Jul 242015

Rereading my “What’s Up?” post, I realized I’d never followed up about my decision to assign GamerGate as a topic in my research writing class this past Spring. As a kind of prelude to some other teaching related posts that I’ll be writing in the coming weeks, I’m going to give a brief description of what I saw happening.

What I Planned

The course I was teaching is a standard first exposure to college-level research writing for first-year students. I chose to use GamerGate as the topic for an early unit because it touched on an interest in video games I knew many–and perhaps most–of my students shared. There were also some other advantages. Because GamerGate was on-going at the time, there were no ready-made works students could crib to write their essays. More importantly, because all the sources they would need to use were online, the unit would give me an opportunity to teach them how to find, manage and document the kinds of real world sources they used on a daily basis.

The project was intended to be short, and I scheduled it to run for only three weeks of class time with another week reserved for revising essays before final submission. Feminist Frequency was our starting point: the videos and posts exposed everyone to the intersection of gender and gaming that were at issue. I also provided some articles from The New Yorker, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. From there, students would work to research responses to a variety of questions that came up in our daily discussions. As their final assignment, they were to write a thesis-driven argument about some aspect of GamerGate, a prompt open-ended enough I thought to allow for everyone to find an angle that suited them.

What Happened

It’s hard to think of a topic I’ve broached in a class that was as divisive as this one.

The first day went well. I showed two “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” videos. The women in the class lit up, contributed to discussion, were engaged. Many of the men were hesitant, but excitement about the fact that we were discussing gaming carried the day. A few I think were excited because the topic signalled the class was “easy,” most because games they played and liked appeared on-screen.

I have no way of knowing what happened between the end of that first class and the beginning of the next, but when we next met, the tenor of the class had changed profoundly.

The woman and a handful of the men stopped speaking: they watched and listened attentively, paid close attention to what went on in class, they wrote with real interest and insight–there was in other words, good will–but for the remainder of the project, regardless of the activities I planned, they chose by-and-large to keep quiet, reserving their comments for the page or for small group work.

Many of the remaining students were now sitting sideways in seats. They whispered quickly to each other in response to class activities but rarely to the group. When doing work in class, they suddenly demanded detailed instructions in order to do things as simple as web searching or navigating basic web pages. They resisted doing more than reporting factual answers to questions. Were they even listening? I couldn’t tell. In these and many other small ways, they seemed to be setting up obstacles to their participation and expressing what I took to be frustration.


When students react badly to material, you cope by improvising and experimenting. You try to find the areas of the topic they are willing or able to engage with so that you can stake out some common ground. You do the same thing with activities: if they will write more frankly than they will speak, get them writing; if they are silent except in small groups, translate discussion down to small group responses to prompts. Whatever the case, you use what they give you the next class to try to build some momentum.

For the GamerGate project though, there were so few students willing to comment publicly on the topic in class that there seemed to be no momentum to be had. So bit by bit, I broke the class project into a set of small group projects that allowed student to engage less publicly. I also created an option for the essay that downplayed the argumentative requirement, an aspect of the assignment that, given the circumstances, many appeared to have found intimidating, if not overwhelming. Most importantly, I moved things steadily forward and got us onto the next topic, where things cooled down and went back to normal.

Looking Back

Either GamerGate or the feminist critique it tried to shut down–I can’t be sure which–upset a group of students. I’m not going to judge that reaction here other than to say that the fact that many students were initially excited to be talking about video games seemed to make their subsequent frustration worse. The rest of the class seems to have picked up on their frustration immediately and reacted to lower the temperature the best (or the only?) way they knew how: silence. For my part, I was stuck trying to coax students beyond these basic reactions, adapting course materials on the fly, but doing so with very little input from the students themselves, which is difficult.

I don’t think it is ever easy to sort out why a particular project worked or not in a specific course, especially when dealing with new material. There is always the risk of projection, of accounting for student responses in terms that are not theirs and so missing the hints they give about why they actually reacted the way they did. So looking back now, I’m not convinced that I’ve understood what happened yet.

So I’m glad that I won’t be teaching this course in the Fall and that I don’t have to decide right away whether to raise this topic again. In theory, I would like to, but in good conscience, I can’t–and won’t–until I figure out a better framework for bringing it up.

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