Ivanhoe and Imaginative Analysis

When I wasn’t working as a Praxis fellow this year, I taught first-year writing.  In the class, we tackled the course subject—ghost stories—through a variety of topical lenses, looking at horror stories and films, web comics, and ghost hunting TV shows.  Although the course focused on argumentative writing, at the students’ request, I ended up adding a creative component: students could, for extra credit, write and submit their own ghost story.  I assumed the assignment would be simple and fun, allowing students to let off some creative energy at the end of the semester.  What I didn’t realize at first is how helpful these stories would be to students’ engagement with the material.  Most students did not just write ghost stories; they wrote works that responded to a semester’s-worth of texts, drawing on the styles and formats that we had considered during the past few months.  They incorporated the common tropes of ghost stories, nodding at—and poking fun at—the clichés of the genre.  They creatively explored the difference between a ghost story (acknowledged fiction) and a haunted encounter (believed to be true), allowing the conventions of each type of story to dictate the structure.

Although not framed by digital media or the rules of gameplay, the experience couldn’t help but remind me of Ivanhoe.  Here, once again, I saw the importance of creative intervention, allowing students to engage with texts in ways that enable imaginative analysis.  Such an approach, although seemingly outside the realm of argumentative writing, enabled students to synthesize topics and to showcase their understanding of course materials in ways that felt fun and dynamic.  Projects like Ivanhoe—which allow for a sustained creative endeavor and for interactions among multiple students—pointedly foster this type of creative dialogue.  In doing so, Ivanhoe allows for imaginative analysis on a grand scale, inviting students to join in a conversation within, rather than about, a text.  The result, as I discovered, is not just an increased understanding of the material, but also a greater sense of involvement with it. It’s one thing to assess a collection of texts; it’s quite another to feel yourself a part of them.

The experience also reminded me of the close connection between my efforts on the Praxis team and my work as a teacher and a student at the university.  At times during the year, it’s been a challenge for me to see my various roles functioning symbiotically, especially when work on Ivanhoe came into competition with lesson planning or preparing for my oral exams.  It’s fortunate that this end-of-the-semester experience has reminded me of the bond among all of these scholarly pursuits.  My teaching, my research, and my work on Ivanhoe all inform each other, suggesting new ideas and approaches that (like any good Ivanhoe project) make key interventions in my thinking.  Just as my research and teaching framed my ideas for Ivanhoe, so my understanding of Ivanhoe’s values ultimately informed my teaching.  So now, as the semester draws to a close, I can consider with pleasure all the things that I’ve learned as a Praxis fellow, and all the ways that my time here will continue to influence by work in the years ahead.

Eliza is a 2013-2014 Praxis Fellow, a former NINES Fellow, and a Ph.D. student in the Department of English. She specializes in the Victorian novel, with additional interests in children's and young adult literature.

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