Dungeons & Dragons & Graduate School

Full vitae main dungeons and dragons

Image:  Scott Swigart, Creative Commons

By Mark Celeste

“After a four-hour slog through tangled undergrowth and whipping branches, you finally emerge from the forest. At last, you lay eyes on your destination: a tall, ivory tower, partially silhouetted against the setting sun. The imposing column reaches skyward."

I began playing Dungeons & Dragons in 2009, around the same time I was applying for master’s programs in English. I’m still playing it now as a doctoral candidate in my fifth year and, strange as it may sound, I have come to associate D&D with graduate school.

I often find myself using the game’s language and mechanics to describe the weird and wonderful world of academe — such as "This is a DC18 assignment" (translation: "It will be difficult"), "I need more skill ranks in Concentration," (translation: "I’m having trouble focusing"), or "That professor seems to have picked me as his Favored Enemy" (self-explanatory).

Both D&D and grad school require a keen awareness of your abilities, environs, allies, and (supposed) enemies. Both require trial and error to learn their rhythms, vocabularies, and idiosyncrasies. And both involve flexibility and a sense of humor. (I can only hope some readers are already amused by my metaphor.) Much like rabid D&D players, those of us in academe tend to take ourselves far too seriously. The cloistered scholar, hunched over his desk or lost in her notes, has more in common with the enthusiastic D&D role-player, engrossed in strategy and imaginary worlds, than we may willingly realize.

So fear not, curious adventurer, for I shall be your guide. Over the past eight years I’ve learned a great deal about grad school and an equal — if, admittedly, not greater — amount about D&D. Much to my delight, I’ve found that the two endeavors overlap in productive ways. Here I want to sketch out some of these intersections. In so doing, I want to use D&D as a heuristic for better understanding the trajectory of graduate education in the humanities, with a special attention to teaching.

D&D and literary studies are two worlds that lay folk may find unintelligible. To the ear of an outsider, the fantastical names of D&D — consider, for instance, Fharlanghn, the benevolent god of wayfarers; Veltalar, the capital port city of Aglarond; or Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, a second-level enchantment spell — might sound just as opaque as certain multi-syllable literary terms — negative capability, epistrophe, Kunstlerroman. To the uninitiated, we might as well be speaking in tongues.

A role-player and an academic, then, must know how to explain their world to others. I did not truly grasp that skill in D&D until I took on the role of Dungeon Master (cue ominous music and thunderclaps), the part-narrator, part-referee figure who designs and oversees the adventure. Likewise, I did not truly come to terms with the world of literary criticism until I began to teach. The challenge of explaining what you do — and how and why you do it — to a classroom full of sometimes distracted students is the greatest catalyst for understanding your own work.

Teaching often takes a back seat in graduate school to research and publication, which are undoubtedly important. But teaching should play a fundamental role in our work: Classrooms are laboratories for ideas, open fields for adventure. (At times I wonder if those who repeatedly denigrate teaching are simply poor teachers.)

In the same vein, nothing kills a D&D campaign quicker than a navel-gazing Dungeon Master: You can have pages and pages of world-building notes, but if you can’t compellingly convey that world, then there’s no point to it. Teaching, like Dungeon Mastering, challenges us to think on our feet, to build a community, and to listen actively.

Both D&D and literary criticism involve storytelling — indeed, most of grad school entails learning how to be a convincing storyteller. Along the way, we must learn the extant folklore, conventions, and trends within our fields. Doctoral training teaches you how to know a select number of things very deeply, and how to spin a variety of narratives about those things. Specialization is the name of the game, most often according to time and place. (I, for example, am building a vocabulary to speak about oceanic literature in 19th-century Britain.)

Coursework and comprehensive exams establish a relative breadth of knowledge, but depth is the ultimate goal in a Ph.D. program. That equates with the character classes of D&D — only those adventurers who have leveled up in a single class have access to the truly game-changing spells, powers, and abilities. That sort of tight focus in the game is like the close reading that characterizes so much of our doctoral work. We track the rise and fall of patterns in our reading, and place those rhythms within the patterns of larger narratives.

Ultimately, as graduate students, we add our voices to a collective conversation — a mode of communal negotiation that echoes the shared storytelling of D&D. Working as a team, D&D players respond to the Dungeon Master’s prompts, who adjusts the game in turn. No single person is truly in charge of the game, not even the Dungeon Master, despite the omniscient-sounding title. The story is built collectively, and sometimes that leads the narrative along unexpected paths.

Both role-players and graduate students borrow a fundamental mechanic from long-form improvisational theater: the two-part phrase "yes, and." We must actively listen to our peers ("yes") and then build off their work ("and").

The same approach can be applied to productive teaching. Even when someone around the table says something relatively inane (e.g., "but that’s not what the author intended!" or "but goblins would never have crossbows!"), shutting that person down only kills the energy of the discussion, only breaks apart the world you are collaboratively building. So roll with it. Compromise. Negotiate. Say "yes, and" — then reconfigure your world to the needs of the players.

Take heed, grad students. One cannot build a project entirely around saying "no." We cannot justify our claims simply by declaring another’s incorrect. If you’re going to be the antagonist — to play the villain — then you have to have a plan of your own. At the same time, we low-level grad students must do more than just say "yes." It is all too easy to become trapped in an echo chamber of previous scholarship.

As odd as it might sound, out of D&D we might extract not only a teaching philosophy but also a basic heuristic for developing our work.

Who knew a fantasy role-playing game had productive things to offer a rigorous profession? Once we divest ourselves of stereotypes, the two are actually quite similar. Like literary criticism, D&D lies somewhere between craft and art, between the utilitarian and the aesthetic. Yes, the game can be terribly cheesy. I’m not arguing that it produces anything Nobel-worthy. One of the pleasures of playing the game — especially for a young scholar studying "good" literature — is abandoning value judgments.

Yet D&D is more than just a bunch of guys and gals sitting around in their mom’s basement drinking Mountain Dew, eating Cheetos, and telling warlock jokes. Beyond teaching a wide range of practical skills — teamwork, arithmetic, decision making, public speaking, organization — D&D challenges us to make something on the page come alive. (I told you it was cheesy.)

The same might be said of grad school: Noticing a metaphor in a poem is one thing, but making a reader, or a student, care about that figuration and engage with your argument is a different kind of challenge.

At any rate, I don’t think you can get through grad school without a dedicated hobby or two. And for those of us who already deal in the worlds of the imagination, what could be more natural than Dungeons & Dragons?

Mark Celeste is a doctoral candidate in English at Rice University.

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