Jeremiad on Play
The authors seem to point out the playfulness of these spaces as a liability for composers. They write: "Although more and more academic MU*s are being built, authors are still faced with the challenge of writing in an environment that was designed more for fantasy and play than for analytical composition" (203). True enough, although this warning seems to suggest a firm line between play and thought directly called into question by academic MU*s. The authors compare student projects in MU* construction to standard researched arguments and informative projects. Students begin with a well-defined and ordered academic purpose and then translate that purpose into the MU* design by blending the creative, playful aspects of MU* writing with the coherent, logically reasoned, well-researched and detailed "informational prose" of standard research papers. The authors counsel students to "tap into the strengths of both kinds of writing as you create your spaces" (214). While this is a solid approach, I worry that it sends contradictory messages about the role of play in student MU* composition. Fundamentally, MU*s are play stages in which every "object" created, including people as real time characters, plays a role in the creation of a simulation. This is not to deny the need for a serious purpose to ground the project, but a "blend" of play and purpose is what hypertext and especially MU* composition is all about. The authors may be addressing instructors' fears that play will take over and defeat academic purposes. No doubt this happens, but I wonder if projecting those fears and negativity about the play element is really helpful in combating the negative effects of excess play. The implicit message, "don't play," contradicts a real need for the play element in this form of composition. The authors do recognize the importance of this element. (See Anderson's "Halio and Play," a segment of his hypertext essay in CWRL, "Not Maimed but Malted.") Why not openly discuss this productive tension between seriousness and play that bedevils and enlivens computer-based composition and conversation? Let's recognize that our investment of time, money, and energy in Internet-based composition is not solely motivated by its academic, critical potential as a new venue of argumentation and learning, but is also conditioned by the blending of playful and serious purposes. If the play element of online composition is important&SHY;-and a blend or dialectic between these impulses and needs strongly suggests that this is so&SHY;-then it behooves us to destigmatize the play element and bring it into our pedagogical discourse.
Instructors not already involved in MU* pedagogy will not find enough information in Connections to overcome that handicap. Aside from resources for the commands needed to build MU* spaces, the greatest problem may be access to MU*s where students can build. At my university and English department, there is no MU* set up for this or any purpose. This is a minor quibble, since the book is for students who are not responsible for providing room on a MU*. In other words, instructors will need to establish a space and some means of instruction in construction commands before this chapter in Connections can be of use. That said, I am happy to see a guide/textbook that takes MU*s seriously as a composition venue. Reading this chapter made me want to get my students building researched simulations in a MU*, and I think the book's examples might generate student enthusiasm for the prospect.
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