1 University of British Columbia (CANADA)
2 University of Alberta (CANADA)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2011 Proceedings
Publication year: 2011
Pages: 1805-1814
ISBN: 978-84-614-7423-3
ISSN: 2340-1079
Conference name: 5th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 7-9 March, 2011
Location: Valencia, Spain
Inviting students to visualize the trajectory of a narrative by “graphing” plot has long been an established instructional methodology in literature classrooms. When teaching narrative, school teachers often rely on the five-stage plot mapping first described by Gustav Freytag (1863) in Die Technik des Dramas (known as “Freytag’s Pyramid”). Students are invited to apply this mapping to a range of literary types, from short stories to novels. As argued elsewhere (Dobson, 2006; Dobson et al, 2010), this approach is limited because it fails to take into account the complexity of narrative form, which cannot rightfully be reduced to a linear progression of actions.

In this project, we have worked to move beyond the limitations of Freytag’s Pyramid, and the Cartesian graph more generally, in modeling narrative. We have employed with students of literature a number of methods of visualizing narrative, including a range of text analysis and visualization tools emerging from the field of the Digital Humanities.

As well, we have developed our own prototype for visualizing narrative. PlotVis is a 3D system built using the Unity game engine. Texts are encoded in XML for elements such as character, action, object, dialogue, and so on. These encoded texts can then be displayed using our publication tool, and users may manipulate the resulting three-dimensional model in order to view it from different perspectives.

In a recent phase of this research, before we had a working prototype, we conducted research with two classes of school students, aged 16-18, inviting them to diagram a short story and also to engage in a process of encoding a short story in XML. Our aim was to identify the sorts of visual metaphors students apply to literary text, as well as to determine the feasibility of asking students to encode a narrative in XML. We found that the students’ models for literary text moved well beyond Freytag’s action-based model, and were evidently informed by their literacy with a variety of media.

This paper will discuss the merits of computer-based visualizations in teaching literature, will report the results of our research with students, and will speak to the theoretical and design considerations that informed the development of PlotVis.
Literary education, visualization, educational software, educational multimedia.