Pluriverse: Teaching Medieval Literature in an Immersion Studio — two students’ perspectives: guest posts by Samantha Purchase and Tia Christoffersen

Harley 4940


Teaching Medieval Literature in an Immersion Studio

Kenna L. Olsen

As the Fall semester wanes, it’s time to consider how and what I’ve been learning about teaching. This term, I was fortunate to be able to truly experiment with my pedagogy, via MRU’s Immersion Studio. I was granted the opportunity to teach my fourth year seminar, “Select Topics in Medieval Literature,” in the Riddell Library and Learning Centre’s Immersion Studio — a 360 degree “grey box” that allows for digital immersion. The course I developed, “Pluriverse: Medieval Immersive Spaces — Textual Minds, Lexis of Landscapes,” reads a variety of Old and Middle English literatures against digital surrogates of geographical and temporal environments. The seminar proposes a ”pluriverse” that intends to promote medieval literary understanding and inspire understanding of historical difference.

I have much to say about this course – I’ve learned a lot about myself as a teacher, and about the challenges of temporal and geographical distance that exists for students and scholars of medieval studies. But more significantly, students have offered some important reflections and reactions to their learning in the Immersion Studio, and so it’s pressing to share these first. Here, individual (yes, double!) guest posts by Tia Christoffersen and Samantha Purchase (I’m fortunate enough to count Tia and Samantha as my RAs and Honours students) articulate how digital immersion has impacted and shaped their learning. Samantha’s blog post intriguingly articulates how the Immersion Studio alleviates some accessibility issues inherent for some learners, and she argues that studying medieval literatures in the Immersion Studio might support sustainability of the discipline. Tia’s blog post  is a thoughtful explication of reading Early English poetry while experiencing digital immersion.

Here are Tia’s and Samantha’s contributions. I’m very happy indeed to include them amongst the Emerging Medievalisms blog:

A Student’s Reflection on Immersion Studio Learning

by Samantha Purchase

When Mount Royal University opened the doors to their new and improved library, the Riddell Library and Learning Centre, in 2017, I was in my third year of university and had gotten quite used to ‘the way things are.’ ‘The ways things are’ is one argument I have become accustomed to hearing throughout my academic career; it is often the justification for following the status quo, having students do the same kind of assignments and keeping the same learning objectives year after year. As someone who has struggled with ADD for most of my life, I was used to reigning in my abstract thinking and remoulding it to fit contemporary methods of education. I was used to making my learning adapt to the teacher, institution and discipline I was studying. This was my educational experience for most of my life.

Although I have taken seven courses with Dr. Kenna Olsen, and I knew her to be an exciting and engaging scholar whose enthusiasm was infectious enough to change lives (I mean, I call myself a medievalist thanks to her), I had to admit my skepticism when she first told me of the Immersion Studio. A black box room, capable of projecting anything on its walls, for a fully immersive experience. It sounds cool, I’ll give it that. I could see its relevance for a plethora of other programs: nursing, aviation, geology, archelogy, etc. It seemed like a stretch for English studies though. Part of what I like about reading is the time spent in my own mind; imaging, inventing and discovering the text through my point of view. I didn’t really see how someone else’s images projected on the walls of a room could improve my own experience with a text.

Needless to say, I was deeply wrong.

Not only has the Immersion Studio changed my relationship to literature, it has changed my relationship to learning. Technology is often considered a bit of a hindrance on education, but when confronted with the real value technology like this can have in sustaining the relevancy of the humanities, it is my hope that more teachers will utilize Immersion spaces in their syllabus.

My first experience in the room was a demonstration done with the librarian technician, Matt Laidlow, who showed us what it could do. I was so impressed with the capability, the choices that we had with medium—the lights, pictures, sounds and videos could all do whatever you wanted them to. We could have on image stretched across all four walls, effectively utilizing a 360 effect; we can mirror images on alternating walls; we can play videos on all four walls, etc. When Dr. Olsen asked me to participate in a research project exploring the Immersion Studio for the performance of texts, I agreed immediately.

I spent a few months with a small team finding images that depicted or evoked certain themes and moods from the texts Dr. Olsen chose. If I wanted to query loneliness, like the speaker in The Wanderer feels, I could put some images of desolate landscapes, juxtaposed with images of a crowded bus. These are two very different images, but capable of provoking strong emotion. I could find images of real-world inspirations for texts we read, like images of the Wirral found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Hadrian’s Wall for The Ruin. I could pair these images with evocative soundscapes: birds chirping, wilderness sounds, people talking in whispers, screams—it was all there. The only limit is my own imagination.

When I finally was able to see a classroom interact with texts in the Immersion Studio I realized how far reaching the implication of a space like the Immersion Studio can be on scholarship and the very sustainability of English and the humanities. When reading a text, there is a level of distance; a teacher can gesture to certain issues in the text, and a class can discuss their own perceptions and interpretations. In a room like the Immersion Studio however, one can prompt discussion through the environment itself. With medieval literature, many students (like myself) have never had a chance to visit the locations where these stories take place, and this can be a disadvantage for textual comprehension and analysis when picturing a text. When reading The Ruin for instance, I have always felt a strong pull to the narrator’s description of a wall “smashed by fate” and although Dr. Olsen always mentions that the narrator could be speaking about a place like Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, I had never been there so I could never visualize it clearly. Seeing a picture on my computer provides some context, sure. But having the image projected life-sized and 360-degree capability truly engrosses me in a way I’ve never experienced. As someone who is as prone to distraction as myself, I have never lost focus in the Immersion Studio. My level of concentration is sustained precisely because I am absorbed in the material with more than one sense.

This fall, I am enrolled in a class with Dr. Olsen that takes place entirely in the Immersion Studio. I have been lucky enough to work with Tia Christoffersen on finding the images and soundscapes to support analysis of several medieval texts in this class. So far we have played with historical depictions of Judith in art, poignant ocean scenes for The Seafarer, and used battle stills from Game of Thrones to evoke The Battle of Maldon. The feedback from the class has been positive, and witnessing the provocation of my peers when confronted with these varying wraps has been one of the highlights of my scholarly career. It has been instrumental in helping me solidify my own research for my honours thesis, which is a critique of medievalisms present in Game of Thrones. After exploring wraps with my class, and presenting my general outline of my project, the feedback and conversation the Studio generated helped me discover new interests that will propel my project to bigger and brighter places.

It is my hope that as the humanities continues to grow that we find new and innovative ways to explore literature. Spaces like the Immersion Studio are beneficial to students and faculty in their endless capabilities and functionality. The future of English is sustainable if we engage with the emerging technologies available in our universities and allow for new interpretations of critical analysis—while also supporting those of us who need the extra resources and supports.

Reading in Immersion:

A Reflection on Immersive Experiences and Early English Poetry

by Tia Christoffersen

Does your immediate environment affect the way you read any given text? Does it make a difference if you read William Wordsworth while reclining on a riverbank versus inside your living room in the middle of a Calgarian winter? Do your surroundings affect what you’re reading if the material doesn’t have such a direct environmental association? These are questions I hadn’t given much thought prior to my experience of reading medieval literature with immersive technology. I am currently in the final semester of my undergraduate English degree, so I have done my fair share of reading. Whether it was Flannery O’Connor or a journal article on Beowulf, I probably read material in the quietest, calmest space I could find. Oftentimes this space was my bedroom with the light of a single lamp, but it also ended up being various bustling pockets across campus between classes. Most students would likely agree that you need to concentrate when reading medieval literature. So, choosing where to read usually just means finding a place that won’t distract you from trying to remember what ‘eek’ means. A silent space might be the best environment for focusing, but not the most stimulating. What if you could transport yourself to any place you could imagine, both visually and aurally, when reading? Would you feel more connected to the text?

Along with Samantha Purchase, I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Olsen to prepare files for her English 4410 Pluriverse: Medieval Immersive Spaces – Textual Minds, Lexis of Landscapes course in the Riddell Library and Learning Centre’s Immersion Studio. The studio utilizes innovative technology to offer an immersive, 360° experience. For this course, we were tasked with choosing sound files and images to be turned into immersive “wraps” by the RLLC’s media designer. The class I wish to address in this post focused on the Early English poems The Ruin and The Seafarer and was thematically concerned with medieval and post-medieval worlds, as well as world-building.

Wraps for The Ruin were fairly straightforward; we used a series of images of ruins. We began with pictures of Hadrian’s Wall accompanied by sounds of howling winds, then transitioned to a photo of the Roman Baths with 21stcentury tourists milling about, phones in hand, paired with sounds of waterfalls. Finally, we ended with images of less recognizable but more damaged looking ruins with sounds of battle: shouting men and clashing swords. The goal was to visually and sonically depict themes that emerged chronologically in The Ruin: quiet rumination, a yearning for and imagining of pleasure, and the lamentation of war and destruction. As well, both Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Baths have been suggested to be the actual subjects of the poem, so they were intriguing visuals from an “authenticity” perspective.

We were all struck by the evocative power of this series of wraps and how the speaker’s emotions seemed more palpable in the immersive environment. Nostalgia emerged as a key theme among the students, particularly emphasized by the images of Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Baths. This notion of sentimental reflection was sharply juxtaposed by the sounds of battle and their distinctly mournful connotations. However, both of these emotional motifs can be categorized within a contemplation of the past being performed by the speaker of The Ruin. In class, we were performing this same contemplation of the past, and so were the tourists in the image of the Baths. Being immersed in these various environments solidified how our engagement with this poem perpetuates a temporal plurality. Reading early medieval literature is just one of many ways we engage with the past and breach the borders of periodization.

The Seafarer wraps consisted of images of the sea, of course, but we were able to be creative with their colouring, lighting, and tones. We began with a bright, sunny picture of the coast against a clear blue sky, then moved to a grey, cloudy image of a flock of birds flying above violent waves crashing against a rocky seaside. Next came a sunless, foggy beach packed with a crowd of silhouetted figures and an oddly placed surfboard in the foreground, followed by a dark image in the middle of the ocean, lit only by the full moon. The presence of life in these wraps was another point of intrigue, as living creatures only appeared in ominous ways.

These immersive atmospheres successfully evoked the themes of isolation that are so ubiquitous in The Seafarer. Students reacted most strongly to the eerie beach and the lonely ocean, with the class divided in opinion about which environment felt more isolating. Some said that the beach felt more sinister, as it looked like they were surrounded by people yet felt entirely alone. Others stated that the ocean wrap made them feel as though they were really in the frigid water, without another soul in sight. These emotional responses were discernible to me through somatic responses—facial expressions and gestures—to the wraps in conjunction with Dr. Olsen’s reading of the poem. When someone felt a particular wrap didn’t coordinate with a section of the poem that was being read to them, their mannerisms reflected discomfort and tension. Other times, when someone felt the wrap resonated with the poem, they reflected thoughtfulness and understanding.

After class, I was fascinated by the collective and individual responses to being immersed in various environments while hearing Early English poetry. I turned to the course’s Twitter hashtag to ask: “When we read the Early English poems The Ruin and The Seafarer in the Immersion Studio, did the wraps make you feel more connected to the speakers and themes than when reading the poems without the immersive experience?” The response was a resounding “heck yes!” which led me to wonder, why? Why did sensory provocation lead to a deeper textual understanding?

At first, I thought that students were responding to a distinction between what appeared as “medieval” environments versus “modern” ones. Perhaps the wrap with the phone-wielding tourists was especially evocative because it appeared to juxtapose time periods. Maybe some people resonated more with the moonlit ocean wrap because it was completely removed from time and lacked any clues to contemporary life, as opposed to the ominous 21st century beach. However, upon further reflection, it became clear that the responses were not just about what made sense visually for the time period we were studying. Reactions stemmed from being immersed in environments that were thematically in sync with the group’s thoughts and feelings about the texts. This immersive approach to engaging with Early English poetry further cemented in me the idea that human experience transcends spaciotemporal boundaries.