Joshua A.C. Newman, Educating Despite Education

Education I/O

My experiences with school until I got my high school diploma were pretty miserable. Growing up in Newport, Rhode Island’s frankly parochial public school system showed me just how much an educational system can be at odds with an education. The few shining educational experiences I had came from teachers who often found themselves teaching in spite of their purported allies in administration and among other teachers. Without those subversive, guerilla-educating teachers, I’d have been lost altogether.

Having now taught at levels from third grade through graduate levels, I’ve developed a set of techniques designed to give students room and permission to experiment, fail, laugh, take critique, and experiment again.

Student, Hampshire College

When I chose at 19 to go to college, I chose a school that could give me the tools to develop autodidactic technique. In that first year, I made films, wrote papers, I had a lot of scale to drop from my eyes, so after my first year, I left to start my business and join City Year. After two years, I returned and completed my Bachelor’s degree.

Corpsmember, City Year

While living and working in Providence, RI, I was a member of City Year. We spent a significant portion of our time in lower- and middle-school environments, supporting the teachers who wanted their students to learn how to learn, and getting cold shouldered by those who didn’t.

I recognized several common features of the institutions in which I worked that led to educational dysfunction. In addition to known, institutional problems, there were other features that seemed unintentional, but nonetheless powerful. Not the least of which was an intention to teach to evaluative tests, rather than teach students how to maximize their minds and bodies.

The buildings themselves, built as they were to maintain segregation in the rapidly evolving 20th century, deprived students of coherent information. Temperatures were sweltering. No one could hear words because of the echo. Window shades were kept closed to prevent students from thinking about anything but the heat and echoes.

I was assigned to a computer teacher whose instructions to me was to do nothing; that I was giving away for free what was his income. On the computers, he had installed a screen saver of nighttime eyes, “to remind you that I am always watching what you’re doing.”

I was invited by a science teacher to a neighboring classroom to help his struggling students learn programming and logic. The experience was far more enjoyable. And, of course, the difference between those teachers — both underfunded, both with class sizes three times the recommended, both with absurdly short and concentration-shattering period lengths — dealt with the problems differently.

Student, Hampshire College
(Hard Mode)

While at school, my primary interests were in the philosophical, technical, and practical aspects of mind. That interest let me to an extended study of Artificial Life (following my hypothesis that minds are a product of very specific evolutionary constraints), a certain degree of neuroscience (in which I have little talent, but a great deal of ongoing interest), and education.

In furthering my interest in education, I began taking science education classes to learn how learning works. I taught science classes to third graders that centered on the iterative process of constructive learning. Not only did the classes teach me the stark differences between urban, black, overcrowded, and aggressively underfunded schools and their rural, white, intimately, and well-funded school departments, but they also showed me the differences in the ways that boys and girls are taught to gain and wield knowledge.

I also dug deeply into machine/human interface and linguistics. I assisted professors, ran classes, and designed projects like the KiddyFace Table, which used my design specification in combination with interactions and gestures now common in touchscreen interfaces. One of my proudest moments remains seeing our humble prototype literally buried in children as they played with it at the Smithsonian for a weekend.

My thesis project, entitled Homunculand, was a science fiction story, written as two parallel narratives, about an artificial life project that evolves sapient agents. Stylistically, it drew from both the canon of science fiction and the story of the Golem, using modern mathematics in a similar way to Hermetic systems of magic. I wrote, illustrated, printed, and bound two copies of the book in a Medieval European style. I consider this book gp0001, the first publication of the glyphpress.

Lecturer, Yale University School of Fine Arts

After two years of mucking about in the .com environment of late-90s Boston and cutting my teeth on my first big graphic design contracts, I received an offer to lecture at the Yale University School of Fine Arts. My responsibilties ranged from the administrative, to technical education in digital art technique, but while I enjoyed being there for most of my four years, I found myself creatively stagnating.

On the other hand, this is the period in which I was designing and building small sailplanes, learning about aerodynamics in much more depth than I had had to in order to teach 3rd graders. I found that my greatest interest was designing just on the safe side of the stall, at extremely low Reynolds numbers (with wingspans typically at a meter or less) because of the elegance required to make such machines fly.

As I was wrapping up my time at Yale, I found myself inspired by several small game publishers in my circles. I hatched a scheme for my second publication, a roleplaying game where a child’s toys compete to aid a child through a moment of crisis in their lives. It was called Under the Bed, and it was my first published game. I brought it with my fellow tiny publishers to Gen Con and sold my first print run in a few months. It’s now on my publication schedule for a third edition.

The process of becoming a publisher is an intense, autodidactic experience, so you can read about that over here.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Game Design, Hampshire College
(Super Hard Mode)

In 2012, I was invited by my old advisor, Lee Spector, to start Hampshire College’s game design program. I designed and taught three classes, drawing from studio art class techniques. The rapid iteration, critique/create/critique process that I use seems to give students great opportunities to refine their thoughts over the course of a semester. In the process, they learn critical analysis, rudimentary Nash game theory, and about the powers and responsibilities of creators as they confront the thematic content of their creation.

At the end of the year, the school (and by induction, I) was honored by the Princeton Review when it named Hampshire College as one of the best schools in the country for game design.

Because I have no terminal degree, the school had to find a more permanent professor for the position, and I left the budding program in the good hands of Ira Fay.

Visiting Lecturer of Game Design, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

This last year, the University of Massachusetts invited me to work on a similar program for their Computer Science department. I’m working with a PhD candidate to get the first game-related class for their nascent Informatics major as we speak.

I’m doing what I can to adapt Hampshire’s radical pedagogy to UMass’ state school-style system with successes that vary by student and context. I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to reflect on it and see what I can learn from the experience.