On Whimsy and Other Essentials: A Story in Three Acts

Which color frosting tastes best on a doughnut? Serious question or utter whimsy? Por que no los dos?

As we designed DPL 2020’s Intro course, Jakob Gowell and I figured out goals and a framework for the course, then got bogged down. Our thinking hit a wall, and our course development stagnated. That is, until Jakob made an observation. Removing expression from his face and adopting a serious tone, he said, “What this course lacks right now…is whimsy.” After a beat, we each laughed, more at the accuracy than at the absurdity. We had to an extent created a lifeless course. It had the standard accoutrements — activities, thematic topics, predictability and organization — but it lacked a sense of fun. Of surprise. We had no expectation of joy in our course.

Jakob highlighted a shortcoming in our course design, an all-too-common oversight when educators focus on content over community. By attending to what we want participants to learn, rather than to the participants themselves, we often overlook the day-to-day interactions that constitute a participant’s actual experience in a course.

When we spend time with our friends, we do so because of the connections we share, the joy they bring, and the fun we have with them. Why can’t our classes provide the same?

Three brief stories shape my thinking about what is ultimately an act of humanizing the classroom.

Act I: DigiDeks at DPL 2018

To start the conversation about how we could add whimsy to our course design, Jakob grabbed a prop. He held up a stack of cards — a sizable collection, to be sure. And that happened to be exactly the point of those particular cards. They were trading cards from DigiDeks, an alternate-reality game from Digital Pedagogy Lab 2018. A Jakob had a lot of them.

As he held up the cards for me to see, a childish grin spread across his face. He knew the sight of those cards would make me happy because I designed them and he knew I’d appreciate seeing them years after the game, but also because he knew I’d recognize the achievement of acquiring so many of the cards — I small source of oft-unappreciated pride for him. We both laughed, and his point had been made.

DigiDeks existed because the 2018 iteration of Digital Pedagogy Lab had a lot going on: courses, workshops, keynotes, meetups, virtual sessions, and even a photo booth. We wanted a way to generate interest in the options and find a fun way to encourage interaction among participants. Basing the game off C’s the Day from the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I built a deck of trading cards representing the people and places that came together to form DPL and a set of quests participants could check off their list of activities for the week.

Outcome: By successfully playing this game, participants will experience whimsy at least once in a five-day period.

The game worked well, encouraging interaction, generating discussion, and facilitating discovery. But most importantly, it was always lighthearted and often pure silliness. The quest names evoked chuckles, the “competition” was always tongue-in-cheek, and people personalized their gameplay, generating small arbitrary goals on random whims. And that’s why it worked so well — people could make the game what they wanted it to be. It was fun, so people played.

Jakob reminded me of that and demonstrated that, at least for him, the game had also been memorable. Of all the wonderful opportunities presented at DPL, DigiDeks added a whimsical twist and provided souvenirs.

Act II: Modern Meat-Packing Plants

With this anecdote, I offer a rather extreme contrast. With the spread of COVID-19 this year, I’ve heard a lot about the problematic scenarios that make animal-to-human disease crossovers (zoonosis) more common, related to climate change reducing natural habitats, forcing closer constant proximity between species. One serious concern comes from the meat-processing industry, which forces humans and animals into tight quarters under intense conditions that can lead to explosive outbreaks of diseases of many kinds.

How does this relate to course design? Meat processing is mechanical standardization applied to biological organisms. Meat-packing plants demand conformity over variation and push workers to extreme levels of repetitive performance. They create problems for both workers and animals alike. The industry sacrifices safety for efficiency and focuses on performance over people.

Sound familiar?

By focusing on grades and test scores, performance metrics, and achievement, the education establishment often sacrifices — quite literally – students’ minds. I teach college freshmen, many of them first-generation students. In my second-semester FYC course, I often spend about two weeks working to find an answer to a deceptively simple question: What are you curious about? After a dozen years of standardized education telling students that textbooks hold everything students need to know and teachers hold all the answers, getting students to generate a complex question without a straightforward, predetermined answer poses a formidable challenge. Curiosity, these students have been taught, has no place in education. Learning, we have taught them, happens by rote, in sequence, and following a predictable pattern.

We educate toward a meat grinder, and we’re killing students’ creative drive in the process.

Act III: Modern Course Design

Rather than using technology to improve the situation or avoid the problem of over-processing students, we’ve done the reverse. Edtech, like meatpacking, expects students to be similar, predictable, and nearly identical. We expect their responses and creations to be consistent and uniform, neither novel nor surprising.

At my institution, every online course students take requires weekly discussion-board posts, with each week’s expectations being a 250-word original post and 150-word replies to two peers. Every course. Every week. For the entire degree program. We use discussion boards to bludgeon creativity, joy, and genuine interaction right out of students and our courses. We have “standards” but no whimsy. Our courses rely on consistency so much that they ignore the people enrolled in them.

Course-design checklists should explicitly include expectations for fun and joy to help ensure students’ engagements and interactions hold more value that the content they digest during the semester. We need to work less to process students and more to inspire, excite, and connect them. We owe it to students to infuse our courses with whimsy.