All posts by M.E. O’Neill

Final Project: A Cabin Divided

“A Cabin Divided” follows a newlywed couple honeymooning in an isolated cabin in the woods during the COVID-19 pandemic. What begins as a secluded, romantic getaway quickly becomes a thrilling horror story as the reader faces decrepit architecture, covert surveillance, and the creepy groundskeeper’s locked shed door. This piece of interactive fiction allows the reader to explore the setting in a non-linear fashion and to make choices about the protagonist’s personality; the reader can be brave or cowardly, aloof or kind, curious or willfully ignorant. While each hyperlinked choice affects the reader’s experience of the unsettling events of the plot, the text is also interspersed with hyperlinks to live websites, Youtube videos, and news articles that explore America’s widening cultural, class, and systemic divisions, which have recently been made more apparent by the looming COVID-19 pandemic. 

Click here to view the story.

Writing “Divided” was so much fun. I’ve had the idea to write a horror story about a creepy cabin for a while now, and I’m so happy I got to expand on my initial plan by turning the concept into a branching piece of interactive fiction. The combination of the pandemic, the 2020 election, and the current political landscape in the US really influenced what I wanted to say with this piece, so I hope it doesn’t feel too political to be enjoyable—my goal was to write something that stands on its own as entertainment, but that also has some more subtle messages for anyone who cares to analyze the text more deeply. 

I’m not sure I succeeded in creating a suspenseful, thrilling horror story or in making subtle, scathing political commentary, but I’m pretty happy with the overall structure and format of the piece. I was a little wary of using Twine to present the text, but I was able to figure out the program pretty easily with a few Google searches. I do wish I’d had more time to write additional branching narratives—I originally had the idea of letting readers choose from which character’s perspective they would view the story—but I had to keep the plot pretty streamlined in order to finish it by the due date. If I’d had more time, I also would’ve loved to include some photography, illustrations, or even just some different font and background colors to make the story more multimodal. 

I’m not super confident in my creative writing abilities, but it’s a skill I’d like to improve—so if anyone ends up reading through the entire narrative, I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, or criticisms! I hope you have as much fun reading this piece as I did writing it! 

The Final Project

The thought of completing a collaborative final project by the end of the semester is a little daunting. During last week’s class, everyone had so many different intriguing ideas, so I’m definitely having a tough time narrowing them down and deciding which ones I like best. It’s also tough to articulate exactly what I want to learn from the project since we’ve covered so many interesting topics this semester. 

With that said, I do have some ideas about what I wish to learn, and I think all of them are connected to each other in a way that would allow them to combine into a singular project. First, I’d like to learn more about multimodalities and multiliteracies, especially in the context of the rapidly evolving digital age; I want to learn how to incorporate more than just text into my writing and research. 

In addition, I’m interested in bridging the distance between theory and practice, particularly in education. We’ve read so many decades old articles that call for changes to the way we teach, yet it doesn’t feel as though we’ve actually made many of those changes. 

However, I don’t just want to learn about writing in education; I also want to learn how to implement these theories into my own writing and learn how to make a career out of composition in the twenty-first century. Basically, I want to learn how to use the techniques and theories we’ve read about—specifically, multimodalities and/or multiliteracies—to navigate the modern field of writing in a digital context.

The topics I want to learn about are definitely influencing my ideas for what to actually make for the final project. I’d like whatever we create to be a multimodal digital artifact in order to reflect my ideal learning outcomes. 

A few ideas from last week stood out to me. For example, I’d love to make a mock syllabus or class website for a course on digital writing—Diana made some great points about how such a course could be used to connect students from different schools. I also really loved Sun’s idea about creating a game like Cards Against Humanity, but I’m not very clever, funny, or witty, so I don’t know how much help I would be with a project like that. 

Whatever we end up creating, I hope it’s something meaningful and useful to our future careers as writers. I don’t want to just complete this project to get a grade; I want to contribute something valuable to the discourse on writing while learning to improve my own knowledge and skills.

Making Progress

I’ve been making decent progress on my elit piece since my last blog update. So far, I’ve been focusing on actually writing the piece rather than exploring the tools I’ll use to present it. Originally, I planned to use Twine as the home for my story, and that’s still my ideal electronic storytelling format. However, if I’m unable to learn the ropes of that program before the final project is due, or if I find out that Twine doesn’t have all of the capabilities I’m looking for, I figure I can always use Google Docs as a backup plan. 

I’m super familiar with creating hyperlinks in Docs, so I know I’d be able to whip up a piece of hypertext electronic literature pretty easily using that tool. Again, I’d prefer to use Twine, but with a looming deadline fast approaching, I don’t want to plan an unfeasible final project by trying to learn an entirely new storytelling tool in addition to writing a detailed and (hopefully) worthwhile piece of interactive fiction.

 Speaking of writing interactive fiction, I’ve made some headway in getting the piece down on paper—or, more accurately, on a massive Google Doc filled with unpolished ideas about the characters, setting, plot, and themes. I’ve also started a draft of the story itself; so far, I’ve written the exposition, introduced the main characters, and begun describing the setting in detail. Currently, I’m making my way into the rising action of the story, and I’ve got a vague outline of the rest of the plot. As I write, I’m also planning where I’ll insert hyperlinks, and I’m creating choices that will affect the reader’s experience.  

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what I want the piece to say and how the structure of the piece will contribute to its message, and I’ve started thinking about how to convey specific themes through the characters’ actions and the plot. I’m debating including some hyperlinks to external websites and videos that relate to the theme, as well. I’m a little worried about how my ideas will come across—am I being too subtle in my symbolism, or too blatant and obvious? 

It’s always tough for me to take a step back and judge my creative writing objectively, but even if I don’t manage to get across the themes I have in mind, I do hope I can at least write an entertaining story. I’m trying to create a tense, eerie mood and attempting to sprinkle in some ominous foreshadowing along the way. Even if the story doesn’t turn out exactly as I plan, I’m definitely having a lot of fun writing it. The more I write, though, the more ideas I get, so hopefully I can wrap it up in time to meet the final project deadline. 

E-Lit Progress Report

I’m both excited and nervous to start working on my final project for electronic literature. I’ve been thinking a lot about the story I want to tell and brainstorming plot points and character ideas. However, I’m not super confident about my creative writing skills, so I’m always a little wary of sharing my work with others. 

The basic premise of my story is that a couple goes to a secluded cabin upstate for their honeymoon, where they’re plagued by strange and creepy occurrences. I’m hoping I can make the piece feel like a psychological thriller, but I’ve never written anything in that genre, so I’m not sure how effective I’ll be at creating a tense, scary mood. I’d like the piece to feel like a mix between a Black Mirror episode and the movie Cabin in the Woods. I’m also hoping to sneak in some subtle commentary on society, technology, and politics, but again, I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to translate my abstract ideas on those topics into a digestible story. 

I have a lot of the plot and character profiles outlined already; there are just a few finer details that I’m sure I’ll work out once I start actually writing. My next goal is to figure out the mechanisms I can use to create a choose your own adventure story. I’ve played around with Twine a bit, and it seems simple enough to use. I also really enjoyed all of the Twine based literature we’ve read this semester, particularly With Those We Love Alive—it was one of my favorite pieces. (I liked Queerskins and Reconstructing Mayakovsky a bit more than With Those We Love Alive, but I don’t have enough coding expertise to make anything quite that complex.) 

One aspect of With Those We Love Alive that I want to emulate is the way readers can click on hyperlinks leading to different areas in the palace or in the city; the vivid imagery makes it feel like the readers are exploring the setting, glancing quickly at the world around them and taking note of what they see. I want to do something similar in my own piece by allowing readers to click on different rooms within the cabin, so it feels like the readers have just arrived at their vacation destination and are now exploring their lodgings. 

I’m a little worried that my ideas are too ambitious, especially considering both the time constraints and my lack of technical skills. I would love to include multimedia such as videos, but I’m not sure how to create the effects I’m imagining. I also want to include pictures, because the cabin I have in mind is one I’ve actually been to before on a trip to the Finger Lakes. However, I didn’t take any pictures while I was there, and I don’t plan on renting a cabin and then travelling to upstate New York in the next few weeks just to snap a couple of photos. I’m debating adding my own illustrations, but since I’m not really an artist, it usually takes me a really long time to create drawings that I’m happy with. I’d rather focus my creative energy on writing the piece instead of making more work for myself by creating videos, audio, and images. I might just settle for including hyperlinks to other websites that relate to the themes I’m trying to express, like Illya Szilak did in Reconstructing Mayakovsky. 

Over Thanksgiving break, I plan to buckle down and get a good chunk of the story written out. Although I’m not always confident in the end product, I love the process of creative writing, so I can’t wait to develop my story more and to experiment with Twine.

Voice and Power

“Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries”

In his article “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries,” Peter Elbow argues for two seemingly contradictory positions on voice, or the unique way each person’s writing “sounds.” Voice, he argues, is present in every aspect of writing, from politics to personal blog posts. We must pay attention to voice and teach students how to develop their own, as it enhances our understanding of texts and improves the rhetoric in our own writing. However, we must also learn to read without voice, focusing solely on text so that we can judge the content and its merits rather than being pulled in by a persuasive voice. 

As usual, I found myself agreeing with everything Elbow had to say. Admittedly, this could be because he has such a clear, convincing voice (which is refreshing after reading so many overly academic, jargon filled articles this semester), but I think even stripped of its voice, this article presents sound ideas. Elbow defends his position thoroughly, and he even calls out other scholars who have tried to argue against his point of view. 

As always, Elbow is also one of the few academics who offers practical suggestions about how to implement his theories into the classroom. For example, to teach students to pay closer attention to voice, he asks them to read a text out loud to convey its meaning to listeners. Reading texts out loud is great advice to aid in understanding difficult language, and I’d love to tweak this method for use in the Spanish classroom. However, I do wish Elbow had given more practical advice for how to teach students (and ourselves) to ignore voice and to focus on content, as this is an incredibly important skill for modern readers who—thanks to the Internet—are constantly bombarded by deceptive advertisements and persuasive politicians.

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children”

Lisa Delpit’s “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children” was a thought provoking read about a difficult subject. Delpit exposes how black educators’ ideas are silenced by well meaning white liberal teachers who prefer to teach using a process over product approach. Delpit argues that in order to succeed, black students must instead receive explicit instruction on the “codes or rules for participating in [the culture of] power” (282). 

I have a lot of complicated thoughts about this article, and I’m going to do my best to articulate them clearly while also recognizing my own subconscious biases and my privileged position as a white, middle class teacher in a diverse school district. First, I agree in theory with the majority of Delpit’s arguments, including her outline of the “five aspects of power” (282) and her explanation of why many black students are labeled as “behavior disordered” due to misunderstandings of “veiled commands” (289). In addition, I’m glad she includes testimonies from black students and teachers, and I agree that these voices must be heard in order to create a more equitable education system, especially considering that—despite the diversity of the student body—teaching is a predominantly white field.

Despite agreeing with most of Delpit’s ideas in theory, I’m frustrated to read yet another article that seems to advocate for giving already overworked and underpaid teachers more responsibilities (in this case, instructing students how to navigate a complex culture of power in addition to teaching regular academic content). There is only so much teachers can do while working within the confines of the incredibly flawed education system, which is arguably a racist institution of power. 

Yes, white educators must examine their own privilege, but I’m not convinced they have as much power as Delpit suggests (although, maybe by saying that, I’m just proving Delpit’s fifth aspect of power). Obviously, as a white, middle class teacher, I have more power and privilege than my black, lower class students, but in the grand scheme of things, I myself feel pretty powerless at times: I’m powerless to change the broken, flawed, and outdated public education system, and I’m powerless against many of the injustices my students face (especially now, when remote learning is exposing and exacerbating achievement gaps between lower class black students and middle class white ones).

I think the issue of power is more complex than black versus white; although race is absolutely integral to the discussion, class plays a large role, as well. Delpit even mentions that “poor White people” face some of the same issues as black people when trying to navigate the culture of power, but she diminishes this point’s importance by relegating it to a footnote (282). With this in mind, I’m not sure it’s best to teach black students to assimilate into the current power structures, which really only benefit a small (but incredibly wealthy) percentage of society. Shouldn’t we instead be exposing the cracks in the current systems of power, showing students who is keeping them down and how they’re doing it? 

This position is perhaps too idealistic; I doubt schools, which are notoriously conservative institutions, will be advocating for societal revolutions any time soon. But I think Delpit’s article is even more quixotic because she advocates for “societal change…from the top down” (293). Firstly, I take issue with the implicit argument here that teachers, many of whom work multiple jobs to pay off exorbitant amounts of student debt, are somehow at the “top.” Yes, most teachers are white and middle class, and again, they do have more power than their students, but using only those qualifiers to determine power creates an incredibly limited and narrow perspective. Secondly, I don’t believe that change can ever come from the top down, because the people on top want to stay there. Historically, hasn’t most change come from the bottom up—from grassroots movements, from organized protests, from the masses getting out and fighting for what they believe?

I know I got a little off topic here, and I worry that by shifting the conversation to include class, I’m just another one of the white liberal teachers who is silencing the dialogue about race by ignoring valid concerns about how best to support black students in the current education system. It’s difficult for me to know whether my disagreements with this article are reasonable, or if my subconscious biases are rallying against ideas that challenge my position of privilege. Either way, I know I must continue ruminating on the ideas Delpit discusses and examining my own privilege and power in the classroom in order to create a more equitable learning environment for my students.

The Hilarious Hunt for the Gay Planet

Anna Anthropy’s Hunt for the Gay Planet is a hilarious piece of satire and a great way to end our journey through the world of electronic literature. I don’t always read the descriptions of elit pieces, but this time, I’m glad I did. The story is more impactful and the humor lands better if you understand that Hunt is satirizing a Star Wars game that only allows in-game homosexual romance on one planet. There are even Star Wars references sprinkled throughout, like when the protagonist mentions visiting the “seediest hive of scum and villainy.” Knowing its purpose makes the piece feel pretty straightforward; every scene is a clear satire of the lack of queer representation in video games. 

Of course, Hunt wouldn’t be a satire without humor. The story is bursting with goofy puns and ridiculous situations (none of which will be anymore after I over analyze them, but I’ve never been squeamish about dissections). For example, when the protagonist explores the planets and finds evidence of ancient tools, she asks herself, “Could they have been gay tools?” Obviously, it’s ridiculous to imagine that an inanimate object could be homosexual (the same way it’s ridiculous to view video games as heterosexual spaces). 

Our heroine is full of witty quips, like when she points out the irony of walking straight through a tunnel when she can’t even think straight, or when the police on Lesbionica tie her up, and she becomes “annoyed to find [her] libido having conflicting feelings about this.” The humor in this piece has a greater purpose; it highlights the ridiculousness of the current culture surrounding video games, which usually feature straight male protagonists with the occasional token character sprinkled in as an afterthought. 

The format of this game, which reads like a traditional sci-fi adventure story, enhances its satire. The heroine’s quest through the galaxy is filled with suspense, like when she searches through every room in an ancient cave until finally, after extensive exploration, she finds a hidden, ancient carving that “depicts… A man and a woman holding hands.” This kind of anti-climatic let down is a subversion of the average gamer’s expectations of adventure and action. 

This type of ironic subversion of expectations happens multiple times throughout Hunt, such as when the protagonist finds a planet that looks like paradise. Anthropy carefully crafts vivid descriptions of placid waters and lush grass, and she adds a sense of mystery and intrigue by introducing psychic forces that tug at the protagonist’s mind. The culmination of this sequence is hilarious, as a breathtaking psychic whale floats magnificently out of the water to ask, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Although I found this scene entertaining, the protagonist is justifiably frustrated. The entire galaxy makes assumptions about her sexuality and treats heterosexual relationships as the norm, which I imagine must get tiring both for fictional space lesbians and for gay people in real life. 

The conclusion of Hunt is filled with brilliant satire, as well. The sloppy, inelegant kiss between the heroine and her lover subverts expectations, especially for straight male readers who may have a fetishistic view of lesbian relationships. This kiss is just one element of the satirical conclusion, which takes all of the traditional action hero tropes and applies them to the type of character we don’t usually see in popular video games. The gay, female protagonist expertly disarms the evil queen to save the day, get the girl, and rescue the galaxy from stifling straightness.

Seeing Red: The Literary Value of Redshift and Portalmetal and RedRidingHood

I really wanted to like Redshift and Portalmetal by micha cárdenas. The ominous opening line—”Your planet is dying”—had me hooked.  I was eager to finally read a piece about the existential threat of climate change, which is already impacting marginalized communities around the globe. I also loved the background image of an oddly prescient red sky; it reminded me of photographs from this year’s wildfires, during which California was bathed in extra-terrestrial orange light. The scenery changed to more breathtaking photographs as I moved from the barren, freezing landscapes of the Ice Planet back to the rocky, open deserts of the protagonist’s home planet. 

As I read, I learned about intriguing sci-fi concepts, like the titular “Portalmetal,” or jewelry that connects wearers to their ancestors. I got caught in a few loops, and after running through the piece twice, I realized that my choices didn’t change the story’s outcome. Each time, I ended up at the “Spell for Decolonial Time Travel,” which reads like a prayer that humanity will not repeat its imperialist mistakes when leaving Earth to explore new worlds and create new societies.  

I wanted to like how all of these witchy, futuristic concepts point to the way our flawed society recklessly destroys the environment and abuses marginalized peoples, but cárdenas’s writing style just wasn’t compelling to me. Previously, I’ve expressed my doubts about the literary value of some of the pieces we’ve read (e.g., Icarus Needs, Bots, Trope). My skepticism of those pieces was driven by their lack of deeper meaning and their focus on experimental style over thematic substance.

After reading Redshift and Portalmetal, I have the opposite complaint. This piece clearly touches on powerful themes—climate change, colonialism, marginalized peoples, etc.—but in my opinion, the prose and poetry lack artistry. It’s not enough for good literature to have a deeper meaning; the writer must also have a strong command of the language and be able to engage readers emotionally. Personally, I think Redshift is missing that ineffable (and admittedly subjective) quality of good writing that sets timeless literature apart. 

There are a few passages that are on the cusp between flat text and powerful prose, such as a paragraph about the narrator choosing to see the transformative power of Western medicine—despite its historic whiteness—as magic. Cárdenas writes, “This doctor was going to stop the parts of her brain that were conscious, just long enough to put two pieces of earth into her chest, near her heart, and give her the body she envisioned.” I would’ve loved to see more touching, personal passages like this one, which powerfully connects the protagonist to her home planet while attempting to reconcile her trans identity with a patriarchal society. In general, though, Redshift is lacking the artistic, compelling, subtle wordplay and figurative language that make me love literature. 

RedRidingHood by Donna Leishman is also missing a few literary qualities. In this modern day retelling of the classic fairy tale, funky music blares over bright Flash animations that blur the line between cute and creepy. The protagonist’s poppy induced dreams and delirium left me feeling confused and a little disturbed, but the scariest scene occurred after Red Riding Hood awoke in a dark bedroom with a wriggling fetus in her stomach. I have a lot of questions about how and why she ended up there, and I’m not sure if I want any of them answered. 

The unsettling vibes this piece gives off made me oddly nostalgic for my middle school days, when creepy Flash animations like Salad Fingers went viral. (Fair warning: Salad Fingers is way creepier than RedRidingHood, so click at your own risk.) Ultimately, though, I’m not sure how this piece—which lacks actual text—counts as literature. If anything, I’d classify it as visual art instead. 

It’s likely that both of this week’s pieces just went way over my head, or maybe I need to be more open minded about what constitutes literature. Either way, both readings left me feeling a little disappointed and incredibly confused. 

Multilingualism and Multiliteracies in an Outdated System of Education

Globalization is rapidly changing our society, but schools haven’t been able to keep up. Paul Kei Matsuda’s article “Teaching Composition in the Multilingual World” and “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures” by Courtney Cazden, Bill Cope, Norman Fairclough, Jim Gee, et al. discuss a few of the ways our current education system is failing to prepare students to succeed in a globalized world.

In “Teaching Composition,” Matsuda discusses the importance of making writing courses accessible to students whose first language isn’t English. The population of college students is rapidly growing more diverse, and many international students face writing challenges that native English speakers don’t. For example, Matsuda points out that writing is practically a second language for native speakers, so it’s even more of a challenge for second language writers to figure out complex systems of grammar that don’t exist in their native language (40). 

Not only would making writing courses more accessible benefit multilingual students, but it would also benefit the monolingual English speakers who must prepare to write for a global, multilingual audience (50).  I whole-heartedly agree that monolingual students are woefully unprepared for the demands of working and researching in a globalized community, especially in comparison to scholars from countries where multilingualism is the norm. I wish American schools would start preparing students for this reality as early as elementary school, when children are malleable enough to learn new languages and to be more open minded about communicating with diverse communities.

Although I agree in theory that “all sections of first-year writing courses [should be] ESL friendly” (45), I have reservations about implementing this strategy in the classroom. Of course, inclusion of diverse students and viewpoints is always a positive, but it’s unfair (to both teachers and students) to place additional expectations on teachers to cater to such a broad population of learners while not making any structural changes to the education system. Giving teachers a few extra hours of training to “work with a broader range of basic writers” (46) isn’t enough to account for the tremendous societal changes that globalization is causing. 

The idea that our education system needs to make major changes in order to adequately prepare students for a globalized world returned to me as I read “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.” This article is dense, yet it also manages to discuss a wide breadth of issues that affect our education system in the modern world. (Well, at least it was modern when the article was written; though most of their ideas are still relevant, the authors do believe that “information superhighways” and a future filled with “virtual shoppers” are ludicrous, sci-fi fantasies [64]. Both the internet and Instacart would disagree.)

One relevant issue the article discusses is the transition of our society into “fast capitalism” or “postFordsim.” We are no longer in an Industrial Age of production lines and strict managerial hierarchies (66), but our education system still functions as though it’s preparing students to work in an early twentieth century factory. Again, I’m struck by the dire need for structural changes to our outdated education system. I watched a great video on this topic in my undergraduate Social Foundations of Education course. It covers a lot of topics similar to the ones in the article in a much more palatable, less jargon-filled way.

I can’t cover all of my thoughts on this stimulating, informative, thorough, and extremely academic article; there are so many thoughts and questions I could raise about metalanguages or subcultural differences or the broader impacts of fast capitalism and globalization, but I want to focus on a key idea that resurfaces throughout: Students must be designers of social futures. 

This idea that students must be “active participants of social change” (64) is the core of what I believe education should do; a good education must prepare students to enter society with the skills, knowledge, and empathy necessary to become leaders and to make positive changes in their communities and the (now globalized) world. 

In order to revitalize the education system to teach students to function in this globalized world where multiliteracies are a necessity, the authors believe that educators, through the process of “Designing,” must use the “Available Designs” (or the current educational resources and discourses) to create the “Redesigned” (which is a new, “transformed” resource more relevant to modern society) (74-77). This section of the article is very theoretical and academic, and I wish the authors could give more concrete ideas about what a “Redesigned” education system that accounts for mulitliteracies and our rapidly changing society would look like.

Ultimately, after reading both articles this week, I’m even more convinced that our education system needs to undergo radical, structural changes in order to meet the needs of students in an ever-changing and interconnected world.