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Good Intentions: Taking a Cognitive Approach to Literature and Stories
Post2018.09.17 14:39:15 Read1338

posted: https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/good-intentions-taking-a-cognitive-approach-to-literature-and-stories/

 | What perspective can cognitive science bring to the study of literature? What can science teach us about why we read fiction and what we can learn from it? In this lesson, students consider literary texts through the lens of cognitive science and reflect on the cognitive benefits of the study of literature.

Materials | Times photographs (one per student), copies of handouts, computers and Internet access (optional), copies of literary texts.

Warm-Up | Before students arrive, choose and print out several New York Times photographs that depict at least three people, so students can consider multiple perspectives. You may wish to select photos that are related to a theme or subject under consideration in your course, or those from current news coverage. The Lens blogand the Multimedia/Photo archive offer treasure troves of photos useful for this exercise. You might try the reader-submitted Lens blog photos of families (here and here).

Give each student one photo along with the Saying What’s Unsaid(PDF) handout. Then ask students, working independently or in pairs, to create thought bubbles indicating what they imagine the people in the photograph are thinking. If they need further prompting, tell them to consider the context and setting along with each person’s apparent thoughts, feelings, motivations and intentions, along with the people’s relationships to one another. They should look at facial expression, body language and other cues to try to make such interpretations.

When students are finished, have them pair and share, and invite volunteers to share their completed sheets with the class. Then debrief by asking the following questions: Was this difficult? How is this activity similar to everyday life? How is it similar to how you read literature? What kinds of information do you have to keep track of as you read? What kinds of information do the characters themselves have to keep track of?

Related | In “Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know” Patricia Cohen discusses a growing area of new research in which cognitive science is brought to bear on literature. Here, she looks at the application of the science of the mind to Jane Austen, and quotes Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky:

Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma,” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma. She similarly misinterprets the behavior of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, and misses the true objects of their affections.

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

Read the article with your class, using the questions below.

Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:

  1. What does the quoted dialogue from “Friends” illustrate?
  2. How is the “cross pollination” of English and the cognitive sciences revitalizing the humanities?
  3. How is getting to the root of people’s fascination with fiction and fantasy like “mapping wonderland”?
  4. What is the theory of mind? How does it apply to literary studies?
  5. In what way can literature provide new perspectives on science?

Activity | Share with students the excerpt from “Literary Criticism: A Cognitive Approach” in which Herbert Simon explains the common ground between cognitive science and literary criticism: “Literary criticism concerns (among other things) the meanings of, in, and evoked by literary texts. Cognitive science concerns thinking, by people and computers, and extracting or evoking meanings while reading and writing requires thinking. Hence, there is a wide expanse of ground common to literary criticism and cognitive science.”

Tell students that they will dwell in this common ground by taking a cognitive approach to a literary text. Project or distribute a passage containing multiple perspectives from the text of your choice (see below). “Think aloud” as you read the excerpt to your students, talking through what you are thinking as you read. Ask students to comment on both the meaning you drew from the text and your thought process along the way.

Then assign students working in pairs or small groups to consider a complex passage — one in which they have to do sophisticated mental work to unlock understandings about motivation, characters, narration, theme or plot. Tell them they must track not only what mental work they need to do to make meaning, but also the mental work the characters need to do. Ask them to consider character motivation, intentionality and psychology.

To do this, groups might work together to create a dialogic journal entry in which they record what the characters are aware of, thinking about and feeling on the left side of a page and what they themselves are keeping track of – including what characters do not yet know or have misunderstood – on the right side. Alternatively, they might put quotations from the text on the left and corresponding characters’ thoughts, feelings, interpretations, reactions, plans, etc. on the right side.

For the text, you might direct students to a section of the work currently under consideration in the course. (For example, in addition to the texts mentioned in the article, another novel that lends itself to this activity is the Plaza Hotel scene in “The Great Gatsby.”) Or you might use this approach to introduce a new novel and go over its opening paragraphs – or to study an entire short story.

Here is a model of how to lead students in tracking various characters’ thoughts and motives using John Updike’s story “A & P.”

Before distributing the story, read only the first line aloud, and ask students who they think is speaking. When students respond, ask them how they know and talk about whose head they are inside.

Then give out the story, and continue to read aloud as students follow along. Pause periodically, drawing students’ attention to when and how Updike inserts multiple perspectives. Questions to ask include the following:

  • What is Sammy noticing? How is he responding to what he sees and hears?
  • How does he see and interpret Queenie? How does he see and interpret Stokesie and Lengel? The other shoppers?
  • Do we as readers have the same exact interpretations as Sammy? How does Updike enable us to have a different perspective even as we understand Sammy’s?
  • How do we see the girls? Lengel? Sammy himself?
  • What is the effect of the use of first person here? How do we get different perspectives despite the first-person voice?
  • How do we keep track of the multiple perspectives? How does working to keep track of the characters’ thoughts and feelings help you arrive at understandings?
  • How would our experience of the story be different if it were told from a different perspective or as third-person omniscient?

To showcase their learning, explain to students that they will prepare a hypertext-annotated version of their passage that provides a commentary that follows their thought processes as they read and make sense of multiple perspectives, motivations and intentions. Essentially, they will “think aloud” electronically. (You might have all groups tackle the same text, like a story or chapter, or you might have different groups take on a small excerpt, so the entire text is covered.)

The hypertext document will include the original text with links to student annotations. Students considering the Updike story, for example, would hyperlink any word or phrase in the e-text that brings to mind something about character, point-of-view, motivation or intentions to an explanatory annotation.

Students without access to technology can create written webs around annotated pieces of text.

E-texts of works commonly taught in ELA classrooms can be found in a variety of places on the Web, like Bartleby.comProject Gutenberg or Bibliomania. You might also check About.com’s list of literary e-texts.

Here are some ideas for applying this technique to particular kinds of works:

Works Written in Free Indirect Style

The article defines free indirect style as mingling “the character’s voice with the narrator’s. Indirect style enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time.” Authors known for using this technique include Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and many modern and contemporary writers.

When reading a work such as this, you might have students map the points of view in one or more complex passages, perhaps assigning each student in a group to choose and map one perspective. Each group’s final product would creatively represent these perspectives to reveal the complexity of the author’s work. For example, they might create comic strips with speech bubbles representing individual characters’ thoughts or videos or live performances showing how the same scene is experienced by different characters. Or, they could write journal entries in the voices of characters to reveal their thoughts and intentionality.

Works With Unreliable Narrators

Students find passages in which they learn that the narrator is unreliable and explain how they came to that conclusion, based on what’s in the text. Ask: At what point in the text do you start to understand that the point of view isn’t reliable? What do you then do with that information as a reader? How does this information affect your thought processes as a reader? How can you effectively distance yourself as a reader from the narrator?

Works With Secrets

In studying a work centered on a secret and a revelation, like “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “The Catcher in the Rye,” you might take a page from our colleague Katherine Schulten and hold an informal contest in which students compete to pinpoint the moment in the text when they experience a revelation – for example, that Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s baby. This engages students, Ms. Schulten says, because the information is delivered indirectly and depends on understanding character. Have students focus on passages where they are clued into the secret and explain how they come to understand what’s going on.

Works With Complicated Family Relationships

The recent Times Book Review essay “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Literature” examines the roles of parents (absentee and otherwise) in work of literature written for children and teens. Use the cognitive lens to gain insight into the family dynamics at work in a particular piece of young adult literature. Ask students to choose a scene and imagine it from multiple points of view. Have them then apply this kind of thinking to their families and write about how family dynamics influence how an event is experienced in different ways by different members of the same family.

Ask students to upload their passage as an HTML document into a publishing tool like Dreamweaver or a Wikispace. Hyperlinked documents can also be created in Word, Google Docs or PowerPoint. They can share them through e-mail or you could upload them to a classroom Web site.

When they are finished, have the groups present their work, and then debrief the experience. Ask: What did you learn about your own thinking from this reading experience? What did you learn about thinking from closely considering the characters’ thought processes?

After completing these activities, ask students to reflect on their thinking in writing. Ask: How did looking at literature in this way differ from how you ordinarily read? How did you reach new understandings of the text? What did you learn about yourselves as readers and thinkers? What do you think of taking a cognitive approach to literature? What is gained? What is lost? What does looking at how cognitive science and literature intersect tell us about the value of literary study in general?

Going Further | Students watch a favorite television show or film and take notes about how their brains work to analyzerelationships, character motivations, character psychology, intentionality, etc. as they watch.

Explain that this exercise demonstrates that we think in these ways all the time, not just in English class. Encourage students to watch comedies and satires, or thriller and mysteries, as a large part of these genres depends on dramatic irony and on characters knowing things that other characters do not. Students can discuss how the show or film relies on the audience’s cognition to do its work.

Finally, invite students to share moments (in their lives, from a television or movie, or from other reading) they thought more about because of the cognitive work they did in class. What did they notice when they were aware of the mental work they were doing? What was the value in this approach? What is the value of studying literary criticism in general?

Alternatively, use “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Literature”to encourage students to reflect on themselves as readers and on the value of literature in their lives. Have students identify a book that has been influential in their lives and then reflect on the following questions: What did this book teach you about human behavior? What did the author do to establish characters that you cared about? What underlying mental processes were activated when you read this book? How does this reading experience shed light on why humans read and need fiction?

Standards | From McREL, for grades 6 to 12:

Behavioral Studies
1. Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity, and behavior.
3. Understands that interactions among learning, inheritance, and physical development affect human behavior.

Language Arts
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
6. Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies for reading a variety of literary texts.
7. Uses the general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts.
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Life Skills: Working With Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group.
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills.

3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual.