Higher Education


Feels good to be back on Mondays. Anyway, Ryan and I both spend a lot of time around universities. After grad school I began working for a faculty association, and he’s just gone off to a new one to begin his doctorate (This is his first week of his phd, so hop over to one of his posts and congratulate him). Universities often seem like afterthoughts in settings, abstract places where education happens. They see play in contemporary college setting games, but I want to talk about how they can make for great stories in other settings, especially medieval fantasy.

What’s a university? An insider’s perspective

Universities and colleges are usually depicted much like high school. There’s teachers, students, classes, a curriculum, The major relationship there is between teachers and students, and the thing that goes on is teaching. This is all true for the most part, but it doesn’t capture the entire picture. There are some core differences.

Universities aren’t one big thing

MortarboardThey’re like business consortia, usually made up of fifteen or so companies, and employ a class of people that goes largely unseen by the public. Administrators. They do all the registration, find the funding, and make all kinds of decisions so that teachers can focus on teaching and students can focus on learning, ideally. What actually happens is that all three groups pretty much fight like cats and dogs about what’s essential to an education and how they’re going to pay for that.

Professors do more

In addition to planning and teaching classes, they also have to do research, which means spending a lot of time in their field publishing articles or making things. There’s also service, which requires them to be involved on campus in committees and governance, otherwise they might insulate themselves entirely from such rigors. They’re experts in their field and expect to be treated as such. Their classroom is their kingdom, and they react poorly to interventions.

Everyone is moving

Whether you’re a student looking past their degree, a professor jockeying for tenure, or an administrator trying to move up, everyone at a university is going somewhere. Even treading water can be difficult when the water’s full of sharks.

Universities cost money

You think your degree was expensive? Multiply that by the number of students at your school to get the barest picture of a university’s income. Modern universities handle millions of dollars every term. Where there’s that much money there’s tension and where there’s tension, there’s a story.

How do they fit in games?

There’s two elements here that are tied together. One is universities, these monolithic organizations with internal and external politics that are the site of education, administration, and experimentation. The other is higher education itself as a determining factor in the future of individuals and a society. In a 2010 address, President Obama said “The kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school.” Whether that’s true or not is a matter of some debate, but the fact that people believe it means that it creates distinct strata in society based on education and success. We find this tension in the real world, and it fits into a a game just fine, causing tension between archaeologists and treasure hunters or sorcerers and wizards.

Over the next month, we’re going to talk about teachers, students, campuses and more, to show how universities and the principles of higher education can find a place in your stories.

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