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The Avatar that therefore I Am (Following)

“It was really frustrating,” “I was annoyed,” “I dislike Second Life,” “Hell.” –Student Responses to Second Life, “Second Life: An Interactive Qualitative Analysis”

“The word ‘game’ can lead you astray: when I say ‘game,’ I mean a set of rules by which truth is produced.” –Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

“[D]uring the first semester only 24% agreed that their 'writing skills have improved because of SL,' and during the second no one agreed with the assertion!” –Jerome Bump, “Teaching English in Second Life”

“[However,] people find meaning erupting in unexpected ways as they manipulate their avatars." –Cynthia Haynes, “Avatar Nation Secedes”


Part #1: Actualizations

            A machine sits down and plugs into another machine. This is how everything begins. A “first life” opens onto a “second life,” but without a radical rupture between them (only a modification or multiplication of subjectivities). However, there’s usually a patch to download, and as Deleuze would say, some sort of flow must open up between the machines to get things moving. What set these two writing-machines in motion was that in the Fall of 2009, our project group for the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin was charged with the task of using the massive multiplayer online game Second Life (SL) as a platform to develop a game experience that could teach students about rhetorical concepts, that is, a “serious game.” Although Second Life is frequently used in other fields, some significant barriers have prevented its widespread use in rhetoric and writing courses, despite its potential to radically augment classroom pedagogy. Indeed, SL can easily provide the opportunity to visit and create communities, inhabit other perspectives, and rapidly develop a variety of writing responses in a low-stakes environment. In our group's project, we built from the work of professors Jerome BumpDiane Davis and Leslie Jarmon, as well as recent UT graduate Joe Sanchez, now a professor at Rutgers. Although Second Life is used today to teach upper-level rhetoric, history, sociology and science courses, our goal was to develop readily implementable experiences and tools for Second Life that would overcome common difficulties, and help instructors and students from a variety of backgrounds more easily take advantage of the tremendous potentials the platform offers. Given our disciplinary position, we focused especially on teaching introductory-level rhetoric. Our research over the first semester resulted in particular goals and concepts for our “game,” which were scripted by Trevor Hoag and incorporated into his version of the University of Texas’s required freshman composition course, RHE 306. In the following sections, therefore, we will describe some of the advantages of using Second Life in the (rhetoric) classroom, and offer a few guidelines toward ensuring a successful Second Life adventure.


Second Life Dragon Avatar


          Because of SL's ability to both simulate and fragment personality, rhetoric instructors have been especially intrigued by its possible pedagogical implications  and the ways in which it differs from other, more “game-like,” games like World of Warcraft, Spore and Doom, all of which have been explored for their uses in the writing classroom (Shultz, Bogost). Indeed, anecdotal responses to the platform have been enthusiastic, with instructors viewing it as an ideal tool for writing about critical issues in low-stakes environments, the opportunity to literally wear (or perform) the skin of another race, gender, or species, and to visit spaces that are otherwise impossible to experience (for example, one can read the poetry of a Second World War soldier in the environment in which it was written, or design arguments for a particular community. Jennifer DeWinter and Stephanie Vie’s recent argument in Computers and Composition is representative of a common pedagogical response to SL:

[W]e argue that participating in virtual online communities and cultivating player avatars are particularly fruitful activities for students’ analyses and production of media in the writing classroom because they often make explicit the ambivalences of new media. We examine Second Life as a productive space to theorize subjectivity through the creation of players’ avatars and their interactions with a virtual world commercialized by major corporations, populated by volunteer players, and immersed in hegemonic power structures. (314)

           Thus, it’s easy to see that Second Life is not only a lot of fun, but provides a space for work wherein both instructors and students can become quite invested. Nevertheless, instructors meet substantial challenges when trying to use SL space effectively in writing classrooms. A recent survey of New Media Consortium members underscores the student responses to Second Life Jerome Bump describes in his 2007 Currents article. Unfortunately, both students and instructors can find the interface frustrating and difficult to use, and as a result view the course or material taught via SL negatively. Indeed, the NMC survey of educators using virtual worlds produced the following statistics: “43% of respondents believe the steep learning curve or negative press/perceptions have played a role as a barrier to their use of virtual worlds in their institutions,” while 17%  reported “a lack of pedagogical models as a significant barrier of adoption” (NMC 2010). However, even with the potential barrier of a learning curve, we remain optimistic about the possibilities of implementing SL in the writing classroom.

          The fundamental obstacle to using SL in the classroom is institutional. Using Second Life to teach is an enterprise that relies upon adequate funding for computers and often the purchase of land within SL, as well as the willingness of departments to support non-traditional methods of teaching. These difficulties contribute to the lack of pedagogical models indicated in the survey by the NMC. Lacking (for the most part) traditional methods of disseminating pedagogical practices derived from SL, such as books, specific training, or courses teachers themselves took in the medium, professors rely on their own ingenuity and ability to search the internet to see what is successful while using Second Life in the classroom. Most pedagogical training on Second Life takes place within the virtual world itself in places like the Educator’s Coop, and finding those areas can be difficult for an instructor not already familiar with the format or with video games in general.[1]

           Student difficulties can also complicate the already challenging task of learning how to teach in virtual space. While in the traditional rhetoric classroom one might be able to assume that students already possess some significant reading and writing skills, simply learning how to move around in Second Life can be hard for many students, as Diane Carr, Martin Oliver and Andrew Burn indicate in their ongoing research project “Learning from Online Worlds; Teaching in Second Life."  Confronted with the vast world of Second Life, and often operating with little to no experience with SL or any other video game, students can find assignments hard to complete, and describe their early experiences in Second Life as “boring,” “complicated,” “frustrating” and “awkward” (Sanchez, “Describe Second Life”). Finally, some students resist the inclusion of non-traditional reading and writing practices in the rhetoric classroom simply because they do not meet student expectations of “learning” (Clark 28-9).

          On top of the technological and pedagogical complexities is the confusion concerning how to respond to Second Life: is it a game? Or simply a virtual space? It has been treated as both, with varying results. Because people tend to expect their online experiences to be either text-based communicative functions, or distinctly recognizable games, the original version of SL included basic game functions that allowed the players to “level out,” following a traditional gaming format, but this aspect was eliminated very early on when the designers decided to focus on the collaborative and creative potentials of the environment. While these aspects of SL are exciting, they can also lead people to wonder what there is to do in Second Life. However, research shows that while Second Life is essentially paidic, students who can achieve structured goals in the virtual space enjoy their experience more, and are more likely to connect their “game” to class concepts (Sanchez, Bump).

           Despite the frustrations and challenges of the platform, students often respond positively to avatar building, community discourse and development, and achievable goals that build on materials covered outside of Second Life. If instructors can make these aspects manageable for students and connect them concretely to rhetorical principles, they are more likely to benefit from the platform. In other words, through our own project, we wanted to make working in Second Life fun and exciting for professors and students, taking advantage of the opportunities that the platform offers while avoiding the most common pitfalls. 


            Because one cannot visit SL without building an avatar, our ideal syllabus began by including activities that involved making modifications to avatars well beyond the initial options provided by Linden Labs. Our own random searches for free goods and builds seemed too time-consuming to occur during class time, so these modifications would have to be built into our virtual classroom.

            So what about our avatar?—to borrow a Derridian phrase—the one we are/I am (following)?  For, indeed, when in the third person viewing mode, one can only follow one’s avatar like a shadow. And, yet, we are/I am this avatar, the one that we are/I am (following). Currently, one of our avatar skins is a silver metal dragon with a rocket-pack—whereas our “mains” haunt the halls of UT-Austin, taking and teaching classes, wearing dress clothes rather than nuclear reactors. It might look like we spent days designing this “alt,” this metal dragon, but that’s certainly not the case. After entering Second Life, one can simply teleport to “freebie” sites and find such a skin—for a Google search reveals several places to find not only free avatars, but free buildings, furniture, clothes, little blue-eyed kitty-cats, weapons, and anything else one can imagine. In other words, unlike high school, looking cool in Second Life is easy, and thinking about avatar-design can lead to fruitful discussions concerning ethos and the type of persona one constructs though in-game appearance. Moreover, discussing the relation between one’s avatar and one’s “main” (i.e., one’s body or “self”) has the power to make apparent what Foucault means when he calls ethos “the relation that one has with oneself” (Ethics 263, 266). Indeed, avatars render more apparent the scattering of subjectivity and the possibility of one subject “working upon” another within (or in the case of the avatar, without) the same body.

          In order to make the avatar-sculpting process (or “care of the self”) even easier for students, i.e., what Katherine Hayles might call their “becoming post-human,” in our RHE 306 SL space there are water fountains scripted to load a website that sends students to freebie-sites automatically. Like avatar-invention, SL scripting may seem daunting at first, but anyone can do it. All one needs is a command script and something into which to load it. Let’s take a non-player character kitten as an example. After finding a cute little kitty at a freebie-site, one simply drags it from one’s inventory and drops it on the ground (perhaps with a few orientation changes for the object). Then, one does an internet search for free, pre-programmed scripts. Programs ask what the scripted object is supposed to say to, give to, show to, or load for an avatar, and voila!, a script is written that one can add to an object with a couple clicks of the mouse. Within minutes, one is an assembling-machine as well as an assemblage!


How to Script in Second Life 


          Indeed, if there is one thing that we’ve learned from our escapades in SL, it’s that forming a research community and learning rhetorical vocabulary are made more enjoyable when one is a gothic vampire, zombie werewolf, or fire-breathing dragon!  And it is through this forgetting of oneself, this momentary forgetting one’s “main” avatar, that students also come increasingly closer to realizing that, as Diane Davis says, “[that i]n the electronic age, there is no ‘real world’ that is unmediated and unaffected by the so-called sham world” (Breaking 129). That is, students come closer to that moment when it hits them that the “digital” is, in fact, already part of the “actual”—that Second Life is part of the so-called “real world.”  Indeed, students implicitly arrive at the position of which Deleuze repeatedly reminds his readers, that there is only One univocal, yet plural, plane of immanence (as multiplicity).


           Beyond avatar-invention, another goal that we wanted to achieve via SL was the creation of a safe space for students to work. Linden Labs, the owners of SL, have recently separated “adult-oriented content” away from the general public in an effort to modify the popular perception that SL exists to provide pornography and gambling to people who do not want to leave their own homes. Still, anyone on “Discovery Island,” the initial place many people visit in SL, is likely to be given fliers for a free striptease, as did one of our avatars in its first visit there. As public as it is, Discovery Island simulates nothing other than a seedy city street. Although it seems unlikely that students would assault each other in a cyber-space connected to a classroom, suffice it to say that many people react to SL as if a virtual space is the same as an offline space.[2] While operating within these kinds of conditions offers a set of circumstances we hope educators will continue to explore, for ease of use in our lower-level rhetoric classrooms, a space closed to the public ensures students can work without interruption, and provides them with a “home base” from which they can travel and to which they can return with their findings. We were fortunate enough at the University of Texas to have our own campus island, as many campuses now do, with space that we could reserve for our classes. Within limits, this space is also readily modifiable by students, who can find building scripts in the larger spaces of Second Life and build projects to suit their argumentative needs. This kind of building/scripting is really fun if one sticks to a find-drag-drop format rather than attempting to build anything from scratch; in Second Life a student can build a floating tent and populate it with penguins and bunnies if she thinks it will persuade her audience.


           What of our own SL space for teaching rhetoric, then? Based upon the rhetoric-themed Platonic dialogue by the same name and because the space is populated by nearly a dozen (hungry) digital wolves that provide students with rhetorically-oriented tasks (not to mention that Phaedrus in Greek means “wolf”), this Second Life space is called Phaedrus. Perhaps surprisingly, Phaedrus was not a terribly difficult space to design (dasein), but it did require a good deal of trial and error. Of course, if one has one’s own SL space, it is possible to script the items there however one pleases, that is, with whatever material is relevant to one’s courses. Indeed, when designing a SL space, one gets a sense of what Gregory Ulmer means when he speaks of replacing the ancient notion of topos with that of chora—for in a Second Life space, there are no permanent “places,” only potential sites (or writing surfaces) from where one can evoke a multitude of different materials (Heuretics 36). For example, since the Phaedrus space is designed for teaching introductory rhetoric courses, students can find wolf-characters there that are scripted with items relating to UT-Austin’s Rhetoric 306 course.

           What is it like, though, to have students teleported into the Phaedrus space, and what assignments can one do there?  For example, students in one of our Rhetoric 306 courses did a kind of “scavenger hunt” where they travel from wolf to wolf, doing the tasks that the NPCs provide, most of which involve giving a written response (one relating to food ethics and politics as the writing topics of UT-Austin’s introductory rhetoric courses this year). For example, student-avatars are asked to: define rhetoric based on in-class discussions, react to the film Food, Inc., persuade a hungry wolf to become a vegetarian, succinctly define their controversy topic for the course, cite texts in MLA format, paraphrase a short article, make a Google Map of where one’s favorite meal comes from, provide a response to topics in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, find and cite an editorial from LexisNexis, and lastly, seek out a hidden character, Polus the Colt, for bonus points. All told, students really seemed to enjoy navigating the space and doing the scavenger hunt, and while doing so they were also encouraged to talk in-game to one another, not only in order to help with scavenger hunt answers, but also to find controversy topics and share links to research resources. All the while, they are becoming increasingly (in Gregory Ulmer’s terms) electronically literate or “electrate,” for indeed, the avatar is to electracy as writing is to literacy (“Writing” N.p.).


Video of Phaedrus Space: <>


         The nearly limitless nature of Second Life is both its strength and its weakness; because it is so paidic,[3] it is essential that instructors build-in enough ludic elements for the student to not only feel successful and experience the joy of creation, but also to connect the play involved to their ideas of learning. A combination of ludic and paidic activities (e.g., manipulating a flying avatar while learning about rhetorical figures, going into the larger world of SL and discovering new scripts), and a similar combination of solitary and group activities seemed most likely to obtain the results we wanted in our project. Quest games can incur all of these combinations, so we added both quest and class-specific group activities to our ideal syllabus. As the note card feature is built in to SL, it is easy to place them throughout one’s SL space and build them into narratives, as Angela Thomas of Sydney University does in her “Persephone” game, which requires students to find note cards hidden among Greek ruins and respond to them in writing. Wandering, discovering, and replying to note cards provides the kind of “leveling out” one experiences in popular quest video games. Having students perform this kind of solitary activity early on in the course allows them to develop a level of comfort with the platform without the additional distraction and complication of the sometimes dissonant and competing voices that appear in larger group activities.

Chat Log

           Indeed, as the image above shows, group activity without a goal can be overwhelming; it is hard to see who is talking, which can negate many of the benefits of SL. As with other semi-anonymous online spaces, students who are less willing to talk in class often find themselves speaking up through the figure of their avatar, but conversation is usually more manageable in small groups. This kind of development lends itself to a common method of teaching rhetoric; that is, after establishing the basics of rhetorical principles early in the semester, students can work together in small or large groups to develop possible solutions, or achieve the goals of local civic groups. In SL, students can meet to work on reaching the goals of their larger community in the “real” world, or the needs of a virtual community, whether through a civic project such as developing city boundaries or establishing community norms, or working with other, virtual groups. Additionally, SL seems to lend itself to integration with ARG games, in which students can work inside and outside of the classroom and inside and outside of their virtual space, to reach a variety of goals. In any of these instances, however, the complexity of rhetoric and the complexity of SL interactions develop concurrently.


           Following upon the complexity of group activities, we should also mention a couple items related to getting students into the Second Life game-space—some of what Paul Virilio might call “speed-bumps,” i.e., snags in the implementation of technology. The possibility for logistical problems is a real concern in SL, but one can avoid many of them with a few precautionary steps. 1.) Once students design (dasein) an avatar and enter the game-space, they cannot teleport to a Second Life url (SL url) from the “beginner’s island,” they must enter the central game space and may need some help getting there. 2.) Once students are in the central game space, they may need a SLurl instant messaged to them directly in order to teleport, although sometimes one can simply type an in-game address into one’s instant message bar and teleport from there. 3.) Make sure students know ahead of time what the specific space (like Phaedrus) looks like, otherwise chasing students and re-teleporting them is inevitable because they will wander from territory to territory. Although, if this happens don’t worry!—for as the very deleuze-ional Victor Vitanza writes, perhaps “we should, . . .deterriorialize students and turn them into drifters” (Harkin 149)!  The main piece of advice that we can provide concerning implementation, though, while echoing Heidegger, is to simply sloooow down. Implementing SL in the classroom is time-consuming, and one shouldn’t try to rush the process. Otherwise, problems are bound to multiply.


Second Life Image of Penguins


Part #2: Virtualizations

            So what remains possible with regard to the Phaedrus space as a tool for teaching an introductory rhetoric course? For one, we plan to script non-player characters for not only the first unit of the course but also the second and third units as well. This means exchanging non-player characters’ note cards (or scripts) from items related to research and other introductory topics to those relating to rhetorical analyses and argumentation. Furthermore, changing the game-space from unit to unit means opening up the possibility for embedding streaming video into non-player characters and objects, i.e., video that students can rhetorically analyze. When the time comes to shift to unit three, non-player characters will provide prompts that encourage students to argue with one another in-game while paying close attention to argumentative style, the use of rhetorical figures, avoidance of fallacies such as straw-manning, and so on. Moreover, along these same lines, it seems that students are more comfortable arguing with one another online when there are avatars and the Phaedrus space to mediate between them. In other words, the digital environment serves as a kind of spring-board for taking a stand and making arguments face-to-face with someone one barely knows. The avatar functions as a “funnel,” one that perhaps reduces the un-canniness of the face-to-face encounter with the other. Perhaps, then, the avatar makes more manageable what Avital Ronell describes as, “the matter of a surplus that comes from elsewhere and that can no more be assimilated by me, than it can domesticate itself in me” (ÜberReader 149). Indeed, this “some more,” or the possible worlds unfolding in the encounter with another being, is “reduced” by the avatar (although certainly not eliminated)—thereby reducing the anxiety of the encounter. However, this is certainly not to suggest that one avatar gazing at another is somehow less “authentic” than a so-called “real-life” encounter—for the avatar most certainly has a face (visage) and possesses the possibility to surprise!

            Of course, there are many “community”-based activities that are possible in course-specific Second Life spaces as well. For example, in the argumentation unit of RHE 306, we have designed an in-game assignment where students learn from non-player wolf characters the details of an ancient declamation case (e.g., one from the sophist Antiphon’s Tetralogies) that involves determining who is responsible for the death of a young athlete—one who is “accidentally” impaled by a javelin. Here students will take sides or serve as jury-persons in order to make carefully crafted in-game (stasis-theory based) arguments concerning the case (thanks to Jeffrey Walker for indirectly supplying us with the idea). There is also the possibility of having students attempt to decide a course of action as a rhetorical SL community. For example, since the theme of UT-Austin’s introductory rhetoric courses this year is food (facilitated by reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food), one can imagine having students decide as a community whether or not  to grow organic crops in their village. One might make an assignment like this one even more interesting by having students get into small groups and write an information note card for a non-player character. Then, the students could come to a decision about growing organic food based on the research and note cards that the students in the community have designed. Certainly, the possibilities are nearly limitless for assignments such as these (that is, as students translate note-taking into a digital and shared practice), and any assignments like this can even be conducted almost entirely outside of the “physical” class period if an instructor so desires.

          Finally, it seems that one of the most intriguing possibilities for a Second Life space like Phaedrus is that it’s possible to design a set of non-player characters and scripts that one might use simultaneously for a wide variety of introductory courses at a number of colleges and universities. Different schools could design rhetorically oriented game-spaces that almost anyone from another school could inhabit. One might even coordinate efforts between schools so that each school designs a space devoted to something different such as research, rhetorical analysis, writing skills, argumentation, and so on. Then, as the semester progresses, students in introductory rhetoric courses could travel from school-space to school-space as they learn. Perhaps what we're suggesting, then, following the tracks of Collin Gifford Brooke, is that one might fabricate an ecosystem of rhetorical SL spaces between colleges, and “[t]he appeal of ecology as a conceptual metaphor is its ability to focus our attention on a . . . finite set of practices, ideas, and interactions without fixing them in place or investing too much critical energy in their stability” (Lingua 42). In other words, the proposed ecosystem is an extremely dynamic one, one constantly in flux, demanding constant redescription and rethinking of goals or plateaus.

           In many ways, Second Life provides the ideal platform for an instructor considering teaching with games or any online course. It is free, easy to register for an account, and it requires far less hardware capacity than many other games. Moreover, because SL lacks the level of persuasion inherent in more traditional video games, almost every action within the space becomes an area of intensity, an argument applied by the creator for the purpose of debate. The flexibility of the medium allows almost any amount of time spent in the space to become a source of engagement for a rhetoric course. The student statements in the epigraph reflect what can happen when students feel the work they do in SL is too difficult, non-structured, and does not have a clear connection to the course. However, by explicitly repeating connections, providing small, manageable tasks during the earliest sections of time spent in the platform, and by allowing students to develop a sense of community through larger group work during the latter portions of the course, instructors can avoid most of the frustration that blocks flows of learning, and instead exploit the vast horizon of latent possibilities that still remain for the game. Our hope is that instructors from other schools will become as excited (or remain as excited) as we are to continue working on projects such as these. Certainly, with enough machinic-desire, anything is possible.


[1] In a clear response to this difficulty, many professors maintain websites including their syllabi and learning guides long after their courses may have ended, making their work publicly available. See, for example, Cheryl Carter’s tremendously detailed webspace “Knowledge Sharing,” Sarah Robbins “Second Life Writing,” and Chris Wigginton’s “Virtual Poesis: The New Creative Pedagogy of Second Life,” as well as Joe Sanchez’s ongoing publications.

[2] Julian Dibbell’s famous essay “A Rape in Cyberspace” makes clear some of the dangers inherent in public online spaces, and perhaps contributed to the perception ofSL as a space where such actions could occur without recourse.

[3] We're relying on Frasca's interpretation of ludic and paidic games. Broadly, he suggests that although both ludic and paidic play have rules, in ludus games the rules are clearly established before play begins, while in paidia games the rules are developed in play. Further, in paidia games, the player usually sets her own goals.

Works Cited

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---. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.

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