The Generative Literature Project is Live!

Generative Literature Project, Update #1

“Small Scale Murder” by Erich Ferdinand via Flicker Creative Commons


It’s Fall in the Little Hamlet of Theopolis, Maryland.  The Murder of College President, Cadence Mackarthur, has not happened, Theopolis College hasn’t yet made public their choice of ten “Distinguished Centennial Alumni,” and Theopolis College is only just now making plans for their 100th anniversary.

But across the United States, in the Marshall Islands, and in Puerto Rico–much more sinister plans are brewing as writing students–graduates and undergraduates–take to their computers to inhabit characters in a grisly murder and create the artifacts that will become The Generative Literature Project (GLP), a gamified digital novel that will be published in 2015 by Hybrid Pedagogy, an electronic academic journal and scholarly publisher.

Right now, we are working on the initial state of the digital novel, and are excited to report that the faculty and students are beginning their work in creating the novel.  It’s not just writing that is going on–it is the creation of various artifacts that will lend themselves to a full immersion in the world of Theopolis College:  maps, drawings, recordings, video, audio, and social media posts.

Right now, there are seven active classes participating in the project, and faculty members have planned various levels of involvement for their classes.  We have been amazed at the variety of approaches our project participants have taken, and proud that they had the freedom to choose what was most appropriate for their needs and their courses.

We tried our best to maintain the independence of the faculty and the students in the project, while gently directing them toward a common goal.  This wasn’t easy.  Often, when you start working on a project like this, you see it as your “baby.”  You have ideas about where it will go, what the characters might look like, what the universe of the story might look like–and it’s almost painful to bite our lips as the participants generate their own visions of that universe–surprising and illuminating us along the way.

We have to admit that the level of talent and commitment to the project is overwhelming.  Frederick and I have marveled at our good fortune in reaching some extremely talented and energetic project members, and look forward to getting to know some of the students as project participants start reaching out  via social media (#Theopolis).  We have encouraged them to use Twitter and other social media to contact one another, and to broadcast clues and red-herrings to confuse those attempting to piece the mystery together later.

For a glimpse into who our project participants are, and what they are doing with the project, we have collected some biographical information and some of their ideas about the project on our website.  Here is a short synopsis of their approaches:

Elise Takehana, Assistant Professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University, MA, will be teaching the Generative Literature Project to upperclassmen in an Experimental Writing course, where students will produce a number of digital artifacts for the project in addition to text.

“The course is a creative writing workshop that endeavors to encourage play with language and rediscover the flexibility of language as a medium. As many of my students as anxious about digital technologies in their literature, I hope this project will allow them the opportunity to peer into a future of literature and play with narrative potential without having to face the programming work head-on.”

Mia Zamora is taking a similar approach in her Writing Electronic Literature course, which culminates with a public Electronic Literature exhibition on the Kean University, NJ campus. “The Theopolis College murder mystery and the multi-modal artifacts that Dr. Zamora’s students produce (as they inhabit the life of Theopolis College alumna Dr. Rachel Behar) will be featured in this culminating exhibition.”

At Slippery Rock University, PA, Jason Stuart will be introducing the project in more than one course, “The bulk of the project-specific work with the characters and mystery will be handled by the students in the Creative Writing class. However, the students in the Professional Writing class will be working behind the scenes to produce much of the ‘research‘ material, such as newsletter stories, web presences, and persona sheets.”

One faculty member, Marissa Landrigan at University of Pittsburg, Johnstown, is faced with creating an entire country and culture for her assigned character, Momed Eid.  “My hope is that using the GLP will help students develop an understanding of digital writing as a playful, creative, and exploratory form, one that begins with the seed of an idea and grows beyond the sum of its parts through widespread collaboration, sharing, and audience participation.”

The project is not only for English and writing majors.  Ellen Feig, at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ, will be integrating the project into the regular work of her Freshman Composition Course, “I will be using the case study in my Composition 2 class which is focusing on the literature surrounding Hurricane Katrina. As a means of simulating the before/during/after of the storm, I intend to have my character live in New Orleans; accordingly, he will be faced with certain decisions that can alter his, and others’, lives.”

Elizabeth Kate Switaj, will be leading her class at the College of the Marshall Islands in Majuro in a cultural, as well as textual, journey, “Because most my students come from a cultural background that values communalism, I often use collaborative activities in my courses.” The Generative Literature Project’s focus on collaborating and responding to texts between classes and over the dateline will bring something unique to her students’ experience with writing.

“Seeing and responding to work created by students in other locations will give them a perspective on the possibilities of collaboration and writing that they would not otherwise have access to. Understanding the different ways that others respond to similar writing situations will also strengthen their ability to reflect on their own work, by helping them to see it in a broader context.”

Leonardo Flores of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, plans to use his creative writing class’s participation in The Generative Literature Project as a unifying experience for his students, “My class of 30 students are a mix of excited, adventurous young writers who signed up in response to my advertising campaign, and nervous sophomores who needed an English class and are finding themselves falling down a digital rabbit hole. I plan to combine required and voluntary participation to allow students who really get excited by the project to go far.”

The project will focus on making the murder of Theopolis College President as real and as compelling as possible while leaving enough holes for the public to become engaged and involved because we want the generative aspect of the project to go beyond this initial phase.  We want this project to pull the public in and encourage them to participate in crowdsourcing even more artifacts, gamifying aspects of the mystery, and building as well as solving the mystery–but that’s in the future.

Right now, we are working in the background with two websites, one for the project itself, and one that will represent the fictional Theopolis College–using server space provided by Reclaim Hosting.  The project blog is a greater priority right now, but as we get more content and more artifacts, we can begin pushing them toward the Theopolis College website and looking for ways in which to present and obscure various bits of information.

Mostly, as our project moves forward, we want this project to feel like it belongs to the college students and to the web community as a whole.   We want faculty to find ways in which to engage the project in their own classes, but not in a controlled or directed way.  We saw great projects like Inanimate Alice developed for the K-12 students, but we didn’t see anything out there for college students.  We knew we needed something less controlled, more inviting, and definitely more edgy.  This project will contain the graphic violence, sexual content, and impolite language that one might associate with a real world murder, and we have invited the students to write what they need to write in order for the work to be believable and immersive.

Of course, the murder hasn’t happened yet.  When it does, expect a fairly well developed world inhabited by the interconnected members of the Theopolis College community–but don’t expect a resolution to the murder anytime soon.  We don’t know who committed this murder.  We will let the characters and the community decide that.

Michelle Kassorla

Michelle Kassorla the Co-Creator of the Generative Literature Project. She has a Ph.D. in Ethnic American Literatures from Bowling Green State University. She lives in Atlanta, GA. @drkassorla

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