e-Lit MOOC

Course: Electronic Literature
School: Davidson College via edX
Instructors: Dr. Mark Sample

Imagine a computer game played by millions made of only text on a screen. Imagine a poem 13 billion stanzas long. Imagine a play written by a computer in 1963. Imagine a love story between a printed page and a computer screen, played out in the space between the two of them. Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of electronic literature. Experimental, evocative, and often puzzling, e-lit has nonetheless had a profound influence on mainstream culture….
We’ll study major and marginal works of electronic literature in this course, and learn what separates them from more traditional works of literature. We’ll also develop strategies for reading and understanding works that challenge our assumptions– assumptions about literature, about authorship, about originality, about creativity, and even about meaning itself.

Modpo gave me the first peek at poetry that went beyond lines of text printed on a page; now this course took me further out from the mainstream. But while it’s a lot of gee whiz fun, there is academic theory underlying it all – and a technical element as well.

We started off with the familiar – books on paper. This gave us a comfortable jumping off place, as well as a framework for looking at how e-lit shares qualities with traditional lit, and also moves beyond it. From Matthew Kirschenbaum’s distinction between the affordances of books vs e-lit, to Peter Rabinowitz’s rules of reading, we also examined e-lit in terms of Janet Murray’s four properties and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s five elements of e-lit. This gave the course a structure and theoretical underpinning I greatly appreciated. I had no idea this was an actual academic discipline; that means great things for e-lit, and makes Christopher Strachey’s love letter generator something like Gilgamesh.

We spent some time looking at works of e-lit that fit certain characteristics – works that used dysfunction, for example (Geogoo is amazing; it makes no sense, but it’s mesmerizing to watch) or the sublime, in the Burkean sense, or literary fragments. These raised issues of expectations of the aesthetic experience of “literature” in a broad sense – for me, questions about control of the aesthetic work. The books on my shelf are the same every time I read them. Must that be the case of literature, of art? I’ve often noted, as I read BASS or Pushcart, that stories often don’t go where I expect them to go, or use settings I may particularly like or dislike, and how that affects my experience; what if the story never ends, or the story is created randomly? What if the story is just a hint, and I need to fill in the rest? What if the story is made from bits and pieces of other stories?

I love questions like this, like my favorite question from my mesostic period – “Who wrote this?” when it comes to a lot of these works. Did Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi write Listening to Wikipedia when they wrote the code? What about those random people updating Wiki at any given moment, unaware they are providing data that is creating an aesthetic experience (and, why is someone updating “Monster Energy”, or Madras, Oregon, or swimming records on the Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving – what even is the story)? What about the writers of the articles being updated? The subjects of those articles, whose names may appear? And who wrote Sea and Spar Between – Nick Montford and Stephanie Strickland, who wrote the code that presents the text? Melville, who wrote the original text in different form? The reader, who re-interprets words? What does it mean, that the work can’t be “read” as a whole – what does it mean to our closure-driven psyches when a work of e-lit never ends?

The unit on preservation was also surprisingly intriguing to me: How does rewriting a work to make it compatible with modern technology affect the work – is PacMan on the latest iPhone the same as PacMan played on a refrigerator-sized machine in a smoky bar the 70s? How much of the message is the medium, anyway?

Yep, I had a lot of fun with this.

I will say, however, that the last two or three weeks of the course exceeded my technical limitations, or at least my willingness to stretch my technical ability. As the course moved deeper and deeper into how these works operate, and how they are created, I lost interest. A more technically-focused person than I would probably experience the opposite pattern, perhaps becoming more and more involved as time went on. And any geek would love the opportunities afforded us to create and share original work. I’d recommend it to anyone who finds any of the above intriguing and is willing to explore.

Despite being listed as self-paced, the material was released week-to-week and Dr. Sample was very active in the course, both in the forums and by holding online hangouts and interviews with academics and artists. The course Twitter account, as well as Dr. Sample’s feed, also provided real-time information. The grading was mostly on the basis of self-reported participation in polls, forum discussions, creative and writing assignments, with a few peer assessments as well. Assignment deadlines were generous, and were extended past the end of class, to allow more time for students to prepare and share creative efforts, both bots and Twine stories.

I was constantly surprised, which itself was a surprise, since I had no idea what to expect. Like Modpo, and its patron saint Emily Dickinson, the course dwells in possibilities, and in the best Modponian tradition, the course aims to create a community beyond itself to continue exploration.

One response to “e-Lit MOOC

  1. Pingback: Falling MOOCs | A Just Recompense

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