Writing ≠ Papers

This semester I’ve been kept busy not just with the different projects I’m managing at DiSC but with a completely redesigned first-year writing course. In keeping with the other 75% of my work, the class has explored the intersections of literature and technology. We’ve considered the past visions of the future while reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer; the representations of factories in 19th- and 20th-century American fiction and film; and the role intersection of photography and poetry in the amazing Bellocq’s Ophelia by the new US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey.

For the last section of the class we are reading Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. And then we’re reading it again, exploring Dave Morris’s interesting adaptation and highly visual retelling of the novel as an iOS app. As we read, we’ll only ask ourselves what it means to retell a story about technology on a completely different device than that for which the story was originally designed. Juxtaposing the two experiences will hopefully help us see how the assumptions of print pervade the world of Victor Frankenstein and how our reading is shaped by the physical nature of the written word.

So often, the work of the writing classroom is similarly constrained by the physical nature of the written word. Students are asked to produce papers of a certain number of pages or of a certain number of words. The university requires that the students in these classes produce a total number of pages of writing over the course of a semester. It’s a quantitative approach that treats writing as countable, with arguments subjugated to the realm of the numerical.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. I firmly believe that practicing writing is the best way to get better at it. And practicing per force requires writing frequently and in volume. But it’s also become increasingly important for me to realize that most of my students will never be English majors and that even if they should be, they most likely will not regularly produce essays about literature. I have spent most of the semester teaching them the ropes of college writing, preparing them for the next three and half years (or—to be honest—five years). But now it’s time for them to practice a different form of literacy.

For the final assignment in my class, the students will storyboard an interactive experience for Trethewey’s book of poems (click through to see the entire assignment). Working in groups, they will describe how they would combine her poems with the photographs that inspired them, couple them with music, and create a navigation structure. Or how they will refuse to do any of those things. The end result will be for them to again confront the relationship between literature and technology but in this case, they will act as a different sort of author. Still critically engaged, still making an argument, they will nonetheless think about how these acts need not happen in discrete pages or words. That’s the hope, at least. And it suggests a different function of writing or criticism at the present time than either Matthew Arnold or the majority of our teaching has yet to recognize.

Design an App for Bellocq’s Ophelia

In the coming week we’ll explore Dave Morris’s adaptation of Frankenstein for iOS devices. In reading this “frankensteined” creation (or “creature,” if you prefer), we’ll consider how Morris has changed Shelley’s narrative, how the sounds and visuals affect our reading, and how the touch interactions of the app have (or have not) been thoughtfully created.

Then drawing inspiration from Morris (in a They Say, I Say manner, perhaps), your final group project is to storyboard an interactive application for Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia. Please note that you need not “build” an interactive application. Rather by “storyboard,” I mean explain how the application would work—providing sketches, diagrams, or other examples of how your app would function. For consistency’s sake, you should think about designing the app for the iPad.

Storyboards are not simply verbal explanations; instead, they use rough visuals to give a sense of functionality. As such, you should think about creating your storyboards in a tool like PowerPoint or Prezi. These need not be elaborate creations, but you do want to provide as complete a sense of your app as possible.

You should consider the following (and more!) when storyboarding your app:

  • Poetry: How will you present the poems? Do they appear in the same order as Trethewey’s book? Do you rewrite them in any way?
  • Images: Will you include them? Which ones? You might need to find copies online or scan them from the books on reserve in the library.
  • Music: Do you have it? What music? When does it trigger? Did you know there’s an opera about these poems written by Steve Everett, an Emory composer? (Trailer and whole opera.)
  • Navigation: How do you get around inside the app? Is there a Table of Contents? Do you present the poetry in the same order as Trethewey?
  • Gestures: Beyond navigation, what sort of multi-touch gestures might you use? What might it mean to use a touch interface in an app about sex work? Or on/around/over pictures of sex workers?
  • Themes of Trethewey’s work: How can an interactive experience highlight some of the different themes we identified in her poems?


Your group will present your app to the class during our final, December 18 from 4:00-7:30 pm. Your presentation will be a minimum of 10 minutes and eachgroup member must be involved in the presentation of the app. In the presentation your group will walk us through the use of the app and talk about why you made your particular design decisions. You should be prepared to answer questions from the class or myself. (We won’t be out to trick you.)

Reflection Paper

Furthermore, each of you will individuallyprepare a one- to two-page paper in which you reflect on this assignment. Some questions you might consider in your reflections are:

  • Did completing this mapping assignment change how I understand Bellocq’s Ophelia? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • What did I learn by completing this assignment that I could not have learned simply through reading the poems?
  • What did I learn about the literature and/or technology in this experience?
  • What was my experience of working in a group on this assignment?
  • What would I change about this assignment to make it more relevant, informative, enjoyable, challenging, or interesting?

These reflection papers are due by the end of the final exam period.

What You Turn In

In addition to your reflection paper, your group should send me a digital copy of whatever form your storyboard takes. That’s also due by the end of the final exam period. 


I will focus on three discreet things while grading:

  • Group presentation – Did everyone present? Was your discussion of the choices you made in the design articulate?
  • Storyboards – Is your design easy to understand? Is it thoughtful? How ambitious is your app and its design? Does it add something new to the experience of Trethewey’s poetry?
  • Reflection paper – Were you thoughtful in your reflection on the assignment?

It is worth saying that while I’ve listed three things here, the group presentation and storyboards account for 90% of the grade.

Final Words

Importantly, this assignment is intended to be creative. I hope you have fun while working on it, as you think about literature and technology in a different way than we have throughout the rest of the class.

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