December 2017 Scholar Spotlight

Joe Nugent, Boston College

Posted by Stephanie on December 4, 2017


This month’s feature centers on Joe Nugent and his creation of Joycestick, a student-centered virtual reality experience that brings to life James Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses, for a new generation of readers. Nugent received his B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and is currently Professor of the Practice at Boston College. There he teaches courses on James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Irish modernism, and the Irish language, as well as the role of digitization in the humanities. He has published in Éire-Ireland and Victorian Studies, among other venues.

Boston College's Virtual Reality Project JoycestickThis past year, Nugent and his team of students took Joycestick on the road, exhibiting their work in Toronto; Washington, DC; and Singapore. More information about the project can be found at Joycestick.com.

James Joyce and virtual reality seems, at first glance, like an unlikely combination. What inspired you to develop Joycestick?

Not unlikely at all. Joyce was a modernist—that’s to say, a radical innovator. Finnegans Wake moves to the sound of water flowing, armies marching, and radio buzzing. And television—Joyce was fascinated by the invention of television, what he called the “faroscope.” From the first, Joyceans in response to this newness have had to be innovative. They were practicing digital humanities long before the term invaded our English departments. Joycestick is cutting edge; it’s Joycean.

What were the initial objectives of developing Joycestick? Have the objectives shifted as the project’s grown and if so, how?

It began as a test of our own ingenuity. When, to my great surprise, the unlikely project of producing an immersive experience of one of the most complex books out there began to actually take shape… all changed. Soon, I found myself for all intents and purposes running a startup with twenty-five part-time student employees. My team and I became every day more ambitious. Our current immediate objective is to opensource the development. Then to do what Joyce always wanted—to make (at least slivers of the book) available to “everyman/everywoman” everywhere. With Apple’s announcement of a standalone headset costing around $200, that’s doable.

What is the most rewarding part of working on Joycestick?

The spirit it engendered in the students. I looked for the twenty or so most creative and ambitious students on campus—twenty-five of them representing sixteen different majors—who together formed a truly interdisciplinary, high-energy, hard-working group. They were given their own maker space, T-shirts, hats, and business cards. What began as a class in the English department became a cult on campus.

How have students and scholars reacted to Joycestick? Do they readily embrace the idea of exploring James Joyce’s world through virtual reality, or are they initially hesitant?

The reaction has been excellent. Once people know what we’re doing, even the hesitant come around. Of course, we’re not trying to replicate, nevermind rewrite Ulysses. All we can do is offer a sliver, a whiff of the book. And these are early days—if virtual reality is, as it’s been called,  “the ultimate empathy machine,” its role in the ongoing story of narrative representation comes into focus. We’re testing the future of what might be a new genre. We call it “gamifiction.”

How do you hope that Joycestick will impact Joycean studies? Irish studies more broadly?

If it encourages more exploration, innovation, and creative thinking, I’ll be happy. I think Joyce would have been happy.

Joycestick is welcoming keen young coders who’d like to make a name for themselves to contribute. We’d like to especially welcome students who already have an interest in Irish studies, Joyce studies, or modernism. Email aliem@bc.edu if you are interested or have any questions; you can also pull the project’s repos from https://github.com/JoyceStick-BC.