Reviews 2017

Scientific Approaches to Literature in Learning Environments

Scientific Approaches to Literature in Learning Environments. Ed. Michael Burke, Olivia Fialho, and Sonia Zyngier. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2016. xix + 302 pages. £83.00 (hardback).

This collection of 14 articles, published within John Benjamins’ well-established Linguistic Approaches to Literature series, is not primarily about children’s literature, but about the contribution of literature to broader educational endeavours and the reading of literature in communal environments. Most of the chapters focus on school environments, but there are also chapters examining other environments, such as universities, work places, and book groups. The term "scientific approaches" somewhat awkwardly implies that literary analyses which draw on philosophy, the history of ideas or psychology are somehow "unscientific" or of less value. This is a false dichotomy: "scientific approaches" to literature focus on providing empirical findings about flesh-and-blood readers, they are most valuable when combined with more traditionally "literary" forms of analyses. In the foreword to the collection, David Miall forcefully asserts the place of literary values which "will endure, and remain available whatever scientific work with literary texts or their readers we conduct" (viii), even as he identifies a paradigm shift towards the scientific study of literature, which he claims "will generate new proposals and rectify the claims of older insights" (ix). Thus the collection’s unstated aim appears to a critique of problem-formation in literature studies. More specifically, considering when the questions posed are philosophical or when they are empirical.

As the title suggests, the chapters in the collection highlight research methods rather than the findings drawn from them, the idea being to introduce possible lines of enquiry and ways of investigating literature with which the reader is not expected to be familiar. The research methods used in scientific approaches to literature draw heavily on education, sociology and linguistics, all of which are represented in the collection. The recent turn towards neurology, which informs cognitive narratology, is not represented in the collection although a chapter co-authored by Michaela Mahlberg and a founding figure in cognitive narratology, Peter Stockwell, touch on the idea in relation to metaphor interpretation and mind-modelling. Many of the chapters include extended reviews of previous research which highlight the methods used to reach conclusions over the findings themselves.

The collection is divided into three sections which, despite the methodological emphasis of the collection, are arranged according to the topic investigated. The first, "Reading processes in communities of practices," contains three chapters which explore the reading of literature in workplaces, schools and book groups. The second, "Reading processes in EFL/L2 contexts," includes five chapters examining how literature can contribute to various aspects of language education and engagement with the cultures in which the language is spoken. As the title suggests, there is a strong focus on learning English and the learning environments include China, Japan, Malta, and Ukraine. The final five chapters in Part III, "Creative writing, corpus, and empirical stylistics as learning tools," combine a focus on the language of literary texts with educational concerns. The sheer number of chapters correctly indicates that this is a hefty, broad-ranging tome, not all of which is valuable for scholars of children’s literature. For those working within teacher education programmes, however, the collection has much to offer, and I shall highlight these aspects below as I home in on just one chapter per section.

Although literariness, narrativity and fictionality as well as literature’s capacity to promote self-reflexivity have been proffered as reasons for including literature in the curriculum, remarkably little research has been devoted to examining what this means in practice. This is a place where empirical studies could provide teacher education with the tools needed to ensure that these supposed values are, in fact, developed in classroom contexts. In their report on three school projects, Miall and Chard provide a detailed account of how teachers should plan their teaching in order for the students to gain as much autonomy as possible. The brief descriptions of classes highlight the contributions of individuals to the group. As a thorough explanation of the phases involved in planning a literary project, the chapter would be useful in teacher education programmes. As an example of the benefits of a scientific approach to literature, the chapter has nothing to offer as it simply describes classroom events using the terminology established in the first part of the chapter. In short, it does not answer a research question.

The place of literature in language education is rarely challenged: literature has been included in all the major teaching methods from the traditional grammar-translation method, through Krashen’s so-called "Natural Approach" to the communicative methods which are generally favoured today. Many national curriculae insist that literature must be part of foreign language education, but typically specify neither the reasons why literature should be included nor how it should be taught. Moreover, the contexts in which literature is read, more specifically the sharing of literary texts and the collective meaning-making that arises from discussing books, is known to influence individual readers’ interpretations. As teaching, especially at university level, increasingly makes use of the affordances of digital technology to enable students to study irrespective of where they live, and often at a pace they choose themselves, we need to know how the medium and context affect students’ responses to literature. Anna Chesnokova compares students’ responses to an Emily Dickinson poem read in class, through Facebook and via YouTube using a questionnaire showed that the most positive responses appeared in relation to the YouTube clip where a professional actor’s voice in concert with the images appear to be the key features that inspired the differences. In contrast, the musicality of the poem (assessed by a question about the suitability of the poem to serve as song lyrics) was judged more positively by those who read the poem in class. Given the popularity of questionnaires for student research projects, the more valuable aspect of the chapter, in my opinion, is the clarity with which it reveals the strengths and limitations of questionnaires as a research tool.

Corpus linguists have developed far more sophisticated tools for investigating language, tools that have already proven invaluable for assessing the content of L2 teaching materials. By examining large corpora of naturally occurring language in varied genres and contexts, corpus linguistics has enabled us to determine which vocabulary items are most important to teach, how language is used in different contexts and identify language change to mention just three topics. Following the pioneering Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), corpus linguistics has also helped us understand how metaphors function. In their chapter, Mahlberg and Stockwell use tools developed in corpus linguistics to examine how characters in a Charles Dickens’ novel are portrayed. They also suggest ways in which these tools could be adapted for use in classroom settings. The advantage of using corpus linguistics is that it enables students to pinpoint the features of the text that are informing their reactions very precisely. Mahlberg and Stockwell point out that literary texts are not different from general language use in this respect, and the tools they promote should also enable students to become more critical readers who are less easily manipulated by the texts they read.

Overall, this is a diverse array of studies and the structure of the collection does little to help the reader identify points of coherence. That said, the quality of most of the individual essays is very high, and many of them would be useful for those working in between literary studies and educational research. If I were ordering for a library, I would definitely opt for an electronic edition, as individual chapters could well be set as course reading but the book as a whole would be unlikely to be suitable. For researcher, the collection has chosen breadth over depth of knowledge and brings a considerable variety of contexts and methods into dialogue with one another.

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden