Imagine, for just a moment, that you are sitting at the desk of your favorite author, walking through the halls of her home, gazing out of the same windows. You can begin to understand who she was as an individual and the circumstances that made her who she was. That deep level of understanding and appreciation of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the goal for Baylor School of Education doctoral student Amanda Gardner’s interactive video dissertation project.
“Location and zeitgeist help us understand what we’re reading and what we’re experiencing,” Gardner said. “I can’t take a class of students to those unique places, but I can bring a 360 experience to them.”
After learning about 360º film technology, known as Cinematic Virtual Reality (CVR) in a Baylor Film and Digital Media course, Gardner became interested in its implications for high school English classroom learning. Dr. Gretchen Schwarz, her dissertation chair and an authority in media literacy, supported Gardner in combining her new interest in CVR technology with her passion for English to study the impact of the new and potentially appealing platform.
“I think Amanda is very creative,” Schwarz said. “What’s amazing is that this is just the beginning of her study, and hopefully it will be an engaging way for students to interact with the author and with the literature.”
Jennifer Borderud, director of the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum (ABL) said the library was more than happy to help, offering the use of the Austin Moore-Elizabeth Barrett Browning Salon located on the third floor — a Victorian parlor with several significant Browning artifacts, including a prayer stand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s childhood desk, both of which are featured in the film.
“Amanda’s project will be great outreach for the ABL,” Borderud said. “It will introduce high school students to the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and to the library. From my perspective as a librarian and library administrator, I’m excited that this project will allow viewers to see libraries, museums and their collections in a new and unexpected way.”
The video will begin with the viewer playing the role of the girlfriend of Pen Browning, son of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. The first scene takes place in the middle of Armstrong Browning Library’s Foyer of Meditation, Pen will set the stage and explain that the viewer is about to enter a party to celebrate his late mother’s life. Soon they will be in the Salon, where Robert will speak to the audience and they will hear several stories about Elizabeth’s life. The film ends in an impromptu recitation of Elizabeth’s most recognized poem and namesake for Gardner’s film, How Do I Love Thee, from Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.
“I chose to leave Elizabeth out as a character, because I wanted students to create their own image of her,” Gardner said. “Some of the stories they will hear are the kind of things that I would bring up in lecture, and the point is to see if students can still get the essence of who she was through this medium.”
Gardner’s project is in post-production phase, but she expects to implement a study in classrooms in fall 2018. The final dissertation will consist of an embedded single-case study focusing on the teacher and student response to the experience. It will take place over several days and will include open-ended written responses, whole-group and focus-group discussions, and individual interviews as needed.
Virtual reality (VR) is still in its infancy, but educators believe the constantly improving and evolving technology can offer the educational sphere new and exciting ways to encourage engagement from students.
“We see real potential for VR in the educational space because of its immersive nature,” said Dr. Chris Hansen, chair of Baylor’s Department of Film and Digital Media. “A project like this, where it’s designed to teach students about something that might otherwise seem very foreign to them, provides a unique opportunity to see how VR will assist in learning.”
Gardner hopes the 360 visual and spatial audio experience helps students develop a deeper understanding of the authors and their work, since the viewer will potentially walk the same steps, see the same views, and hear the same stories that shaped the authors.
“Literature is connected to the author, to the place and their experiences,” Gardner said. “CVR allows the individual to be immersed in a specific place and get that sense of presence.”
“CVR gives teachers another way to help get their students to connect to the literature,”, Gardner said, and she wants to offer that chance not only to students, but to teachers as well. “This isn’t a replacement for traditional education. It’s a way to augment the curriculum.”
Gardner based her dissertation project on the biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning compiled by Margaret Forster, an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and literary critic. “It’s really an homage to her work,” Gardner said. “It’s because of her scholarship that I could do this.”
For her script, Gardner read Browning’s Sonnets of the Portuguese, various scholarly articles on Browning, and Margaret Forster’s 1989 work Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Gardner hopes her project on Browning is the fist of many and is currently exploring the possibilities of further productions on different authors.
For her production of How Do I Love Thee?, she said she is indebted to the talents and resources of the production team, cast and drew, Baylor’s Departments of Film and Digital Media and Theatre Arts, Armstrong Browning Library, and her dissertation chair Dr. Schwarz.
For more information, visit Gardner’s site here.
—By Taylor Ward
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