Does it ever feel as though some students find themselves lost in the midst of their information-seeking travels and travails? They seem tired and weary from seeking the elusive Holy Grail of research – the resources that will work best with their current research needs and help them achieve that stellar paper or project. Too often, errant students wander aimlessly, misguided along the path of their own wayward information quest. In a sense, they become the heroes in their own quest narrative, but as with all quests, heroes often find mentors and guides along the way to help them conquer the multiple tests and challenges they face before they can reach their journey’s end and return home triumphant with their hard-earned GPA intact. Thus, the information seeking process can oftentimes seem like the quest of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ as described by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Ever since mythologist Joseph Campbell plotted the hero’s journey onto the archetypal monomyth in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, originally published in 1949, his theories have enchanted legions of devoted followers and fanned the flames of detractors. Though Campbell remains popular outside of the academy, numerous scholars in the realms of Comparative Mythology have been critical of his writings (Lundwall, 2006). Campbell’s work has been described as elitist (Segal, 1992, p.42) and culturally imperialistic (Oldmeadow, 2004, p.111), and folklorist Alan Dundes writes of Campbell, ‘there is no single idea promulgated by amateurs that has done more harm to serious folklore study than the notion of archetype (2005, p.397). Feminist critics have also found fault in Campbell’s male-centric heroic monomyth, noting that Campbell’s ‘archetypal female is essentially passive’ (Lefkowits, 1990, p.432).
Even if Campbell’s reputation has suffered slings and arrows at the hands of folklorists and mythologists, his theories continue to influence storytellers and filmmakers. George Lucas famously acknowledged how Campbell’s dissection of the hero’s journey influenced the Star Wars trilogy, and Christopher Vogler turned Campbell’s monomyth into a ‘practical guide’ for screenwriters in his book The Writer’s Journey.
What exactly is this monomyth and why has it become such a lightning rod for both devotion and controversy? As Campbell explains,
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell, 1971, p.30)
Campbell claims that all mythologies from every culture across the world, spanning all time periods, ultimately have a common narrative—the story of the hero’s journey:
The mythological hero … is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark … Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (test), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The final work is that of the return … The boon that he brings restores the world. (pp.245-6)
In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler adapts Campbell’s monomyth for the three-act structure of narrative storytelling. Vogler summarizes:
The hero is introduced in his ORDINARY WORLD where he receives the CALL TO ADVENTURE. He is RELUCTANT at first to CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD where he eventually encounters TESTS, ALLIES and ENEMIES. He reaches the INNERMOST CAVE where he endures the SUPREME ORDEAL. He SEIZES THE SWORD or the treasure and is pursued on the ROAD BACK to his world. He is RESURRECTED and transformed by his experience. He RETURNS to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or ELIXIR to benefit his world (Vogler, 1998, p.26).
Since Vogler examines this mythic structure from the perspective of storytellers, specifically filmmakers and screenwriters, he is also using this same journey motif to explain the character arc of the hero’s internal journey (Vogler, 213).
Illustrations from Vogler, www.thewritersjourney.com
[Note] On the “Hero’s Journey” page of his accompanying website The Writer’s Journey, www.thewritersjourey.com, Vogler has additionally adapted Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey to address issues of gender bias that have been leveled against Campbell’s monomyth.
Illustration from Huntly, 2007, based on Vogler, 1998.
To accompany the archetypal hero on his journey, Vogler also identifies archetypal characters that typically show up along the path of the hero’s journey, including the mentor, the threshold guardian, the herald, the shapeshifter, the shadow, and the trickster (Vogler, 1998, p.32), many of whom can also often be found along the path of the information quest.
As Vogler observes,
The values of the Hero’s Journey are what’s important. The images of the basic version – young heroes seeking magic swords from old wizards, maidens risking death to save loved ones, knights riding off to fight evil dragons in deep caves, and so on – are just symbols of universal life experiences. The symbols can be changed infinitely to suit the story at hand and the needs of the society. The Hero’s Journey is easily translated … by substituting modern equivalents for the symbolic figures and props of the hero’s story … Modern heroes may not be going into caves and labyrinths to fight mythical beasts, but they do enter a Special World and an Inmost Cave … The Hero’s Journey is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of its magic, and will outlive us all. (1998, pp.26-7)
If we take this assertion a step further, not only can we see the hero’s journey in the stories that are told through various media, from books to movies to comics, but we can see the hero’s journey in almost any quest, including the information-seeking quest. If we assume our information-seeker to be a college student new to scholarly research, we might be able to chart her course along the following path of the hero’s journey:
We can see how the arc of Vogler’s character growth also fits this model of the hero’s journey:
With an understanding of the information quest as a type of hero’s journey, I set out to further demonstrate this connection through a series of tutorials called ‘The Tales of Sir Learnsalot and the Sorceress Librarian.’ My goal was to create a character who was himself on an information quest, and I decided to give the story a narrative arc so that students could follow along, and learn as the character learns. As a solo librarian in a departmental reading room that is administered by an academic department but affiliated with the larger university library system, my primary focus was to aid students who are using our departmental facility, the Grace M. Hunt Memorial English Reading Room. To add a bit of whimsy and levity into the tutorials, I created an animated protagonist, and since I’m a librarian in an English Department collection, I wanted to incorporate a discipline-related theme. Thus I created the animated character Sir Learnsalot.
I structured the video tutorials along the path of the hero’s quest: Separation, Initiation/Transformation, and the Return, assigning each video a set of learning outcomes that correspond to the hero’s course along this discipline-focused information literacy journey. Each video includes a fantasy sequence that serves as a metaphor for the learning objective of the module, followed by a consultation session between Sir Learnsalot and the librarian, with screencast demonstrations intercut into the conversation. The individual videos can be found on the Grace M. Hunt Memorial English Reading Room YouTube channel:
The videos have also been mapped onto the graphic representation of the Hero’s Journey on the following Prezi presentation.
The first video, Sir Learnsalot and the Sorceress Librarian, demonstrates the hero’s CALL TO ADVENTURE. At first, he is RELUCTANT to accept help in narrowing and focusing his research topic, but after encouragement from the librarian MENTOR, he sets upon the path of learning how to more efficiently and effectively conduct library research. By accepting help from his supernatural aid, the Sorceress Librarian, in Sir Learnsalot and the Library Labyrinth he discovers how to find information about the larger library system in general and the English Reading Room in particular and embarks upon his journey.
In Sir Learnsalot and the Threshold Guardians, he CROSSES THE FIRST THRESHOLD by learning how to use the VPN client to access library-licensed content. In Sir Learnaslot and the Compass of Research Strategy, he has now crossed over into the SPECIAL WORLD where he must chart his course towards finding, evaluating, and using discipline-focused library resources. He is TESTED along the path, and in Sir Learnsalot and the Test of Boolean Logic, he must pass the initiation challenge by mastering basic information literacy skills, such as using keywords to search library databases. He also must learn to recognize and defeat ENEMIES such as TRICKSTERS, SHAPESHIFTERS, and SHADOWS, which can correspond to non-reliable resources and Internet sites. In Sir Learnsalot and the Tricksters and Shapeshifters of the Internet, he adds to his arsenal by learning to use the CRAAP evaluation. He is now ready to APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE by learning to use the library catalog in Sir Learnsalot and the Search Through Catalogus Librorum.
Once inside the INMOST CAVE, he delves even deeper in Sir Learnsalot and the Journey Through the Sea of Journals, where he learns how to find peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles for his research. He has succeeded in his REVELATION, TRANSFORMATION, and ATONEMENT – he now knows where to find and how to use discipline-focused library resources, and he has the information literacy skills necessary to embark upon future information quests.
Though his supernatural guide, the Sorceress Librarian, has accompanied him this far down the path, there are parts of the journey he will travel alone, or he will need to also seek other helpers along his path towards his REWARD and the ROAD BACK. He RETURNS triumphant from his quest with the skills necessary to not only produce scholarship in his chosen discipline, but also armed with the knowledge of where to get more help and how to be successful in his next information quest.
The next logical step might be to envision the information quest as an adventure game. In the seminal work, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee (2007) demonstrates how games can parallel information-seeking behaviors and foster learning. Many recent scholars have noted the similarities between gaming and the research process, examining how ‘games present the same mythic challenges as Campbell’s metamyth’ (Smale, 2011, p.48) and how ‘games appropriate the monomythic folkloric kingdom creating a postmodern rechanneling of traditional content elements and structures (Sherman, 2013, p.256). Dickey (2006) examines how ‘the common structure found in most adventure games … is the quest’ (p.254), and he maps a similar learning quest to Vogler’s interpretation of the hero’s journey (p.255-6).
Thus, I wanted to turn the Sir Learnsalot series into a game. Using the video gamification platform ParWinr, I added some gaming elements to the videos and embedded these into Sir Learnsalot’s mock blog post, The Adventures of Sir Learnsalot, where questions and challenges have been added to the videos, allowing the student watcher to play along and earn the prize at the end of the series of video modules, conference of the title ‘Knight of the English Reading Room.’
Whether the information need is small or epic, each information-seeking adventure can be like the hero’s quest – heeding the call of the herald, seeking help and guidance from mentors, gathering tools for the journey, mapping out a course, embarking upon the journey, facing challenges and trials, and venturing deep into the darkness of the cave to emerge victorious and return home triumphant. Indeed, the information-seeking process in its entirety can be mapped to the hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the quest narrative. Thus, turning the learning process into a quest narrative and quest game can be a fun way to introduce students to the information literacy skills that will serve them well in their own information journeys.
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