What would it be like to descend into Dante’s Hell? Or to walk the streets of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian OneState? How can building and exploring these fictional worlds develop critical thinking skills? Eric Klaus, associate professor and chair of the German studies department, is working on a grant-funded project to enable students to answer these and similar questions. The result of his project “Cultural Collisions in Virtual Fictional Landscapes,” will be the creation of a First-Year Seminar (FSEM) of the same name.
Students in the class will read and analyze canonical texts such as “Inferno,” by Dante Alighieri, and “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, that construct fictional spaces. They will then reconstruct the spaces digitally and use this new tool to delve more deeply into the cultures in which the works were created.
“Students will have a more engaged, interactive experience with the texts,” says Klaus. “Dante’s story, for example, is very impactful; the poem is very descriptive and the students will be able to create that space to make it come more alive.”
The motivation behind the project is the ability to bring together the three primary areas of Klaus’ research and teaching with the essential skills he believes students need to develop in each of these areas.
First, he has been interested in and working with technology since he was a graduate student. “I have always been interested in becoming a more effective teacher through use of technology,” he says. Building digital maps of literary worlds will enable his students to grasp the texts in whole new ways while acquiring skills with software that is likely unfamiliar to them.
Secondly, the project will enhance critical thinking skills. “This is vital to students’ success in any endeavor. Whatever they choose to do after college they will need to know not to take things at face value, to consider the motivations and assumptions behind decisions and actions,” explains Klaus. “The tools they will acquire in this First Year Seminar will help them start to think in this way.”
Finally, the course will develop students’ cultural literacy, making them more aware of and able to anticipate different worldviews.
In the FSEM, students will break into groups after reading all the texts. Each group will virtually map the physical environment of a text. They will also have to document the cultural environment in which the work was produced, looking at the governmental, economic, religious and geographic factors surrounding its production.
The next step goes to the heart of developing critical thinking and cultural literacy skills by having them “switch places, so to speak, with other groups,” explains Klaus. Students will assume the identity of a person from one era (14th-century Florence, for example), and journey through the digital representation of a different text (25th-century OneState). In doing so, they will write a travelogue – recording their interpretation of what they see, taste, sense in their journey through the new land. They will also be required to provide analyses as to why the environment they are touring is different from the environment they came from with respect to underlying cultural factors.
“A central goal of this final project is to show students that cultures – whether fictional, foreign, or their own-are constructs whose otherness can be negotiated and even incorporated into their own experiences,” says Klaus.
He is working with Juliet Boisselle, instructional and resource technologist, to identify the prototype technology students can use to create the digital environments.
“Juliet suggested we try to work with already available freeware that lets people construct 2-D, topographical maps that give you an idea of what the terrain looks like,” says Kraus. “These have become quite sophisticated and there are a lot of good options. It’s a matter of using technology readily available for students and being creative with it.”
If the use of this software is successful, he says he could envision eventually having students work on 3-D spaces.