Invoking the “Spirit of Rip Van Winkle,” Awakening to Research Opportunities

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March 20, 2019

Last week, my Spring Break, I thought about posting a Wednesday blog, but then the “spirit of Rip Van Winkle” came over me. I got a little lazy, wanting to relax more than write, so I rationalized how even Washington Irving would want a respite if he had been offered a Spring Break back in the 1800s.

At the very least, Washington Irving would have traveled over Spring Break, carrying a sketch pad to scribble ideas for future books, but I’m pretty sure he would have resisted blogging, too.

So I’m back to posting on Washington Irving Wednesdays, after taking off last week.

This morning, the character Rip Van Winkle and his sketch are still on my mind. I’m thinking about ways we could research children’s versions of the story, perhaps gathering useful data on “Rip Van Winkle.”

Over the years, I’ve thought about conducting a project where undergraduate students and I would read “Rip Van Winkle” to children in schools and libraries, to get feedback on the tale. But I’ve never jumped into this arena. Baylor even runs a childcare center, perhaps a good place to conduct such a study. But again, I’ve been lazy about getting into this business.

Several years ago, I maneuvered my way onto a Children’s Literature panel at a national conference to talk about “Rip Van Winkle.” Audience members tore apart my research! Basically, I was applying the wrong scholars. These experts were correct, since I’m an Early Americanist/Irving scholar, but I felt like I was being scolded in the principal’s office.

We scholars often do this sort of thing: dabble in areas outside our comfort zones. I’ve been involved in panels on Muslim Studies because of Irving’s writings on Islam. I’m not an Islamicist, but these experts always make me feel very welcomed. And I could go on and on, as most scholars could, about giving talks on areas outside our fields of study. They typically go very well.

I’m laughing out loud to myself thinking about this Children’s Literature episode, but I need to get over this odd, rare exception to friendly circles of scholars, and reconsider Children’s Literature as an avenue of study.

Yesterday, a former student awakened my thoughts on Rip Van Winkle. This student, who took one of my classes in the fall, sent me a questionnaire about undergraduate research grants. She needs answers for a project she’s working on for a professional writing class. Evidently, she wants professors to request more grant money for undergraduate research.

Typically, an undergrad will do research under my guidance if the student is working on an Honors College thesis, a smaller version of a master’s thesis. These students approach me because they’ve taken me for a class and our research interests intersect. But that’s about it.

I have memories of undergrad professors using we students to help them work on their books, and I don’t want to manipulate my students in that way. However, I should be more open to setting up win-win situations, where their research benefits them and compliments what I’m studying and/or teaching.

December 2017, I could have used some undergraduate research funds when a senior English major and I traveled to Yosemite National Park to attend the Bracebridge Dinner. She’s now headed to grad school pursuing Medieval Literature. Our interests collided because she wanted to witness a madrigal dinner, and I wanted to see the Irving-inspired extravaganza. In one of my junior-level classes, she had also worked on an extensive research project regarding Irving’s Christmas stories, inspired by medieval tradition.

Sadly, the deadlines for grant money didn’t align with our time frame. If I had applied for grant money when we realized we needed money, the student would have graduated by the time we received the grant. And that’s my general spin on grant money with undergrads. I’m not working with the same students every semester, so plotting research projects with them would require extraordinary measures. And like I said, I’m lazy too often to muster up such energy.

I’m wondering, though, if someone were teaching in a smaller high school or university setting where they see the same students often, if research projects could be managed efficiently, making grant money an easier grab. I’m thinking about a small school district near me where all students are housed in one building. Surely, a small school district like that would be excited about studying some “Rip Van Winkle” and getting funding to do so.

But I also wonder if small districts have greater needs than learning about Washington Irving; grant money might be needed for higher priority requests. If so, then bringing in a team from the university would be a better approach, if we can get funding from our end.

I haven’t forgotten about “The Devil and Tom Walker” and ways we might teach this story. Thoughts about “Rip Van Winkle” and research have me thinking about the Walkers, too. What data might be useful when studying the miserly couple?

Washington Irving studies, like most areas of literary research, needs digital archiving. Master’s students tend to take on these very important tasks. Nevertheless, I should be thinking about smaller digital projects for undergrads.

Thanks to my former student for reminding me of undergraduate research efforts. We will do better!

Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays (unless it’s Spring Break!), and I also update the WIS page on Wednesd

Published in: on March 20, 2019 at 5:44 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Tracy, your idea of exploring children’s versions of “Rip van Winkle” dovetails nicely with my mention to Mary Higbie that the Irving Heritage Society might develop a program around that story. The reception to my children’s program on “The Spectre Bridegroom” suggests there might be some interest. The version of the story with illustrations by Will Moses is one adaptation of “Rip” for children that could be used. And there’s also the 1903 silent film version with Joseph Jefferson, which I just learned was filmed at Buzzard’s Bay, MA, not far from where I live on Cape Cod! See
    I also see in the Wikipedia entry for Jefferson that his home on Jefferson Island in Louisiana includes extensive Rip van Winkle Gardens and Rip’s Rookery. There’s an excellent 10-minute video about Jefferson Island on YouTube at
    Is there another Irving-related pilgrimage in your future?


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