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Digital Humanities, Game Studies, and International Collaborations with Courtney Rivard

September 6, 2023 | Laney

Recorded in spring 2023, Courtney Rivard, a 2023 fellow in the Tyson Academic Leadership Program, discusses her work as Director of the digital literacy and communications lab at UNC. She also shares recent projects in digital humanities, gaming studies, and a book that she worked on during her spring 2022 Faculty Fellowship. 


Laney Crawley: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m your host, Laney Crowley. Today I’m joined by Courtney Rivard, an accomplished scholar and academic leader. Rivard is a 2023 Fellow in the Tyson Academic Leadership Program here at the IAH, and was previously a Faculty Fellow in spring 2021. 


LC: She is also a member of the English and Comparative Literature Department, and serves as the Director of the Digital Literacy and Communications lab here at UNC. Under her leadership, the DLC advances critical research and scholarship in public humanities, digital humanities and gaming studies. She recently published an online book titled Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, which explores the history of the Southern Life History Project through a combination of archival research and computational analysis. 


LC: As part of her work with the DLC, she has also advanced a Game Studies Initiative, cultivating in the Greenlaw Gameroom in 2020. She was also awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a critical gaming studies minor here at Carolina. The minor would explore the cultural, social and economic implications of video games. Her research has allowed her and UNC’s game based classroom to be featured in local news. 


LC: Hi, Courtney, welcome to the podcast.  


Courtney Rivard: So nice to be here. 


LC: Thank you. What themes from your book Layered Lives were most important to you? What did the research process for you look like in writing the book and how does it connect to your other work? 


CR: Thank you so much. So Layered Lives brings together computational and archival methods to analyze the emergence of the Southern Life Histories Project. Now this project emerge is really part of the Federal Writers Project, which was a New Deal initiative designed to both create jobs and build new notions of American identity through cultural works during the Great Depression. 


CR: So the Southern Life History Project emerged in 1937, thanks in large part to William Couch who was director of UNC Press. So this is kind of a UNC story. He was brought on to the southeast region of the FWP to help with the editorial issues, he was quite good as an editor. He was so adept, in fact, at ushering along the editorial process of other projects, that it freed up space for him to advocate for a new idea, which was to create life histories of people across the South. He was frustrated at how Southerners were being portrayed as kind of backwards, and a major reason the US couldn’t pull out of the Depression. And he saw literature as creating exaggerated caricatures of Southerners. 


CR: And then there was this kind of emerging interest in data and the social sciences. And he saw that as producing generalized trends that lost the complexity of humanity. And he believed that life histories, told from the point of view of the interviewees themselves, could provide an accurate portrait of the South, create empathy among readers, and hopefully lead to positive social change. What I liked about the project was learning about the interviewees and the complex way they navigated life during time of economic turmoil, as well as the writers.  


CR: What makes these life histories interesting, I think, is that they’re not oral histories as we would think of them today, though they are an important precursor. Instead, they can be thought of as what Jerrold Hirsch defines as a conversational narrative, where you learn just as much about the writer as you do the interviewee. They kind of told the narrative of the person’s life. So using computational methods, we analyzed all 1200 life histories that exist in collection and it’s housed here at UNC in the Wilson Library. 


CR: And we actually found a number of interesting things, notably that white women were actually the most prolific writers. In fact, a group of 10 white women, out of nearly 200 writers, together wrote about 40% of the life histories. And that’s really interesting to see how these white women were able to succeed at a time when women were just being allowed into the public sphere. And so the women, these writers, used assumptions about their gender as being good communicators who are easy to talk to put people at ease to get access to interviewees. Additionally, they use their whiteness to allow them to freely travel in the community in ways that people of color could not. 


CR: However, at the same time that these white women were given opportunities, writers of color were not. Only seven of the writers were African American, and one was a Chinese American. And most of these writers were only allowed to write one or two life histories. Correspondence between the administrators, the writers and editors really do demonstrate the ways that systemic racism systematically denied writers of color the opportunity to capture stories at this really important time in history.  


CR: So I wrote this book together with Lauren Tilton and Taylor Arnold, both at the University of Richmond. We came from different fields. I’m in rhetoric and composition, Lauren is in Documentary Studies in digital humanities, and Taylor is a data scientist. And because we came from these different fields, we all brought something a little different to the table, which I think made the research a really rich process. 


LC: Wow. Amazing. Thank you. How did your Faculty Fellowship impact you and your work? And in what ways does it compare/differ from the ALP? 


CR: So the Faculty Fellowship was fantastic. I was able to finish this book while I was on fellowship. The weekly meetings with other Fellows provided really important feedback, and motivation to help me with writing these last two chapters. I was able to send the finished book to the publisher just as the Fellowship ended. This dedicated time to focus on just my writing of the book, alongside such impressive scholars, was an incredible experience that really pushed my scholarship. 


CR: The Academic Leadership Program, or ALP, is quite different, but it’s proved to be equally amazing. I like to tell people that ALP is about growing a cohort of people who will stand together in pursuing ethical leadership. I’ve learned a lot about myself, how the university works, and I have made friends who I know that I can call on to help me think through decisions or give me advice as I move through my career. 


LC: Amazing. What are some takeaways from either of your fellowship experiences? 


CR: I think that the that because I’m currently finishing up ALP, this is most what’s on my mind right now. And I’d say the biggest takeaway is that ethical leadership is about having a group of people you can turn to and trust who will support you, but who will also challenge you. An ALP has helped helped me find this group of people, and they helped grow us into a collective. 


CR: So for me, public humanities are about bringing my resources and skills together with communities to advance their mission. I’m deeply invested in this idea of reciprocal research. Because I have a skill set and computational methods and digital media, I look for ways to share that with local communities. So maybe I can give you an example. 


CR: I recently began a project with the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, which is dedicated to promoting and preserving the history of black communities and the Northside neighborhoods here, north of campus. The Jackson Center has this really amazing oral history project called From the Rock Wall, that tells the history of important places through the that exists throughout the Northside neighborhoods. And so this really rich history is a bit nested deep within their website, so it’s not so easily searchable on a basic search engine. So to help amplify their work, students in my ‘Rhetoric of Data’ course are creating Wikipedia pages for the key sites identified by the Jackson Center. 


CR: Search engines like Google rank Wikipedia entries high because of their linking structure, their frequent updates, reliable information and their hierarchical organization. And of course, we’ve all seen this right? It kind of pops up the first thing. So in order to kind of make that history kind of pop up high in the search, these students created the pages. And so by creating these Wikipedia pages that link back to the Jackson Center, students will help to promote the great work of the center. 


CR: And students in the DLC lab who are helping assist with this project are also helping to create Wikipedia tutorials for the Jackson Center community members. As many folks know, Wikipedia, which then they themselves have acknowledged, have kind of gaps and silences that need to be addressed. And this is certainly one of them. So here I think digital literacy is a way to promote the amazing work of community partners. 


LC: You’ve been awarded an NEH grant to develop a critical gaming studies minor. Could you just describe what critical gaming studies is and maybe a little bit about the minor?  


CR: Sure! Critical game studies brings rhetorical and literary theories together with feminist studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies and ethnic studies to really investigate how narrative structures and games are shaped by societal power structures, and cultural representation.  


CR: So I think it’s also helpful to give you the widespread reach of games. So in 2021, the game industry netted a profit of more than $190 billion. This is more profit than the global movie and North American sports industries combined. And a recent study also revealed that about two-thirds of Americans play games on a regular basis. So this all means the games are now a dominant cultural form in which people experience storytelling. But it’s a unique form that is different than other types of literature and film, where the player gets to control the narrative, immersing themselves in a story in a way that was really never before possible. 


CR: Critical game studies aims to analyze and understand the stories. What makes them so compelling. What stories are being told? How are people and concepts being represented? How do these stories impact ideas about culture and vice versa? These are the questions that we ask about other forms of literature. And critical game studies turns these same questions to the games that we are constantly playing. 


CR: For the minor, I’m really hoping that it’ll teach students a kind of critical work, rather give students a critical toolkit. Students consume stories through games, they’re taught about culture, representation, identity as they play. Therefore, my goal is to kind of equip them with a critical toolkit where they play analytically, thinking about how computer code, game mechanics, sound, graphics all come together to make arguments that they play. So my hope is that the minor will teach students about all of these elements so that they can both be critical consumers and producers of games. 


LC: That’s so amazing. What inspired you to pursue this area of research? And maybe if you could talk a little bit about the Greenlaw Gameroom?  


CR: Yeah. So I’m going to have to be honest with you, Laney. Critical game studies is a relatively new area of research for me. But I became interested in, really by discussing some problems that students in the DLC were having with teaching games. So one student in particular, David Hall came to me one day, back in 2019. And he was really frustrated at his inability to give an entire class of students the opportunity to study games. He was basically lugging his machine, his big machines from his apartment to campus, and then really could only allow one student to play. That created issues of inequity. And so from there, the Greenlaw Gameroom was born, we were lucky enough to receive Center for Faculty Excellence and Lenovo Instructional Innovation Grant that helped to transform a slightly dilapidated room that was in Greenlaw into what I think is a pretty dynamic space that allows for simultaneous gameplay of up to 25 students.  


CR: And so now the Greenlaw Gameroom had a little bit of a hiatus — we opened in February 2020, which, as it turned out, was not the best time. But we’ve bounced back from that. And we’ve had over 1,000 students be taught in the space. And over 28 instructors also teach in the space and then learn through the different pedagogies that we’re trying to promote. 


LC: Super cool. How’s your collaboration stretched beyond our campus? 


CR: Well, UNC is, you know, a really amazing place to work. And they offer so many opportunities for faculty to connect with collaborators, both within the US and internationally. And lately, I’ve been very excited to reach two partners both at King’s College London, as well as Tübingen University, which is in Tübingen, Germany. 


CR: So maybe I’ll start by telling you a little bit about a recent visit from Gaspard Pelurson, who is a new faculty member at King’s College London. He just came over here a couple of weeks ago in April, he arrived in 2023. And he did a whole host of amazing talks on critical game studies. He’s a queer game studies scholar. And so really thought deeply about how gender and sexuality are represented in games and how games can be played in different ways to allow for possibility and disruption. 


CR: Students responded very well to his presence, and that kind of builds on a COIL class that I did last year. COIL [Collaborative Online International Learning] is where you kind of bring your class at UNC, together with another international collaborator. So students across the globe, learn the same material together. And so I did that last year with Feng Zhu, who is also a critical game studies scholar, though approaches it in a more kind of philosophical way. And so we’re hoping to actually kind of create a larger partnership, where critical game studies can expand and grow at both of these institutions — such that we might have, every year a different workshop where King’s comes here or UNC students go there, that we kind of rotate graduate students in our different game labs, and that we continue to COIL more classes so that we can learn how different cultural perspectives influence the way we perceive and analyze games. 


CR: And for the other project, I’ve been working with various scholars at Tübingen to promote digital humanities collaborations as well as kind of an emphasis on data humanities. A lot of humanist scholars think of their work as material and evidence, rather than data. Although I think that there’s kind of a major shift that’s happening now in that what we do in terms of cataloging archival materials, looking at words on a page — these things can be conceived of data. And there’s many tools available that can kind of enhance and simplify the research process. 


CR: So I’ve been working with folks like Astrid Franke, and the American Studies Department at Tübingen. In fact, I taught a summer class there on digital humanities, which was a lot of fun. Students brought very different perspective. I’ve taught the same class at UNC that I taught there, and they challenged me and the material in new ways; I found that really fascinating. And through a global partners fellowship. This year, I’ll return to Tübingen and work on a collaboration with Christoph Bareither and he’s a digital anthropologist. And so we’re going to explore some work around bringing data to archival and museum studies. And I’m really hoping that that will continue to flourish. He’s also interested in games, so I may bring him i n on the King’s College collaboration as well. 


LC: Wow, that’s so amazing. So as we wrap up, we have one more question that we kind of ask everyone on the podcast. So is there a book or piece of media that has changed your life or had a great impact on you? 


CR: Yeah, that’s a really big and tough question. You know, before I came to UNC, I didn’t really know much about the Life Histories Project. And I came here, kind of looking for an archival project that I could originally kind of use with students, which is the way I got interested in these life histories. And I went to Matt Turi, who’s a wonderful archivist here at Wilson. And I was like, what kind of collections do you have at UNC? I was coming from Santa Cruz, California, where I did my grad work. And he was like, ‘well, let me show you this life history collection.’ And I was like, okay, and I looked in it. 


CR: And there was this one story from a woman who didn’t want to give her name, understandably, and she was from the mountains in North Carolina. And she begins her story by pulling out a photograph of her son. And she goes on to tell the writer that she has chosen the life that she has. And she begins by saying something to the effect of like, ‘not many men ask me for my name, let alone my story.’ And she kind of discusses the way that she had had to live through a difficult life as a sex worker, in order to provide for her son. And she kind of goes through her life and intense history. And by the end of the story, you can’t help but to feel for this mother who’s done everything to provide food for her son. 

And from that moment, I was like, I need to learn more about these life histories, where these stories came from, who wrote them. And it totally changed my research path, and helped me lead me into the book that I recently published. But it also gave me kind of insight into this area of North Carolina, and all the stories from farm workers, to folks in some of the cotton mills, right. They are complicated. They are contradictory. There’s stories of desperation, but also stories of resilience. And I think learning about those, that history is something that definitely changed my path as a scholar and made me appreciate the importance of story for understanding the past. 


LC: Wow. That’s amazing. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, Courtney. It’s been amazing to have you. 


CR: Thank you so much Laney for this opportunity. And as always, it’s delightful to be here in Hyde Hall with the IAH. 


LC: Thank you for listening to the Institute Podcast. You can learn more about fellowship programs that Dr. Rivard participated in at our website, There you can also learn more about our upcoming events and opportunities for the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty or read stories about our Fellows. You can subscribe to the Institute on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Thanks for joining us.  

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