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The virtual odyssey

Online poetry writing class pushes classic literature to the world of virtual reality

April 6, 2018

Scenes from “The Odyssey,” a virtual reality program created specifically for a creative writing graduate online course at the Mount, take students on a three-dimensional journey through Calypso to the underworld and back to Ithaca. Writing prompts at the end of each quest challenge students to hone their analytical and creative writing skills.
Scenes from “The Odyssey,” a virtual reality program created specifically for a creative writing graduate online course at the Mount, take students on a three-dimensional journey through Calypso to the underworld and back to Ithaca. Writing prompts at the end of each quest challenge students to hone their analytical and creative writing skills.

The wonder of it for Johnny Payne, director of the MFA in Creative Writing program, is how the memory of a long-ago teacher and a well-loved book transformed his poetry writing graduate class into an innovative, virtual reality online course.

He remembers how every day after recess his fifth-grade teacher, Nawanna Fairchild, would gather his classmates and him back into their classroom in Kentucky. She would give them paper and crayons and read aloud from “The Odyssey.”

Payne, a poet, novelist and playwright, says the classic became the first book he truly loved. “She didn’t present it as ‘great literature,’ just as a cool adventure story,” Payne says. “We had to draw a picture of something in the scene that she read. And she read us the real complete work, not some children’s version of it. But we got it.”

Payne plumbed that source when he developed an online poetry writing class using virtual reality (VR). He and Kimo Oades, senior instructional designer at MSMU Online, co-created a course dimension that takes place in virtual reality, a unique offering in the world of creative writing. The class was offered in the fall.

Payne’s students first read Homer’s “Odyssey,” before undertaking a 3D voyage tracking the hero’s route from the island of Calypso to the underworld and back to Ithaca. Students were rewarded with writing assignments at the end of each quest or game level.

“As readers, we are so far removed from Homer’s world,” says Dannielle Carr ’19 MFA. “‘The Odyssey’ in VR brought to life a piece of art that may be lost on many readers. A reader’s imagination may not always be sufficient to fully appreciate the magnitude of a work like this. The combination of technology and poetry was intriguing and didn’t disappoint.”

Carr says she loved how well the detailed game, assignments and workshops came together as a method of instruction.

“It’s clear that a lot of time, creativity and collaboration went into developing the game as one of the main components of a course on the long poem,” she says. “I was also surprised that the levels in the game had an emotional impact on me, like fear in ‘Cyclops’ and the ‘Underworld.’ The arias in ‘Sirens’ was my favorite, though.”

Payne, who uses games in his classes as prompts or a relaxation technique, found a good match in Oades, whose technical skills allowed them to create a poetry course that would be an odyssey in itself. The team spent 1,500 hours planning and building the course, which was extremely detailed and done from scratch.

“I wanted the students to understand how to think better in a non-linear way and be open to a method of thought that put them in risky creative territory,” Payne says. “Several students told me that the experience changed their ideas about what poetry could be, and opened them up to the vital role of technology in creation. To their surprise, perhaps, it was really fun and not that difficult after all.”

Payne is already looking into bringing his students to new learning frontiers. He plans to subscribe to a site that will allow his playwriting students to build their stage sets in the virtual world, and continues to spin out ideas for virtual and augmented reality.

“I think many professors, if they gave it a try, would be surprised at how transformative it can be in the classroom in any area of study,” Payne says. 

 

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