Learning and Identity (and Birds, which thankfully are not angry)

A number of posts so far have addressed the “now what?” factor of reading Gee’s text in the context of our course on teaching literature.  While I am also vexed by this, I wanted to take a stab at translating some of Gee’s ideas into a lesson plan of sorts.

In Gee’s third chapter on learning and identity, I think I could take his ideas about understanding video games as having “worlds” and ask students—already familiar with this idea of videogames as having worlds—to draw this same parallel with the novels we might read in class.  Gee challenges us to perceive that a video-game character has three different identities:  virtual identity, real-world identity, and projective identity.  Some of these are harder to transcribe than others, but I think all of them are adaptable/transferrable.

Let’s say I’m teaching the novel Jane Eyre.  This is a text that—like basically every text written before 1990, it seems, right?—a lot of students might complain is unapproachable to them because it’s so outdated, they can’t relate to it, the characters aren’t like them, the world in which the novel is set is unfamiliar, etc.

I could start by leading the class in a conversation about understanding the “setting” of the novel as a “world,” much the way we understand the world of, erm, Sonic the Hedgehog to be a “world.”  I could ask the students to describe Jane Eyre’s world.  What are the rules of this world?  What does this world look like?  How do you “play the game of life” in this world?  These would be questions that I hope would open up the “world” of the novel and get students engaged as readers of this “world.”

Then, I would ask students to consider again that in a video game’s “world,” you have access to that world through the lens of a certain character.  So in Tomb Raider, our lens into that world is the character Lara Croft.  But in Jane Eyre, our lens to that world is—no surprise in the title here—Jane Eyre.  (Similarly, a lot of video games are named simply for their main character.)  So, if we want to better understand Jane Eyre’s world, we should try to understand Jane Eyre herself.  And this is where the three identities would come in…

A discussion question about virtual identity might be:  What is Jane Eyre’s virtual identity?  That is to say, within the world of Jane Eyre, what role does she play?  How does she fit into the hierarchy of that world?  (Having already described/defined the world, now students are ready to place Jane Eyre within it.)

Real-world identity is harder to translate, because students aren’t actively engaged as “builders” of Bronte’s novel, but here’s what I came up with for a discussion question:  In what ways is Jane Eyre like or unlike you, the reader, who lives in the real world?  How do those differences and commonalities affect your response to the character Jane Eyre?

Projective identity (harder still to translate, for the same reasons), to me seems like an opportunity to ask students to “project” the character into the “real world” of the reader.  So this discussion might focus on questions like, What would a modern-day Jane Eyre be like?  What clique might Jane be in at school, or how might she dress?  What would her Facebook profile be like, what kinds of things would she “tweet”?  What sort of modern problems would she have?

These interpretations of “three identities” have less to do with building worlds (which is how Gee uses them) than with interpreting worlds, but I still think they could be useful.  And really, the most useful thing of all is just the overall metaphor—being able to take something students know a lot about (videogames) and using that something as a lens or way into something that they are unfamiliar with (Jane Eyre) and/or resistant to because they think it has no relevance to the “worlds” they already understand.  It’s a way to take a literacy they already have (playing video games) to show them how to develop their literacy as readers.

I’ll sign-off with a non-sequitur:  Did anyone else think the section on birding (pgs. 192-6) was completely bizarre? I suppose I get Gee’s point, that learning is a social activity and so on, but, wow…  Then again, I guess I can’t criticize, because I did get an idea about teaching out of that section (though it may not be quite what Gee had in mind).  It would require a lot of collaboration with another instructor, which may or may not be feasible, but what if I were able to coordinate with another lit class that was the same level as mine and running concurrently with mine, and what if I were able to coordinate with the instructor of that class so that my first text was his/her last text, and vice versa…then in the middle of the semester, we could bring our classes together for occasional “norming” sessions, whereby the “experienced” class that already encountered the text could coach the students encountering the text for the first time, and they could compare their reading/birding notes?  This would give the students a chance to mentor each other and learn from each other’s textual interpretations rather than just mine and their own.  And this wouldn’t necessarily be something they were graded on, and as peers, the stakes might feel lowered (or not? Social anxiety still prevails in undergrad…), and this might be a way to achieve the “psychosocial moratorium principle” Gee advocates.  Anyway, just an idea…

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