A Public Literary Twitter Role-Play

Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s research and teaching interests include the European and transatlantic fin de siècle and modernism (including literature, the visual arts, opera, dance, and film); feminist and queer theory; LGBTQ literary and cultural studies; and literary theory. Her book, Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression, was published by The University of Michigan Press in Spring 2011. Petra recently used Twitter for a role play exercise in her class on Oscar Wilde. In this piece, posted first on her own site, she discusses the effect of that exercise, and its relationship to authorship and digital writing.

A Public Literary Twitter Role-Play: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Petra Dierkes-Thrun

On Friday, October 26, 2012, my Stanford class tried out a new and slightly crazy idea: a one-day public literary Twitter role-play, impersonating characters from The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The idea had come to me spontaneously one morning as I was musing about what new kind of close reading activity I could develop for my “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents” seminar at Stanford: “The Picture of Dorian Gray is such a canonical text, we should get the public involved … It should be a creative and fun group activity, combining individual analysis with readerly and writerly collaboration … Could we do this on social media?  What if we brought The Picture of Dorian Gray in dialogue with Huysmans’ A rebours and Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus (two other French novels we had been reading, which importantly influenced Wilde’s novel)?  We could have them talk back to Dorian … ‘A Day of Reckoning for Dorian Gray’! I should write this up as a Twitter role-play exercise.”

And that’s exactly what I did, chuckling like a happy fool.  I couldn’t wait to share this with my students and eventually the public.  This would be fun!

My Stanford course this quarter is a traditional humanities seminar on the relationship between Oscar Wilde’s work and authors such as Baudelaire, Huysmans, Rachilde, Mallarmé, Gide, Lorrain, and others, with face-to-face classroom discussion, papers, readings, office hours, and all that.  But we are also experimenting with online learning elements and a partially open M(inimalist)OOC  format around the theme of close reading, as our website describes and I discussed in a recent workshop.  The Twitter role-play is another creative way to imagine close reading and collaborative practices online. You can find the original exercise here.

Only three of my students had had a Twitter account in the beginning, so it seemed a tall order at first.  After a Twitter test run with students under the hashtag #digwilde went well, however, I bravely tapped my professional network of academic listservs (chiefly the 19th-century studies list VICTORIA 2,000+ members and the Modernist Studies Association discussion list) and posted the link on Facebook and Twitter, inviting colleagues, their students, and anyone who cared to participate, to join us on October 26. This would be their long-awaited “chance to ‘talk back’ to Dorian … if you’re lucky, Dorian will ‘personally’ reply.”

I am not aware that this kind of thing has ever been done before and had no idea whether it would actually take off on Twitter—after all, inviting open public participation throws you on the public’s mercy.  I was convinced it was worth a try, however.  Like so many of my traditional humanities teacher colleagues not originally trained in digital humanities, I have been a late convert to Twitter, and use it mostly for professional and intellectual purposes.  It is a great source of information, certainly, but for me one of Twitter’s most wonderful aspects is its spontaneous interactivity with interested and knowledgeable strangers on topics of mutual interest.  New ideas are sparked via these interactions; wise and thoughtful observations, hilarious and clever commentary happen here, engaging brains and hearts.  Most often, one leaves with a sense of having learned something worth contemplating, and being thankful for the open format.  I knew Twitter was right for this new kind of exercise.

The Twitterverse did not disappoint.  On October 26, our role-play attracted enough public interest to keep it going all day long.  There were hundreds of tweets and more than 50 participants, many of them tweeting repeatedly, from different countries.  Popular characters were Lord Henry, Basil, Sybil, Alan Campbell, Jim Vane, and minor characters such as the opium den owner and Dorian’s manservant, as well as Des Esseintes from Huysmans’ A rebours and various protagonists from Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus, all giving Dorian a piece of their mind. Two students and I (and sometimes new participants) tweeted back taking turns as Dorian Gray, collectively making the point that Wilde’s Dorian is, indeed, a “complex, multiform creature.”  Other unexpected and wonderful things happened during the game that none of us could have predicted.  For instance, after several hours of back and forth between the Dorian Gray, A rebours, and Monsieur Vénus characters, people started mashing the novel up with other Wildean works such as Salomé, as well as with other 19th-century novels (e.g. Jane Eyre, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde):

Another pleasant surprise was that a major Rachilde scholar, Melanie Hawthorne, made an appearance as Raoule from Monsieur Vénus (she had edited the very edition we’d been reading):

And then there were the individual hilarious exchanges of wit and snark between the characters themselves… so many of them! The Storify of more of the day’s highlights can be found here.

My students commented afterwards that it was wonderful to feel connected to other readers and students at different institutions studying the same material, and that they had gained some new comparative insights across 19th-century texts.  The Twitter format is interesting here because it really forces readers to approach textual analysis differently: in tweets of 140 characters or less, one must be creative to make a good or witty statement effectively; one writes and reads, in fact, together with unknown others who may have new insights or questions.  And to impersonate a well-known literary personage, one must imagine and creatively imitate that particular character’s style and point of view. The role-play also bridged the gap between our collaborative (openly accessible), but more static class blog, and the spurting intensity and spontaneity of a social media discussion, making us feel more connected to the world and enhancing our class blogging experience in turn.

The Twitter role-play was such a success with participants and such plain, raucous fun that I really hope the idea takes off and gets adapted by others.  In fact, one enthusiastic participant from the Maine Humanities Institute tweeted me that her organization wants to take up the idea for their Great Expectations study day, with Pip tweeting back in response:

Future Twitter role-plays might pop up in other contexts, perhaps, e.g. in political, economic, or other cultural arenas.  Remember that brilliant spontaneous hashtag impersonation during the debates, @InvisibleObama? What about impersonating characters and collaboratively writing Twitter scripts for “Personages from History Debate American Politics”; “A Day of Reckoning for Goldman-Sachs”; “[Insert popular movie characters of film x] against [the producer and director of popular movie x]”; or my personal favorite, “International Writers United against Pesky English Grammar”?  I’d like to challenge you right now to start your own for Digital Writing Month!

What can we learn when we don’t control the rules or outcomes of others’ writing? What can we learn from one another when we are freed from the shackles of our own online identity and give ourselves permission to play?

I’ll be @petradt, and I approve your message.

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