Teaching

Discussing Mental Health in the Classroom

Last week, I did something that was very difficult for me. And even writing about it is challenging for me, so I feel this post will be short and/or not articulated well. But here we go. Last week, in class, I addressed the recent suicide on Waterloo’s campus, opened up about my own mental health history, and discussed with the class about mental health in relation to campus and strategies to manage and/or alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.

It took me over a week to do this. And while I don’t like excuses, here’s what I was going through: When the news of the suicide happened, I was re-playing Life is Strange because I was teaching it the following week. And in Life is Strange, a student, depending on your actions in the game, commits suicide by jumping off of a residence building. In my play-through of Life is Strange, the student did die and I had to put the controller down and step away. As an instructor, I was deeply concerned with how this may trigger students, especially with the recent suicide. Although I did give out warnings to my students, the timing of playing this game was not good. But I also didn’t want to not talk about it, because I didn’t want to create a stigma around mental health issues. But as a person, I was also triggered by the event because I had a friend last semester commit suicide (they were not a student). I was conflicted, wasn’t thinking straight, and paralyzed in moving on with everything as normal.

On the Monday lecture, my anxiety was high. And somewhere in the lecture, I opened up about my friend because I realized I couldn’t talk about Kate, the character in Life is Strange who commits suicide. Throughout the rest of the lecture, I rambled, I got emotional, and I can tell that the atmosphere in the room got really heavy. So, on Wednesday, I decided that I needed to address the recent suicide on campus and to just talk about mental health, whether in relation to the game or to the culture on campus or to mental health in general.

And Wednesday happened. After a group presentation, I sat down and apologized to the class for not, as their instructor, addressing the recent suicide on campus and reminding them that my class is meant to be a safe and accommodating space (something I open every class with in the beginning of the term). I then opened up to the class about my mental health history, something I do in private one-on-ones with students who come to me but hardly in front of the whole class. And I explained why I delayed in addressing the suicide, though it shouldn’t be considered an excuse. We then just talked, first about campus culture and how certain aspects of campus culture contributes to high levels of stress and depression and anxiety. And then, students started sharing how they manage their stress levels, or how they handled grieving, or how they managed their depression and/or anxiety. No one got into specifics, but they still shared these strategies of managing day-to-day life and their workloads.

It honestly was the most beautiful moments in my teaching history.

Afterwards, I got a number of emails thanking me or some students came to my office hours to thank me for that class. And to my surprise, I was the only one of their lecturers that addressed the recent suicide. I realize, however, that I am in a privileged position as a white, CIS male, and that not everyone can open up about their mental health to the class. It was a very scary thing to do, and I almost didn’t do it. So, I realize and respect others who may not have addressed the suicide in their classes for their own personal reasons, and I hope students understand that point. Students did, however, express frustration that their classes went on as if what was happening out in the world wasn’t happening or didn’t have any influence in the university. Their frustration (and the confusion around this) is completely valid as well.

Moving forward, this has really made me think of ways in which my syllabus can communicate the safety and accommodation that make students feel comfortable in my classroom. It has also got me thinking of how to approach and teach texts that deal with mental health (amongst other topics that can trigger students). I’m glad that my students reached out to me to let me know I did the right thing, but I think there is more than can be done in the structuring of the course, its texts, and the assignments to make students always aware that my classroom is a safe and accommodating space. Of course, as of right now, this falls on the instructor, which is labour-intensive and exhaustive. So I am looking forward to future support that will be given (there are talks) and continuing listening to students.

 

 

Games, Life Writing, Photography

Playing w/ Photos: Thinking Through “Fun-tography”

So, photography has been on my mind a lot as of lately. I’m currently an RA for Dr. Aimée Morrison, and I’ve been researching into family albums and other photography-related research for her work. This has been the bulk of my photography submersion. But I’ve also been re-playing Life is Strange for my Superhero course, and of course photography plays a significant (and sinister) role in that game, both in the content of the game and in the play mechanics of the game (all of the achievements besides completing the episodes are related to taking certain photos throughout the game, a series of achievements that coax you into exploring the game for that perfect shot). This reminded me of another photography-based game I’ve been meaning to re-play: Beyond Good and Evil. But what’s been on my mind is the Game Boy Camera, since I had my students do a group presentation on it one week in my Digital Lives class.

I have an opportunity to prepare a small media archaeological talk on the Game Boy Camera (GBC), tying in the talk to the theme of “rituals.” I’ve decided on thinking through the “fun-tography” campaign of the GBC, and the rituals of “fun-tography” in photography. Although a mentor was quick to note that Huizinga associates ritual with play, I’m still interested in the concept of “playing” with photography and photography’s association with “fun” and “play” rather than professional/studio photography.  Here’s the Huizinga quote: ““The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play, particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world.”

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The GBC certainly takes the GBC photography and its photographed subjects to another world: pictures that users take are incorporated into the games provided in the GBC cartridge, similar to the way that Miis (a character designed by the player, to presumably look like “me,” the user)  can be used in Nintendo’s latter couple of consoles to play in games.

Still, I’m hesitant to pin “fun-tography” with “transporting to another world.” So, I decided to see if the first affordable Kodak film advertised fun, and I wanted to see what that fun looked like. Below are a couple of ads of the Kodak Brownie, launched in 1900.

“Play” and “fun” in these ads do appear right from the get-go. In fact, the Brownie, in these ads, is advertised as a toy for “boys and girls” and can bring some delight and pleasure to adults, too. But the “fun” and “play” in these ads refer to either capturing play or having fun photo-biographically indexing the world. At least for me, it seems that the play with photography in these ads is not “transporting” people to another world, but rather strengthens their relationship to reality.

But the other kind of “play” that GBC offers is drawing on your photos or placing stickers on them. These features immediately recall Snapchat, but I also stumbled upon an excellent chapter in Digital Snaps: “Play, Process and Materiality in Japanese Purikura Photography” by Mette Sandbye. I’m looking forward to reading this later this morning because  Purikura photography is, from what I read from the abstract, photo booth photography, and it had me wondering if the GBC is like or inspired by or a precursor to Purikura photography. Because the GBC feels very photo booth-like.

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But in my cautiousness to attribute “writing on/playing with” photos with new digital tech, I did look into the ability to write on/play with the photos. And hey, that was the Kodak Autographic. Released in the 1920s but discontinued in the ’30s because of poor sales, the Autographic afford users the ability to write on their negatives, which either could be erased or kept in the photos. This feature was mostly for documentary sake, especially when trying to create a photo album and you wanted to maintain a sort of continuity. But I haven’t come across any drawings on photo negatives YET. It would be a delight to see. Either way, the playing and writing on photos, again, don’t quite transport users to another world.

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So, is there a ritual of “fun-tography” that can be traced through “cuts” in photography’s history? I think so. I still have to define what “ritual” means, of which I have a handy set of definitions from Ronald Grime’s The Craft of Ritual Studies that I need to sift through and pin down a definition. And I need to take care around the definition of “play” as well. So here’s hoping I conjure up an abstract by the end of the day.