Still MOOCing: CogPo (FutureLearn)

How to Read… A Mind
Offered by University of Nottingham, UK via FutureLearn
Instructor: Dr. Peter Stockwell
How can it be that sometimes we are drawn into the world of the fiction almost as if it’s real? How can we be so immersed in that imaginary world that we can be emotionally affected by what goes on in there?… Simply, [Cognitive Poetics] is a discipline that draws on linguistics and cognitive science to provide explanations for literary reading. The beauty of cognitive poetics is that it addresses questions that are interesting and familiar to all readers, not just professional academics, literary critics and theorists. And it is based on some simple principles so that the journey from introduction to complex understanding is actually very short.

I skipped over the FutureLearn listing of this course several times, a bit put off by the title (and, shallow as it seems, the image); I’d assumed it was some kind of pop psychology thing, maybe body language, or interpersonal communication. Then I saw some fellow students in Corpus Linguistics mention it as a study of literary reading; the mind being referred to was, in fact, the mind of a character. That grabbed me, and in spite of having already overcommitted myself to MOOCs for Spring 2014, I signed up – surely I can squeeze in another three hours a week, for only two weeks, right? Which is how I got so overcommitted in the first place… and I seem to lack the “auditing gene”.

The content was indeed fascinating. I’d never heard of the field of cognitive poetics (CogPo, not to be confused with ModPo – so many Po’s, so little time). That’ll teach me to make snap judgments based on quick glances at five words and a picture.

Week 1 introduced us to the Theory of Mind from cognitive science: the process by which we, as very young children, develop the ability to see past our own minds, and figure out that other people have different needs, wants, and motivations – different mental states – than we do. We begin to interpret those mental states – to read minds – from both assumptions about how we might react to a situation, and from behaviors we see. This extends into the literary domain as we become readers, and see fictional characters as having mental states, as well. How many times have you been surprised by a character’s actions, revised your opinion of him, as the plot progressed? Have you ever thought, “Oh, this is wrong, she would never do this!” or been disappointed that she didn’t take an opportunity, or felt a wish that you could communicate with her, tell her what you as the reader know, either through personal experience or through narrative technique? Cognitive poetics looks to implications of the Theory of Mind to explore that.

In Week 2, we looked at a series of questions – what does it look like to read? What is the interplay between text, and our own experience? Does a character take on a life of her own, seem to go on after the last page? (This quality of portability seems related to what I’ve been clumsily calling “projecting into the future”, a quality of a very good story.) We discussed a particular character we considered portable – I chose Gregor Samsa – and speculated about what made him so real to us (for me, the arc of interaction with his sister). This also came up during a talk writer Rebecca Makkai gave about her wonderful book The Borrower; readers expressed concern about Ian, and wanted to know how he “turned out” (Makkai indicated she might put a line about him in a future work, but it would have to be after an appropriate time interval since he’s 11 years old in the present of the book). We talked about resistance to a character; I used David Lurie from Coetzee’s Disgrace as my own example.

I had several solid, if necessarily short, conversations with other students about some of these ideas, particularly about the notion that our physical environment affects how we read. I was reminded of my Zoetrope buddy Richard Osgood’s collection of reading chairs, a different chair with a different view for different authors. As cool as his idea seemed to me at the time, I never realized it had a basis in cognitive science!

I found that Week 1 was a bit too front-loaded for my taste, kicking off with a highly academic article on Theory of Mind; this diminished my enjoyment, as it seemed like a “here’s an article, read it” approach to teaching. I’ll admit, it’s quite possible my own heavy workload at the time added to that. Had the course been longer than two weeks, I probably would’ve dropped it at that point. I’m very glad I didn’t; a fellow student provided a link to a more general-readership article on the topic, which made the academic article far more readable. Week 2 was completely delightful, and well worth sticking around for; I’d recommend the course to anyone with an interest in a cognitive view of the act of reading fiction.

This course was the first in a series of “How to Read…” courses forthcoming from the linguistics people at the University of Nottingham in the UK. The next one scheduled at this point is How to Read Your Boss, an application of linguistic techniques to business communication. I think I’ll pass on that, but I’m interested to see what else they come up with in the future.

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