In a 2016 Ted Talk, director and entrepreneur Chris Milk claimed that VR was going to be “the last [media].” Of VR, he says that it is the “first” to “actually make the jump” from reading or viewing a narrative to our “experiencing it firsthand.” VR, to Milk, is not just a storytelling media or tech platform: it is a “humanity platform.”

But is VR really the “first” media to be considered a “humanity platform,” one that can “make us more human”? Professor Sara Blair of the U-M English Department says no, it’s not. In fact, many of the claims Milk makes with regard to VR were historically made about the novel, arguing for its power to promote social good.

During the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, the cultural legitimacy of the novel was partly secured through claims about the way it cultivates readers’ engagement with other lives, based on emerging social sciences, such as behavioralism and psychology. The novel, explains Blair, was understood as an art form, but also a technology for enlarging our capacity for empathy. “To watch [the VR] industry make those same claims… it felt not just compelling, but necessary, to explore the connection,” Blair says about designing and teaching her course, ENGLISH 313: “The Novel and Virtual Realities.”

Though trained as a text-based scholar, much of Blair’s work deals with the relationship between images and broader cultural narratives in the US about who is and isn’t included in the designation “American.” “My work began with the history of photography and its power to picture America and Americans,” explains Blair, “so it wasn’t much of a stretch to begin thinking about XR (virtual reality in particular) as a renewed form of the image world in which visual experience opens new kinds of engagement with the actual social world in which we live.”

Through texts like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son, alongside VR titles such as Traveling While Black (dir. Roger Ross Williams, 2019) and The Book of Distance (dir. Randall Okita, 2020), students interrogate narratives meant to put audiences “inside” experiences of racial and social inequality. In discussing these texts, Blair wants students to ask: What are the limits and possibilities of narrative, across media, as a vehicle for encountering these experiences? What are the limits of empathy or, put more simply, how can empathy turn toxic?
The course—taught for the second time in Fall 2022—was partially inspired by Blair’s son, a video gamer. “At a certain point, he just said to me, ‘You’ve thought for years about images and visual realism and what it means to experience worlds that are so compelling that they can seem to replace reality itself… You have got to be into VR.’”

Professor Blair’s class is the first 3-credit course in LSA that splits its time evenly between U-M’s VR Lab and a traditional humanities discussion-oriented lecture classroom. (By the way—Blair wants to give a shoutout to all of those who worked with her to make this class possible, especially the AVMR Pilot group and LSA-IT colleague Jan Stewart.) To students who are worried that they don’t have experience with VR, Blair assures them that it isn’t an issue. In fact, when Blair began her work with VR, she herself had never worn a headset.

While students read critical texts, novels, and short stories, many of the weekly posts and classroom discussions center on students’ experiences with the VR Lab. Pedagogically, explains Blair, the wide range of these experiences is powerful, and creating a shared critical vocabulary based on them is one of the elements of 313 that most excites her. “It reminds us—especially in humanities centered courses—that classroom discussions should draw on students’ diverse perspectives and experiences. That’s especially important as we reflect on the power of technologies that change the way we understand ourselves and one another, for worse or for better.”