The lab is often associated with science—test tubes, robots, microscopes, and other STEM staples—while the humanities can evoke images of solitary work in dusty archives. In the Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL), students utilize technology in their humanities research as much as in any STEM discipline.
In the DWRL, undergraduate and graduate students work together to develop experimental approaches to producing and understanding texts. Graduate student instructors are trained to use recent technologies to teach rhetoric and writing. They, in turn, impart digital skills to the undergraduate students taking classes in the lab. “The work we do is designed to inspire pedagogical innovation in the classroom,” says Diane Davis, director of the DWRL and professor of rhetoric and writing. The lab classes teach undergraduates digital skills and help them apply those skills in their own collaborative research and creative projects.
Working in teams, graduate student instructors design novel ways to engage undergraduates with new research and rhetorical techniques. One group explored the rhetoric surrounding higher education funding in Texas. Players participated in a multimedia scavenger hunt spanning locations throughout Austin and the Internet. The resulting project, Crossing Battle Lines, went on to become the centerpiece of a scholarly article on digital rhetoric. Will Burdette, program coordinator at the DWRL, said that undergraduates contributed to the project by acting as both contributors and testers for the game. “The game was all about developing various research skills,” he said. “Players would take an audio file, open it in GarageBand, and find a clue in the different layers of audio tracks. They were simultaneously learning research and rhetorical skills, and that rolled back into the graduate students’ development.”
Undergraduates do more than just play and analyze games in DWRL-supported courses, they also create them. Facechange originated as a project for Rhetoric 312: Writing in Digital Environments. Using free game creation software, undergraduate authors David Hook, Jacob Philpott, Will Tangney, and Katie Tiller crafted a game commenting on the difficulties of effecting social change merely by commenting on Facebook.
Last year, Lily Zhu, a PhD student in English, assigned her students the task of creating a game. These teams, comprised of both gamers and non-gamers, learned how to use software to put together simple games that still had room to make powerful rhetorical points. “I used a very accessible tool, which gave them the power to choose hundreds of combinations. I could build the environment, build texts, build narrative that showed their understanding of rhetoric,” she said.
For Zhu, the student projects originating in the DWRL further our understanding of rhetoric in new media while also serving as a creative outlet. “I would say the projects are pieces of art with a propaganda aspect to them,” Zhu said. “What I asked students to do was create a narrative message. How they did it was up to them. I was pretty happy with the results.”
One game focused on the real-world dilemma of bullying. Players trying to navigate conflicts were faced with an unwinnable situation, in which running away was the only solution. “My game was about bullying and overcoming it, dealing with someone who is taking advantage or manipulating you,” said junior computer science major Tomas Damico. “It really flexed my creative muscles and made me go beyond the regular constraints of creating something that’s just purely fun.”
By letting Damico exercise his creativity using his newly acquired game-making skills, the project led him to consider game development as a career option. It also deepened his understanding of rhetoric. “It really made me realize that rhetoric is something that appears in every environment. It’s not limited to an article, a book, or an essay, it appears in all aspects of everyday life, even something like video games.”