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IVANHOE: Education in a New Key

Jerome McGann (in collaboration with Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie)


  1. IVANHOE ( is a research and pedagogical project for humanities scholars and students working in a digital age like our own, where books are only one among many cultural sources and objects of critical reflection. It is designed within the framework of the traditional goals of humanities education: to promote rigorous as well as imaginative thinking; to develop habits of thoroughness and flexibility when we investigate our cultural inheritance and try to exploit its sources and resources; and to expose and promote the collaborative dynamics of all humane studies, which by their nature both feed upon and resupply our cultural legacy.

  2. IVANHOE emerged in the spring of 2000 from a conversation between Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker on the subject of literary-critical method, and their shared dissatisfaction with the limitations of received interpretive procedures. They were interested in exploring forms of critical inquiry that moved closer to the provocative freedom of original works of poetry and literature.

  3. McGann suggested that Walter Scott's famous romance fiction Ivanhoe contained within itself many alternative narrative possibilities, and he added that this kind of thing was characteristic of imaginative works in general. Scott's book epitomizes this situation in the many continuations it spawned throughout the nineteenth-century—versions in different genres as well as other kinds of responses, textual, pictorial, musical. For example, when many Victorian readers complained about Scott's decision to marry Ivanhoe to Rowena and not Rebecca, they were clearly responding to one of the book's underdeveloped possibilities. In our own day readers often react to other unresolved tensions in the book—for example, to the complex ways it handles, and mishandles, the subject of anti-Semitism. "Everyone knows that an anti-Semitic strain runs through the novel," he said. "The question is: 'What are you prepared to DO about it?'" Victorians rewrote and reimagined the book. Why are we so hesitant about doing the same thing?

  4. The concept of criticism as "a doing," as action and intervention, is a founding principle of IVANHOE. Traditional interpretation is itself best understood as a set of reflective activities and hence as something that lays itself open to active responses from others. It is not so much that "all interpretation is misinterpretation", as Harold Bloom observed some 25 years ago, as that all interpretation pursues transformations of meaning within a dynamic space of inherited and ongoing acts of interpretation. Interpretation is a dialogical exchange and, ultimately, a continuous set of collaborative activities.

  5. This critical vantage point necessarily resists the traditional assumption about the self-identity of a particular text or cultural work. Various factors and agencies so impinge on the textual condition that the field of textuality, including all the objects we locate in that field, are in a perpetually dynamic state of formation and transformation. This view of textuality implies that any textual object—what in IVANHOE we call "the source text"—has to be encountered within a dynamical "discourse field" (i.e., the extended network of documents, materials, discussions, and evidence within which the work is continually being constituted). Approaching textuality in this way, we concluded that a digital environment would provide IVANHOE with an opportune and useful playspace.

  6. When we began playing IVANHOE these initial premises were a somewhat loosely held set of intuitions. The actual gameplay transformed them into clear and governing ideas. Not surprisingly, it also drove us to rethink the whole process of interpretive method and theory. As a result, we began to see that IVANHOE could be designed and developed as an environment for the study and encouragement of critical practices that would make self-awareness pivotal to the whole enterprise. IVANHOE is what Coleridge might have called "an aid to reflection": a machinery for making explicit the assumptions about critical practice, textual interpretation, and reading that remain unacknowledged, or irregularly explored, in conventional approaches to literary studies.

  7. In IVANHOE, the idea is that interpretation should no longer be imagined as proceeding from a subject grappling with a transparent object. By contrast, IVANHOE discourages players from assuming that there is something to be called, say, "The Poem Itself". Perhaps even more crucially, it routes the acts of an interpreting agent back into the material being studied. Players and their moves are continually returned to the ongoing process of collaborative investigation for further critical reflection, both by the agent herself and by the others players. All players thus move in that Burnsian space where each is repeatedly drawn "to see ourselves as others see us". Based on economies of expenditure, deficit, and gain, with winning conditions and costs, IVANHOE's underlying game model urges the player—the thinker—to a continuing process of measuring and assessing his or her moves in relation to everyone else's. IVANHOE has been dominated from the start by a ludic spirit. This attitude is reflected in the name of the project, IVANHOE, which references a cultural work now rarely taken "seriously," though it was once reigned as perhaps the most popular and seriously influential work of fiction in nineteenth-century Europe and America. We took that avoidance as a sign of a poverty of criticism, which goes broke by following a Gold Standard of value. IVANHOE would encourage, instead, as much circulation and exchange as possible.

  8. From the initial provocation, IVANHOE quickly spun itself into life. Playing with Scott's novel generated new practical design features, the most important of which was the idea that the game would have to be played "in" a role, or en masque, under an explicitly assumed conceit of identity. Players would make their moves only through that role. This device would introduce into IVANHOE another vehicle—in addition to the dialogic form and performative procedures—for encouraging critical self-reflection. We also began to see that a robust environment would only be built if we tested our ideas in as many kinds of gameplay as possible. (Top)

    The Development Schedule

  9. IVANHOE was initially conceived as a general purpose tool for enhancing a person's range and acuity of critical reflection on some given set of cultural material. The first test iterations of its use focused on particular, paper-based literary works Scott's Ivanhoe, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, several stories by Murakami, "The Fall of the House of Usher," The Turn of the Screw, and Blake's The Four Zoas. These sessions were run to test IVANHOE's performative methodology and its logical structure, and to clarify the requirements needed for building IVANHOE as a digital environment.

  10. Played in what was essentially an electronically enhanced paper-space, these iterations were most successful in the ways they exposed the critical and interpretive power of performance-based acts of textual invention. They supplied us with useful information about how to construct an initial IVANHOE design for studying traditional text-based materials. The test runs also suggested two other useful ways in which to explore the tool's design possibilities: first, to deploy IVANHOE as both a pedagogical and a scholarly research tool; second, to launch its functions in a born-digital database of materials. IVANHOE's interpretational capacities were conceived to have wide range and flexibility across every sort of informational material in the humanities and the social sciences

  11. In the past year (2003-2004) the online playspace has been in development and we have run test sessions with Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter", D. G. Rossetti's "The Orchard Pit", Swinburne's "A Criminal Case", and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. These sessions were run to clarify the technical and interface issues and lead us to implementation. The 1.0 IVANHOE was released on 1 December 2004. (Top)

    "What Does a Session of IVANHOE Look Like?"

  12. A group of people, two at a minimum, agree to collaborate in thinking about how to reimagine a particular work, say Ivanhoe. The agreement is that each person will try to reshape the given work so that it is understood or seen in a new way. The reshaping process in IVANHOE is immediate, practical, and performative. That is to say, the interpreters intervene in the textual field and alter the document(s) by adding, reordering, or deleting text. Interpreters are expected to produce a set of interventions that expose meaningful features of the textual field that were inapparent in its original documentary state. Interpreters will also look for ways that their interventions might use or fold in with the interpretive moves of others working in the collaborative session of IVANHOE. An IVANHOE session typically extends for a set period of time—we have found that a week seems a useful timeframe for pedagogical purposes. To this point we have played IVANHOE by focusing on single literary works. Nonetheless, a session of IVANHOE might focus on a set of works that define an interesting cultural phenomenon—the Salem Witch Trials, for example—and in that case the pedagogical event might well run on for a much longer period.

  13. Some analogies may be helpful for understanding what it means to play IVANHOE. Interpreting agents in IVANHOE approach their work much as performers or conductors approach a piece of music, or the way a director approaches a play. Performance fashions an interpretation of the original work, and the result is what Gertrude Stein, in a slightly different sense, called "Composition as Explanation." Performative interpretations of all kinds—translation, for example—have much in common with IVANHOE. Book artists and illustrators work along similar interpretive lines, and we have many cases where authors themselves illustrate or design the embodiments of their own textual works, thereby glossing them with intervening sets of interpretive signs. Some notable figures integrate text and visualization into a composite or double work—in England one thinks immediately of Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll. Or consider how "The Matter of Arthur" or "The Matter of Troy" are conceived and elaborated. A set of legends centering in the Trojan war and in King Arthur multiplies as versions and variants that expose fresh ranges of meaning resting latently in the materials. The interpretive transformations that unfold in a session of IVANHOE seek to exploit a logic of interpretation of that kind.

  14. IVANHOE is not like a "creative writing workshop," however. Its textual transformations get executed in a frame of reference focused on the significance of the changes in relation to the originary textual field and the changes that one's collaborating agents make to that field. The presence of the initial state of the text(s) is always preserved because the point of IVANHOE is to study that field of relations as it provokes or licenses its readers to reimagine its implications and textual possibilities. Interpreters are expected to keep a journal in which their interpretive moves are justified and explained in relation to the originary work and/or the moves made by the other agents.(On IVANHOE and Scholarly Research, see IVANHOE.)

    IVANHOE and Pedagogy

  15. In recent years the scene of humanities instruction grows less like the classroom of the 1930s, when the remarkably successful teaching protocols of the New Criticism were invented. New Critical pedagogy centered in a single textual object—"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," The Symposium, Pride and Prejudice—that would be brought into the classroom for close reading and discussion. That model for a classroom procedure was so effective that it still dominates the way the Humanities classroom is conducted in high schools, colleges, and universities. Indeed, its procedures remain in certain ways foundational to any kind of effective education. But our classrooms now are populated by students for whom the book is only one kind of communication tool. Like ourselves, they live every day in a complex communication network of paper as well as electronic texts, and of texts as well as all sorts of other media, much of it mixed. Because we all bring that world with us into the classroom as (so to speak) the cultural air we breathe, New Critical models of instruction now regularly specialize and restrict both the materials and the arena of that general education the Humanities educator has always so carefully cherished. Because the Humanities have never been about specialization but about the training and education of broadly informed citizens, we are being called to imagine new instructional methods and procedures. IVANHOE is being developed to help answer that call.

  16. Research in the field of education has made a convincing case for the use of games in promoting goal-centered learning. IVANHOE makes use of selective principles of role-playing scenarios—such as requiring players to choose a real or fictional identity and create their interpretation or analysis from that point of view. Likewise, role-playing is an established practice in the constructivist classroom. IVANHOE makes use of some of these features of entertainment and game models to motivate reading, interpretation, and study of documents that are traditionally associated with the Humanities. Most fundamentally, IVANHOE seeks to promote self-conscious critical thinking.

  17. IVANHOE works by encouraging players to work with a designated textual work and its sources, variations, versions, and other materials relevant to the history and production of the text. At a basic level, this will encourage such activity as the comparison of an illustrated version of a classic work to a text-only edition, or a facsimile manuscript to a printed edition. Students will be introduced to the concepts of bibliographical studies and to theoretical issues in textual interpretation without having to first engage with a technical vocabulary. IVANHOE allows them to enact the principles of comparison and critical analysis that are essential to the Humanities and social sciences where informed qualitative judgments are crucial. Collaborative, peer-exchange models of engagement will encourage cooperative development of analytical skills in reading and comprehension and appreciation of individual points of view in writing. IVANHOE promotes curricular dependence on creative, synthetic practices and engagement with primary materials that have traditionally been inaccessible in classrooms.

  18. In a post-secondary context, players will be encouraged to develop library and research skills through the integration of traditional text-based materials and on-line resources for playing the game. A great degree of self-conscious awareness, and a higher level of bibliographical skill will be required. Crucial skills in assessing the validity and credibility of sources and self-conscious awareness of the point of view from which a player makes a critical judgment will be encouraged by the structure of the game. Players will be rewarded to the degree that their critical interpretations have been made explicit within an interactive community of other players through the creation of well-documented commentary on their individual contributions, and critical assessment of other players' work. (Top)


  19. In summary then, IVANHOE can be used in a variety of ways as a competitive, game-like environment, as a collaborative study and research situation, or as a context in which players strive to achieve their own individual goals. In a classroom setting, IVANHOE could encourage students to improve bibliographical and research skills in one round and critical-reading skills in the next. Individual students could decide which of several interpretive skills they wish to improve in a round of play, or they could consult with a teacher to set these goals. For more mature players, various competitive or collaborative situations might be imagined to promote specific types of critical reflection and scholarly research. IVANHOE can be played in a game mode with points, scoring, and competitive interactions. It can also be used for non-competitive collaborative work within a community of scholars or in classroom activities.

  20. It is important to note that although developed from models taken from literary studies, IVANHOE is not subject specific, and can be readily adapted to the questions that are a regular concern throughout the Humanities and social sciences. Rather than operating as a delivery mode of pre-packaged content, it is a tool that can be configured anew by instructors and scholars according to the goals that suit their research or pedagogical circumstances. It is an effective web environment for any field of cultural investigation that is primarily document and text-based, and in which access to electronic archives, collaborative work, and critical interpretation are central concerns. (Top)

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Published @ RC

December 2004