Making Magic Magical

Three days ago, while serving on a VCU Online Summit panel discussing the summer cMOOC alongside Gardner Campbell, Jon Becker, and Bonnie Boaz, an audience member asked (I’m paraphrasing…with a poor memory) whether students not taking the course for VCU credit–the outside observers–would be able to “place out” of a similar, standard writing course like UNIV-200  after successfully finishing our course this summer.  It is an important question, especially given the nature of UNIV-200 itself: a process-based writing course where students pose a focused question, discover what’s been said/done regarding the question, analyze their findings, and produce their own argument based on what they gather.  Such a class is based on teaching skills rather than direct content, and thus raises interesting considerations regarding how students who are not being directly assessed by instructors of the cMOOC (only the VCU students enrolled will be) can measure their success within it.  There won’t be instructors giving feedback on the progress and products of non-VCU students, and there won’t be any exams to take to see correct answers. What would it take, then, for students who are not being assessed by instructors to “place out” of such a writing course given what they will experience and learn over the summer?  What would “placing out” even look like?

After the panel, we stuck around and talked a bit about the discussion and general things that have been happening with course development.  When talking about associative trails and #thoughvectors,  Gardner brought up a video I shared with Tom Woodward.  During one of our cMOOC meetings last week, I mentioned a gaffe I made in class once where I showed a different TED Talk by techno-illusionist Marco Tempest than the one originally planned.   When getting home later that evening and seeing Tom’s tweet with a link to the video, I quickly tweeted back the final segment of Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants called “The History Lesson,” which led to a wonderful back-and-forth between Tom, Mariana Funes, and myself regarding the connections between magic, language, and reality.

I loved this for many reasons (and love talking about magic and showing anyone/everyone Ricky Jay videos), but particularly because it made me reflect on why I enjoy watching this specific performance so much.  I first saw it when it aired on HBO in 1996 and have watched it, without shame, easily over eighty times since.  And it’s not because I’m still trying to figure out how does he do it!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!   At this point, I’m fairly confident in my understanding of the moves he makes.  If curious about how the cups and balls trick is performed, one can watch Penn and Teller do it with transparent cups and explain how a similar sequence can go.  Though, even after watching the Penn and Teller explanation and seeing “The History Lesson” so many times on film, I’m still blown away by the performance.  What makes it so amazing is how Ricky Jay makes the trick his own: how he uses narrative to make the performance something beyond disappearing and reappearing balls under cups.  Though a performer his whole life, Jay has devoted much time in the past two decades to scholarship.  Steve Martin once said:

I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual élite of magicians. I’ve had experience with magicians my whole life. He’s expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field. Ricky’s a master of his craft. You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who can’t necessarily write but can teach? Well, Ricky can actually do everything.  (qtd. in Singer, “Secrets of the Magus“).

As Jay mentions in the performance, versions of game have been played over hundreds of years and in various genres.  Many people can do versions of the game, but no one else can “do” “The History Lesson” because of its life beyond being a mere cups and balls game: one that includes Jay’s experiences, practice, and affinity for scholarship and storytelling.

In certain ways, I see Jay’s version of the game connecting back to the question from the panel discussion when applied to outside student performance.  If we think of “placing out” of the course as students demonstrating that they can complete specific tasks like finding sources and using them to make arguments in writing, then surely they should be able to place out of such a class upon completion of the course.  Though, if merely demonstrating these qualities meant getting out of such a writing course, then most students would place out: it’s not hard for most students to do some research and write a passing argumentative essay.  However, the goal of the course, both in its regular iteration and in the cMOOC, isn’t just to help students make acceptable work–it’s to help them make exceptional work. The goal is to help students engage in a sustained process of inquiry and development to create new interpretations of phenomena, both organic and unique given their experiences.

Like “The History Lesson,” there are always ways to make something more amazing.  Getting students to understand this and apply it to their own work may not be the only requirement for successful completion of the course this summer, but it seem like a good place to start.



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