Teaching Literature with Ivanhoe

At the (private) request of Jason, this post explains how I’ve begun to use Ivanhoe, the game developed at UVA by Johanna Drucker, Jerome McGann, Bethany Nowviskie, and many others, in my literature classes.

Ivanhoe is, in effect, an interpretive game, wherein students make “moves” of various kinds in relation to a specified text or texts:

In simple terms, IVANHOE is a digital space in which players take on alternate identities in order to collaborate in expanding and making changes to a “discourse field,” the documentary manifestation of a set of ideas that people want to investigate collaboratively.

The Applied Research in Patacriticism group at UVA has developed Ivanhoe from a set of rules, into a full-blown open-source visual environment.   (It’s also been retro-fitted into comical mock-acronyms.)  I’ve not yet had time to figure out how to incorporate the visual environment in a productive way, but I think that Ivanhoe is beyond awesome.

My students agree: Last semester, 11 Digital Literary Studies students wrote papers arguing that Ivanhoe should be deployed in every literature course in our department.  Students report engaging more closely with literary works than they do when writing a paper, as well as profiting from thinking of interpretation as a game–it takes the pressure off a bit.

This is the simplified version of the game that we play:

First, we have a conversation in class about how we interpret works of literature in papers.  Students list such “interpretative moves” as: discovering historical context, finding out about the author, comparing a work to others in the same genre, identifying formal elements, and “rewriting” the text (“what this really means is  . . . “).

Then, I introduce the idea of the game: Students, working in groups of 3-5 (obviously no magic about those numbers), choose a text, and then take turns making a series of interpretative moves.  To make those moves, the students must take on a different identity, and the range of identities is quite large.  Maybe it’s a character in the text.  Maybe it’s an unseen editor, rewriting the text.  Maybe it’s a figure from real life.  (For example, if Hard Times were your text, maybe one person would be a factory owner, another a Chartist, etc.)  Maybe  you play the role of an actual critic who has published on this topic.  (“Hi, I’m Richard Altick, and I think . . . .”)

Once students have chosen their roles, the only constraint is that it needs to be clear that moves respond in some way to earlier moves–that is, one’s understanding of the text in question should evolve over the course of the game.

The way students set up the game is that they sign up for a free blog somewhere, and set up the permissions such that all members of the group can edit it.  (I usually ask to be set up as an editor, too.)  Students can make the blog readable only by themselves, by classmates, or by everyone.  Normally if they use a critic or other still living person, I ask them to make the blog private, to prevent self-googling issues.

Students make a pre-determined number of moves–say 4–over the course of a week, and then they collaboratively write a one-page paper about what they learned about the text from playing the game.  I also usually designate someone to serve as the coordinator, and encourage that person to keep track of how smoothly the process worked.  Finally, they usually make a brief presentation of their game to the rest of the class.

That’s it!  Some comments:

  • The students, they do seem to enjoy it.  And they’re creative!  I’ve had groups play with short stories, plays, Green Eggs and Ham (re-imagined as a drama about high school drug dealing, shifting naturally from rhyme to prose, etc.).
  • They also work much more naturally with the language of the text than they tend to in papers.
  • Students tend to figure out ways to dramatize subtexts or culturally-relevant motifs when they adapt the text.
  • A weakness: It’s hard to grade helpfully–or, more specifically, it’s hard to promulgate in advance criteria that would be helpful to students.
  • Another weakness: Students are usually more interested in adapting texts than in doing a research-based game.  In  some classes I’ll be incorporating more than one game per semester, and so I might require one to emerge from primary or secondary research.
  • Good news: Students widely report voluntarily re-reading their source text numerous times in order to pick up telling details.  (Which seems to be true.)
  • Students who’ve played it in one class have been evangelizing about it to students encountering it for the first time.  (This isn’t always true with my online assignments.)
  • In the fall, I’m going to be sequencing this: students will play an Ivanhoe game first, and then follow-on with a paper about the same text.  The game would then serve as a formalized brainstorming session.

Anyone else playing Ivanhoe?  Comparable  interpretative games?

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