Digital projects for immersive understanding of 17th-century French literature

In this article I will describe the project itself, according to which criteria it was assessed for the course requirements, and the feedback from students as well as suggestions for similar projects in the future. 

The project

For her Undergraduate spring 2018 literature class, Dr. Gillian Weatherley added a DH project to the curriculum. The course called “Who’s Wearing the Pants?” is a literature course, and this one focused  on  the themes of power and gender in 17th century France, for students majoring and minoring in French at KU. Part of the class addresses texts describing allegorical maps. Such maps, like Carte du Tendre, by Mme de Scudery, offered metaphorical representations of romantic relationships, or of social behaviors, which, depending on the appropriateness of the choices made by someone, could lead to success in their romantic and social lives, or pure failure. Dr. Weatherley wanted to enhance the interactive dimension of those maps and engage her students with this 17th-century material in an active way.  She therefore designed an assignment implementing digital tools. 

         In groups, students picked a literary work they covered in class, and picked one of two free, online, digital resources –Twine 2 or Storymaps– after attending one session of workshop on both tools. Twine 2 enables the creation of non-linear narrative games (think of a digital version of You Choose your Adventure!). I ran this part of the workshop. Storymaps enables the user to create, edit, and add pictures to geographical maps following a linear journey. This part of the workshop was run by KU GIS and Data Specialist Rhonda Houser. Both digital resources were great picks as one is more linear than the other, just like some of 17th-century texts were more linear than others. In the fall 2017 I had the chance to participate to a Twine 2 workshop run by Pr. Anastasia Salter during the DH Forum organized by the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities (IDRH) at the University of Kansas (KU). Thanks to this experience, I acquired the competences to create simple but complete Twine stories. As a KU HASTAC scholar, I was thrilled to be invited by Dr. Weatherley to help for her class project. I gave a basic workshop on Twine 2 to her students so that, if they chose this tool, they would be able to create an interactive, non-linear game that mirrored the qualities of the original literary work. For instance, when tackling Carte du Tendre, the player would be presented with two directions (representing behaviors) to pick from (for instance “frivolity” and “sincerity”). Depending on the choice, the player would either get closer to the unfortunate place of “being forgotten” which then leads to the “Sea of Indifference”, or get to the happier place of “big heart” which is on the path to “Tenderness”. Because of the choice-based, journey-like qualities of the 17th literary works, I thought Dr. Weatherley’s way to engage students with tools like Twine or Storymaps is extremely relevant and a brilliant idea to have students actively understanding the material by producing a creative, digital interactive experience out of 17th-century literature.

Assessing the project

Dr. Weatherley created a grading rubric in order to assess 5 aspects of the students’ digital project: 1) their preparation and progress; 2) the quality of research into spatial information of the original literary text; 3) their thoughtful interpretation of the original text; 4) the quality of map-design and appearance; and finally, 5) a reflection from the students, in order to give feedback and reflect on the use of the digital tool they picked in relation to the original text. I think this assessing rubric perfectly takes into account the core elements of this assignment, ensuring the DH tools were used appropriately and helped students in understanding 17th-century texts in a fun, active and personal way.

Feedback from students

The students proudly presented their group projects in the Digital Humanities Lab, in front of not only their instructor and classmates but also of French department faculty members. Thanks to the written reflection provided by students, several points came up: on the criticism side, some students would have preferred to work on an individual project instead of with a group, though other students enjoyed collaborating with others. Some also did not like that the work done on the platforms could not be used and edited simultaneously, though there is the possibility to save and share the files. It is worth noting that the assignments who were the most complete were achieved by students who had used other digital resources that allow sharing group projects such as the Wiki page set up for that purpose by their Instructor, or external applications like Google docs or Group me. Overall, even when at first they did not feel confident with the technological aspect, students commented that using the digital tools definitely helped them be actively engaged in the literary work, as well as gaining a stronger understanding of it.

Now, thinking back on the project, Dr. Weatherley –as well as those who attended the presentations – was impressed by the effort and passion put into the assignment by students, and considers this first try a positive experience. She offered a couple suggestions regarding the organization of such project, which apply to both literary and technological aspect of the assignment: 1) ensuring that students do stick to the planned reading program so they already have some thoughts about the literary work beforehand, and 2) giving students a bit more time to discover and invest the possibilities offered by the digital tools. 

I wanted to thank IDRH Director Brian Rosenblum, Rhonda Houser, and IDRH postdoctoral researcher Dhanashree Thorat who were also supportive of this project.


One response to “Digital projects for immersive understanding of 17th-century French literature”