A Dungeons and Dragons Academic Adventure: Academic Inquiry & Scholarship

March 11, 2021

This story is part of a series entitled “Teaching in the Time of Covid.” The series explores how the UTSA Honors College transformed its experiential curriculum into a virtual curriculum and how the pandemic has shaped students’ experiences within the virtual classroom. The curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary work in Service Learning, Professional Development, Intellectual Achievement and Research, Cultural Exploration, Engaged Living, and Skill Development. In this article, we highlight a first-year academic inquiry course. We hope you enjoy the series! – Jill Fleuriet, Acting Dean, UTSA Honors College

First year students at UTSA, both honors and non-honors, are required to take an Academic Inquiry and Scholarship (AIS) course. According to the UTSA undergraduate catalog, these courses are “designed to orient first-year college students to the fields of study within an academic pathway” as a way to expose students to the world of research.

Each year, the Honors College offers several Honors AIS Courses for Honors College students. Like all Honors Courses, these courses offer the benefit of small class size as well as a uniquely creative, experience-based curriculum.

When Honors College Acting Dean, Jill Fleuriet, first approached Will Robertson about teaching an AIS Course, he immediately began to brainstorm possible topics for the class. He started by thinking of topics that interested him, but quickly shifted his focus to topics that would be both interesting and fun for his students. He arrived on an AIS course based on Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the popular role-playing game. “I’ve been playing D&D for a couple of years now,” says Robertson. “I wondered what kinds of academic work had been done studying D&D and found that there was some really fascinating stuff out there. I intentionally built the course so that students do not need any experience with D&D or roleplaying games to succeed.”

The goals of the course were to use the game as a mechanism to learn different research approaches in the social sciences to investigate questions of social identities, communication strategies, problem-solving, exchange, negotiation, and cultural diversity. Robertson began planning the course back in the Fall of 2019, “before COVID-19 was even a thing any of us were thinking about.” Back then, he says he had, “grand plans of using our final exam blocks to run short, one-time D&D sessions where students could show off the characters they’d created based on our studying of the game.” Robertson had to drop those plans when UTSA leadership announced the campus would be going remote in the Fall of 2020. At that point, Robertson decided to allow students to play optional, one-shot sessions. Other than that, Robertson says he did not have to do much to adjust his course to an on-line modality. “My courses are usually discussion-based, so really all I had to adjust at that point was to make sure that whatever synchronous meeting platform we used was conducive to discussion and breaking students into groups.”

Robertson designed his course with student engagement in mind. “After having to suddenly shift to online learning in the spring {of 2020}, one of the things I heard from several students was that they felt disconnected from their peers, instructors, and coursework in classes that were fully asynchronous. Knowing this, I decided to do a hybrid course with one synchronous meeting per week and to give students the asynchronous time to complete coursework.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking Robertson’s class was just an opportunity for students to get together and play Dungeons and Dragons. “One of the key takeaways from the course is that D&D is not simply a game,” says Robertson. “It is a legitimate object of academic study. One of my main goals is for students to be able to understand, analyze, and explain how D&D is both a cultural object and a producer of culture. By that I mean that D&D is created by people with particular cultural norms and values, which find their way into the game in various ways, and also that D&D shapes cultural norms and values of the players and society more broadly.”