Studying the Classics with a Little Help from Technology

Through the use of apps and software, students can develop a new appreciation and understanding of literature.

Imagine if part of your required reading at college meant launching an augmented reality Pokémon GO-style app that turns the world around you into Charles Dickens’s London or J.D. Salinger’s New York.

Proponents of the digital humanities — the combination of art and literature and modern tech — are working hard to figure out how to make the imaginary scenario above into reality.

At universities across the country, all types of students, whether they are majoring in literature or engineering, usually have to take some type of humanities course. By incorporating software, mobile devices and some other gadgets, professors can add another layer of engagement for students.

Tech and Storytelling Are a Natural Fit

At the University of Texas at Austin’s Digital Writing & Research Lab (DWRL), coordinator Will Burdette and the graduate student researchers are always looking for new ways to use technology for storytelling.

“We’re firm believers that the tools we’ve always used for writing are technologies. Whether it’s a clay tablet or a digital, the technologies don’t go away, they adapt,” Burdette says.

At the lab, researchers are tinkering with the latest tech — like littleBits Arduinos and Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers — to determine how they could be incorporated into writing curriculum, Burdette says.

When the researchers come across the technology that works, they publish their lesson plans on the lab’s site. A plan from last May outlines how educators can have students build video games as “an expression of classical rhetorical practices.”

Burdette says that in the actual writing of curriculum for undergraduates, they aren’t quite at the level of regularly using coding and VR; that said, students are regularly using things like the Adobe Creative Suite to create vector graphics and interactive PDFs.

Digital Tools Make for Deeper Exploration and Relevance

While the DWRL is teaching students how to tell stories with technology, some other universities are focusing on how to appreciate literature with technology. At the State University of New York at New Paltz, Joanna Swafford teaches a course called “Digital Tools for the 21st Century: Sherlock Holmes’s London.” In an article for The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy, Swafford writes that her students are using online visualization tools like Voyant to look for patterns in words and sentence, building digital archives of Holmes artifacts, and using software to map where characters have traveled.

“This approach lets students find new patterns in well-known texts, explore the function of space in literature, and historicize their own technological moment,” writes Swafford. “Perhaps most helpfully for this class, Holmes solves his cases not just through his quasi-supernatural cognitive abilities, but also through his mastery of Victorian technology.”

Getting even closer to the imaginary scenario discussed earlier, former Rochester Institute of Technology professor Karl Mohn is developing an app prototype that combines locative media — digital tools for real space social networking — and poetry, RIT reports.

In the article on RIT’s website, Mohn describes the app that he hopes will get users to read poet Frank O’Hara’s work near the places in New York that inspire it.

“Essentially, the way the app is going to be set up, it’s almost like you would open up Google Maps, but instead of seeing pins for the Corner Store, there’ll be pins or lines related to the different poems,” Mohn tells RIT.

Though the technologies Mohn and Swafford want to use to teach literature are cutting edge, to Burdette all storytelling has the same goal.

“If you really want to understand the human experience, you have to understand the various technologies that people have employed to communicate that experience,” says Burdette.

George Rudy/ThinkStock
Sep 14 2016