T580: Norb’s “Vacation of Ideas”

by Ken Rosenberg

T580: Interactive Storytelling and Computer Games has been taught by several different professors over the years. This semester it is being taught by Professor Norb Herber, who took the same course 14 years ago under former IU Professor Thom Gillespie. Well, not the exact same course – the course description affords a latitude that allows each instructor to craft the syllabus to fit their unique brand of insight and expertise.  “Anytime I’ve tried to model a class on what its predecessors had done, it’s never gone too well,” Norb said. “It’s like putting their words in your mouth – it just doesn’t work.”

“Thom was eternally optimistic about the creative potential of everyone who was in the class and had unique talent” and that, Norb said, led him “to look at someone’s past experiences and automatically find five or six things that they could be doing with what they already knew how to do, in a new way, given what current technologies and software made possible. He would cheerlead people, in that way.”  While Norb does not see himself as a cheerleader, he says “I would hope that the way I work with students is constructive. I try to find a way to support what they’re doing, and help them do it in a way that’s going to be sustainable for the future.”

Over the years most students in T580 have been interested in some aspect of game development. However, Norb’s eclectic group is also interested in camerawork and other types of production work. Since he had been on the graduate committee, Norb had a sense of the mix of interests of the new class.

“People are coming here with an idea of what they want to study,” Norb said, “but, at the same time, they want to do something new. In graduate school, you always get turned on to all sorts of new things that you didn’t even know existed before you came here. So, I wanted to try and structure the class in a way that acknowledged and supported that. I had a sense of what I wanted to do, and I thought that the worst thing I could do was to go in there with a confining curriculum, demanding that everybody do the same thing. I didn’t want to say ‘this is what the course is going to be’ and have half the room unhappy or upset.”

Norb’s T580 is therefore much more about inspiration than dictated direction.  One source of inspiration for Norb was a book lent to him by Professor John Walsh:  Inventing the Medium, by Janet Murray. It hasn’t been quite the hit with students that Norb had hoped for, but it has proved to be sufficient inspiration for class discussions. “She talks about everything I felt would be relevant to people who want to create media at this point in history,” Norb said. “As a survey, the book is great, since it connects current platforms with what came before. It’s been good for reorienting everyone to what’s happening right now, and also in jogging people’s memories to help them remember things they used to play, or tools they used to use, or software they used to tinker around with. In that respect, it’s worked well.”

Really, though, the book is “just a springboard,” Norb said. Students are supposed to read the chapter assigned for the week and post their contributions on the class’ Tumblr – and they can post anything: a quote, a passage, an image, a link, even “an old website they used to visit in high school,” Norb said. Discussions can start with alert messages in apps, and end with airplanes and pilots’ use of autopilot features. Murray’s books also inspired the first two of the class’ three projects, which could be either a paper or a production piece. Norb asked his students to stretch, just a bit, in that two projects can be of one type, but one must be of the other – meaning directors have to research, and scholars must get their hands dirty in the media they more often observe.

The first two projects are due early in the semester, while students have significantly more time to work on the third one. Many students have chosen to make one semester-long, three-part project: design, draft, and prototype. People have turned in game design documents, immersive virtual environments made from photos (as opposed to 3D models), mini documentaries, Flash games, interactive fiction, mobile games, and even a card game. One of the main requirements is that, due to the short three-month turnaround, projects should be small; students should be able to complete something, to add it to their portfolio.

“The idea behind doing all this stuff,” Norb said, “is to try to help people connect what they’ve been doing, with what they think they’re going to be doing, with what they will ultimately end up doing. When they look back and someone asks them what they did in their master’s program, they’ll be telling a story about how they came in hoping to do one thing, and ending up someplace else. I hope that this class will play some part in students’ zeroing in on what they’re finally going to present in their M.S. exam.”

As Norb said at orientation this year, this class was made to be a “vacation of ideas.” As with most vacations, the schedule is tight, but there is plenty of room for play and exploration. Norb is scheduled to teach the class again, next Fall term – so, if you need a vacation to work on your ideas, take his brand of T580.

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