Monday, January 26, 2015

Research Bulletin: Gender and Reading

The issue of gender and reading continues to be of interest for OnFiction so that, for instance, a few weeks ago (click here) we commented on the study in which Marisa Bortolussi and colleagues (2010) found that both women and men preferred male protagonists. Is this result due to congruence with the stereotype in Western industrial society that men are the ones who do things out there in the world? Maybe it’s different in Russia where I have heard it said that the women do everything, and the men do everything else.

The gender differences of one of the first studies in our group in Toronto surprised us. The study was a central part of Angela Biason’s PhD thesis (1993), and it was reported in Oatley (1996). We asked 59 high-school students to read one of two short stories about adolescent identity. One was “Red Dress” by Alice Munro. It had a female protagonist. The other was “Sucker” by Carson McCullers. It had a male protagonist. We adapted the method of Larson and Seilman (1988) and asked the participants, as they read, to mark an M in the margin if they experienced a memory coming to mind, and to mark an E in the margin if they experienced an emotion. We counted up the Ms and Es for each story. The 12 girls who read “Red Dress” experienced a mean of 6.67 emotions as they were reading, and the 13 girls who read “Sucker” experienced 6.77 emotions (overall mean 6.72). By contrast, the 17 boys who read “Red Dress” experienced a mean of 2.88 emotions, and the 17 who read “Sucker” experienced 4.88 emotions (overall mean 3.88). (The overall means were significantly different as a function of gender at p < 0.02.)
We interpreted our results as meaning that high-school girls were much more involved than boys in these stories as they read them, and that the girls were equally able to experience emotions in themselves with both female and male protagonists. The high-school girls were willing to make a leap into another mind, they were equally able to identify with a female or male protagonist. By contrast, the boys were, overall, not only less willing to identify with the protagonist about whom they were reading, but they were particularly unwilling to make a leap into the mind of the female protagonist of “Red Dress.” We also asked both the girls and the boys to write a summary of the story, and we had these marked by their English teachers. There was no significant gender difference between the sets of marks, nor was there any significant difference between the expected marks of the girls and boys in English literature. The curriculum for the classes whose members we studied was typical for high school English literature: being able to give details of stories, and understand their themes. It puzzled us that these abilities were independent of girls' and boys' willingness to involve themselves in the stories they read.

What does this mean? One conclusion is that although high-school girls and boys were equally able to do as they were asked by their teachers of literature, the girls were more able to become involved with, and hence to take an interest in, stories in which the content was interpersonal, and had to do with understanding the self and others. As we reported in December 2013 (click here) the US National Endowment for the Arts found in their 2009 survey, based on 18,000 telephone interviews, that 58 % of women but only 42% of men had, in the previous year, read a novel a short story, a piece of poetry, or a play.

Biason, A. (1993). Emotional responses of high-school students to short stories. PhD, University of Toronto.  

Bortolussi, M., Dixon, P., & Sopčák, P. (2010). Gender and reading. Poetics, 38, 299-318.

Larsen, S. F., & Seilman, U. (1988). Personal remindings while reading literature. Text, 8, 411-429.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy (No. 46). Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Oatley, K. (1996). Inference in narrative and science. In D. R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), Modes of thought (pp. 123-140). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Image: Book cover of Alice Munro’s first collection of short stories, which includes “Red Dress.” 
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Friday, January 23, 2015

The Pleasures of Rereading and Where They Come From

Why do people reread novels? Why do they listen over and over to pieces of music they’ve already heard? A worn and dog-eared copy of a repair manual, or a recipe book, or a dictionary, or a dense philosophical text makes sense, but somehow that of a novel less so. Young children will listen to the same favorite story read to them many times in a row, and request the same story at the next opportunity, while a stack of other books stands unread nearby. Why would humans waste their time rereading an account of fictional lives in fictional worlds? Why would they bother listening to music that they know so well they can whistle it?

Two of my favorite thinkers have discussed these phenomena, and I was surprised to find on closer inspection that their arguments are interestingly similar. C. S. Lewis, early twentieth century author of the Chronicles of Narnia series and Christian apologist, said that it is very difficult to know whether a story is affecting another reader’s “deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions”. One way to test which the other reader experiences is to learn whether she “often rereads the same story”. Rereading is a sign of interest and attention to something other than the plot and its sequences of suspense, climax, suspense, climax: “Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff….It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia” (Lewis, p. 16).

But why should attending to the “surprisingness” (p. 16) be any more valuable than attending to each surprise-event as it occurs in the story? Lewis enlarges the perimeter of the concept, though, and says that it’s not just surprisingness that we value – it’s theme. Themes likes “giantness,” “otherness,” “the desolation of space,” “home-coming,” “reunion with a beloved”, among others, attract us deeply. “All that happens [in a story] may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted?” (p. 18) Rereading is an iterative attempt to find ourselves enveloped within the theme, almost in spite of the plot. Lewis then proposes that that tension between these two story elements is precisely that which makes story and real life so much alike: “We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never embodied” (p. 18). We want to experience something larger and more comprehensive, more coherent than the ostensibly stochastic plot events as they are unfolding.  So we go back again and again to the events to attend the birth and development of theme and to feel ourselves a part of it.

In a chapter entitled “Musical Parsing and Musical Affect,” the generative and cognitive linguist Ray Jackendoff (1992) argues against the idea that affect in music is largely determined by the music’s novelty for the listener. He notes, “musical affect is produced not just by hearing (and predicting) the musical surface of a piece, but by the activity of deriving in real time all the details of abstract musical structure. The musical structure has intrinsic points of instability or tension, which require resolution and therefore result in affect” (p. 153).  Jackendoff posits a “musical parser” that is “informationally encapsulated from musical memory” and that continues to parse independent of the listener’s conscious knowledge of, in Jackendoff’s example, a “deceptive cadence” that is about to be heard. Despite the fact that the listener is likely not unduly surprised by the cadence, having heard it before, nevertheless the listener can still experience genuine emotions elicited by the piece because of this encapsulation. Jackendoff argues that if we think in terms of the listener’s “conscious expectations” or if we take the view that there is a free exchange between the cognitive faculty that “constructs abstract structures that analyze the musical surface” (p. 155) and musical memory, then neither fresh affect nor heightened affect can occur. In his view, affect originates in part through in the structure of the musical phrase itself and in the parser’s ongoing identification of the “most salient structure” (p. 154) to be pursued in light of the instability inherent in every “analysis of the musical surface”. And this, independent of conscious memory.

Now, one must be careful not to approach the two views reductively. These thinkers occupy different temporal cohorts, different fields of inquiry, and different areas of creative media. Nevertheless, both are analysts of an artistic pursuit that they understand deeply. Lewis wrote dozens of novels and stories, and Jackendoff has worked closely with the composer and music theorist Fred Lerdahl in developing their theory of musical reception and production, based on the Chomskyan paradigm of generative linguistics. I am struck by the similarities in Lewis’ and Jackendoff’s views of how affect, and not uncommonly extraordinary affect, can arise in spite of great familiarity with a piece, whether of fiction or music. Lewis’ plot events would seem to align with Jackendoff’s musical phrases, as they both have accepted ways of building and resolving, and accepted deviances thereon. Both elements are numerous and temporally intertwined. Both have accepted discrete boundaries at which points the soul or parser detects and discards implausible assessments of the elements.

More interesting, though, is both thinkers’ strong insistence on the lack of communication or articulation between the theme/memory entities and the plot experiencer/musical parser. If Lewis had been a cognitive psychologist, he might have said that the plot components are processed in a massively parallel fashion and the theme is fashioned in a heavily constructivist sort of way from the results of that processing. Jackendoff, as an author of children’s fantasy fiction, might have asked can a series of musical phrase analyses “quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted” (Lewis, p. 18). Indeed, this informational encapsulation would seem to be a crucial part of the pleasure-in-rereading conundrum. What we want in reading a cherished, dog-eared book with which we are in some sense in love, is to get back to the way we felt when we were entertaining that book’s big ideas at the most abstract levels of analysis that the soul/ parser can experience. We don’t need to remember what exactly we were thinking or feeling during each analysis. We need, at most, the desire to set the parser to work again, “trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive” (Lewis, p. 18).

Jackendoff, R. (1992). Languages of the mind: Essays on mental representation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Lewis, C. S., (1966). Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Edited with preface by Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

By Dr. Rebecca Wells-Jopling.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Quick Hit: British Library Book Requests

This video the British Library released showing book requests by users over a 10 minute period is strangely compelling. Watching books enter and leave the system allows you to imagine the people who might be reading these books. 
(Click on the bottom right-hand side to make it full-screen.)

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Monday, January 12, 2015

What happens when sense of place is traumatized?

In my recent reflection on the value of developing competence translating practices between places as a way to explore the meaning of everyday life, I was focusing on minor challenges and assuming relatively supportive environments. Food needs to be found and prepared; clothing and linens need laundering; basic requirements of well being need to be met under different circumstances and using diverse tools. Between then and now, however, I have spent my time navigating the wrecked parts of the city of Christchurch—a place that has been shaken by recurring earthquakes, and whose urban fabric is now under an extended regime of flux and uncertainty.

Although the disaster has obviously been traumatic (and continues to be for the many people still homeless for now nearing four years), in contrast to many places made vulnerable to crisis events through uneven development, Christchurch has ample resources to rebuild--in fact, some argue that the thoroughness with which The Rebuild is proceeding is exacerbating the trauma of place. This study trip to a highly storied landscape has made me more actively aware of the way that we experience places by telling ourselves "now this is here," and "now I will see (or smell, or feel, or experience) that..." 

This way we are conscious of places through our narration of our experience of them to ourselves is highlighted starkly when everything changes. The obvious version of this is seen above when the view from Latimer Square does not have any of the familiar buildings, but rather piles of rubble. A slightly more subtle warp in the sense of how the place is put together might be illustrated by the way that tall building down Gloucester Street is now visible with nothing intervening. 

Two new experiences, however, moved beyond what I was expecting. I knew how many buildings had been damaged, and even though I was surprised by the extent of the demolition still underway, I understood that the central city and a large percentage of housing along the worst vectors of the earthquakes' effects were being removed or rebuilt to new specifications. I may have been shaken by the loss of beloved places (the Piko grocery co-op) or the unexpected collateral gentrification (the loss of the house where I lived)--things that demanded closure or revision of my narrative of the place. But the view of curtains blowing out of broken windows of an office building in the downtown--four years after the closure of the building, fluttering like iconic footage of Cabrini Green--seemed to simultaneously invoke the need for the story of this place (what was it? why is it still standing, but with broken windows, but with curtains??) while it also shut down my ability to make sense of the urban fabric around it. Stunned would be an exaggeration. But struck enough that I have no good photographs of it, and although it has that quality of feeling burned into memory, I cannot find it on my systematic striding around google streetview now. It was somewhere around here:
 But this kind of disorientation seems almost romantic as I navigate the pastiche palimpsest that is the google record of the place. With thanks to google maps for these images, I recommend spending some time navigating around Christchurch, noticing what kind of story you try to make for yourself to make sense of what you are seeing there. So much of the base imagery is from before everything fell apart, so trying to find a ruin, one is suddenly placed back into the familiar comfort of knowing where one is--placed. But a step around a corner, and we're in gritty rebuild.  

Or, even more strangely, we take a step forward toward that skeleton of a building, and it has become fully realized, as below. I was mesmerized, but also horrified when this happened. Had I stepped into one of the elusive Google Map "easter eggs"? I was certain it was an architectural rendering. But then, "stepping back" to try to see if I could get out of this strange fantasy of a new place (keeping in mind that my experience of it has been much more the wreckers above), I had to turn around to New Regents Street, a cheerfully unaffected seeming retail strip so surreal it sets some new bar for what might be normal in this place (below).
Seriously not knowing what to make of this, wandering around the electronic version as I have walked and driven around the place all week, I am driven back to Doreen Massey's classic work on the need to remain progressive in our senses of place. If we understand places as processes, rather than remain conservatively and defensively attached to their concrete manifestations, we are much more likely to create equitable and inclusive senses of place, she argues convincingly. 

As I consider what it must take to hold together a sense of place between the stressful pressures of an unstable ground and the embodiment of the financialized vision of what functions cities perform (insurance companies, banks, tax potential, and property investment are the messages billboarded loudly around the city right now), I find myself grasping for the stories that people are telling themselves and each other about what has happened and how to make sense of this place. This palpable sense of how many ways one can be lost in space reminds emphatically how social space is, and how much muttering to myself "turn right here" relies on so many more relationships embedded in the space.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Some Questions about Fiction-Reading, Occasioned by Wilkinson & Pickett's Equality Theory

According to social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, economic inequality is at the root of many health and social problems in modern fully-fledged democracies. General distrust of others, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, reduced life expectancy, high infant mortality, obesity, impaired educational performance, teenage pregnancy, homicides, high rates of imprisonment, and reduced social mobility, they conclude, come about in large part due to social dominance structures fostered by economic inequality, and not due to a low average income across a given population as one prominent counter-explanation proposes. In countries such as Japan and Sweden, for example, the wealthiest top 20% of the population is no more than 4 times as wealthy as the bottom 20% (p. 15). However, in countries such as Portugal, Singapore, the UK and the USA, the most wealthy 20% are 7-9 times richer than the bottom 20%. The authors show time and time again that the inhabitants of Japan and Sweden suffer much less from almost every societal ill than do more economically unequal countries. The authors claim, “What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society” (p. 25).

Inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that great discrepancies in material living standards inhibit interpersonal empathy, the authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2010) present a social-psychological explanation: if there are major income and social capital differences between persons, there will be those of low social status, those of high social status, and a range in between. The hierarchy creates anxiety among both low and high status individuals: there’s always the threat of arbitrary bullying of the low status members by those of high status and always the threat of retaliation and rebellion by the low status members toward  the high status members. The arrangement prevents interpersonal trust from developing, which in turn prevents cooperation. Relationships deteriorate because there is always the social status elephant in the room, a room in which inclusiveness and empathy have no place.

While reading this book, which is impressive in the number of empirical studies cited in support of the correlative and in some cases causal connections between inequality and social degeneration, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to examine fiction reading in the jurisdictions that Wilkinson and Pickett discuss. Are there reliable correlations between fiction-reading practices and levels of equality in a nation or state? Does the race toward dominance prevent attention to or time for such reading? Does more equality among inhabitants correlate with particular kinds of immersive engagement or disengagement with novels and short stories? Is more fiction published in jurisdictions in which inhabitants are more economically equal? Is the quality of the fiction produced by writers in more equal jurisdictions better? Do public schools in more equal societies invest more time in having students read and write fiction? Do members of more equal societies talk about the fiction they have read, participate more in book clubs, or tend more often to cite literary characters in their conversations? The list could go on, and I welcome readers' contributions to it. Answers to these questions would contribute in an important way, I believe, to research on economic inequality and its correlates.

Wilkinson, Richard & Pickett, Kate. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Narrating place practices

Or, Things I really like about Aotearoa New Zealand

Now, those of you who know me are going to try to say that this is just me soap-boxing for energy efficiency. But those of you who know my family may recall that my mother has spent the majority of my lifetime lobbying for nice clotheslines. (I am happy to report, before I continue with the story of this particular clothesline, that my mother now has a very smart fold-out clothesline with a lovely view of its own.*) While it is true that this clothesline, the technology upon which I am currently drying my laundry and airing my bedding, has perhaps the best view of any clothesline I have ever seen,** what got me thinking about practices in place, or specifically place-based practices, was the way that the clothesline was introduced to me.

When we first set up house earlier this month for our writing and research sojourn here in Dunedin, our host warily explained, with fond gestures toward the line, that although they do
have a clothes dryer, they don’t really use it. When we replied that we, also, had a clothes dryer but preferred to dry out clothes outside (although this sometimes means contending with frozen clothes in the winter), she seemed visibly relieved, and truncated what was clearly meant to be the foundation for a polite but thorough suggestion about the different ways of doing things here (i.e. more efficiently, with more reliance on a wee bit of effort, and less concession to convenience)—an explanation evidently set up against the expectation that we would be unfamiliar with how to do things in the sensible and orderly way.

If this was just a one-off thing, I might not have thought about it from a narrative perspective. But I have been met repeatedly with surprise that am able to carry out everyday skills with basic competence. Clearly, narratives attached to Americans, and perhaps also to academics, suggest we live high-consumption, low-skill lives, perhaps because we are not expected to be good with the physical world. (Our all-day writing also prompts some comments about real work.) But being able to balk these narratives opens up the possibility of being able to view much more explicitly some of the dangerous costs of delegitimazing certain kinds of practices we label as

In addition to the most crucial dynamic of being responsible for the work we rely on, rather than putting this labor into the hands of people we are not willing to pay well to do work we don’t want to have to think about, being able to engage with a range of everyday technologies in different places provides access to a realm of meaning making that is easily habituated into invisibility in our home environments. Without romanticizing (tasks such as clotheswashing ARE much easier when mechanized, and this is part of the promise of geographic and gender equity modernity has not delivered), I recognize that when I am able to wash and dry and mend my clothes, or procure and prepare food in different kinds of ways with different tools, I must tell myself more thorough stories about what I am doing, and how, and why. And having gained access to this story layer behind the veil of automaticity, I can take home this relationship with the practices that get me through my day, and my more richly experienced stories of them.

* And the beehives are moving down the generations to me and my brother, in part as a concession to their yellow-spotting interference with laundry hanging.

** You are here looking across Andersons Bay and the Musselburgh Rise toward the downtown and suburbs of Dunedin

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