Faculty Profile Series: Jessica FitzPatrick

jessica fitzpatrick

Dr. Jessica FitzPatrick (she/her) is a Lecturer within the Literature Program and Director of the Digital Narrative and Interactive Design Program. Her recent work includes “Twenty-First Century Afrofuturist Aliens: Shifting to the Space of Third Contact” published in Extrapolation in the Spring 2020 issue. Along with Dr. Kelsey Cameron, Assistant Professor of Communication at Regis University, she’s authored “Restoring the ‘Lived Space of the Body’: Attunement in Critical Making” for Electronic Book Review (http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/restoring-the-lived-space-of-the-body-attunement-in-critical-making/). Dr. FitzPatrick was recently awarded a Pittcyber grant to develop an augmented reality tour of the Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, about which she speaks below.

The following conversation was conducted over Zoom and has been edited for clarity and concision.


When did you begin teaching at Pitt?

I started teaching in the program as a PhD student. But I've been teaching here as a Lecturer since this fall. And I've been teaching as a Visiting Lecturer and directing the Digital Narrative and Interactive Design (DNID) program for a couple years before that. So, I’ve been teaching here for over a decade.


Would you say more about the Digital Narrative and Interactive Design (DNID) program and your role with it?

The Digital Narrative and Interactive Design program, or DNID, started officially in Fall of 2019, which was a really interesting time, it turns out, to kick off a new program because, of course, we went right into COVID. We are an interdisciplinary program that brings together the modes of world building, story creation, audience engagement, and the disciplinary creative-critical might of our English department at Pitt with the same things as they occur in the School of Computing and Information Science. And so, our students are people who can, yes, backend code, but we also understand why the code is doing what it's doing and how interface design affects our audiences and why we need to study these things out in the world.

We have three tracks: Online Media, Game Design, and Critical Making. Our instructors come from English and the School of Computing and Information Science. I like to think our instructors are fabulous; I really like them. They get very excited about the projects students want to do.

Our students want to do amazing work. It's all very fun and exciting even though we're new. And so, we are still finessing some of the program avenue channels and ways that this interdisciplinary conversation is going to be happening across faculty and student levels. We have over 100 majors now. We're very excited. We're a growing community. Our students also are makers themselves. They've been really, I think, productive and excited about the fact that when they give us feedback, we iterate upon it, and they understand that process because they do it themselves. For example, we were seeing a lot of students who were really looking for a way to connect more directly with other DNID students. They wanted a chance to really dedicate a lot of time to designing a project that they might be able to carry over and develop into their second capstone class. So, the department heard them and we're running our first projects studio this semester, and it's very exciting.


Which courses do you typically teach?

I teach Narrative and Technology, which is one of our gateway classes for the DNID major. I love that class. It allows you to explore the question of what is narrative. We might know basic ideas of what makes up the story, but [in the course we explore] the idea of narratology and delve more into why we need to understand the components of the story. When we start looking at things like narrative design across different interfaces, like comics, interactive videos, video games, or websites, it's just a lot of fun. And we look at a range of mediums and we talk about what mediums are and affordances. It's a class that often allows students to do creative work, whether that's building twines as part of an assignment or taking a final project and adapting and trans-mediating something that we've studied together throughout the semester into an entirely new form. Students create a lot of really interesting and innovative work that tends to be demonstrated at our Digital Media Showcase, which we're hosting Friday, April 8 this year.

Another class that I'm teaching for the first time this semester actually is our dedicated DNID capstone class. We have quite a selection of capstone experiences, which are mainly existing seminars that students in English can take. And there are two capstones in the DNID program: one in English, one in the school of computing and information science.


What is one of the best experiences you’ve had teaching literature at Pitt?

There are too many! One of the recent class experiences that really sticks out as indicative of the type of opportunity that classes [in the DNID major] can afford is from this past Fall’s Narrative and Technology class. This is a gateway class. You don't have to come in knowing any type of technical skills. You don't have to come in knowing what a story is or its components. It's the beginning for our majors.

And we partnered with August Wilson house, which is a local nonprofit organization located in the Hill District. I had been working with them on an ongoing oral history project dedicated to the community cultural memory of the Hill and its residents. And they had managed, even with COVID, to collect some oral history interviews. With oral history, you're preserving the whole story as it is spoken by the storyteller, but you still need to be able to advertise and give people a sample of what the stories might be. So, the August Wilson house was really interested in having short trailers that give visitors to the physical location of the Wilson house, which they're hoping will open this summer, a way to access the fact that this oral history collection exists, to get people excited about it, and to give them a sample of the types of stories that are held within it.

So in a class about narrative and technology, where we think about how narratives are woven and how technological affordances shift the way that storytelling happens, an oral history project is really exciting. And one of the things that make it really exciting is this is not just your story. Our students are really creative and they're so excited to design to develop their own stories. But, also, they understand that a lot of their careers are going to be A) team focused, B) done for clients who have their own design needs and preferences. And when we're looking at a community anchored project, it's a really good chance for them to understand [how to] balance your creative vision with the needs [of the client] and the respect that you need to give, especially for a client like the Hill District, which has been racially targeted in the past by the entire city. Pitt isn't totally blameless there either.

So it was a really exciting chance for students to practice working with audio and video, to do some editing, to think about how we tell a story that's just part of a larger story, but also how do we respectfully engage with stories that are very personal to the person who is sharing them. How do we make sure that we are meeting the needs of this local organization?


What are some of the questions that motivate your teaching and writing?

Some of the questions are how are stories told, circulated, and awarded? How do those answers reflect hierarchies of power and questions of marginalization and access? I am very interested in stories that deal either pointedly or thematically with questions of justice, de-colonizations, and post-colonizations. And I mean this both in a personal scale: How are characters relating with each other within a story? And [I also mean this] in a global scale. So, for me, that's some of the most exciting work that I can pull into a classroom, that I can write on, that I can think about and think through. And those questions will never go away; they will just shift and resonate differently, and you can take them in a bunch of different directions. I think that's really what will keep motivating my work.


Do you have new work underway or forthcoming that you’d like to discuss?

Dr. Dmitriy Babichenko (Pitt, SCI), Libi Striegl (University of Colorado Boulder, ATLAS, Interim Director Blow Things Up (BTU) Lab) and I were recently awarded a Pitt Cyber grant to fund a project with the Media Archeology Lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder. [We’ll be] thinking about how we can use augmented reality to bring an awareness to stories of people who tend to be marginalized whether because of gender or race or a lot of other things. [We’re] thinking of ways that we can use augmented reality interfaces, especially with mobile users, for those people who are able to travel to this rare site where all of this outdated, but still very contemporary, technology exists and you can engage with it. But, also, how we might be able to make applications that can be used in classrooms all over the country.

[I’ve also collaborated with Dr. Kelsey Cameron] and we’ve had a really interesting time combining our disciplines and thinking about things like critical making, embodiment, community relations, and augmented reality building. One of the early theorists who actually gave us the name “critical making” for what became this larger concept and mode of practice both in academic discourse and out in communities really valued the idea of embodied existence and standpoint theory. He didn't use that term, but that's how we see it. And [this emphasis on embodied experience and standpoint] has kind of faded away. The emphasis hasn't really been on thinking about how your lived experiences, and especially your embodied experiences, might affect the way you come into critical making, the places that may or may not feel welcoming.


How did you find your way to these questions of justice, media archaeology, and embodiment within media landscapes?

I came [to these questions] from Postcolonial Science Fiction, which doesn't sound like it makes a lot of sense, but it really does. People like John Reider have put forward arguments about how sci-fi is a very colonialist-backed mode of fantastic speculation and imagination. So, people who are writing from postcolonial positions or de-colonial positions, a lot of the very famous people, are kind of not fully embracing the idea of being postcolonial because they've moved into other ways of self-identity.

So that's kind of where my work was happening. And, of course, sci-fi loves media. Not only does it imagine new forms of media, but also it transverses all sorts of media. I was looking at things like comics and television, some films and, of course, a lot of online discourse, a lot of fandom communities that exist online in a variety of ways, [including the conversations around] RaceFail '09. What happens when a community like the science fiction, speculative fiction community decides that it has been changing and also needs to do more to change? So that's kind of how I came into it; I was looking at how artists, authors, and fans were self-representing and self-motivating a change that was happening in a literary field.


Was there a teacher, a mentor, family member, or some combination that shaped your thinking, led you to your field of study?

When I was an undergrad at the University of Delaware, [I took classes with] Emily Davis, a postcolonial professor who was just fantastic. We didn't have anybody who really did world literature before she came there. She helped direct my undergrad thesis and she was great. I was actually a creative writing undergraduate major. Professor Bernard Kaplan, Bernie, was stellar and wrote you the type of recommendation letter that you should always get written for you. I was a peer tutor in the University of Delaware’s Writing Center. Thinking about questions of authority and authorship and who gets to be viewed as a critic about their own work actually started there with that work. The director there was Melissa Ianetta, who's now [at Georgia Tech]; she did wonderful work. Those are some of my higher education people. 

Also, my mom. My mom has been the longest lasting person, and she was a children's librarian in an elementary school. We read stories early and often, and it always made me laugh when she would run around telling me, put down the book, you have to stop reading to go catch your bus or go do something!


Do you have hobbies and interests outside of academic work?

No! All we do is school! I don't understand the question!

Yeah, [of course]! I really like running. We just adopted a dog, Lydia, who's a rescue. Working with her and snuggling with her is a big one now. I really like gardening; we just got a yard. So in addition to house stuff, planting and trying to figure out what grows in Pennsylvania clay soil is really exciting for me. Also, sitting in hammocks and reading books.


What are you reading now?

What am I reading for pleasure? I'm reading Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic which, if you like Gothic literature, woo, it's good. I tend not to do horror, but I can handle Gothic, and [this novel is] creepy and it's good.

And then because sometimes I need a break from the creepy, I'm reading Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid Series. It involves crypto-zoologists. Mainly it's action, adventure and fantasy, and it involves this tribe of tiny, talking mice who hail everything that the main character's family does as a spiritual passage. They remember everything and eat a lot of cheese and cake, so I'm a real big fan.


Any reading recommendations?

I always think people who enjoy it should read speculative fiction more and never feel bad about that. For thinking about things like DNID, there's a book called Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock, who now works with the Algorithmic Justice League, which poses questions about design and who gets to do design, and how we tell stories about design, and what might be some ways of doing design in a more just manner. I want more people to read it because I feel like we need to be asking these questions no matter what our specialties are. And I think it's a really clear, really good book. And it's open access, which is great because you don't have to buy anything. (https://design-justice.pubpub.org/) Everybody can get to it. And if f you haven't ever read something published outside the United States, try it. Really, really try it. And it doesn't mean that it's going to be your end all, be all. But it means that you're starting to find new stories that you haven't found before.