“Especially now, it’s the ideas that will win, not the people we have associated with those ideas and ideals—and I look forward to using Refract as a space for that…getting to the core of an issue” said Jeremy Brown under the post-election pall and gray sky that hung over the Vertical Campus. As Editor in Chief of Refract, the student-run “digital, non-fiction literary publication, focusing on contemporary issues within the arts, sciences, politics, culture, and literature” supported by the English department, Jeremy plays an important role in creating that space. He first got involved with Refract in spring 2015, when Professor Corey Mead shared a call for volunteers to launch a new student publication in class. He became a member of the first staff of the magazine, which is meant to “provide a platform for student writing” and has been especially valuable as a space to give further life to critical, analytical and other nonfiction writings that students produce for class.
Given the amount of time Jeremy spends in the English department you might think he is a major, but in fact he is a part of the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies program and his official majors are Cognitive Science and Computers, and Interactive Storytelling. It is for the latter that Baruch’s English department has been so important to his development. His interest in interactive storytelling developed out of his passion for video games and his knowledge of his own strength as a writer. Taking a variety of courses in the English department—including First Year Writing and Great Works (he chose 2850, partly guided by his interest in the later periods covered and partly by scheduling concerns), — was part of his plan to embrace, as he puts it, “a diversity of experiences in my coursework.” Grace Schulman’s poetry course was a challenge, but as Jeremy sees it, “to be a better writer I need to write in forms I wouldn’t otherwise.” Corey Mead’s Advanced Essay Writing class gave him an opportunity to experiment with an interactive format.
As Editor in Chief of Refract, Jeremy is hoping to see and publish “more pieces that can only exist in an online space.” In his own work he is working on a capstone project having to do with chat bots, or virtual conversation agents. The project is an extension of the work he began during his summer internship at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California. This work marries all three elements of his majors—cognitive science, computing, and interactive storytelling—in an effort to create a computer-based interlocutor with human conversational abilities. It is an ambitious project, one that can only be partially tackled in the capstone, that serves as a stepping stone on the way to Jeremy’s hope of becoming an innovator in the video gaming industry, using conversation as a new frontier in immersive video game storytelling.
Five Questions with Jeremy Brown
1. You aren’t an English major, but you are very involved in the English department; how did that happen?
English has been my favorite subject since middle school. I think my attraction to the English department was a natural progression of my affinity for reading, writing, and storytelling. It also helped that I’ve had incredible English professors since the start of my college career; I am consistently impressed and surprised by the quality of the English department events and courses here at Baruch. And when I was in the midst of making the final decision as to which college to attend, I had the opportunity to sit in on a Harman Writer-in-Residence class session – it was then I knew I would take the course at one point or another, and thus would attend Baruch. Certainly, if I hadn’t created my own majors through CUNY BA, I would be an English major. My mentor for my Interactive Storytelling major is Corey Mead, a professor in the department. With regards to Refract, the announcement that the department was looking to start up a student-run literary magazine reached my ears at a time when I was looking to build myself through extracurricular involvement. The opportunity to have a direct hand in creating a publication from scratch seemed special, and it really was. I was ecstatic to be a part of such an effort, and since then, it’s kept me connected and involved.
2. What English courses or assignments do you remember most, and what made them so memorable?
My first year writing course with Dr. Carina Pasquesi was a great time. The readings and other media that Dr. Pasquesi showed us, coupled with her personal teaching style, got me very excited about all the possibilities writing has to offer. Specifically Todd Solondz’s Happiness and our discussion around the film was eye opening. Film & Politics with Corey Mead was memorable because Corey is a gem of a professor – he’d joke around a lot but also challenged the class with assigned readings and films and forced unique writing out of students. My final paper for that course was a short story about sex trafficking. To write the piece I had to imagine myself in the physical and psychological setting of a sex slave, which was challenging; I feel as if I can’t write something which I haven’t experienced, and so learning more and exploring that dark issue through writing a story about it taught me a lot. I also took Advanced Essay Writing with Corey, in which we were assigned books like Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson and The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, which are exemplary works. Corey allowed me to write an interactive story for one assignment instead of an essay, which was my first attempt at doing so. Being able to experiment with form in that way was an important step for me to take. And Grace Schulman’s poetry class has really forced me to finely tune every image I present across all my writing.
3. What texts, traditional or digital, have inspired you?
Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is my all-time favorite book. Each time I read it, I try to drink in each individual sentence – they’re packed with such strong imagery, and it seems like he wrote every sentence of the novel as if each was a line of poetry. His exploration of boyhood and growing older struck me to my core, even when I was the same age as the protagonists. The book is a model work for me. I’m also a big fan of Drew Karpyshyn’s Star Wars writing, in particular for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Aside from being one of the best Star Wars video games around, it’s a model role-playing game that has set the standard for storytelling in games since its release. The character writing in the game’s sequel is spectacular. And more generally, exploring the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe through multitudes of novels as a child and teen inspired me. The Star Wars universe was one which I could bring to life in my mind in an exquisite amount of depth. To spark somebody’s imagination like how Star Wars sparked mine has been a longtime goal for me.
4. What do you see as the place of writing in the context of your career goals?
I’ve been asking myself this question a lot this year. Writing will always be a part of my personal life, if not my professional life. I’m confident that at one point or another, I will write a book – be it my grandfather’s memoir or a fiction novel, it will happen. If I try my hand at the games industry, writing will still be an integral part of my work. I see interactivity as another mechanic for telling stories, and pairing interactivity with writing allows for different possibilities in communicating a message. If a game is story-based, or if there is character dialogue, a writer is needed. There are a growing amount of games that focus on telling powerful stories, I have no doubt that writers are increasingly finding a permanent place in the games industry, so that’s an area I may pursue. And should I never write creatively after college (which is extremely unlikely), I’ll certainly still be writing emails. I’m half joking – good communications skills play an important role in any job. Getting good at writing means getting good at communicating.
5. If you could offer one piece of advice or insight to faculty about student writing here at Baruch, what would it be?
I’ve found that my best writing for assignments has emerged from looser guidelines and permission from my professors to branch out and try something new. In being allowed to bend the rules somewhat, I more often come out with work that feels to me like it is “beyond” the assignment. But this is also coming from someone who really enjoys writing. I suppose my advice would be to create spaces for students to experiment with their writing and expression, because what they write will mean more to them and it’s more likely that they’ll come out with work they are proud of beyond attaining a high grade. In practice, this means giving assignments that allow the student to learn in their own way. Perhaps instead of a 3 page reflection essay on a reading, giving students an alternate option to write a short story that possesses similar themes to the reading could be a good route. Providing multiple essay prompts instead of one (or even allowing students to come up with their own) gives the student more control over their learning. However, I recognize that limitations often foster creativity – so maybe this advice is only applicable to certain types of writing assignments and not to others (and is likely poor advice in the context of a poetry course, for instance). There must be a balance of both direction and freedom for the student writer. On a related note, while deadlines are clearly a necessity, the occasional extension or late submission allowance can make an enormous difference in the quality of a student’s work. In my experience, when I work less towards the “A” and more towards creating something I can be proud of or can build on in the future, I get a lot more out of the assignment. So set up the railway tracks, but let me design the train, and don’t yell “Abort!” if I go off the rails. The train might actually fly.