St. Michael’s Profs Use Creativity to Remotely Engage Students

Felan Parker sitting on a bench on the St. Michael's campus

As a scholar of video games in popular culture, St. Michael’s Assistant Professor Dr. Felan Parker is deeply familiar with entertainment platforms used to livestream video games for an audiencea genre of media that has only grown more popular among Parker’s students since the pandemic forced their lives online.  

Parker puts his expertise to use by using the streaming platform Twitch to teach, offering critical and academic commentary on his own playthroughs during his courses and virtual eventsDoing so enables him to provide direct insight into issues of form, themes, tropes, and even the economics of production in the context of the games themselves.   

“I think being a media scholar is a double-edged sword in this situation,” says Parker. “On the one hand, I have practical knowledge of digital media and conceptual understanding of how to use them effectively, but on the other hand I am acutely aware of the challenges and potential problems with digital platforms,” he says. Making sure students understand how platforms leverage user data for targeted advertising, for example, has been important to Parker during the transition to remote teaching.  

Each week for classes such as his First-Year Foundations course How to Study Video Games, Parker uses Twitch to play a different game live on stream with running commentary about how it relates to the topic, and students will chime in using the text chat function.  

“Rather than being passive observers, I’m taking advantage of the interactivity of the platform to encourage students to be ‘backseat players,’” Parker says. The active involvement of his students during in-class streams ranges from their own observations about the game and connections to other class materials to crowdsourced decisions that Parker uses to drive ahead the game’s action.  

The Twitch engagements provide a foundation for further discussion, and Parker uses the stream in part to model “a critical and analytical mode” for students to practise when they interact with games. Twitch also factors into the course content because it’s become an essential promotional tool for game developers as well as a major presence in gaming’s cultural ecosystem. In his research, Parker explores the way the streaming platform has become essential for independent game developers to market their wares, and in class he uses it to showcase games his students may not have seen or been able to access before.  

A screenshot from Twitch of the indie game Blasphemous; profs Felan Parker and Stephen Tardif are visible on the lower corners.
St. Michael’s profs Dr. Felan Parker and Dr. Stephen Tardif discuss the indie game Blasphemous during a Streaming SMC session on Twitch.

One example is Blasphemous, a game Parker played on Twitch to kick off Streaming SMC, a new series in which he invites fellow St. Michael’s professors to join him to discuss games relevant to their expertise. As Parker’s St. Michael’s colleague Dr. Stephen Tardif offered commentary linking the game’s pseudo-Catholic aesthetics and narrative to real-world sourcesComper Professor of Medieval Studies Dr. Alison More entered the chat to provide historical insight into subjects ranging from 13th-century understandings of purgatory to medieval penitential movements.  

The way games and other popular media help to shape and inform modern culture is one of the interests that drives Parker’s research. This year, he joined scholars from several other universities to collaborate on a SSHRC grant–funded project, Swarming SDCC, which looks at the complicated relationship between media industry producers and fans. The two groups have very different relationships to both entertainment franchises and the ComicCon events that showcase them, as Parker and his collaborators argued in an article for The Conversation. Eventually, Parker says his hope is to bring his students into the project as researchers “to participate in the actual on-site ethnography. 

“I always strive to give students the tools to bring a critical perspective to bear on the digital media and technology that structures their everyday lives,” says Parker. “This feels particularly pressing in this moment, since for better or for worse we are more immersed in digital media than ever.”  

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Consult Fall 2020 for current updates on St. Michael’s plans for the fall semester. 

In the aftermath of the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man responsible for the death of Black teenager Trayvon Martin, a hashtag began to circulate on Twitter: #BlackLivesMatter. In the years that followed, the hashtag has transformed from a rallying cry in response to police violence against Black people to a powerful movement for racial justice and equality around the world. 

Starting in the Winter term, a journalist, scholar, and activist who has been deeply involved in the conversation about the movement in Canada will teach a high-level seminar on #BlackLivesMatter in the Book and Media Studies program at St. Michael’s.  

St. Michael's visiting instructor Emilie Nicolas
St. Michael’s Visiting Instructor Emilie Nicolas

“To answer the question of the relationship between the movement and the media, it is necessary to answer a second question: do Black lives matter in the media?” #BlackLives and the Media course instructor Emilie Nicolas says. “That second question is the question that goes way before the creation of the [BLM] movement, which is very much the latest iteration of a human rights movement that goes back generations.” 

Providing this historical context for #BlackLivesMatter is an important goal for the course, which will also provide a critical perspective on the dynamics of power and the complicated interrelationships between the movement and the media environment in which it emerged. Because the media environment varies from country to country, Nicolas will also offer a comparative international perspective to help students grasp the nationally specific characteristics of the movement and its reception around the world. Though the hashtag first appeared in response to violence in the United States, it’s important to remember that #BlackLivesMatter “is not just an American movement,” she says. 

As a columnist for Québécois newspaper Le Devoir and a regular contributor to national outlets such as CBC’s Power & Politics and CTV’s PowerPlay, Nicolas has spent years observing and participating in conversations about how the media covers stories about Black people—and how it can fix its coverage. She also “contributed to social movements and organized on behalf of victims of police brutality in Montreal,” and several years ago helped head up a group that lobbied against Canadian media using blackface. This larger background in both journalism and organizing will fuel a course that provides an inside look at the dynamics of both media institutions and the movement for racial justice that sees media as a “battleground.” 

With guest speakers including both reporters and organizers, the course will also be responsive to breaking news, including the aftermath of the upcoming American election. “When we understand the relationship between anti-Black racism and the media better, we can understand the news better,” Nicolas says. 

#BlackLives and the Media continues a series of topical Book and Media Studies seminars that began in 2018 with Trump and the Media, a class taught by journalist and former New York Times editor Sam Tanenhaus. Last year, the series continued with #MeToo and the Media, which was jointly taught by Jessica Johnson of the Walrus and the late Anne Kingston, a senior writer and columnist for Maclean’s. 

“In its efforts to educate students in media literacy, the Book & Media Studies Program must engage the salient issues of the day, particularly those of social justice, media manipulation, and systemic racism in North American society,” Interim Principal and Vice-President Mark McGowan says. “It is imperative that our students explore the engagement of #BlackLivesMatter and the media and I am delighted that St. Michael’s College can provide a forum for this important conversation.” 

SMC300H1S #BlackLives and the Media will be taught on Fridays from 12 to 2 p.m. during the Winter 2021 term. 

Isabella Mckay is a senior student majoring in Book and Media Studies at the University of Toronto. Following her passions in marketing, communications, technology, and media, she has become the Vice President of TechXplore, the Director of Marketing of Data Science Toronto, and the Assistant Project Coordinator at the University of Toronto Faculty of Arts and Science Dean’s Office. Mckay looks forward to applying her passions and work to innovate the future.


Love and Happiness as True Measures of Life

The city of Toronto on a partly cloudy day

During the coronavirus pandemic, I have discovered that the principles of humanity, which are love, togetherness and health, exist as the ultimate purpose and meaning of life.

On January 27, 2020, the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg confirmed the first case of coronavirus in Toronto. Remembering the words of my mother to not fear and panic but be prepared and cautious in case of emergencies, I bought one of a few alcohol rub left at a pharmacy in Toronto. At my condo, I found one pack of 20 N95 masks for around 85 dollars with express shipping on Amazon. Although I could search for cheaper masks, future prices would likely increase, and then I might search longer to find no masks and sacrifice my health. I would work to recoup the price within hours; however, I would spend more time and energy to regain what was most important, my health. I purchased the N95 masks within three minutes.

When coronavirus cases rapidly increased after February 24, I had the proper procedures and supplies to calmly protect myself from the coronavirus while others began to panic. I still socialized with friends, studied at the libraries, and attended club events at the University of Toronto.

Then, the University of Toronto announced that, as of March 16, it would close, and move to  online courses and examinations to limit coronavirus cases. I wore my N95 mask as I walked around the campus and a downtown Toronto that resembled an abandoned town devoid of energy and emotion.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, I huddled in a tight and quick one-way line of students to attend my classes on time. Now, I freely and slowly roamed past three students on my way to the library. I used to walk around for five minutes to find an empty library seat and to hear pencils and pens scratching on paper during midterm and final exam season; now, however, I found an empty seat and heard the hum of the air conditioner as soon as I walked into the library. I used to sit next to students who flipped through pages of homework, wrote mathematical equations and assignments, and coded programs. As I sat in one of the hundreds of empty seats, I remained two metres or more from other students because of my own preferences or because of tape placed between every two desks and in front of desks.

With the cancellation of on-campus classes and exams, I returned to my family home in Vancouver on March 21. Although the Canadian government did not require citizens to self-isolate on a domestic flight, I feared that someone might have coronavirus on the plane. I wanted to ensure that I had no symptoms and that I would not transmit the virus to family, especially my single mother and grandmother. At a young age, my father passed away. My mother and grandmother raised my siblings and me. If I transmitted the virus to my family, I would fail to mend my shredded heart.

Although I talked to my family and friends through my phone during isolation, I became an outsider who might have a disease that everyone feared. I yearned to be near my loved ones, especially my family who sacrificed their time and health to care for me. I did not want, and  was not motivated by, my empty university scores and jobs, which for years  I had desired most; instead, what I wanted and was motivated by was familial love and unity.

Once I left self-isolation, my family revealed that they struggled to obtain essential groceries and supplies. Before the coronavirus, my family and I might spend half an hour choosing organic and natural vegetables among full shelves. Now I wore ski goggles, plastic gloves and a N95 mask as I social distanced to purchase any supplies at a local grocery market.

Similar to food and supplies, before the coronavirus stole the simplest moments, I took daily and normal activities for granted in order to pursue my career and high marks. I carelessly walked, compared to now seeing someone and moving to the other side of the road. I carelessly talked to others, compared to now yelling over two metres to discuss the coronavirus lockdown. I carelessly socialized with friends compared to messaging them. I carelessly went anywhere to perform multiple activities compared to restricting myself to my home and grocery trips. Appreciating people and the simplest things are blessings of happiness. I am not measured by what I have, but who I am and how grateful I am to have what I have.

Once the lockdown ends, I will refuse to let fear control my life and I will experience the meaning of life: to be around loved ones and increase happiness activities. When will I get another chance, and who foresees the future?

The coronavirus pandemic has taught me how health is the most important quality and how everything else is minor, how people, and the smallest and simplest things, deserve appreciation, and how love and happiness are true life measurements. These essential human qualities are the purpose and goals of an amazing life and these human foundations will support the fight to defeat the coronavirus.


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