Something to Yawp About: A Digital Dissertation on Walt Whitman
Whitman would have turned 200 on May 31. With "Vanishing Leaves," Jesse Merandy (Ph.D. '19, English) offers a new way to enjoy and learn about his poetry.
Brooklyn Bridge Park bears an inscription from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and is one of the Brooklyn Heights sites explored in "Vanishing Leaves," a digital doctoral dissertation by Jesse Merandy (Ph.D. '19, English).
The 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth is coming up on May 31. The revered poet will be celebrated by scholars and enthusiasts in a series of events throughout New York, including one at his birthplace featuring Graduate Center Distinguished Professor David S. Reynolds (English), author of the Bancroft Prize-winning book, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography.
And, just in time for the bicentennial, Jesse Merandy (Ph.D. ’19, English) has produced “Vanishing Leaves.” The first digital doctoral dissertation at The Graduate Center, “Vanishing Leaves,” is a location-based mobile experience that immerses users in Whitman’s verse and his life in Brooklyn Heights, where he wrote and first published Leaves of Grass. The dissertation was recognized by The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in English with The Calder Prize for Best Dissertation in the Digital Humanities.
“Vanishing Leaves” takes players to Brooklyn Heights sites pertinent to Whitman’s work, such as the location of the Rome Print Shop, where Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The goal is to uncover a hidden Leaves of Grass manuscript in order to reprint the collection and prevent Whitman’s work from being erased from human memory by “an unknown enemy.”
Through augmented reality, players experience Brooklyn in the 1800s and interact with a virtual Walt Whitman. (Yes, he yawps.) Along the way, they listen to Whitman’s poetry and even compose some verse of their own.
The game feels like an immersive English or history lesson, and Merandy says that he envisioned undergraduate students, Whitman enthusiasts, and even high school students playing it. In a white paper that accompanies the game, Merandy explains that he wanted the experience to move “learners beyond the printed page and out onto the streets where [Whitman] lived, worked, and wrote.”
Walking is especially pertinent to Whitman, who was a passionate perambulator. “For Whitman, the walk served as a method to gather inspiration and as a tactic to communicate and commune with his audience,” Merandy writes.
“Vanishing Leaves,” by its very name, also reminds users “about the loss of our connections to our history and places, especially in New York City,” Merandy says. His approach was influenced by ecocomposition theory, which explores the relationship between writers and their physical contexts.
The game is the culmination of years of work. Its genesis was Walking with Whitman, a class project Merandy created more than a decade ago, before smartphones had built-in GPS capabilities. It involved printed maps and MP3 downloads. “Vanishing Leaves” was built using Augmented Reality Interactive Storytelling Engine, known as ARIS. Not only did Merandy have to learn the new technology, but he also had to hone his graphic and web design skills. Still, he describes producing the dissertation, which includes the game, a website, and a comprehensive white paper, as “the most incredible learning experience.”
“Jesse's dissertation is a landmark project for the Ph.D. Program in English and The Graduate Center as a whole,” said Professor Matthew K. Gold (English), who directed Jesse’s dissertation committee. “I admire Jesse for the risks he took in creating this work and applaud him for opening up pathways for others who will follow him.”
Merandy credits Gold and his other dissertation advisers — professors Stephen Brier (Urban Education) and Sondra Perl (GC/Lehman, English) — with encouraging him and helping him refine his work.
“I hope more faculty open themselves up to supporting these kinds of projects for their mentees in the future,” Merandy says.
Listen to this episode of The Thought Project podcast to hear Merandy talk further about his work.