By: Kyle Lincoln
Lecturer of History and International Studies
Norwich University, VT, USA
Having played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in college, finding a group to play with in graduate school seemed like an important way to cope with working forty hours a week and taking a full slate of courses. Every week, a classmate and I would drive out to one of St. Louis’s suburbs to meet with another classmate—who has since left academia—and play for hours into the night, eventually driving home in the small hours of the morning, chatting about the stress of our position and how we might get out of jams, both real and fantastical. It’s hard to say whether that was what made one of our faculty mentors, a Jesuit priest who studied the minutiae of canon law in the saecula obscura get involved, but when he took notice of our conversations about twenty-sided dice, he invited us in to help with one of his undergraduate survey courses. We were assigned the roles of metics that had recently been enfranchised to the Athenian polis; we were off to the races.
Looking back on that bit of small fortune, I think of how the class in question was in a classroom that was at the engineering end of campus; it was in a building that, to that point and since, I have never stepped foot in. Perhaps that’s what made the experience so transformative and fantastical; Vonnegut says that “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Vonnegut was a humanist, but the punchline of travelling across campus to help with a Jesuit’s class would not have escaped him, I think.
91% of American adults, in a clinical setting, have a longer attention span than I do. In colloquial terms, I’m somewhere between “moth” and “dead goldfish”—in several states, I may not be legally allowed to operate a toaster oven—and to say that traditional lecture courses were hard for me is an understatement. I drafted a fantasy baseball team in “Chemistry and Societal Issues” as an undergraduate, rolled characters in “Readings in Film” and only in Classical Language classes or Medieval History classes could I reasonably maintain any stream of focused attention. (The brain-eaters call this “hyperfocus” and it’s what the ‘H’ points to in AD(H)D.) The same was not the case for this Athenian assembly. I was hooked from that moment.
They say that there is no zeal as white-hot as that of a convert. In my case, that might well be true. When sitting down to write this short introductory post for a blog that hopefully runs ad infinitum, I thought first about writing about the professional development workshops I’ve run and then about the multiplicity of Facebook posts that accompany any number of games. I then wondered how many different simulations that I had run in classes, including those in development. I got to fifteen before wondering how many more that I had played and realized that, in most cases, it doesn’t really matter how many were played.
What matters is this: if the lord of Swamp Castle, in the 1974 epic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, admits to building three castles—the last of which was still standing—how many had he really tried to build? In concealing his failures to his son, whose marriage seemed as doomed by Launcelot’s intervention as it did the fitness of the match in question—no matter how huge the purported tracts of land might have been—how many of his other failings were covered up? In concealing to ourselves and our colleagues how many traditional lectures or formal discussions had not gone the way we wanted them, how much emotional energy were we emptying from ourselves to make the classroom as holy a space for us as it could be? It seems, to me, that my “dancing lessons from God” led me to build my own Swamp Castle after only two years of teaching on my own.
If anything, the architectural triumph of Swamp Castle has been its staying power in so many different swamps. Community colleges in Fargo, North Dakota and the New College in Florida would not seem so similar, yet I know personally that both places have their own Swamp Castles. Jesuit Schools have Swamp Castles; the military academies—public and private—have Swamp Castles. There are Swamp Castles in Canada, New Zealand, and even in Indianola, Iowa, where one can buy a roasted cherry and goat cheese gelato for a reasonable price. The key was neither the swamp, nor the castle, but the determination to build where it seemed hopeless. Hope, though, is not just a college in Michigan, but rather a way of life for faculty in the Reacting community.
As the first post that will go in this Blog, I pondered for quite a while what kind of post it should be, what themes I could point out, and how much of an editorial spin I wanted to put on any of these topics.
Then, rather serendipitously, my dog’s tail knocked a copy of The Needs of Others from the textbook shelf in my home office. Having just finished teaching that wonderful simulation, I realized that even asking those questions was a set-up to a joke. One does not control a Reacting classroom, and an editor cannot control, influence, shape, smooth, cultivate, exfoliate, or provide reasonable and affordable home and auto insurance coverage for a Reacting Blog.
So, what kind of Swamp Castle should we build next, colleagues?
About the Author:
Kyle C. Lincoln is a medieval Iberian historian. He has taught widely: at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Webster University, Saint Louis University, and, most recently, at Norwich University (in Vermont). His publications have appeared in more than a dozen venues, and he currently serves on the Reacting Consortium’s Game Development Conference Committee and the Reacting to the Past Editorial Board.
Blog Author Questionnaire:
One word to describe faculty: Convivial
Two words to describe your school: Faculty Uniforms?
Three words to describe students: Youths in Uniforms!
Four words to describe favorite games: Scheming within the Issues
Five words to describe Reacting: GAME (Generally All-encompassing Masochistic Experience)