The magic of making things

I hereby direct you to the final project of my May term W&L class: a co-created website for a fictional liberal arts college, Bigglebottom Academy of Magic. The participants in English 239: Magical Education worked through four books in four weeks about schooling for sorcerous types: Le Guin’s novelette “Dragonfly”; Okorafor’s Akata Witch; Grossman’s The Magicians; and Bardugo’s Ninth House. They wrote a conventional English essay and lots of short assignments, but at midterm we pivoted to studying how college websites are written and brought in some real-world smart people for conversation, including general education committee members and a specialist in WordPress for technical training. Their collaborative final project was a big writing and design task–menus within menus with virtual tours and more!–and also a complex exercise in world-building. You have to know how magic works in a particular world to figure out how magicians ought to be educated, so they created a system in which would-be wizards have to eat magical plants and animals in order to (temporarily) gain magic powers. From there they extrapolated an alternate-earth history of resource wars as well as a curriculum and social world including sports and clubs. After all, if you eat magic, people are going to compete to find and control creatures and materials. It’ll get ugly fast.

I steered elements sometimes and asked lots of questions, but they really made the choices, including the goofy name. It was fascinating to watch it turn into satire: the rah-rah language and imagery of college websites is pretty easy to mock, and these were very smart students from all four class years and a wide range of disciplines. Our conversations sometimes ran deep. People study at liberal arts colleges, of course, without quite thinking through what “liberal arts” means; the course drove home for me how instrumentally many approach their college careers, often looking for professional training and credentials more than what professors dream they’re offering, which might be something like free experiment with a range of disciplines, and for me, opportunities to grow as critical thinkers and writers. I wanted it to be a fun course in which they’d be intrinsically motivated to read and write, but also an occasion for thinking about why they’re here and what they want to learn. I haven’t had time to read the course evaluations yet–classes ended Friday, graduation is tomorrow–but it felt like it worked! One student even wrote a 11,000 word piece of pretty good Bigglebottom fan fiction during the course, just for kicks.

On the tech side: I’ve been proofreading the website and it’s not perfect, in part because we had fifteen cooks in the magical kitchen. Nor does it really work on a phone; the menus don’t show up, at least for me. But it’s rich, detailed, and often very funny. There’s an Easter egg, too. If you click on the picture of Mr. Bigglebottom in the “Our Story” section and enter the password “death,” you get to the secret Dark Arts curriculum for which the college is quietly notorious, underneath its surface rhetoric of training ethical magicians. Ahem.

The tension between ideals and money is acute in U.S. higher ed. Where I work, as in many other places, we’re struggling to keep up humanities enrollments, although creative writing courses remain in demand. Partly that’s due to misinformation about credentialing. Even though W&L is a rare hybrid–a liberal arts college with a business school–English majors do slightly better getting jobs and places in grad school than the university average (96% for English majors!). Yet our majors are ribbed constantly for their apparently impractical choice. The stereotype drives me crazy. Studying literature in small, writing-intensive classes like the ones I have the pleasure of teaching–including analyzing the apparently arcane and useless art of poetry–gives students skills employers prize. That’s far from the only reason to study literature; the main one, for me, is that thinking about any kind of art makes life far richer and fulfilling. But actual riches? A relevant consideration, especially now that higher ed is a huge financial investment. (Bigglebottom costs $60K per year, my students decided.) And we don’t even know yet how AI writing tools are going to change the educational landscape. Teachers’ lives may well get much worse.

Beyond credentials: one reason creative writing is attractive to students is that they’re making things. Creation feels magical. English-paper-writing is creation, too, but not of a kind students particularly want to share with others or keep practicing after graduation. That’s a real problem for the field. Co-creating websites isn’t always going to be the answer to that problem–much less websites for fictional magical liberal arts colleges–but my students’ delight in the process is a lesson to me.

4 responses to “The magic of making things”

  1. I explored the website–amazing! Academia generally has the reputation of being terribly slow-moving, but your students got this together in a few weeks! Kudos all around (it’s fun!)


    • Oh, we remain slow about so many things! Still waiting for some kind of administrative comment on ChatGPT, when that horse is already out of the barn. But thank you, and yeah, they did a good job fast!

      Liked by 1 person

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