EL405 Hammering away

We started laughing, and I forgot that I didn’t like this and that I’d rather be doing something else. We worked together and never actually hit a point where we couldn’t make things work on our own. It was a nice, independent sort of feeling (which is a feeling that has been quite rare for me in this course). We actually got through two of the tutorials (out of five… even though the second one was kind of short).

Now, in relating this experience to blogging all I’m trying to say is that I went from resisting the idea to being okay with it. —Karissa KilgoreEL405 Hammering away (Sugarpacket)

One of my students blogs about her experience using Hammer (the game modding tool that comes with Half-Life 2).

I’ve actually had dreams that all of my students were happily modding away, and then in the middle of the dream I’ve noticed that I was dreaming, so that when I woke up and realized I haven’t yet passed this hurdle I would get all worried and get out of bed and revise the tutorials again.

The chance to teach a course like this was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here in the first place. So I’ve been preparing for this day for a long time. I do wish we could have had this moment earlier in the semester, so that students would have had the chance to play with Hammer before they had to commit to their final term projects, but at least they will have the experience.

Karissa is a top-notch English literature major who long ago mastered the undergraduate academic essay. I could see that she was a bit flustered by the “New Media Projects” course, which is the strangest English course I’ve ever taught, since it involves object-oriented programming, 3D design, and learning lots of different interfaces.

The method behind my madness is the idea that a “new media” expert should not simply know whatever counts as “new media” at the moment they take a new media class. I hope that the class prepares them to make sense of holographic cranial implants and whatever else counts as new media long after iPods and HD-TVs are in museums alongside Hi-Fi sets and 8-track tape players.

Yes, of course it’s necessary to be able to produce something substantial in a way that begins to unlock the power of a particular tool, but I also want students to focus on what they do when they confront a new medium.

We’ve written interactive fiction, created Flash animations, built objects out of cubes and spheres, and — today — followed some tutorials that show the students, step by step, how to create a simple map for Half-Life 2 using Hammer.

The course has been an exhausting blast.

Lately the class has mostly been workshop days, where the students work on their individual projects, and all I do is circulate and help them. Since it’s not a coding class, and I’m not really expecting them to master any of the software tools that the course touches on, I have no problem helping them through rough spots by coding certain features for them.

On a typical workshop day, I sweep through the room, one moment pointing out a typo on a student’s page, helping a different student figure out how to get an interactive fiction game to recognize “ascend” as a command meaning “climb stairs,” then helping another student make an invisible button increment a score variable the first time it is pushed (but only the first time), then suggesting that another student begin his presentation by asking the reader to answer some questions and personalizing the content based on the assumptions the reader holds, to helping a lantern-jawed time-traveling librarian punch penguins in a Flash animation.

The students have been great.

Because the course introduced some widely different tools, everyone has gravitated towards the tool that they find most interesting and/or most useful. The students took to Inform 7 and Flash more easily than I thought they would, and while they did make some good progress with The Games Factory 2, it wasn’t a tool that anybody chose to use for their final project. The students liked a book that introduced Flash as a journalism tool, and I think that the next time I teach the course, I would probably drop Games Factory 2 and instead add a different book that introduces Flash as a tool for game programming.

I had the Hammer tutorials ready almost a month ago, but it took us some behind-the-scenes wrangling to figure out how to get Steam (a resource-heavy game-delivery utility that must do something important but I couldn’t tell you exactly what) to work in a computer classroom where the workstations were locked down pretty tightly.

When we got past the first two or three places where I had become accustomed to seeing error messages, I warned the people around me know that I was starting to feel pretty good and that I was getting the urge to hug someone… and when it actually did make it past a certain point where I felt confident I could handle the rest of it, I actually did hug the two IT employees who had come by to help troubleshoot.

I’ve scheduled another Hammer workshop for next Tuesday. The Hammer tutorials are already finished and posted. (I used a free tool called Wink to capture hundreds of screen images, which I then annotated in order to form a step-by-step tutorial.)

I have of course the usual crushing load of papers to mark and the usual issues with freshmen who are panicking now that they realize that the choices they made earlier in the term really will affect the grades they can hope to muster at the end of term. Today I said “no” to several freshmen who asked — at the last minute — for special treatment that I thought was unreasonable.

But I’m still on a high from the Hammer class.