, that’s right, I live on the edge, I eat raw batter. #yolo. Anyway, defo-recommended for trad-flourless friends.
Coconut Protein Balls
This was the recipe I wanted to succeed the most, so naturally it didn’t. I’ve been hunting for a low-cost protein bar alternative which is low-carb, low-sugar. After a workout, I need something to stabilise my sugar levels because I’m prone to hypoglycemic spells and passing out. Most commercial bars are far too sugary which gives me a spike and then a dangerous crash. The bars which don’t mess with my sugars cost around £3 each. You see the problem. These seemed like a fab compromise.
Ease: Oh, I messed this one up. Oh boy, I messed this one up. Something went wrong early on which meant I couldn’t form balls. The mixture was too dry and kept crumbling apart. This is probably because instead of using coconut cream (which I didn’t have), I tried to make my own. It works with butter and milk, so why wouldn’t making cream work with coconut milk and coconut oil? I don’t know, but it didn’t. So, I decided that instead of balls, I’d flatten the crumbly mixture out into a cake pan and fridge it to make bars. As you can see below, I used a round cake pan so I actually ended up making triangles. I added chocolate chips because at this point it was going to be a dessert instead of something I’d put in my bag and take to the gym.
Taste: It tastes like if you were drowning and the only rescue was mouth-to-mouth from an ancient Egyptian mummy who had recently eaten a Bounty Bar. Dry and uncomfortable. I binned it.
Frozen Banana Protein Shake
I’ve seen lots of posts about banana-based fro-yo and decided to give it a go. This two-ingredient recipe seemed like a good choice, but instead of making ice-cream bites, I modified it to make a creamy milkshake.
Ease: I followed the recipe up until blending. I used fewer chocolate chips, added coconut milk and 1 scoop of soy protein powder. I know I talked about whey protein powder above, but it was whey too expensive for me so I went with soy. In retrospect to prevent clumping, I would have added the protein powder gradually as the other ingredients blended.
Taste: Nom. This is by far the tastiest recipe. It doesn’t taste like a milkshake, but it does taste like a frozen chocolate banana. 10/10 would blend again.
Coconut Flour Pancakes
For me, pancakes are a twice-a-year food. I’m not keen on sweet things for breakfast, and if I am, I’ll opt to pour some maple syrup on some burnt strips of fatty belly-bacon rashers. Part of this has to do with how rubbish the spike in sugar makes me feel and part of it is down to preference. This low-carb, no-added sugar, grain-free recipe seemed like it might be a go-to for family breakfasts when my siblings want something sweet.
Ease: Everything started great. Baking soda make the coconut flour bubble just like its wheat equivalent. Then I went to flip it. The image which started the post says it all really. Second one went better. Less batter is more for these.
Taste: Not grainy, which is a plus. Tastes like bananas. And pancakes. /shrug.
Writing this blog post required a back-and-forth between my website and Pinterest. My low-quality photos appeared side-by-side with the glossy ones at the top of the recipes. The images serve as a stark contrast between the fantasy world of Pinterest and the real-world of at-home baking for the average working adult. At the very least, it highlights the fact I don’t have a professional-grade camera or lighting rig. Nor do I have pretty glass ramekins, fancy cooking gadgets, or the time or money to invest in them. Whilst I can see myself repeating one or two of the recipes in future, I have to say that I am more than happy to let Pinterest remain a fantasy world of perfection I visit every night before bed. Just like I used to visit Azeroth.
Its 8:20 in the morning and I am sprinting down a small footpath behind the library. I didn’t leave campus until 9 last night and in less than 12 hours I am back again. I’m exhausted. I check my watch, my heart pounding in my chest. Good, I think, no one should be around yet. I bolt up the stairs of the lecture centre and slap a piece of A4 on the door. Somewhere nearby a hoover starts. No! The cleaners. What if they tidy away my clue? No time to think of that now, I gotta get back and hang up the posters which will serve as the trailhead. “The lecture has been cancelled. The lecturer is sick”. The message repeats across a sheet of A3 and the bolded letters form the first clue: check Blackboard. I stick blue tack in the corners and my heart is in my throat. What if they don’t realise it is a puzzle? What if they all leave?
As I slink to my office I re-evaluate my teaching choices for the term. Was running an ARG really the best way to teach students about puzzles and cryptography?
If you for some reason happened to check my blog on the morning of the 5th February, you may have noticed a post entitled ‘the riddle’. This was the final clue in the alternate reality game I ran to teach students what alternate reality games are. Now I fully admit that the narrative of the game was very weak. There was no government takeover, no conspiracy theory, no scientist-gone-missing, just a cancelled (?) lecture. If it would make you feel better to call it a scavenger hunt, then by all means do so. I’m not fussed.
The learning outcomes for this class were relatively straight forward: Learn about cryptography and puzzle making in a 3 hours. Really, that’s all I wanted to achieve. But rather than give the students some readings and a lecture, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to learn by doing. Solve some puzzles, run around campus on a Friday morning, and have a debriefing lecture with some puzzle-creation activities. So that they could see how I made the ‘ARG’, I made a (condensed) design document and an annotated timeline of events which I distributed in class. I’ve attached jpg scans of each below if you’re curious.
Creating and running an ARG, as small and flimsy as it was, was actually incredibly effective at teaching students the key aspects- and pitfalls- of designing an ARG. Not only did students successfully work together to solve the puzzles, but they did so very quickly. Much quicker than expected. This was a useful teaching moment as it allowed me to point out the difficulties in determining difficulty level for diverse groups of players. In a large ARG, like NIN’s Year Zero, puppetmasters can default to difficult in the knowledge that the global appeal of the band will result in large enough numbers of players to crack even the most obscure puzzles. For a 40-student, first year undergraduate class? That’s a relatively niche population who may or may not have had experience working with cryptographic puzzles before.
There was even a possibility that the students might’ve read the ‘lecture is cancelled’ sign on the door and gone home! I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have been tempted to do similar when I was doing my undergraduate degree. The session is at 9am on a Friday morning… I was prepared for that eventuality. If the students had gone home, then that could’ve been a teachable moment as well. Actually, that would’ve been a compliment to my design skills as the tone of ARGs is meant to be: This is not a game. Combined with the serious aesthetic form of ARGs, there is also meant to be a high barrier to entry. Trailheads are meant to be barely perceptible as anything out of the ordinary. The best trailheads blend in with everyday life and everyday objects. Now I don’t mean to downplay how incredibly clever my students are, which they are, but I think that I made the game-ness of the first clue too obvious in retrospect.
After the students solved the final riddle and found the lecture, I held a de-briefing wherein I explained the ‘game’. I then also defined and explained what ARGs are, This is Not a Game was very useful here, and gave examples of some of the most famous- e.g. I Love Bees. After, I ran a workshop in which I handed out examples of cryptograms and asked students work out the logic of a particular method of encrypting and then, by means of reverse engineering, make their own. The National Puzzler’s League website and Puzzlecraft book were incredibly useful resources and a big thank you goes out to colleagues who pointed me to them.
As a workshop activity, this was met with mixed results. Some cryptograms are incredibly difficult and an hour to solve one, let alone figure out the logic to creating one, is simply not enough time. I think moving forwards, I will limit the types of cryptograms I challenge the students with. Anaquotes, riddles, printer’s devilry, and knight’s tour cryptograms seemed to be the most accessible in the given time frame. As an activity in general, I think it worked really well. Meta-skills like working together to solve a puzzle, using research skills to find auxiliary online sources, self-teaching and peer-teaching were true strengths of the workshop. It ended with students presenting the puzzles they had created to the class and the class (including me!) trying to solve them.
We rounded out the session with a discussion about how what they learned can be applied to other types of games. Since ARGs are niche- super awesome, but niche- it was important for me to highlight the larger applicability of puzzles to other genres. Platformers and RPGs were brought up as being the most amenable to puzzle mechanics, but I’m sure if there had been more time we could’ve discussed a dozen more.
Overall, I would certainly love to run this class again with a few minor changes. It was exciting and fun to shake up the normal lecture structure, and most importantly, I think the students got a lot out of the lesson. It was great seeing the group work and collective thinking going on during the workshop. Questions or comments? Don’t hesitate to get in touch!
For those of you unfamiliar with the academic meme, Reviewer #2 is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the peer review system. No, wait, all that is wrong with the peer in peer review.
At the time of writing, the Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped Facebook page has nearly 7,000 members which goes to show reviewer 2’s assholery is recognised by at least 7,000 people. Given the relatively niche nature of academic publishing, 7k is a lot. Now, to be clear, the reviewer 2 I refer to is not the same as Tenure She Wrote’s reviewer #2. As Tenure She Wrote writes (heh, Wrote writes looks odd):
Now that I have graduate students of my own, I’ve been thinking about how to train them to be reviewers, without creating either mice* or attack dogs**. If Reviewer #1 is that ineffectual, unconfident reviewer, and Reviewer #3 is too angry and aggressive, I’d like to be just right***: Reviewer #2.
For Tenure She Wrote, Reviewer #2 is the happy medium between the too hot and the too cold porridge bowls of academia. Reviewer 2 seeks to be helpful, firm, and not aggressive. As she goes on, Tenure says that we don’t actually train graduate students, postgrads, or early careers on how to review, so can we really be surprised that so many bad reviewers exist? Tenure has a great point, one which I will come back to later, but for now, let us focus on Reviewer 2.
Who is Reviewer #2? Literally, Reviewer 2 is the anonymised moniker given to the second peer to review a research paper. In common parlance, Reviewer 2 can be summarised as possessing the following qualities:
Overbearingly committed to a pet discipline
Overly focused on a particular methodology
Unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt
Unwilling to view the authors of a submitted paper as peers.
If you need examples, go on over to Shit My Reviewers Say. Just a quick scroll through is enough to make non-academics shake their heads in sympathy.
So, to get back to Tenure She Wrote’s point that reviewers are not taught how to be reviewers, and most publishers include only the vaguest suggestions on how to review a work, I’m going to use the rest of this post to share my advice on how to be a good peer, and a good reviewer.
Step 1: Make sure you are the right person for the article.
Most reviews I have been asked to do, I have been asked. I have yet to be forced to review an article. Guilt tripped, maybe, but not forced. If I don’t feel confident in my knowledge of a particular methodology, or that I don’t have expertise with a particular field of literature, I’ll politely decline to review.
Now obviously you don’t have to be an expert in every aspect of a paper in order to review it, but you should have some knowledge of its themes and methods. If you have never used the method but studied it at a Masters level, you’re probably competent enough to review the article. Likewise, if you remember reading a few of the authors in the bibliography, you can probably appropriately assess how the article fits in with the current body of literature and whether or not it has contributed anything original to the field. Obviously this is a rough guide and you need to be your own judge of your abilities.
Step 2: Make sure you are in the right frame of mind to review.
Since, as we established above, you probably aren’t being forced to review a paper, don’t say yes to every paper that comes your way. Likewise, don’t say yes if you know you’re going to be snowed under with marking, or if you have study boards, or if you’re examining a PhD, or if you have a grant bid due in, or if you are doing any number of tasks academics do during the year which cause us to be immensely grumpy… If you are stressed and pressured, that will absolutely come through in your review and what’s worse, it will effect the quality of the review.
Reviewing the work of your peers should be pleasurable. Don’t laugh. I am serious. It should be a chance to see what others in your field are doing, a chance to read cutting edge research, and a chance to share your expertise (what good is knowledge if you don’t use it?) When I review, I do it in stages. In the first phase, I read through the paper and take small notes on the side. I do this in the bath, in a park, or at a restaurant with a glass of something. It is a nice, peaceful excuse to enjoy some time alone and remember why I became an academic. The second round of review, I re-read my comments and formulate them into what I think will be most useful for the author(s). The third phase, I type up my responses and include links where applicable. It is time consuming, but not as bad as you think.
Step 3: Review as you would want to be reviewed.
I approach papers as I would approach marking an external PhD. I, largely speaking, give the authors the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t cite author X? Well, maybe they aren’t aware or maybe they didn’t feel X fit in with what they are trying to achieve. Rather than write something along the lines of, “The authors clearly aren’t aware of the existing work of X and are thus re-inventing the wheel” I write, “Citing X in paragraph 2, page 4 would probably support this aspect of your argument” or “I’d like to see engagement with theorist X”.
I can’t think of a single example when taking a heavy handed, aggressive, or admonishing tone would be appropriate in a peer-review. It makes authors feel bad and it makes you look like an asshole. No one wins because, like lobsters in a bucket, tearing someone down doesn’t put your career any higher.
Don’t get me wrong. We have all had a frustratingly bad paper which suffered so many problems its impossible to start listing them. Now having said that, if you feel genuinely frustrated by how bad a paper is, take your officemates out for coffee and have a rant. Don’t put your malice in the review because best case scenario the authors will feel frustratingly misunderstood and offended, worst case scenario, they will feel horribly depressed, rejected, and might even give up. Either way, it really won’t be a constructive outcome.
Step 4: Be specific, be helpful.
A recent conversation with a colleague called to my attention the difference between high and low comments. High comments focus on things like theme, appropriate use of literature, methodological goodness-of-fit. Low comments concern things like grammar, spelling, maybe even structure. Most reviewer comments should focus on high comments with the understanding formatting and spelling will likely be handled by a copy editor.
Even still, high comments should be specific. If you take issue with the analysis, don’t write “analysis problematic”. Say why, say what it is missing, suggest alternatives. Likewise, don’t say “doesn’t engage with body of literature”, say which it doesn’t engage with.
If you suggest authors include a piece of work, make the effort to include a full citation. For example, if you were going to recommend they include my new book, Brown 2015 wouldn’t be specific enough to be useful. Even if the authors managed to work out you were suggesting my work, I have 4 publications in 2015. Which did you mean? When possible, give a link.
So in conclusion, be sure you are the right person to do the review, that you are in the right frame of mind, and approach the review with the goal of being helpful. If we all did this, the peer review process sure would be a lot nicer. To paraphrase a quote from the great Bob Ross, “I’d like to wish you happy peer-reviewing, and God bless my friend.”