ACH @ MLA 2023: Extended Reality for the Study of Language and Literature (Updated!)

For our session at the 2023 MLA Convention, ACH featured presentations related to the use of extended reality technologies as they pertain to research and teaching related to language, literature, and related fields. Speakers gave short presentations describing their work with XR methods. Presentation information follows.

The Eyes of the Machine Are Everywhere: Surveillance Technologies and Speculative Fiction, Amanda Licastro (Swarthmore College)

In “Virtual Bodies, Virtual Worlds,” an upper-level English course cross-listed with the Digital Humanities (DH) minor and graduate certificate, students explore near-future science fiction such as E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, and Blake Hausman’s Riding the Trail of Tears. These literary texts raise urgent questions about our current surveillance culture and how we accept ever more intrusive technologies for the promise of personal health and security. Using the work of theorists including Simone Browe, Lisa Nakamura, Wendy Chun, and David Lyon, as a framework, we consider how speculative fiction can help us critique the current trajectory of emerging technologies, particularly the growing cultural and economic emphasis on virtual and augmented reality (XR) across all industries. Together, we experience a range of XR applications, and assess them in terms of equity, inclusion, and democratization. We then research the implementation of motion capture, eye-tracking capabilities, social media integration, and other pervasive developments in the XR space in order to create collaborative prototypes that expose the benefits and drawbacks of these technologies. Students utilize the makerspace and media lab to experiment with 3D modeling, 360-video capture, and animation software to reimagine concepts from one of the literary works read in the class as an XR application, combining skills cultivated in close reading with digital literacy. For the presentation file, click here.

Amanda Licastro (she/her) is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at Swarthmore College, the pedagogical director of the Book Traces project, and serves on the editorial collective of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. Her research explores the intersection of technology and writing, including book history, dystopian literature, and digital humanities. Her collection, Composition and Big Data, co-edited with Ben Miller, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in September 2021.

Lifting the Veil: Using AR to Recover Past Reading Practices, Andrea R. Harbin (State U of New York, Cortland) 

How might new technologies help us recover reading practices in the past? Our presentation will explore this question in relation to augmented reality (AR) and the reading of medieval literature – namely, how AR can help “recapture” the medieval reading experience and reveal differences between the reading practices of the Middle Ages and today.

Although the reading experience seems largely stable, past reading practices varied considerably from our own. Today’s readers conceive of the text as something read in quiet solitude, very much in contrast to the noisier medium of television and the hypermedia environment of the Internet. This understanding of the nature and history of texts and of reading, while not new, is nevertheless a norm of reading established well after the medieval period.[1] AR, when incorporated into a digital edition of a medieval text, pushes against this view of reading as an inherently solitary and silent experience tied to a stable text. The technology readily influences the reading experience and even demands different “reading” skills. Extended realities such as AR may be new, but their greatest appeal may be their ability to bring students back to a reading experience that has been largely lost. For the presentation file, click here.

[1] Carruthers argues that the shift from valuing orality to valuing the written text happened gradually over time, with the written text solidifying its dominance with the advent of bulk printing [Carruthers, Mary. “The Sociable Text of the ‘Troilus Frontispiece’: A Different Mode of Textuality.” ELH 81 (2014): 427-8.]

Andrea R. Harbin is Professor and Chair of English at the State University of New York, Cortland where she has taught medieval literature (Old and Middle English), the history of English, Shakespeare, and drama since 2008.  Her research has a two-fold focus: medieval drama and digital humanities pedagogy.  She has worked as a digital humanist since 1998 as curator/editor of NetSERF: an Internet Database of Medieval Studies and has published articles on digital pedagogy in medieval studies and on medieval drama.  She is the co-director of The Augmented Palimpsest, a digital humanities tool that explores how augmented reality can be used in teaching medieval literature. This project has been funded by an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant.

Tamara F. O’Callaghan is Professor of English, Northern Kentucky University, where she teaches medieval literature, historical linguistics, and the digital humanities. She is the co-author of the textbook Introducing English Studies (Bloomsbury, 2020) and has published on medieval literature (English, French, and Anglo-Latin), manuscript studies, and the digital humanities. She is the co-director of The Augmented Palimpsest, a digital humanities tool that explores how augmented reality can be used in teaching medieval literature. This project has been funded by an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant.

Visualizing Lovecraft’s Providence: Historical Reconstruction of an Imagined World, Victoria E. Szabo (Duke U)

The imagined urban landscapes, structures, and environments of writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Providence play a central role in the development of his tales of horror, abomination, and wonder. This project repurposes the tools of digital art history and urbanism to create spatialized imaginative reconstructions of some of these locales. Drawing upon Lovecraft’s words, imagination, and demonstrated passion for art, architecture and urban development, as well as our own archival research, we are working at the scales of individual structures, the city (Providence) and the area (New England) with 3D models, layered and annotated 2D maps, and immersive and interactive XR experiences. By re-examining the building blocks of Lovecraft’s meticulously-researched tales, we gain deeper insight into recurring tropes in his writing, revealing the architecture of his mind and early 20th century world view. We hope to capture glimpses of his city as he saw then, and conjure the lifeworld he creates across the individual tales. Key locations in “Charles Dexter Ward,” our first project focus, include: the library with the portrait; the basement chambers; the cemetery and its environs; the urban city blocks of the historic quarter; the riverside; and the asylum. Each of these locales offers us a window in the psyche of the character of CDW as limned by Lovecraft; their re-imagined designs in turn offers us insight into Lovecraft’s positionality as a writer, thinker, and figure of his time, and the associative and affective power of layered cityscapes as an expressive interactive media mode in its own right. For the presentation file, click here.

Victoria E Szabo is Research Professor of Visual and Media Studies at Duke University. Her work explores spatial, immersive, and interactive archives and exhibitions for research and creative expression. At Duke she is the Director of Graduate Studies for the PhD in Computational Media, Arts & Cultures, leads the Information Science + Studies program, and is a member of the Digital Art History & Visual Culture Research Lab. She is also a co-principal in Psychasthenia Studio, an artist’s games collaborative, and Chair of the Arts Advisory Group for ACM SIGGRAPH, the international Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.

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