April 9, 2006


by Nick Montfort · , 1:24 pm

I was delighted to see that someone at my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin – to wit, Jeffrey Lamar Howard – wrote a dissertation engaging interactive fiction and contemporary literature, and ways that IF can inform the teaching of postmodern writing. Jeffrey Howard’s dissertation is “Heretical Reading: Freedom as Question and Process in Postmodern American Novel and Technological Pedagogy.” Update, May 9: It’s now online.

I will just quote a few passages from it and mention one point that it makes. This won’t provide anything like a summary of Howard’s work, of course, but hopefully it will show something about the very novel approach to interactive fiction and postmodern literature that he has taken.

Literary pedagogy can be thought of as a form of game design, in which the teacher transforms a printed text into an interactive fiction by locating and devising “puzzles” in the form of interpretative challenges for the student to solve. By applying the principles of game design while teaching postmodern novels, instructors can draw upon the theories and examples of interactivity already associated with interactive fiction to enhance their own pedagogical imaginations.

The first rule of interactive fiction pedagogy is that the landscape of the text is to be imagined as a geographic and conceptual space akin to a labyrinth through which students can move in the course of discussions.

Transforming printed texts into interactive fictions opens the way for possibilities of navigational choice on the part of the reader that build upon yet surpass those of hypertext by emphasizing the interpretative challenges that must be solved to move freely through the text. Hypertext works well as a tool for teaching students how to write about postmodern novels, but further technologies and models are required to engage students with reading the books themselves on a day to day basis within the classroom.

Howard suggests – “heretically” – that one might map the locations in The Crying of Lot 49 as one would an interactive fiction, and explore the relationship of its geography with its other textures. That novel, like Pale Fire, can usefully be approached as one would approach an interactive fiction.

students … can be drawn into [postmodern novels] by the same aesthetic appeals that brought me to read postmodern fiction through the Gnostics in the first place: an aesthetic fascination with mysterious, surreal, and cryptic puzzles intimating hidden meaning.

16 Responses to “>CRY LOT 49”

  1. michael Says:

    The obvious question: how does one get hold of the diss? As I repeatedly tell Ian, if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.

  2. nick Says:

    There is a school of thought that if it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.

    I think the counterargument for a dissertation would go like this: if your committee signed it, it exists, whether or not it’s online; if not, not.

  3. mark Says:

    That may be true for the person getting the PhD, but for everyone else, if you have to write to the department, pay a fee, and wait six months to get a copy mailed to you through the post, it might as well not exist!

    In any case, you’d think people who think they have ideas worth disseminating would want to make their work as widely and easily available as possible…

  4. Jeff Says:

    Hi everybody. Thanks for taking an interest in my dissertation, and thanks to Nick for posting his comments and quotations about it. I will do my very best to get a copy online in the near future and to post the location of it and information for downloading it. I have defended it and all committee members have signed it (so it does exist by those criteria). But I am also in the position of having defended rather early in my program, which means that I still have funding if I don’t fill out the paperwork for graduating by submitting my dissertation. I belong to the school of thought which says that if I don’t have funding, I will not exist because I will die of starvation. :)

    So, that’s the situation and I’m sorry if it causes anyone frustration. In the meantime, I’m very happy to answer any questions that you might have about the quotations and ideas that Nick kindly posted. Mostly, I’m just happy to be a part of the Grand Text Auto community. Have a good day, all.

  5. Corvus Says:

    The title you referenced, Pale File. Do you mean Pale Fire, by Nabakov? If you do mean Pale File, who is the author?

  6. andrew Says:

    I noticed that presumable typo too, but thought it was an interesting typo so didn’t speak up ;-)

  7. nick Says:

    Pale File is a special imaginary book for tax time. I replaced that with the title of the actual book, Pale Fire.

    Just be glad I didn’t mention the more perverse version of the book, Pale Fur.

  8. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Then there’s Pile Fare, which is a stack of receipts for paying for traveling to libraries to check out the copies of dissertations that ony exist in dead tree form.

  9. Jeff Says:

    And let’s not forget “Fail Pyre,” the novel about a grad student who leapt onto a pile of
    burning dead trees out of shame from not having put his dissertation online after successfully defending it. Seriously, though, I will try to sort out the red tape so that maybe I can have it online before I officially graduate. The last chapter wouldn’t have been written without the online work of Nick Montfort, Dennis Jerz, Andrew Plotkin, and others in the works cited, so it’s only fair that they not have to accumulate pile fare to read it.

  10. Jeff Says:

    Just in case anyone is still interested in reading this, here is a pdf copy of my dissertation online.


    Chapter four is the one about IF that Nick posted about.

  11. nick Says:

    Thanks, Jeff! I updated the post so that people won’t miss the link. And, I like that Grand Text Auto gets its own edition with a custom filename.

  12. William Wend Says:

    Thank you!

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    [...] oward (whose dissertation on contemporary American fiction, with a chapter on IF, has been discussed on here) sends a report from the ACM Sandbox Symposium, which featured contrasti [...]

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    [...] Howard explains and develops some of his work in teaching postmodern novels via quests, as described before here on GTxA. In “Reading Potential: The Oulipo and the Meaning of [...]

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  16. Post Position » IF in College Education? Says:

    [...] Utah State’s Voices of Spoon River and Myth Mechanic. I know right off that Jeff Howard has taught The Crying of Lot 49 using IF, and that students read IF and create it as a digital literary practice in two of my [...]

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