Contributor: Hannah Ackermans
Affiliation: University of Bergen
Released: 3 December 2021
Published: Spring 2022 (Issue 26.2)
During the spring of 2020, I taught a module on electronic literature in the course DIKULT103: Digital Genres: Digital Art, Electronic Literature, and Computer Games at the University of Bergen. Electronic literature is a genre of digital writing that interrogates the possibilities of the networked computer. Throughout the module, we discussed the various genres of electronic literature as outlined by Scott Rettberg (2019): “Combinatory Poetics,” “Hypertext,” “Interactive Fiction and other Game-Like Forms,” “Kinetic and Interactive Poetry,” “Network Writing,” and “Divergent Streams." After the students were familiar with works of e-lit throughout the readings, lectures, and assignments, I ended with a netprov assignment (Ackermans, 2020).
Netprov is “networked, improvised storytelling in available media” (Meanwhile Netprov Studio, 2021), a genre invented and developed by Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig. Each netprov is best understood as an event, usually multiple days, or weeks, in rare cases even years. Generally, one person or team organizes the netprov, determining which media will be used and creating the premise and prompts for participants. Participants are, then, invited to create characters within a narrative framework and within specific platforms. Based on writing prompts and steps, participants create a collective narrative by writing their own posts and replying to other participants as their characters. As such, netprov is a genre of electronic literature that combines traditions of improv theater with game-like structures and various conventions of online communications. Netprov, then, is not an application or community, but rather style of collaborative storytelling that can be done for using platform chosen as appropriate and on any topic that interests the organizers and participants. Although the netprov assignment below is explicitly about electronic literature, this is not a requirement. As netprovs can take any topic for creating collaborative online fiction, the assignment can be adapted to various kinds of writing activities.
Creative and practice-based assignments have become more common in classes focused on digital media. This ranges from reflective exercises on students’ use of social media, as stipulated by Shanna Gilkeson, Jessie Miller, and Lisa Pignotti (2015) to ones geared towards building, such as Rachael Graham Lussos’s (2018) approach to building Twitter bots. Within digital fiction and electronic literature courses and modules, digital storytelling assignments are also used. This is researched most notably by Lyle Skains (2019). She designed a module on Twine as ethnographic research to better understand the outcomes of digital storytelling in an undergraduate course. Non-fiction digital storytelling assignments include Megan Adams's (2017) Farm Narrative Project in which students explored connections to space through short documentary videos and Aaron Knochel and Dickie Selfe's (2012) documentation of microhistories of the local community of Hilltop in Columbus, Ohio (USA). Those projects are especially fitting for longer-term project with available equipment. Netprov as a genre has been analyzed and theorized within the context of electronic literature, most notably in Marino and Wittig's (2015) special issue Hyperrhiz 11: Netprov. In this issue, introduced and edited by Marino and Wittig, several scholars approach netprov from different critical perspectives, from ethical and activist perspectives to issues relating to documenting and archiving born-digital creative projects. A common thread is the foregrounding of netprov as a tool for creativity, empathy, and reflection when it comes to technological and political themes. There has been, however, only a marginal focus on netprov's potential in the classroom. The inventors of netprov do have a resource page including the foundations of netprov along with examples. Other mentions of using the genre of netprov as an assignment in both digital pedagogy and electronic literature (Kallionpää, 2017, p. 104; Nacher, 2019, p. 42) often remain mentions without a complete walkthrough of the steps, choices, and learning outcomes.
The combination of playful and critical elements makes the netprov well suited for an online assignment, especially in a course about electronic literature. I organized a netprov for my students in which they each had to personify a work of electronic literature of their choice. To inspire teachers of other electronic literature courses, I outline the process of organizing the netprov here. I will go over my considerations in the learning outcomes, my choice of platform, the integration of the assignment within the course, followed by the different steps of the netprov, and a reflection on the results.
This assignment was part of an electronic literature module where the main learning outcome was to improve students’ knowledge of and reflection on electronic literature. The way in which the netprov assignment achieved this desired learning outcome is three-fold.
Students successfully improve their knowledge through interaction with others and the set-up of the netprov assignments as a dialogue extends the proximal learning zone to the digital sphere. This structure creates a duality of presentational writing and writing as a cognitive process. As this is an assignment, the writing is naturally presentational to some extent. Yet, the netprov context, with explicit instruction that improv is not about being the smartest person in the room, allows for the use of the assignment as a way to learn through reading and writing the texts.
Netprov combines writing with theatrical traditions. Using a multiliteracies approach allows students to draw from a different skillset than other assignments by fostering their creativity as a foundational skill. The students' immersion in the frame narrative of the Electronic Literature Support Group allows them to consider works of electronic literature from a different perspective than conventional writing assignments. The role-play provides dynamic rules that enhances the students’ freedom in getting to know works of electronic literature on a deeper level.
Undergraduate students have a variety of backgrounds, with different levels of familiarity and proficiency in assignment conventions. This variety is amplified by the high number of exchange students from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds, whose expectations and customs with essay and analysis assignments varies. For most of the students, however, the practice of creative assignments in general, and netprov in particular, is new. This netprov assignment, then, levels the playing field while fostering a deeper knowledge of electronic literature through dialogue and creativity.
Creative assignments often focus on a specific platform such as Twine or Twitter, but netprov is a genre, not a platform. The organizer of the netprov can choose which platform(s) are best suited for their context. Netprovs use vernacular media (Marino & Wittig, 2015, p. 177), pre-existing media that participants are often already using such as Google Groups or Twitter. With Electronic Literature Support Group, a main consideration is whether to use a threaded discussion board or platform with a chat function.
With my students, I decided to use the discussion board of the learning management platform Canvas. Other universities will likely also have discussion boards available as a platform. A main motivation was to avoid forcing the students to create and use accounts on public and commercial platforms and since they are familiar with the discussion board within class context, I considered it a vernacular medium. A major affordance of the discussion board was to have different posts with threads of replies. If the platform allows, consider turning on the possibility for nested discussions to give students the opportunity to respond to each other's replies as well as the original poster. A discussion board is a good medium for asynchronous, multi-day netprovs with many participants.
Another option is to have platform with a chat function, such as Discord. Like the digital learning environment, Discord can include the group of students without making the channel public for everyone, which is gives the students a sense of comfort. Discord does not have threads, but does allow pinned messages (which you can use for the instruction posts) and lets participants directly reply to specific earlier messages and reply to specific people. A chat platform is a useful medium for synchronous, shorter netprovs with fewer participants.
Of course, contextual considerations can also play a role. For example, I played this netprov at the ELO conference 2020. Although the setting would have benefit from a discussion board, the conference itself uses Discord. I did not want to ask people to join yet another platform during this conference to avoid platform fatigue, so I chose to have a channel on the conference discord server instead.
I play tested the netprov on both platforms with some coworkers and friends to get to know the platforms better and I recommend other educators to do a test on their preferred platform as well.
My class had over 100 students. I split them into 5 groups per discussion board to form groups of roughly 20 students. This gave them a chance to really interact with others and keep track of people’s story arcs.
Transparency of expectations in courses is important for students. As netprovs are characterized by a level of improvisation, I could not tell students the premise and prompts ahead of time. To avoid a clash with the value of transparency of assignments, I outlined the steps in a very general way and indicated that their preparation for the assignment was to schedule some time for every day of the netprov. See appendix for the manual assignment.
We did this assignment in February 2020, before the universities closed due to COVID19. Although the in-class preparation is valuable, I am sure this can be converted to Zoom if breakout rooms are used during the practice and group discussions.
During the last week of classes, I lectured about the concept of netprov and other participatory forms of narrative. I started by showing the class various examples of netprovs available online, to give the class an idea of the breadth of the genre. Afterwards, I also included a short in-class excersise: we "played" Thermophiles in Love (Marino, 2016), a netprov that distinguishes five different personality types that can date each other. Rather than going through the steps of the different ‘thermophiles’ dating each other, I simply let them discuss their plans for the evening as the personality type they had been assigned. This gave them a chance to practice their improv skills and reflect on how to portray a character at a moment’s notice. Students all have different comfort levels and approaches. Even if they did not know what to do at first, they suddenly became their character when prompted a little bit further.
The use of the forum and the different steps of Electronic Literature Support Group are inspired by Marino and Wittig’s (2019) netprov The Machine Learning Breakfast Club. In this netprov, participants role-played as teachers of algorithms. On the Google Groups forum, the "teachers" discussed their issues in by posting their own problems and replying in character to other posters. As The Machine Learning Breakfast Club was an inspiration for my netprov when it came to structure, I ended my lecture by giving several examples of the different steps in that work so they would get familiar with the structure before doing the assignment. In this manner, I could fully keep the improvisational nature of the actual assignment while also providing model texts.
At the end of the lecture on netprovs and other networked writing, 30 minutes before the end of class, I revealed the premise of the assignment:
|Electronic Literature Support Group
After decades of development, works of electronic literature are fed-up with the way they are treated. At once lauded and despised, ignored, and overanalyzed, it is time we finally hear from the e-lit works themselves. In this netprov, you are each the personification of a creative work sharing your troubles and asking other works for advice.
On the online forum, you are invited to share your issues, whether you are a remixed combinatory poem with a limited sense of self, a 3rd generation work with an inferiority complex, or a classic hypertext novel with abandonment issues.
I made an announcement on the discussion group with the same text after class.
Immediately afterwards, I gave them their assignment for the next day (which I posted on the discussion group the next morning):
|Welcome to the Electronic Literature Support Group!
Before we start talking about our problems tomorrow, let's introduce ourselves today!
Tell us who you are! To get you started, question that can help you include (but are not limited to): You can be one specific work of e-lit we have discussed in class, or a subgenre of works. Think about the "personality" of your work. Questions to think of in your characterization include (but are not limited to): Are you old or young? Are you excited to join the support group? How much have you interacted with other works of electronic literature before? Do you feel superior or inferior? Do you like order or chaos? What does you character’s daily life look like? Do you speak in embellished or practical language? How do you converse with the other works?
For every post you write, put your character’s name at the top between square brackets so other participants know who “you” are.
I had already made a character for myself which I read out in class and explained how the work I chose related to the way I characterized myself in the introduction. I am consciously not sharing the character's text here because I believe it will benefit the lecturer to make their own character based on their own interests, experience, and style.
However, in the images of this tutorial, you will see various examples.
I then gave the students a chance to think and talk to their peers about different ideas for the netprov. I walked around to answer questions and if they were puzzled, I simply prompted them with a work that had been discussed extensively in class and asked them what type of person that would be. Even if they had previously told me they had no idea what to do with the assignment, this prompt nearly always led to immediate and certain answers!
I ended by setting the house rules for the netprov:
- Make proper use of the forum structure,
Use the nested discussion, etc.
- No racism, homophobia, etc permitted,
Just because you might be able to find an e-lit work that is racist, it does not make it okay to act racist in the group.
- No vandalism,
One collective narrative discussed in class was the infamous A Million Penguins (Penguin Books), where a group of 'vandals' tried to ruin the narrative that was built by other participants. Technically this is also possible during the assignment because students could spam the discussion board to ruin the process for others. As this is an assignment, I trust that you will not vandalize the discussion board.
- No bullying,
Yes, your character could be a bully, but always take into account that actual people are writing. Take into account how well you know the person you are "bullying" and make sure to do it in a way that is not hurtful or make sure you end up making fun of yourself rather than the work you are "bullying."
- Collaboration means “yes and” and not “no but,” and
This is an improv assignment, and you will make your story lines to go in different directions based on the replies you get. You do not need to have the perfect story arc, embrace the improvisation.
- Have fun.
This is likely a very different type of assignment than you have experience with, that’s okay. The goal is not to be the smartest or funniest person on the discussion board. Have fun together!
In the last half-hour of the lecture on the second day, I introduced the next prompt:
|Being a work of e-lit can be difficult, especially if the world does not follow your logic. Who or what is causing you problem living in the world as a creative work? How does this pose unique challenges to your character's personality?
Create a new post with a title indicating your problem, and a description of the problem in your day-to-day ‘life’ and ask for advice from the other works, whether you are worried about your cultural capital, facing technological obsolesce, or something else entirely.
Tomorrow we will respond to each other’s problems. Put your character’s name at the top between square brackets so other participants know who ‘you’ are.
I made a post for my character that I had introduced the day before. I read out my character's post and explained how that particular work of e-lit would have that problem as a person.
Like the day before, I gave them time to think about their characters and what problems they would have and discuss this with their peers. I was available for questions about this part of the assignment as well as on the netprov in general.
I ended with the logistics of deadlines and submitting URLs.
I posted this prompt on the third day in the discussion group.
On day 4, I posted the next prompt:
|Venting is great, but feedback is better. Although all of us have problems, this support group is meant to use our own experiences, skills, and personalities to help each other.
Read yesterday’s posts and give advice to some other group members. Do you agree that there is a problem? Does the problem trigger your own issues? How do you give advice to a different type of work? Can you band to together with others to find a solution for a common problem?
Put your character’s name at the top between square brackets so other participants know who ‘you’ are.
After posting the assignment, I went to the discussion board and gave in-character advice to some of the posts that students had made as their character. This provided them with some examples of how to go about giving advice as a work of e-lit.
Finally, on the fifth day, I posted this prompt in the discussion group:
|It’s already our final day of this support group!
Now that you have received so much advice, it is time to try (some or all of) it out. Or try some version or interpretation of it.
How do you respond to all this advice? Does the advice succeed magically or fail tragically or anywhere in between? Report back how it works out!
You make one final reply that is a resolution to your story arc, thus ending your participation in the support group.
For us, the fifth day was a Friday. During the last lecture, I told them that the tasks were small enough to finish in a day, thus giving them the opportunity to finish on Friday and not forcing them to work during the weekend. However, they did not have to submit the URLs until Monday, so they also had the option to finish their posts over the weekend.
After submitting the URLs of the discussions in which they participated, they were done with the assignment. This was a pass or fail assignment. As long as all the basic requirements were met, I gave them a pass. The basic requirements were participation in each step, namely 1) introducing yourself, 2) asking for advice in your own new discussion, 3) giving advice on at least two other discussions, and 4) post a resolution on your own story arc.
Students approached the assignment in very different ways, and I gave them short positive feedback such as “I like your characterization and story arc!”, “good interaction with other works!”, “I like the style and color of your posts”, or “you stay very well in character in giving advice.” As they are unlikely to receive a similar assignment during other classes in their BA, I decided not to give any negative feedback.
A majority of students chose to embody a work of electronic literature that were part of the course material; for example, ones that were part of the lectures and ones that they had previously engaged with during the comparative analysis assignment. Knowing the works beforehand helped them understand the works. The advice they asked for, foregrounded the specificity of their works. They came up with many different problems that fit the types of works, whether internal (for example, ZORK got lost and did not know how to get home) or relating to readership (for example, not being taken as seriously as codex books or being interpreted in too shallow a way). In some cases, the problems related to materiality (for example, Flash works concerned with their soon-to-be non-supported platform).
Giving advice let the students engage with other works of electronic literature, aiming to understand the other work in relation to their own. A common approach was to tell works they needed to accept themselves as they are. This reflects the genre of the support group that we used as a narrative framework, but it also echoes recurring lesson throughout the module to understand works of electronic literature on their own terms rather than judge them based on what they are not. In other cases, works challenged each other based on their differences. For example, if a classic hypertext novel complained about being abandoned, a meme work would jump in to say that at least people take hypertext seriously as literature.
During the final step of the resolution, most students decided to take the advice and thank the repliers, emulating the genre of the support group forum. Others decided not to take if that fit better with the characterization of their work. In some cases, a post did not get any replies. In these cases, students wrote their resolution based on how their character would react to the lack of replies. The stern With Those We Love Alive, for example, stated that obviously no one could understand and advise her.
The use of style throughout the assignment is noteworthy. While some students wrote in a standard manner that one expects from the advice format, others mimicked the style of the work they are embodying. Some haiku generators only post in haiku format, for example, and some people portraying works of kinetic poetry use a lot of typography and colors throughout their posts. Interestingly, either choice is based on comfort: some students found the use of style too intimidating, whereas others found comfort in having a certain style to hold onto throughout the assignment.
Netprovs are both performance and text, so it is important to choose a platform that allows the texts to be read afterwards. This also gave the opportunity for an alternative assignment for the one student who was unable to do the netprov due to circumstances beyond their control. The student did the alternative assignment of reading the netprov and writing a report about it. Although this functioned well in the moment, this student missed out on various elements stipulated in the learning outcomes. In the future, I would like to do a short netprov session on a chat platform with students who were unable to participate the first time, so that the creative, dialogue-based nature of the assignment remains intact.
The assignment succeeded in its objective of using creative participation and dialogue to deeper familiarity with electronic literature. The majority of students showed a lot of engagement. Several students contacted me personally to say how much they liked the assignment and even asked how to participate in other netprovs. Others told me the assignment seemed scary at first but that it ended up being fun to write. Overall, a successful experiment with potential in other classrooms.
If you decide to do this netprov with your class, feel free to use the material of this walkthrough. I would love to hear about your experiences. If you have any questions, you can contact me at hannah.ackermans at uib.no
This assignment and tutorial came about through various conversations with people with different backgrounds than mine. Marthe Hatlen Grønsveen’s expertise in pedagogy was key in designing and reflecting on this assignment, as was Ragnhild Gjefsen’s nuanced knowledge on theatre. I did two test runs of this assignment with my colleagues and friends Maud Ceuterick, Ragnhild Gjefsen, Marthe Hatlen Grønsveen, Julia King, Gunn Inger Sture, Eline D Tabak, and Inge van de Ven. Øyvind Farestveit Kvittingen, Thale Haneferd, and Guro Røstad gave me permission to screenshot their participation in the assignment. Finally, Rob Wittig and Mark C. Marino’s Machine Learning Breakfast Club was a main inspiration for Electronic Literature Support Group.
Assignment 3: Participate in the class netprov
In the last assignment in the e-lit module, we all participate in a “netprov.” A netprov is “networked, improvised storytelling in available media" (Meanwhile Netprov Studio, 2021).
Set aside some time to spend on your role in this netprov everyday between 11 February and 14 February (week 7), as you will be writing and responding to each other throughout the week. No other preparation is required before we start, as this is an improv assignment.
I will explain the specifics of the premise and tasks in class on mittuib in week 7, but here is an outline of the logistics and requirements.
This netprov will take place in the discussions section on mittuib. You will be split into groups of around 20 people to keep the discussion boards manageable. I will make an announcement to introduce each stage of the work with specific instructions. This is roughly what to expect:
1. The Premise (10 February),
I will make one announcement explaining the premise of the fictional context of the netprov.
2. Introductions (11 February),
Based on the premise, you each come up with a character for yourselves. I will create an introductory post when you introduce yourself as your character in the replies.
3. Create a post (12 February),
You will each create (at least) one new post as your character. I will announce the type of post you will make.
4. Reply (13 February), and
You reply to at least two of the other characters’ posts in your group. Interact as your character with the other characters.
5. Resolution (14 February).
You can reply to the replies on your post as much as you would like. At the end of the netprov, you make one final reply that is a resolution to your story arc, thus ending that part of the netprov. Submit the URLs to all the discussions in which you have participated.
You do not have to submit a reflection on what you have done, but it is recommended to make some notes of your creative process nonetheless, as it is possible that one of the questions of the take-home exam asks you to reflect on your creative work.
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