A Crazy Thing Happened on the Way to the Globe Theatre: Some Initial Thoughts on Using Immersive Role-Play in the Composition Classroom

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I sometimes get the opportunity (let’s call it) to teach the second-semester iteration of my department’s two semester First-Year Composition course. This part of the course serves as an extension of the first, as well as an introduction to three literary genres–poetry, short fiction, and drama–with practice in reading, interpreting, and analyzing selected works from those genres. The course’s goal is to teach both close critical reading and analytical writing. It is a difficult class to teach, mainly because students tend to still need intense writing instruction and they generally have little to no background in close, analytical reading, so one of those two issues must become the focus of the course at the expense of the other (especially if you also try to include instruction in locating and identifying the various literary elements of the three genres and/or library research, which are both also listed as learning objectives for the course).

I often wish that there were more opportunities to incorporate creative reading and writing exercises into the class, one because the course can get a little dry (even with careful selection of more contemporary and highly-engaging texts) and secondly, because I believe that students can develop a better understanding of and appreciation for a poem, let’s say, if they actually have to write a poem themselves. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever taught the course in the summer short-term, which means I have even less time to teach several complex skills, so creative writing activities are never really an option.

Until now.

I now have thirteen glorious weeks of FYC II with which to play. And play is exactly what we are going to do!

Having a kid who’s a gamer, I know that gaming is a big part of many of my students’ lives. What I did not realize, until recently, was the extent to which role-playing is a part of both their gaming and non-gaming activities. For example, this semester I have a student who plays Magic the Gathering. In addition to this game, he also participates in creative role-play writing online. Another student is a furry. Several other students regularly interact virtually via games such as first-person shooters like Halo and MMORPGs. Hearing and reading about these students’ intense participation in highly immersive role play piqued my curiosity and I began to explore the role-play writing genre. I found that it is a genre that, like literary criticism and other forms of academic writing, is governed by strict community-imposed guidelines and practices, but also places a high premium on creativity, improvisation, and play (practices that are thought by many to be antithetical to academic writing), as well as cooperation and collaboration.

So I began to wonder: What if I could marry the critical and analytical aspects of literary criticism with the creative license of role-play writing? And what if I could do it in a highly immersive role-play environment? And how can I do it in a way that will still meet the learning objectives of the course (in other words, still introduce students to the literary genres and their respective elements; guide them towards close, analytical reading within those genres; teach them how to conduct and integrate research into their writing; and help them to continue to develop their formal writing skills)?

I’m still working out many of the answers to these questions, but I have too many ideas swimming around in my head right now to keep them all contained. I’ve got to do something with them (in order to do something with them). So here’s my initial (sketchy) thinking. There is some backstory to how some of these ideas led to each other and some research that initiated some of them, and I plan to detail those aspects of my development of the course (if it reaches fruition) later. This post simply serves as a brief overview of my thinking at this point in time.

Roles
If I want students to role-play, what roles would be available to them that will work for the poems, stories, and plays in our reader?

This has been the hardest question so far and I’m still developing ideas. I looked to the various theories of literary criticism to help get me started and immediately came up with a psychologist and a historian. Brainstorming from there, so far I’ve added cold-case detective, journalist, and celebrity gossip columnist (these are just off-the-cuff ideas).

How will the literature fit into the role-play?
Students will need to select a role to take on for the semester and, as we read selected texts, choose those that can be analyzed from their role’s perspective. So a cold-case detective might select Albee’s A Zoo Story to analyze with an eye towards solving the crime that takes place in the play or determining the motive behind it.

How can I make the roles as immersive as possible?
Obviously, students are going to need some help determining and developing the behaviors and habits of mind of their selected roles. I plan to flip the term, so to speak, by having them begin with their research project, which will be to figure out how to think like their persona. In addition to secondary research, I’m considering requiring that the students also interview someone in their role’s field (they have plenty of interviewees to select from on campus).

Secondly, I’ll have the students maintain a blog over the course of the semester as their persona. This will be where they post their writings about the texts they choose to work with (so their blog may be in the form of case files or newspaper articles or reports, etc.). They’ll also have to create a backstory for their persona, which they’ll post to the About page. In reading and commenting on their peers’ posts, I’ll ask that they maintain their role, so that they are responding as a cold-case detective, for example, even if they’re reading a journalistic piece or a psychological analysis.

Thirdly, I hope to be able to use Second Life to help reinforce the immersive experience. Students can create a physical manifestation of their persona via their SL avatar and can truly role-play with their peers in SL (they may be too self-conscious to do so IRL). In addition to giving their persona life, SL will also provide opportunities for virtual field-trips. I can, for instance, take the cold-case detectives on a field trip to the catacombs of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” where we can virtually investigate the scene of the crime. Or I can take a group of psychologists for a walk though the forest where Young Goodman Brown strolled with the devil so that we can determine if his experience was a case of an over-wrought imagination under the influence of the sublime primitive New England landscape or if he did, indeed, face his demons. SL will also, I believe, afford us an opportunity to discuss writing issues without the fear and loathing that face-to-face in-class discussions of writing invariably engenders. I’m hoping that the virtual nature of SL will allow students to speak more openly about their struggles as writers (and readers).

This is a brief overview of how the course appears in my own over-wrought mind. It’s still fuzzy around the edges and details need to be refined and there’s still much research and planning to be done before it looks anything like a workable course. I plan to do a follow-up post soon that outlines the research behind my ideas with links to pertinent resources. Any ideas or resources that my readers can provide are much appreciated. And if you’ve integrated role-play writing (or participate in it yourself) or Second Life into your classes, I would love to hear about your experiences. And if I’m totally off my rocker, someone please let me know why and to what extent.

Avatars hanging out in Second Life
By John “Pathfinder” Lester
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2 thoughts on “A Crazy Thing Happened on the Way to the Globe Theatre: Some Initial Thoughts on Using Immersive Role-Play in the Composition Classroom”

  1. This is a really exciting idea, but be careful of trying to jam too much into one semester. Also, I suspect that you’ll find some students absolutely hate the idea of role playing and/or think SecondLife is stupid and pointless. SL has a really steep learning cliff, although previous experience with other online worlds does tend to make it a lot less steep. For this reason, it usually works best as a constant part of a class, not a supplemental activity. It requires a pretty good computer with a good video card and a fast Internet connection – the minimum requirements listed on the SL website are the bare minimum and usually won’t provide a great inworld expeience. But if you are already an experienced SL user, you already know these things and can probably figure out ways to work around them. Good luck and please keep us posted on how it goes!

    1. Thanks for the feedback! It’s always valuable to have an insider’s viewpoint. I am concerned with overwhelming the students and that is something I am considering very carefully. I’m sure you’re right that some students will hate the concept; there are always some who hate my classes and are resistant to some of the non-traditional learning activities I use (like blogs). I can usually win a few of those students over and this class happens to have a fair number of my previous students already registered, so I’m hoping that their enthusiasm will rub off and they can offer some peer support to those students who may be initially uncomfortable with the concept. I plan to be very careful about how I integrate SL and am currently doing some extensive research on how best to align it with the course learning objectives and avoid the impression that it’s an add-on, rather than an integral part of the learning experience. I am already planning a week-long orientation and my campus has a Mac lab that I have been given permission to use, so I can download SL viewer onto those and students will have access to them both in and out of class. The Macs are brand-new, so I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to handle SL, since I’ve had no problems at all on my MacBook Pro.
      I appreciate your input on my ideas and I hope that if you have any further suggestions (or warnings) regarding the class, you’ll feel free to offer them as I iron out those ideas in future posts.

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