Play and Politics in Contemporary Rap

This weeks’ post was contributed by OCH research fellow and TU graduate student Layne Farmen. Layne is interested in contemporary Rap as part of the African American poetic tradition. Here, he explores how contemporary rap “plays” with musical forms in order to re-purpose art for political and social ends.

Tulsa rapper Steph Simon’s video for the song “Upside,” opens with the logo for his organization, “World Culture Music,” before presenting a wide long-distance view of the city. It then moves to an aerial view of the former mansion of W. Tate Brady, the Ku Klux Klan member whose name can be found on buildings and streets all around the city to this day. Simon raps, “Ain’t nobody gonna stop my mission,” as a crowd of dancing, partying people of all ages surround him. The song isn’t about Brady; he isn’t worth the air. It’s about celebration, vibrant art, and resilience. Further, what was once used as a symbol for hate is now being used to propel exceptional black art.

The dynamic repurposing going on here is used in a different way by the poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey, who advocates for a model of “Othering” that turns nouns to verbs, in order to promote multi-cultural understanding. For Mackey the innovations of black artists have historically been appropriated by white imitators, who bring a sort of commercialized stability to the abstract dynamism of the form, moving from “verb” to “noun.” The project, therefore, is to artistically “other,” to utilize “black linguistic and musical practices that accent variance, variability—what reggae musicians call ‘versioning’” (52).

The re-purposing of art in new contexts is central to the conventions of rap music, and the understanding of white appropriation runs throughout. Chuck D, the Public Enemy emcee, for example, used hip-hop and staggeringly loud production to shake the foundations of the establishment by employing the earth-shattering power of language, and famously disses figures such as Elvis for capitalizing on an appropriated form.   Just last week Steph Simon opened for Chuck D with a cover of “Fight the Power, before the Public Enemy emcee was presented with the Woody Guthrie Award.

Rap as Play: The Fugees

One of the playful potentialities of rap music comes from sampling and re-mixing, where older art can be re-purposed into a production mix and spiked with 808’s or trap beats. Artists can then sing or rap over the track to create completely new and exciting art. Though many old-guard artists are thrilled by the prospect of this creative rejuvenation, other more lawsuit happy icons are liable to throw a bit of a fit. 

In my own research, I’m exploring how the work of the rapper Lauryn Hill connects to Mackey’s concept of “artistic othering”. Two of Hill’s most celebrated songs with the rap collective The Fugees are covers/remixes: Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and The Delfonics’ “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love).” The sparsity of Hill’s verses in “Killing Me Softly” along with the energy of the back-up from fellow members Wyclef Jean and Pras in the choruses juxtaposes existential emptiness with aggressive resolve, but there are no explicit political statements since it’s a direct cover. The Fugees “Ready or Not,” on the other hand, was released with a darkly political video.  In it, text hits the screen immediately: “The Fugees’ quest for justice and battle against intolerance continues…” Scenes of post-apocalyptic warfare, racial violence, and refugees on-the-run then follow, all corresponding with potent lines like the following from Pras, “I refugee from Guantanamo Bay/Dance around the border like I’m Cassius Clay.”

Playing with Rap: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

And then, after a bitter breakup from both Wyclef Jean and the rap trio as a whole, Lauryn Hill went solo with one of the most commercially successful records of all time. The staggering success of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill can be attributed to many things, but I believe both a mastery of genre, coupled with an utter disrespect for generic boundaries is key. Joan Morgan, the scholar who coined the term “hip-hop feminism,” says that Hill was masterfully pulling from black musical traditions of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s at will” (14). And despite Drake’s claim that he was the first rapper “to successfully rap and sing” in his work, Hill was always doing both, which since has given way to an openness in mainstream rap to artists whose style exists somewhere along the blurred lines between singing and rapping (Future, Lil Nas X, etc).

Playing Beyond Rap: MTV Live Unplugged No. 2.0

At the height of her success, Lauryn Hill turned the microscope on herself, and delivered a difficult, painful performance that became her second album: MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, which has divided fans to this day. Suddenly the polished performer became a broken vessel, as Hill moved completely outside the conventions of hip-hop to a new setting: a stage, a guitar, a microphone. Between songs, Hill speaks for up to ten minutes at a time, making jokes at her own expense, appealing to voices in her head, and desperately begging her audience to look through the distortions of society to find reality and enlightenment. 


Many thought Hill was unwell and that her rambling between songs was indicative of mental instability. La Marr Jurelle Bruce, however,  in an exercise of “critical generosity” takes a different approach.  He reads Hill’s performance of “madness” as a deliberate means of escape from the turmoil of celebrity culture and public vulnerability.  Her eccentric performance then allows her to “elud[e] surveillance, [gain] privacy, and finally achiev[e] freedom” (378).

Since Unplugged, Hill has continued to tour, stubbornly refusing to cater to her audience’s expectations. Instead of performing her songs as recorded, she accelerates tempos to a manic degree, interpolates hits with reggae instrumentals, and meticulously arranges the familiar into new and near unrecognizable territory. But these revisions are not musical alone. In November of 2018 Hill played in Birmingham, and during “Forgive Them Father,” showed “footage – filmed on police bodycams and jerky phones – of a multitude of black victims of white police violence” (The Guardian). Hill, like Tulsa’s own Steph Simon, is using the playfully subversive capacities of rap to shine a light on systemic white supremacy. And this re-contextualizing power will continue to allow the dynamic medium to be a tool for making verbs out of nouns, and to resist hegemony and the establishment in visible, radical ways, whether it’s dissing Elvis, shedding light on injustice, or throwing a party at an old racist’s mansion.


Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. “”the People Inside My Head, Too”: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill.” African American Review 45.3 (2012): 371-89. Print.

Empire, Kitty. “Lauryn Hill Review – a Difficult Re-Education.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Dec. 2018,

Mackey, Nathaniel. “Other: From Noun to Verb.” Representations. 39 (1992): 51-70. Print.

Morgan, Joan. She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Atria. New York, 2018. Print.

(note: all lyrics were taken from original videos or albums, and checked with the website Genius when necessary).



Hot Work for Coldplay: Approaching Music Criticism with a Ludic Attitude


This weeks’ blog post comes from music writer and OCH Public Fellow Katie Moulton. Here, Katie explores the concept of play in relation to music and music criticism.

As a music critic, my work is a lot of play. Beyond the deluge of press emails and deadlines, awkward phone calls with indie rockers, digging grimy pink earplugs out of every pocket, and occasionally pissing off Coldplay fans—the job is fun. But it’s meaningful fun: a critical approach to culture that requires a playful attitude.

The cliché goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (A 1918 article in the New Republic even says it’s “as illogical as singing about economics.”) This is meant to indicate that it’s a pointless exercise that also misses the point of experiencing the thing itself. I agree that the phrase “dancing about architecture” sounds absurd—but it also sounds like a lot of fun! Imagine your favorite Art Deco building in downtown Tulsa. Now imagine a body moving rhythmically in response to its unmoving monolith: What might it look like, feel like? What could be learned or made in the seemingly vast gap between forms?

In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga outlines the characteristics of play, which include, paradoxically, freedom and order. Play “creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection.” Constraints are in fact necessary for play, because within those limits—imposed outside consequences of our everyday systems—the player is also afforded freedom outside these everyday systems. It’s a feeling of being forced into the present moment. The same concept can be applied to listening to or playing music: a limited system of notes and a limited combination of materials that result in experiencing the full transcendent range of human emotions.

Whether we’re playing games or making art, we accept these limitations in order to access play. It happens when we cross a threshold, whether it’s gathering around the card-table, stepping into the arena—or standing atop or beneath a stage for a concert. These special spaces are examples of what Huizinga calls the magic circle, “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” This temporary world apart is what I take into account, for example, when reviewing a show, the manner in which musicians create the space and how listeners respond/play within it.

The interplay among listeners is nearly as important as the interplay between audience and artist, and among the musicians themselves. Concert-goers are having individual experiences in response to a music performance—their own reveries, memories, preferences, moods—but they are also having a communal experience, in a dark room, shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers. It’s reminiscent of Huizinga’s concept of the “play-community,” determined by the “feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, and retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.”

The best music criticism retains this magic: It makes something more in the space between the music and the writing, not simply a stimulus and response. In Ludic City (2007), Quentin Stevens writes, “Play is a lived critique of instrumentally rational action because it discovers new needs and develops new forms of social life.” Allowing for experimentation and reinterpretation, the most effective music critique creates an active, ongoing conversation—even if the conversation goes beyond what an artist (or its diehard fans) may intend or agree with.

In my career, one memorable assignment that required a dedicated playful approach—even after the piece was written—was when I wrote a concert review of the biggest band in the world: Coldplay. The British pop group broke globally in 2000, and became ubiquitous. The band, and its likeable, if forgettably faced frontman Chris Martin, also became the punching bag for music critics. At some point, it was almost trendy among music snobs to bash Coldplay for its blandness. By 2016, when I set out to review the show, that critique was nearly as flavorless as Coldplay was accused of being. So I went into the arena accepting the rules of the magic circle: be present, see what all the fandom is about with thousands of my glowstick-toting new best friends, and be entertained. It was a feel-good spectacle!

But as one upbeat electro-pop jam bled into the next, peppered with vague calls for “good vibes” to wherever in the world that might need it, my mind wandered. I felt disconnected, not under the spell the musicians were trying to cast, the communal “apart-together” feeling of the audience. As a critic, I must pay close attention to the experience within and without me: the order/systems, freedom, play-community, and that last of Huizinga’s play elements: fun. “Fun,” he writes, “resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” And in trying to describe or analyze fun, we’re back to that initial impossible task: dancing about architecture.

In the review, I wrote that though Coldplay peddles pop to the masses, sometimes the “lowest common denominator” is, in fact, true emotion. I wrote that Martin, in his enthusiasm, exploded into an avalanche of rainbow confetti. But I critiqued the ways the flashy-yet-generic stage show felt like we were being pandered to, as though the band were trying to be everything and therefore stood for nothing. If Coldplay is truly the biggest pop band in the world, I wondered, then what are they doing with that power—artistically, politically? But as a player within the magic circle of the concert, an audience member whose interplay with each other and the artist is essential to the experience—I had to interrogate my own reactions: Why would I write about an act despite my ambivalence? Why would I write about my ambivalence? What role did I play as a critic, in trying to give my own audience whatever it might want? Only by maintaining a playful awareness was I able to find meaning and connections at the heart of the experience. How am I using my platform, small as it is? I wrote. How are you using yours?

When the review appeared, I was proud. I also received more numerous and nasty internet comments than I had ever received before. I was shocked: Who knew Coldplay fans could be so fervent and creative in their insults? But it was further proof that music criticism can fuel a living conversation around and beyond the art, the audience, me—and even beyond the magic circle.

Tulsa 100 Journals Project: Be Part of the Experiment

What will happen when we unleash 100 blank journals throughout the city, asking people to share their personal thoughts and creativity? What will people put in the journals? Where will they end up? Will they be returned?

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities is sponsoring an experimental public art project, and you can be part of it!  As part of this years’ theme of PLAY, we’re distributing hardcover journals throughout the TU campus and the wider Tulsa community. The Tulsa 100 Journals Project is an initiative to encourage people to play, create, and share.

Everyone who comes across a journal is encouraged to add something and then pass it along. Add a story, a poem, a secret, or an opinion. Draw something, make a collage, or anything you wish. Be as creative as you like! You can sign your contribution or you can keep it anonymous.

When you are finished adding to the journal, you can snap a photo of the cover or your page(s) and share on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any social media platform of your choosing. Use the hashtag #100journalstulsa. Tell everyone where you found it (or left it) so someone else can contribute—or pass it along to a friend.

The experiment will officially end on May 1, 2020. All of the journals that make it back to us will be part of a public art exhibit in Tulsa in 2020.

All journals can be returned to The University of Tulsa, 800 S. Tucker Drive, Tyrrell Hall, Room 1035, Tulsa, OK 74104

Be part of the experiment!

Connecting through Community Art

This week’s post is brought to you by Piper Prolago, OCH Student Fellow and TU sophomore in art history. Piper is interested in the ways that public art commemorates and brings meaning to communities outside of the normal confines of efficiency and capital–in turn, community art becomes a space for play and re-imagining mundane spaces.

When I moved to Tulsa for my freshman year of college, one of the first times I felt at home in the new city was driving downtown and looking at all of the murals that decorated the buildings. As an art history major, seeing the way that various communities express themselves has always been one of the most exciting parts of traveling. Whether glimpsed on a road trip or appearing suddenly in my hometown, public art serves to celebrate these seemingly mundane spaces.

With this in mind, I chose to consider the concept of play in public spaces as part of this year’s OCH theme. In a world geared towards efficiency and capital, it becomes increasingly difficult to find ways to reconnect with this fundamentally human urge to play. The inclusion of art in urban spaces not only facilitates, but encourages, us to do this.

In order to explore the connectivity between art and cities, I asked all of the research fellows to select a work of art from their hometown and one from Tulsa. They each spoke about the memories they associated with the works and how they felt individually connected to each piece. In most cases, the fellows selected works that were commemorative or primarily aesthetic, and certain themes began to emerge.

Murals throughout Tulsa as well as examples like Magda Sayeg’s yarn bombing stood out as being intentionally and characteristically playful. These works aimed to shift the way we think about and interact with everyday objects. Rather than seeing the same brick wall or stop sign, these artists use play to readapt and reimagine the urban environment. Through this, we are able to look at spaces we might see over and over again – or even aesthetics that seem to exist in every city – and rethink them. As a result, otherwise mundane objects or spaces  become unique to a certain city. I call these works lusory because they so plainly embody the spirit and idea of play.

The commemorative works that seemed to characterize hometowns illustrate a different kind of public art. Rather than being strictly aesthetic, they articulate a specific message, speaking to the collective memory of a certain set of people. In the case of monuments like a statue of the Colorado Springs founder that Dr. Latham submitted or the Land Rush memorial in Oklahoma City that Professor Taghavi-Burris shared, the works become indicative of the city’s history. These kinds of community art speak to a narrative shared by the inhabitants of a particular space.

While the explicitly commemorative examples above become accessible to inhabitants of a particular space, other veins of community art serve a more specific cultural group. In these instances, community art can give a sense of presence and voice to groups who may not be represented in a space. Examples include eL Seed’s murals of Arabic calligraphy on buildings across the world or Diego Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. eL Seed adapts this traditional form of art characteristic of the Islamic world, reimagining it to challenge viewers’ conception of Muslims in their own communities. Rivera is able to capture a biopic of Mexican history with particular emphasis on the effects of colonialism, revolution, and conquest on indigenous groups. Here, Rivera is able to effectively insert indigenuos issues into a narrative that generally ignores their perspectives.

In both of these instances, community art also has an essential  critical function. In such cases, artists identify issues and aim to draw attention to them with the ultimate goal of remedying a perceived flaw in society. Works like Jenny Holzer’s Vigil projections of accounts of gun violence onto Rockefeller Center confronts the public with a problem, demanding recognition and action to solve it. Alfredo Jaar’s Lights in the City targets the problem of homelessness in Montreal. Jaar installed red lights in the Copula of the Marche Bonsecours, which were triggered when homeless people were invited to press buttons situated throughout the city. By giving the homeless population a very aggressive and visual presence in the city, Jaar aimed to force the population to engage in conversations about a problem that has generally been ignored, just as the people themselves are.

Regardless of how we attempt to categorize such works, they become “community” art through the interactions and memories that individuals within a particular space share with it. Regardless of a work’s seriousness, it starts as being “lusory” by nature. Public art imposes acts of leisure – observation and contemplation – in an otherwise efficiency-centered space. Artists must play with ideas and topics in order to present them to the public in the most compelling manner. Art does not need to be playful in order to play with us, nor does art does need to have a critical meaning to be meaningful.

Play Therapy: Foundations and Education

This week, TU student and OCH fellow Bisher Akel explores play therapy. As a senior studying psychology and biology, Bisher is interested in the potential for play to help children with various challenges, from success in school to emotional growth.

Play is not a new concept by any means. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Bernard Suits and Roger Callois have explored why it might be fundamental to our everyday lives and even our very sense of being human. In recent years, an increasing number of mental health professionals have observed and noted the significance of play in human happiness and well-being, as well as in love and work.

In 1962 on his study of children, psychologist Jean Piaget reported observations that most children in their first decade of life had neither meaningful expression nor the ability to comprehend complex issues, motives, and feelings because they lacked the ability of abstract thinking. Piaget also noted that when a child is in his/her second period of intellectual development, the child begins assimilative play with the ability to form symbols. As the cognitive horizon expands, play becomes more complex with rules, moral judgment, and language development.

My own research looks at play therapy, a well-structured and theoretically-based psychological technique that enables therapists to analyze and understand the motivations behind children’s play in order to understand their psychological ailments and be better able to treat them. Play, it turns out, is a medium of discourse for children with adults, with other children, and even within their own consciousness. It develops self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy. Play can allow children to relieve feelings of stress and boredom, connect to people in a positive way, stimulate creative thinking and exploration, and regulate emotions, behavior, and conduct.

Play in and of itself is a very therapeutic activity, however, play therapy is not mere light entertainment. Instead, it represents a unique form of treatment that is not only geared toward young children, but is also translated into a language children can comprehend and utilize – the language of play.

Because play is the primary way that children learn about the world, understand how different things work, express their thoughts and feelings, and develop their physical, mental, and effective social skills, play therapy provides a means to use the diverse concept of play to benefit children dealing with academic, mental, emotional, or personal difficulties.

Play therapies have been particularly effective in managing ADHD, or attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, a condition that makes it unusually difficult for children to concentrate on tasks, pay attention, stay organized, remember details, sit still, or control impulsive behavior. The incorporation of play therapy into schools offers a means to utilize a child’s disorder to educate them rather than attempting to maneuver around an integral part of the child’s psyche in an effort to teach them despite their disorder. There are even several recent studies that support the use play therapy in an educational setting in order to better aid struggling students in their academics. An Iranian study in 2010, for example, found that the children were able to significantly increase their attention and improve control of their hyperactivity through play therapy.  

Another study in 2014 examined the rationale for cognitive-behavioral play therapy (CBPT) and social skills development in the group setting through a case study and an eight-session social skills experimental group developed for elementary school children. The results of this experiment indicate that this form of therapy is effective with students that demonstrate personal, social, behavioral, emotional, and academic deficits. Other studies explain how the use of play in the school setting, specifically by school counselors, can aid students as they strive to overcome the many challenges that may hinder social and academic growth and success.

Such research just barely touches on the evolution of the field and the expanding views and understanding of the use of play therapy. So what does its future hold? The field seems to be growing both in terms of enrollment in the advanced certificate programs offered at universities and through more research on the topic. New studies might bring to light additional possibilities as well, such as research into the use of sports in play therapy and the incorporation of virtual reality. The way I see it, the possibilities are endless. Therapeutic play is not confined to the clinical playroom or the counselor’s office, and I feel that the use, credibility, and appreciation for it will only grow from here.


Where Do Humanities Majors Find Work?

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences just released a new poster/infographic entitled “Where Humanities Majors Find Work,” as well as additional one-pagers that bring together quantitative data and profiles of innovative humanities programs. With over 7,000,000 humanities majors in the US workforce, they can be found in almost every occupation. According to the recent work indicators, upwards of 18% of humanities majors are employed in teaching, museum, and library positions. A high number of humanities majors also indicated working in management and office settings.

According to

Although the role of the humanities in the economic life of the United States may not be as readily apparent as that of engineering, for example, the humanities are, in fact, crucial to many fundamental elements and functions of modern economic productivity. Institutions such as museums and universities, as well as business enterprises in publishing and journalism, generate employment, returns on private investments, and tax revenues. They also depend on the humanistic skills of critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking, and, while these skills have always been important, they have become increasingly vital to today’s knowledge-based economy, which requires a strong humanities workforce (The Humanities Workforce).

The new releases are part of the “Humanities in Our Lives” series, developed with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The series reflects the Indicators’ holistic view of the humanities, and demonstrates the wide range of subject areas across which the data can be brought to bear.

By collecting comprehensive, up-to-date statistical information, the Humanities Indicators provide a nonpartisan, objective picture of how the humanities are faring in the United States today. These indicators describe employment in humanistic settings and occupations, with emphasis on post-secondary faculty, and also the career paths of those with undergraduate and graduate degrees in the humanities.

For more information on the state of the humanities in the US, career paths for humanities majors, degree program indicators, and more, visit Humanities Indicators.

Tinkering and Making as Play-Potential for Inclusionary STEM Teaching and Learning

This week’s blog post was contributed by Helen Douglass, OCH Fellow and Assistant Professor of Education at TU. Here, Professor Douglass delves into the topic of makerspaces in primary education and the potential benefits of “playing and doing” on young minds.

As I finished my dissertation study working with women physicists and engineers, one particular theme has remained with me long after the defense, the presentations and the publications.  When I asked my case-study participants to take images of meaningful experiences in their lives and describe them, one key idea emerged: a theme I called “Playing and Doing.”  Each participant related vividly these kinds of activities, which we do not often associate with traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.  They talked about playing board games, about tinkering with electronic components their parents ordered through the mail, and about doing logic puzzles in elementary school. One even described her wish for a building set that her mother would not allow.  Each of these women described a fascination with the materials, the building, the problem solving or the collaboration associated with Playing and Doing.  Although each woman’s words and images varied, they all linked these kinds of activities to their own identities, agency and experiences as scientists and engineers. 

I am fascinated with the potential opportunities that the Playing and Doing data open within the current maker education movement. Makerspaces are being incorporated into public schools and public places with a variety of purposes and provisions. My interest is in the spaces that are being developed for STEM teaching and learning. I believe these spaces provide a rich opportunity for more equitable teaching and learning. However, teachers must know how to use these spaces fully and effectively.

There are multiple types of making and maker programs.  Some focus on entrepreneurship (where participants make products to take to real or mock up markets), others on workforce development (experiences that primarily support engineering/design sills), and  others still on more broadly educative activities.  Bevan et al. (2016) organize makerspace experiences into three categories: assembly, creative construction and open-ended inquiry.  Assembly projects are done in a step-by-step fashion with learners having all the materials they need and proceeding through the instructions.  The end product is a set of identical or near-identical objects. In creative construction spaces, learners are given a challenge to address or a model to replicate and have some choice in the look and scale of what they make. The results of making in these spaces are personalized versions of the same type of object.  In open-ended inquiry, students develop an individual idea or goal for making an object and figure out how to accomplish it. Creative, improvisational problem solving is associated with this type of educative making, also called “tinkering.” This results in a wide range of objects designed to address unique purposes and individual goals.  Inquiry-based teaching has driven the reform of science teaching (Lead States, 2013) and is situated well within makerspace experiences.

Despite the excitement around such makerspaces, it is still not clear how one teaches equitably and inclusively in these spaces. People of all backgrounds have been making and creating to address needs and problems in their communities, especially if formal spaces of STEM learning have not included their experiences or related to their current situations and realities (Dierking, Falk, Rennie, Anderson & Ellenbogen, 2003).  I think that makerspaces being created in public schools and used for STEM learning are an intersection of formal spaces and informal spaces. They are informal insofar as they fall outside the bounds of structured time and learning standards, and include a large amount of student choice and agency. They become more formal spaces when they are inserted into the regular time and space structures in public schools, and may be bound by time and at least partially by curricular and assessment constraints.   As such, we need to support and prepare teachers to teach in theses spaces, especially in light of the potential for inclusive and equitable STEM teaching and learning.

Currently, I am investigating how a framework called Acts of Authentication (Verma, Puvirajah & Webb, 2015)  may be helpful in preparing teachers to work in these combined formal and informal spaces. Briefly, Acts of Authentication includes students talking about the content they are doing, in both their everyday language and the language of the STEM disciplines. It also offers students a way to engage meaningfully with the practices of STEM disciplines by doing more than reading about them or following a set of instructions.  Finally, students and their mentors or teachers form a community of practice, where learners of all abilities agree to engage with a topic or content area.  Teachers can be instructed and participate themselves in the Acts of Authentication as a way to teach in these STEM makerspaces that require navigating both formal and informal learning spaces.

The images of “Playing and Doing” that women scientists and engineers shared during my study have sparked a more serious scholarly inquiry into the potential to leverage such activities for all learners.  Imagine what students and teachers could do if these makerspaces can be places of inclusive, creative, open-inquiry STEM teaching and learning.


Additional Reading about Makerspaces in STEM Education

Bevan, B., Ryoo, J.J., Shea, M., Kekelis, L., Pooler, P., Green, E., Bulalacao, N.,

McLeod, E., Sandoval, J., & Hernandez, M. (2016). Making as a Strategy for Afterschool STEM Learning: Report from the California Tinkering Afterschool Network Research Practice Partnership. San Francisco, CA: The Exploratorium.

Dierking, L.D., Falk, J.H., Rennie, L., Anderson, D., & Ellenbogen, K. (2003). Policy statement

of the “Informal Science Education” ad hoc committee. Journal for Research in Science Teaching. 40(2), 108-11.

Douglass, H., Verma, G. & Wee, B. (2018). Making the Invisible Visible: Providing Context of

Women’s STEM Experiences. Paper presentation at National Association for Research in Science Teaching International Conference, Baltimore, MD.

Lead States (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.  Washington, DC:

The National Academies Press.

Verma, G. , Puvirajah, A. & Webb, H. (2015), Enacting acts of authentication in a robotics

competition: An interpretivist study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52: 268-295. doi:10.1002/tea.21195

Tara Aveilhe, Assistant Director

We are thrilled to announce the promotion of Tara Aveilhe to Assistant Director of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities and the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. Tara has been with OCH and the Dylan Institute as Administrator for 2+ years, during which time she has contributed her skills in event coordination, social media, web content management, budgeting, and general administration.

Tara holds an MA in Humanities and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Tulsa. She has 10+ years’ combined experience working for non profit initiatives in the arts and humanities. She has also worked as a freelance writer and academic editor for a number of years.

In her new role as Assistant Director, Tara will continue assisting Director Sean Latham implement rich public programming that engages the TU community and the wider Tulsa community. On the Dylan Institute side, she will assist with the launch and maintenance of several exciting new initiatives beginning in the spring of 2020 as well as planning for the 2021 Bob Dylan conference.

Please join us in congratulating Tara on her new role!

Using Analog Games in the College Composition Class

This week’s blog post comes from David Chandler, OCH Fellow and Assistant Professor of English at Tulsa Community College. David is currently teaching a freshman composition curriculum that uses boardgames and the experiences of playing them as the basis for understanding narrative and exposition.

In a community college classroom on an otherwise uneventful weekday night, a group of students learning about composition were planning a revolution. They took turns leading missions to strike back at the governing powers that kept them in a dystopian state of subjugation, and they suspected that some among the group were loyalists who would sabotage their operations. While the rebels try and root out the spies in their midst, the loyalists attempt to hide their agenda by spreading doubt among the ranks of the resistance, and each person makes careful notes of their opponents’ actions to determine who among them they can trust.

By the time my composition students have finished playing The Resistance, a tabletop game about hidden roles that takes between 20 to 30 minutes, they have catalogued their experience, employed social deduction to evaluate their classmates’ arguments, and created an emergent narrative. All of these elements inform foundational lessons about the writing process–from rough sketches of narrative content to practical rhetorical strategies. Indeed, the experiences my students have in playing and discussing games are among the most valuable they gain in their writing class.

Before discussing the use of games in a college classroom, I want to emphasize that I am not talking about gamification as a pedagogical tool. For advanced courses, I can see how classes built around gamified progress provide a welcome change from the standard classroom template. However, for my community college students, implementing ancillary features like experience points or roles to play could obscure their learning goals rather than elucidate them.

Indeed, I find that the classroom is always already a sort of gamified space for students. Here’s how Johann Huizinga describes the area of play in Homo Ludens:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Huizinga’s description looks more specifically at sacred and performative spaces, but a classroom, safely tucked in a pocket of a larger building devoted to learning, invites comparison. My classroom has rules and expectations after all–explicit agreements of conduct regarding participation and prior reading of the current texts, to name a couple.

In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits coins the term “lusory attitude” to describe the psychological state a player must cultivate before they can play a game. Essentially, a game needs not only rules, but also “the acceptance of constitutive rules so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur” (emphasis mine). A classroom makes similar demands of students: they must be game to learn before learning can begin.

So, with the classroom itself always already gamified, I encourage my students to approach games as texts to be read as well as played. In the example above, students played The Resistance after reading selections of dystopian fiction: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” They compared the two stories with the narrative that unfolded as accusations of betrayal and paranoia flew around the room, each student finding ways to argue for their innocence or build their cases against others at the table. Then, after a discussion about the differences between simulating a dystopia and reading one, they write about how these different texts operate in terms of tone, audience, style, action–all the hallmarks of writing freshman identify in rhetorical analysis.

Recently, I’ve expanded this format by bringing several games from my own collection to have a sort of board game cafe day in class. Students roll dice, play cards, and lay tiles in games such as King of Tokyo, Exploding Kittens, and Tsuro, after which we talk about their experiences. Within minutes, students explain how rolling dice simulates chaos as giant monsters destroy a city, how placing cards in a deck sets up ridiculous traps for their opponents, how moving a stone across a path is an exercise in abstract meditation. These exercises build critical thinking skills to interpret games as more than just fun diversions, though they are certainly that. Games become engines of social interaction to be tinkered with and interpreted.

The trick, of course, is to tie this into the requirements of writing, and while there is certainly no shortage of skepticism of organizing courses around specific themes, in my experience critical readers become critical writers. When students articulate strategic choices in a game while delving into how its mechanics communicate a theme, they do the work of blending active learning with analysis that they then organize into an essay. Colleges across the country put so much emphasis on the need for critical thinking; perhaps it’s time to emphasize critical playing as well.

Revolutionizing the Classroom with Virtual Reality

Our OCH Research Fellows’ blog contributions on the topic of play continue this week with a post by Akram Taghavi-Burris, instructor at the University of Tulsa and an award-winning designer, writer, and educator.


The term play can be defined as taking part in an enjoyable activity for the sake of amusement. Now if you were to ask a student (of any age), they probably wouldn’t consider the classroom a place of play. However, as educators, we want to make learning an enjoyable activity, so how can we make that happen?

This same question has been asked by educators for decades. In fact, William Higinbotham in 1958, was tasked in making the high school tour of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York a more enjoyable activity for students. What he came up with was what most experts consider the first video game ever developed, Tennis for Two. This game was played on an oscilloscope and was intended to be used as a learning tool to teach high school students about the work being done at the laboratory.

Just like today, in 1958 Higinbotham had a hard time engaging the students, and he thought that some sort of interactive display would get the students involved, encourage them to ask questions, and make the overall experience more enjoyable. It’s not recorded how effective Tennis for Two was in engaging the students, but it must have made some impact since over 60 years later kids are still playing video games.

Since video games were intended as a learning tool (and as of 2018, 75% of American households play video games in some form or fashion) it’s no surprise to see video games making their way into the classroom. Indeed, they have been there for a long time. Many of you might remember the hours spent on the Apple II playing–one of my favorites–Oregon Trail. This heavily text-based game provided students an experience of life on the frontier as settlers traveling across the country, teaching money management, strategy, and how awful dysentery was.

Today, video games can offer an even greater player experience for students, especially with immersive new technologies such as virtual reality (VR). These new devices suddenly make real what was once only imagined in education programs like the Magic School Bus. In order to really teach the students about a topic, Ms. Frizzle used her enchanted bus to transport the students to the vast reaches of the universe or down to the smallest atom to explore these topics. VR is the magic school bus. So VR is amazing, but as an educator how do you implement it into the classroom? Here are a few tips and suggestions:

Isn’t it expensive and hard to use? 

Well, the truth of the matter is no. There are a ton of affordable options for VR and even smartphone apps. If you can use a smartphone then setting up VR isn’t that much different. One great example is Google cardboard , a VR/AR viewer that is made of cardboard and plastic. Google cardboard viewers can be purchased for as low as $5 and work with a smartphone and a variety of free apps, such as the Official Cardboard app, Proton Pulse, and Cardboard Camera.

How does VR fit into the curriculum? 

Well, there is pretty much a VR experience for almost any subject matter. If you are teaching science, then why not try a lab simulator, like those offered by Labster. If history or geography are the topic, then there are several virtual field trips such as Google Expeditions. Then there is the Trench Experience VR, which offers students an intimate look into the life of those who fought during WWI. VR tools like Tilt Brush and Blocks provide art teachers with new canvases for their students to experiment on.

Isn’t it just a gimmick? 

Ever take a class where the teacher announces there will be a video that day? Inevitably, students see these as do-nothing activities. The reason for this is that the video was added to the class but not integrated. The active participation of VR, however, makes it interactive, though it still requires thoughtful integration on the part of the teacher to make this experience meaningful within the curriculum.

Is it worth it? 

Consider giving VR a try since it make the learning an “enjoyable activity” and thus add a  sense of play to education—both in the classroom and beyond it.