COLA Connections Newsletter: Spring 2016

Inside “World Building:” How RIT Students are Writing Their Own Stories

There tend to be no shortage of college courses that teach creative writing and the art of storytelling. The number of courses that actually allow students to fully immerse themselves in stories that they create themselves, however, is considerably smaller. RIT’s new course, “World Building”, is hoping to shrink that margin. Inviting students to create worlds, characters and entire narratives of their own, the course takes the standard creative writing formula and pushes it to an innovative extreme. We sat down with professor Trent Hergenrader to dive a little bit deeper into his work with the course and the exiting possibilities it holds.

What is your current position at RIT?

I'm an Assistant Professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts. My PhD is in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and my research focuses on digital pedagogy, creative writing studies, and games and game-based learning.

How did you get the idea for the World Building course? What was the genesis of this class?

World Building has grown out of my work on how role-playing games produce collaborative, interactive narratives. I teach another course, Game-based Fiction, where students spend the semester collaboratively building a fictional world, or adding to a preexisting world, and the fiction they write later in the semester must take place in this shared setting. I started thinking that it would be interesting to try to build multiple worlds in a single semester rather than just one, and thus the World Building course was born.

What is the main thing you hope students take away from the World Building class? What do you hope they learn from it?

One of my students described the course as "critical theory meets creative writing" and I couldn't have said it better myself. Critical theory is the analysis of culture and its social, historical, and ideological forces at play in a given place in a given time. This is to say that the "world" of Rochester is different from the world in Lagos, Nigeria or Yokohama, Japan, or even New York City. We might even say that the "world" of RIT in Henrietta is different than the "world" of downtown Rochester. So the questions we get at are: How big is a world? How do we define it? What forces are at play in the world, and how do we describe them?

What are some of the biggest successes you've seen in your class so far?

The challenge is trying to incorporate 20 students' ideas. Not everyone can get what they want, and I remind them constantly that coming up with a definitive, objective answer is not the point. They only need to have a rough idea of how the world works, and the characters in their stories can have divergent attitudes or beliefs. The whole process is shot through with subjective perspectives and, again, thinking through those perspectives is the most important part of the process.

Where do you hope the course goes in the future? How do you hope that it will evolve?

The course counts toward the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences BS degree and I hope to see more DHSS students enrolling in it. There is so much going on in the class already, it's easy to overlook the fact that large-scale collaborative projects like this are facilitated by digital technology, specifically wikis and online mapping tools. Digital technology is changing the way people produce and consume narratives, and sole authorship is increasingly giving way to collaborative efforts.

If you look at the Marvel universe or Star Wars, those have grown far beyond Stan Lee and George Lucas. In fact, their contributions are minuscule compared to the amount of material out there, and that's not even including unauthorized fan work. I find it fascinating to think about how narrative is changing in the twenty-first century, and I think DHSS students will get a lot out of thinking about the connections between digital technology and creative work.