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Playful Experimentation in the Humanities

Marc Olivier gives P. A. Christensen Lecture on incorporating educational play into teaching and research.

Professor Olivier holding the book "Goodnight Moon".

Playful experimentation doesn’t demean the original works being analyzed, but rather it gives them a fresh angle. Olivier said, “Sometimes the best way to appreciate a work is to ruin it [through educational play].”

The 2023 P. A. Christensen Lecture was given by Professor Marc Olivier (Film and Media)—an insomniac, a dilettante, a fashionista, a collector, a creator, a marketer, and so much more. Olivier teaches using playful experimentation, showing his students how to apply creative constraints that make their work shine. During his lecture, “Unrest in All Things: An Insomniac’s Guide to the Humanities”, he discussed how to enable educational play and reclaim the childish wonder that lives within the humanities.

Unrest Fuels Innovation and Experimentation

Quoting Parley A. Christensen (the English professor who this annual lecture honors) Olivier said, “I like to feel an unrest in all things, a ferment at work everywhere by which all things are trying to transcend themselves.” Unrest allows one to see beyond what does exist and imagine what could exist. Educational play requires this freedom of thought; otherwise most educational research ends up repeating itself over and over. Olivier again quoted Christensen, “Are we going to have the wisdom and the courage to release human thought and permit it to play freely and unafraid on every aspect of the human problem?”

Olivier is no stranger to unrest. His lifelong struggle with insomnia has turned his mind into a perpetual motion machine. He constantly thinks of new ways to research and understand his field of study through educational play.

In his recent book, Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects, Olivier focuses on viewing classic horror films through a completely new perspective that only educational play would have dreamed up: from the viewpoint of the objects in those films. This type of educational play opened up a whole new area of research. For example, psychoanalyzing a refrigerator led Olivier to better understand “the menace of pure and simple presence.”

Looking at scholarly study from such a strange angle has opened Olivier up to ridicule. After all, he said, “Who but a child would endow an object with as much being as a person?” Engaging in educational play requires the strength to accept criticism and continue to explore the unexpected anyway.

Educational Play in the Classroom

Olivier demonstrated educational play in the classroom with the classic French novel Dangerous Liaisons. For one of his classes, he had students take chapters of the book and reimagine them as tweets. The unique constraint allowed students to create a fun new retelling of the classic book. Olivier said, “Constraints enable growth. Playing freely doesn’t mean abandoning all rules and structure. Being playful is all about making up rules in order to see structures emerge.”

In another class project, Olivier had his students collectively write over a million sonnets using a random generator code. The students started by selecting famous women from history and writing individual sonnets about them in the style of Louise Labé. These sonnets were then funneled into a generative program that would select individual lines from each and randomly reorganize them to form a new sonnet.

The end result was a website that showcases all of these sonnets for the general public to enjoy. Olivier reiterated: “We should encourage restless wanderings. Creative thought thrives on intentional deviation.”

Embracing the Playful

No matter the type of playful experimentation or creative constraints used, these tools can amplify research and lead to wonderful new ideas. Educational play is necessary to helping the humanities retain their unique perspective. Olivier concluded, “Once we let the mind wander freely and allow ourselves to play unafraid, we can watch familiar objects take on new shapes, we can generate unexpected links between objects, and we can reclaim childhood wonder.”