“Do you find yourself spending countless hours creating videos for social media? Wish there was a faster and easier way to get the job done? Look no further! ****** the AI-powered video editing software, is here to save you time and effort. With *******, you can turn your text into captivating videos with just a few clicks.”
When I received the above email, I felt utterly depressed. It was like watching somebody stamp on a butterfly. The latest AI programme was offering to do in a few minutes what I ask my students to do in 24 weeks. In our world of immediate gratification, it feels as if we are slowly losing ‘process’. Instead of focussing on the journey, the end result is all that matters. These issues are important to me because creativity is about problem solving. It is the personal struggle to produce a solution that brings with it a broad range of emotions that motivate you to go through the whole frustrating process again and again.
My name is James Walker and I specialise in digital literary heritage trails. All of these projects involve some level of innovation. Encouraging people to appreciate literature from a different perspective is a strong motivating factor in my creativity. Put more simply, I want to do something that other people haven’t done before, and this takes time and effort.
One example of this is the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre a project I have co-created with Paul Fillingham. There are thousands of books written about Lawrence and countless biographies, all of which tend to follow the same linear trajectory with a slight tweak of perspective. Lawrence was a controversial figure who is best known for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and the subsequent Obscenity Trial which, in 1960, gave us permission to swear more freely in public. He innovated with literary form; wrote about mining culture from the inside; married a German woman during WWI; was an iconoclast who challenged the prevailing morality with regards to family, marriage, religion, nationality, money; argued against the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and demanded a stronger connection with the natural world.
But what fascinates me most about Lawrence is his nomadic lifestyle. In 1919 he left England and lived the rest of his days in self-imposed exile, never living in one place for more than two years. This would take him from Australia to New Mexico and various locations across Europe. He was in search of Rananim – a community of like-minded people – and wanted an alternative to the ugly modernity of the metropolis with its emphasis on consumerism, status, and industry. It’s for this reason that he refused to own property and was happiest doing up a ramshackle cabin on the edge of the woods, growing his own food, and writing under a tree once his insatiable energy had started to quell.
I wanted to capture this energy, this nomadic spirit, in a literary heritage project, and thus the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre was born. Memory Theatres or Cabinets of Curiosities emerged in the sixteenth century and were decorative cabinets that contained objects that were categorised and curated by their owners. People would be invited to see the collections, thereby conferring social and cultural capital to the owner. I have taken this principle and applied it to Lawrence whereby his life is curated through objects, each of which represent a specific theme or aspect of his writing. For example, one artefact is Mr. Muscles which alludes to his commitment to hard graft and giving every task 100% of his energy. ‘As we live, we are transmitters of life,’ wrote Lawrence, ‘and when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.’ But whereas the original memory theatres were only viewed by a selection of privileged guests, the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre inverts this process and instead is curated by the public – anyone can submit an artefact.
Like Lawrence, this ‘moveseum’ will move. It will retrace his steps across Europe and beyond and never linger in one location for too long. It will grow in provenance as different audiences interact with each artefact. For example, Lawrence loved nature and once sent clippings of flowers from his hometown of Eastwood to his friend, Catherine Carswell. Another artefact in the Memory Theatre will be a book containing clippings of flowers from Eastwood which I collected with a local gardener. When the Memory Theatre reaches each new destination, people will be invited to add flowers from this vicinity to the book. This means the project is constantly evolving and transforming – exactly like Lawrence.
To aid me in this project, I created a capstan module at Nottingham Trent University which is offered as an alternative to the traditional dissertation. In this, students produce a project portfolio which details what the Memory Theatre should look like, which places it should visit and what artefacts should be included. This provides them with alternative means to demonstrate knowledge acquired through their degree as well as a creative output that encourages individual interpretation and expression. If their suggestions are accepted, they are credited on the project website, thereby providing creative credits for their CV.
It’s impossible to learn everything about Lawrence in a 24-week module and so the project has an Instagram, Twitter and YouTube channel, as well as a weekly blog. The hope here is to slowly feed bits of information in byte sized chunks that can be accessed at leisure – such as the bus over to university. This is in addition to conventional teaching provisions.
To understand Lawrence, you need to read his letters. You get a better sense of how often he moved, why he was such a prolific writer, and how he felt about the world around him. But there are eight volumes of the Cambridge edition of his letters and getting students to the original source is becoming increasingly difficult. To encourage them, I produce a monthly YouTube video called Locating Lawrence. This is based on Lawrence’s letters, one hundred years ago to the month. It acts as a discussion point in lectures and creates a sense of freshness and authenticity to the module, rather than going through the same lecture slides again and again each year.
By condensing some of the key themes in the video, it helps scaffold student learning and directs them to specific aspects of the letters that may be useful to their studies. For example, on the 21 April 1923, Lawrence wrote to the poet Amy Lowell from Mexico, explaining that he couldn’t face returning to England but also disliked America and consequently, ‘I hesitate here’. No word better sums up Lawrence’s aversion to settling down than being in a kind of limbo whereby he hesitates somewhere. To reinforce this point, I ended the April Locating Lawrence video with the opening bars to The Stranglers ‘Should I stay or Should I go.’
What I love about making these videos is that they are not ‘easy’ or ‘fast’ to make – as the AI email promised. Their value is in delayed gratification and the subsequent knowledge that comes from this process. Firstly, there is the constraint of creating a compelling narrative out of a limited number of letters. This needs some kind of narrative arc or to end on a provocation. Then there is the challenge of sourcing images to accompany the text. Lawrence lived between 1885 – 1930 and so this creates limitations. But this daunting quest has led me to discover numerous archives, such as the Mabel Dodge Luhan papers at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Likewise, I am constantly discovering new things about the world via Lawrence. For example, in April 1923, Lawrence was travelling across Mexico and encountered bandits and revolutionaries from the Mexico Revolution (1910 – 20). Unaware of this aspect of history, I read more as I sourced images to support his observations and developed a broader contextual understanding of the period. This is why I am so opposed to the AI offer of generating an image to match text. The process of creating it for myself has led me to acquire new knowledge and understanding of the world as well as find the one picture that perfectly captures these sentiments.
It is for this reason that I have replaced another assessment on the module - the traditional essay - with a visual essay. Students are asked to create a 3-5 minute video on any aspect of Lawrence’s life. This tests their knowledge and develops their digital literacy skills in a wide variety of ways that are simple not possible with a traditional essay. For example, they have to research a topic and do the necessary research and reading. Then they write a script, understanding that this requires a different register to engage a visual audience. They are encouraged to record this in a studio and learn to edit using programmes such as Audacity. Then they select images and video to reinforce or enhance their audio. This provides an extra layer of meaning and may result in humorous juxtapositions or raising awareness of original sources from archive material – whatever they feel works best for their script. This then leads to sessions on sourcing copyright free images and principles informing creative commons. They are introduced to various editing software to produce the video from Canva to Final Cut Pro – depending on their level of expertise, and lastly, they upload their video to YouTube and learn about tagging, writing punchy descriptions, creating an alluring thumbnail, and marketing the video to reach a broad audience.
It is my hope that the production values will be of a good enough quality that the Visual Essay can be used in a portfolio or included on a CV to demonstrate to future employers that they have a broad range of digital literacy skills and an ability to work independently.
So yes, I do find myself ‘spending countless hours creating videos’ and I want students to understand the value of spending countless hours embroiled in the creative process. AI is here whether we like it or not, and of course it has many advantages. But creativity is the very essence of being human. The desire to discover, overcome, and create something you are proud of is something we should not let go of lightly. I hope that in creating a module that provides an alternative means of understanding literary history, and through Visual Essay assessments that develop a broad range of skills - as well as providing a unique means through which to express knowledge - education can install the confidence in students to embrace process and revel in the joys of delayed gratification.
About the Author
James Walker is a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. His previous digital projects include Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel series celebrating Nottingham’s literary history, The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner on Instagram and My Name is Ruth Schweiening on YouTube. He is currently working on a series of comics challenging stereotypes called Whatever People Say I Am. jameskwalker.co.uk