The murder of Theopolis College president Cadence Mackarthur has not yet happened. It’s Fall, and the college hasn’t yet made public their choice of ten “Distinguished Centennial Alumni”; indeed, Theopolis College is only starting to make plans for its 100th anniversary. For now, things are quiet.

But across the United States, in the Marshall Islands, and in Puerto Rico — much more sinister plans are brewing as writing students — graduates and undergraduates — take to their computers to inhabit characters in and create the artifacts for a grisly murder  mystery that will become The Generative Literature Project (GLP), a gamified digital novel that will be published in 2015 by Hybrid Pedagogy.

Right now, the project is just getting off the ground. We have been working a few months to make sure everything is set up — meeting with faculty participants to discuss strategy and structure — and now, as students become involved in the project, we are finally live as faculty and students begin creating the novel.

Finding the right vocabulary for this project has been interesting. We are working with digital objects and files of all sorts — maps, pictures, videos, social media posts, etc. — so we had to select a word to refer to the output of student works. We settled on “artifacts.”  Not only is an “artifact” suitably general, it also connotes that  these items are the intentionally crafted remnants of human activity. As anyone who is familiar with narration will attest, it is intentionality that lends itself to interpretation. We are hoping these artifacts will provide a rich foundation for the digital excavation of Theopolis college’s secrets.

There are seven active classes participating in the project, and faculty members planned various levels of involvement for their students.  We have been amazed at the variety of approaches our project participants have taken and proud that they had the freedom to choose what was most appropriate for their needs and their courses. We have seen, already, how the characters have taken on completely new personalities — challenging our early notions as they moved from 2-dimensional mock-ups to fully fleshed-out people under the creative guidance of our faculty. We expectantly await their complete genesis as the students create characters who will reflect upon and illuminate these characters even further.

It’s funny, really. Frederick or I will comment on a character in the project as if they are familiar friends of ours, and discuss something we have just found out from a project participant about the character as if it were juicy new gossip.

Beyond the “gossip”, we look forward to getting to know the students as project participants start reaching out  via social media (#Theopolis). For a glimpse of our project participants and what they are doing with the project, we have collected biographical information and some of their ideas about the project on our website. Here is an overview of our faculty participants, and how they will be approaching the project with their students:

Elise Takehana, Assistant Professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University, MA, will be teaching the Generative Literature Project to upperclass students in an Experimental Writing course, where they will produce a number of digital artifacts for the project in addition to text.

“The course is a creative writing workshop that endeavors to encourage play with language and rediscover the flexibility of language as a medium. As many of my students are anxious about digital technologies in their literature, I hope this project will allow them the opportunity to peer into a future of literature and play with narrative potential without having to face the programming work head-on.”

Mia Zamora is taking a similar approach in her Writing Electronic Literature course, which culminates with a public Electronic Literature exhibition on the Kean University, NJ campus. “The Theopolis College murder mystery and the multi-modal artifacts that Dr. Zamora’s students produce (as they inhabit the life of Theopolis College alumna Dr. Rachel Behar) will be featured in this culminating exhibition.”

At Slippery Rock University, PA, Jason Stuart will be introducing the project in more than one course, “The bulk of the project-specific work with the characters and mystery will be handled by the students in the Creative Writing class. However, the students in the Professional Writing class will be working behind the scenes to produce much of the ‘research’ material, such as newsletter stories, web presences, and persona sheets.”

One faculty member, Marissa Landrigan at University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown, is faced with creating an entire country and culture for her assigned character, Momed Eid.  “My hope is that using the GLP will help students develop an understanding of digital writing as a playful, creative, and exploratory form, one that begins with the seed of an idea and grows beyond the sum of its parts through widespread collaboration, sharing, and audience participation.”

The project is not only for English and writing majors.  Ellen Feig, at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ, will be integrating the project into the regular work of her First-year Composition Course, “I will be using the case study in my Composition 2 class which is focusing on the literature surrounding Hurricane Katrina. As a means of simulating the before/during/after of the storm, I intend to have my character live in New Orleans; accordingly, he will be faced with certain decisions that can alter his, and others’, lives.”

Elizabeth Kate Switaj, will be leading her class at the College of the Marshall Islands in Majuro in a cultural, as well as textual, journey, “Seeing and responding to work created by students in other locations will give them a perspective on the possibilities of collaboration and writing that they would not otherwise have access to. Understanding the different ways that others respond to similar writing situations will also strengthen their ability to reflect on their own work, by helping them to see it in a broader context.”

Leonardo Flores of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, plans to use his creative writing class’ participation in The Generative Literature Project as a unifying experience for his students, “My class of 30 students are a mix of excited, adventurous young writers who signed up in response to my advertising campaign, and nervous sophomores who needed an English class and are finding themselves falling down a digital rabbit hole. I plan to combine required and voluntary participation to allow students who really get excited by the project to go far.”

The project will focus on making the murder of the Theopolis College President as real and as compelling as possible while leaving enough holes for the public to become engaged and involved because we want the generative aspect of the project to go beyond this initial phase.

In the next phase of the project, we will be focusing on the organization, presentation, and gamification of the artifacts created by these faculty members and students, but we will leave some intentional holes in order to pull the public in and encourage them to participate in crowdsourcing artifacts, games, and clues to build as well as solve the mystery. We have no idea what will come of this first phase, so detailed planning for what follows will have to wait.

Mostly, as the digital novel moves forward, we want this project to feel like it belongs to the college students and to the public as a whole. We were admittedly inspired by immersive and enlightening projects like Inanimate Alice (a digital novel developed for the K-12 students), but we knew we needed something less controlled, more inviting, and definitely more edgy. (For example, this project will contain the graphic violence, sexual content, and impolite language that one might associate with a real world murder.)

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves again! In the next few months we look forward to the result of the student work on this project and hearing about the experience of the faculty who are teaching every day and working with this project in their classes. If you want to get involved early, keep your eye on the project blog as students and faculty share their experiences this semester — you just might spot a clue you can use later!