Nik Bear Brown graduated from UCLA with a major in Physics and Biology and later a PHD in mathematics and computer science. He worked at a molecular biology institute in Berkeley, at a think-tank at Stanford, as a roadie for Cirque du Soleil, and taught at LA Film School, Santa Monica College, and The Arts Institutes before Northeastern.
How did you first arrive at Northeastern?
“They accepted me here primarily to teach game programming. I had taught game programming for about four or five years at LA Film School and The Arts Institutes.”
I didn’t know they would teach that there.
“At arts school they’re primarily teaching animation. Arts schools are very different from other schools because they’re accepting a group of students who typically didn’t do well in high school, and then teaching them very technical skills. And it’s just the opposite here. Nobody in the game program here actually made a game. They all did what they call “user research.” They did surveys and statistics related to games. So even though they have a game program here, none of them actually programmed a game or know how to actually build one. More theory of games and playing games so the extreme opposite. Art schools is going to be very technical, supposed to be like a trade school. Where some academic schools have a nice mix. Like USC has a good mix of people from the industry who have made games for years that are teaching there, where others are purely people who like the concept of games.”
So they can sell kids tuitions for a degree in games.
“They have the game dev club here. Most of the actual learning of how to build a game comes from that. I taught a game programming class, but that doesn’t come until your third year. In Arts school they start making games from the first day you’re there. You have a first year portfolio, a second year portfolio, a third year portfolio, a fourth year portfolio. And a fourth year portfolio they normally rent a restaurant, you know, it’s a big deal. Here you’re taking Racket for two years. Fortunately at this school the game dev club organically realized they aren’t learning how to make games and we should teach ourselves how to build games. So students often have that ingenuity of “hey we have all these online resources on unity and yada yada yada because the professors can’t teach us this since they’ve never built a game.” So often you have students with the desire but there isn’t that structure.”
Sounds like the program needs a bit more work.
“One other thing I learned here, is they come up with a new degree every, week? And that screws a lot of students. For example they wanted to switch the game design and programming degree to just a degree in games. Stupid idea. Stupid idea because nobody knows what a degree in game design is… A degree in CS [Computer Science] is like a liberal science degree. There isn’t a field where it doesn’t apply to. When you’re in your early 20’s you don’t really know what you want to do, I don’t even know what I want to do. But it’s good to have skills that people want along the way. Computers apply to everything. When I was a student studying computer science I also took a class in dance, the reason being the CS classes were 98% guys and the dance department was like 98% women, so it was a nice balance. Everyone’s all lovey you all get A’s where the CS school was all “I’m smarter than you” and that throws a lot of people off who don’t want to be in that alpha male environment. Even when you think you know what you want to do, the world will be very different in ten years from now. So people should be coming out of school with a good foundation of skills. Where a game design degree is just a bad idea. Game companies don’t give a shit if you have a game degree. They care about your portfolio and what games you make.”
You need to make things!
“You need to do to learn. The first thing I tell all my classes is half of what I say is complete bullshit. So everything I say try, see if you can do it. That’s the only way you’re really gonna learn anything.”
What was your experience like teaching at other colleges?
“When I taught at community college they kept teaching kids Cobalt and WordPress. In California professors at community college get tenure after two years. So no matter how irrelevant their class ends up becoming in twenty years, because they have tenure they’ll keep teaching it. The system needs to change and there needs to be competition for the system to change.”
Sounds like we need more incentive for the system to change.
“It’s often hit and miss in academics and whether you resonate with them. Particularly the bigger schools, like when I was at UCLA, the professor would come in one minute before the lecture, start talking for fifteen minutes, and then just leave.”
So no time to approach him after class.
“No time to approach him and he really didn’t give a shit whether you learned it or not. Very often if it’s a big research institute. They are there because they’re getting grant money from the professor so they need to give them a course to teach, but it’s really up to the professor if whether or not they care about teaching. Other schools have teaching faculty. So here there’s teaching professors and teaching faculty, so their primary evaluation is their teaching. These days I think most schools are getting teaching faculty along with regular faculty, but some schools don’t. Like Harvard tries not to have lecturers or teaching faculty, they have some, but they want their professors to teach courses when possible. The problem with that is sometimes the professors don’t give a shit about teaching and just care about their research.”
Students just have to get lucky with who their professor is.
“Particularly with these game programs is if they come up with a degree and end up making it, the problem of having a specific course required that only one professor teaches and that professor leaves, it leaves the students stuck with this unfinished degree. So it leaves the school to hire these adjuncts who literally get paid half as much. Like for example there’s another professor here named Nik Brown and I get all his emails. Even though I’ve emailed them twenty times saying I’m not the same guy. But I got his contract once, you know the yearly contract of “this is how many courses we want you to teach and this is how much you’ll get paid.” It’s half of what I get paid. Literally 50% of what I make for the same amount of work in terms of course loads. In fact when I switched to this department they reduced my coursework by a third so I could spend that time doing research at Harvard. And those adjuncts also don’t get benefits.”
That’s so underhanded.
“It’s a bit shady and I don’t fully understand it. I understand why they want research people because they bring in the school grant money. And they won’t get tenure unless they bring in more money than they’ll get paid. So they are little cash cows for the university, meaning they don’t really care what they do so long as they bring in money. And the university typically takes 40% of that grant money, and you can’t get that grant money unless you’re with a university.”
And this is seen in all universities?
“When I leaving the CS department I ended up applying to different schools while also applying to different departments in Northeastern, and it’s interesting how the schools are different. Like Northeastern literally, I want to make a new degree, they just make a new degree. In fact in data science, they have a data analytics degree and a data science degree just in CS. The problem is no one besides Northeastern knows what that is. It’s just jargon. In their mind data analytics is data mining light and data science is both data science and data mining.”
So Northeastern doesn’t care about how supported a particular degree is?
“Northeastern is very concerned about their ranking. But at the same time they want to get money from as many people as possible. So they created another school which allows them to accept people who wouldn’t otherwise get into Northeastern and charge them Northeastern prices without affecting the undergraduate ranking statistics of Northeastern proper. In those programs they’ll literally say I want this degree in whatever, start it, and their just in the mindset “we’ll just create degrees and figure out what they’re about afterwards.” Where Boston College was interesting. Their computer science program is literally in a church where the first floor is monks who live there, Jesuit monks, I don’t know what they’re called. And they say “data science is interesting, but maybe in ten years.”
Is all of Northeastern like this or just the CS department?
“Northeastern is also particular interesting because each college is like a particular fiefdom. Like when I was in CCIS, I worked very closely with CAMD because CAMD was where the game design program was. But literally the deans would not talk to each other. Would not talk to each other. For example they wouldn’t give money to this yearly thing we do Global Game Jam and it’s like “but these are your students, can’t you contribute to that?” But the money they care about is whether they are their students or not. So they would then end up doubling courses, teaching programming a couple different ways between CAMD and CS. There’s both positives and negatives to this. The positive is it really promotes the innovation of creating new programs and new degrees. Part of the incentives to collect more students is they are making these new programs all the time, but they don’t really think it through. So it’s mostly decided by the particular people that are running it at the time, and their own personal biases and preferences. Like the people running the game programming really wanted everyone to be in games. And that would become a political thing because that would bring the CS people into CAMD, because most of the game faculty was in CAMD. It helps the department but it doesn’t help the students since most people don’t know what the fuck a degree in games is. Like if you decide to do games and in five years you decide not to, a degree in CS is a lot more versatile than games. So the negative is a lot of replication. For example you can get a degree in data analytics and data science from three different schools in Northeastern.”
The Game design program seems like a mess.
The game dev club is where most of the game students learn to build games, and it’s not part of the program. And there’s really no support for it and in fact it’s just the opposite of it. When they want a little money to do a game jam once a year, we’re only talking about a couple thousand dollars here, it doesn’t come from the departments. In a sense these students are doing your work for you because these students coming out of the club can actually build games. If you had a game program you’d send people to game companies and you send people to a game company but they can’t build games, how does that look on your program? Eventually it’d create a “well here’s another one of those Northeastern students who can’t actually build a game, doesn’t have a portfolio.”
Do you respect Northeastern?
“I like Northeastern but all the schools are different and they have their pluses and minuses. Where I think I’m a little different is I’ve seen a huge range of schools. So like community college has their needs and their clientele. A community college takes everybody. You get 15-year-olds and 70-year-olds in the same class. It’s cheap, it’s accessible, it’s often a gateway to getting to a 4-year school or whatever they’re doing. But the way community colleges work with their tenure and such makes it so they don’t change very much. The so called “for-profit” schools like LA Film School and The Arts Institutes. They are good at teaching technical skills but they aren’t really academic schools. Like they can teach you how to be an animator and get a degree in animation, and there’s maybe one class you have to take in arithmetic, like literally arithmetic you learn in 4th grade but some people still struggle with that type of academic course. But they are often dealing with some of the most diverse students. Like you get transgenders and this and that. They are dealing with typically a population that has been abandoned by whatever reason from the public schools and going to these “for-profit” schools. Northeastern is a different philosophy. There’s some departments I like and others I don’t like, but it’s very dependent on the department. So they give departments a lot of free reign. And the plus of that is they give the people running the department a lot of control, meaning they can do great things, or not so great things. So the Northeastern experience is very different between just different departments. If you’re a student coming in to Northeastern how do you know the differences between EC, and engineering, and CCIS, and CAMD, as a 19-year-old coming in? Like if you want a degree in games do you get it through CAMD or CCIS? If you get it through CAMD you may not have to take certain courses you don’t want to take, but the degree may not be as flexible down the road.”
So what is the ideal school?
“I don’t think there’s a perfect school. Like I don’t think Boston College could be more different than an arts school. Which is all about getting a technical skill. It’s not that different than learning how to fix a mechanic or be a carpenter. Unfortunately one thing I don’t like about the American education system compared to say the German education system is they have a lot more trade schools in Germany, and trades are a lot more respected. In America we go to college because we feel like we have to have a bachelors degree, even if we want to be an artist or a cook because somehow you are a lesser person if you learnt to cook. I don’t think that’s so much a school thing as it is cultural and I don’t know how that happened in America. Like in Germany 50% of high school students end up going to trade schools. Because not everyone needs that. The problem is in America those trade schools are looked down upon and they become those “for-profit” schools, you know the bad schools. When really there should be a Harvard of technical trade schools, and there’s not. What people don’t often realize is that [for-profits] do teach people technical skills, they just charge them an arm and a leg for it. So that part of the education system is not a Northeastern thing but a general thing in America and I don’t know why.”