Stylistics MOOC: How something is written can matter as much as what is written

Course: Stylistics: Using Linguistics to Explore Texts and Meaning
Length: 4 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
School/platform: FutureLearn/ University of Huddersfield (UK)
Instructor: Dan McIntyre, Lesley Jeffries and Louise Nuttall
Quote:
Stylistics is the study of linguistic style in texts. It helps to explain how politicians mislead; how novelists and poets move their readers; how advertisers persuade us to buy their products and how the media influence public opinion. Stylistics empowers students to become critical readers by developing rigorous techniques of linguistic analysis.

Style in this course is defined as “linguistic choices made by the producers of texts.” I write a lot about what I read, and my primary focus is how a particular story or novel affects me the way it does, so I jumped at the chance to take a mooc that might help me better understand what I’m reading, and possibly communicate my understanding of it more effectively. This was an introductory course with no particular prerequisites, so it covered a few general topics and created (hopefully) the desire to learn more.

First up was foregrounding. We looked at how unexpected word choices or even spellings can emphasize some aspect of a text, and at the use of parallelism and defamiliarization. for a similar effect. Just yesterday I posted about a story’s use of repetition and what I called “almost-anaphora” in the opening pages, and I’m still debating some phrasing regarding the narrator’s gender and what it might mean.

Week Two featured characterization, and ventured into two areas that are of particular interest to me. One is Grice’s theory of implicatures, something I first came across in a wonderful logic mooc offered by the University of Melbourne (it is, sadly, no longer available), so I was thrilled to see this topic again here. Another topic I enjoyed was subtitles, and how these sometimes have to be altered to fit in allocated time and space. This week happened to coincide with several twitter comments about the English subtitles for The Squid Game, which some viewers felt left out a great deal. We also looked at bottom-up versus top-down processing, and how conversational style gives information on characters.

The third week took a look at speech presentation. Part of this covered the range of discourse from direct speech to indirect free discourse to narration and the implications of each level. We also looked at the more real-life situations of reportage, and how even accurate quotations can be used to convey something that was not said. Anyone paying attention to what is happening to news coverage, particularly of elections and legislative agendas, has some experience with this.

Finally, we looked at corpus techniques such as key words and collocations in connection with concepts such as semantic prosody.  I confess I didn’t do much of the actual software work due to lack of time; I’d just taken the course using these techniques on Shakespearean writings, so I used what was provided rather than doing my own software runs. Nevertheless, the material included a lot of interesting tidbits, such as: the word “asked” appears quite a bit more frequently in The Wizard of Oz than would be expected, leading to the question, what might that indicate about the story?

Each week started out with a video introduction; written articles made up most of the rest of the material, except during the corpus section which included several videos on using the software. I tend to find this approach disappointing – if you’re going to do a mooc, why not use features that aren’t available in books and articles, like videos and animations – but since the course is likely to appeal to readers, it’s hard to complain about it. As with audited FutureLearn courses, there are no grades, although a brief quiz wraps up each week; I found them useful as a review of the material.

The message boards were active, and staff, particularly lead instructor Dan McIntyre, gave frequent feedback and answered questions promptly.

And, as with the mooc on Shakespeare’s Language from Lancaster that I took a couple of months ago, the discussion boards provided me the opportunity to ask a general question about the subject. That is, I asked, given that close reading usually generates the same insights that statistical examination of the text does, what is the benefit of corpus linguistics in literary analysis? I was not asking a hostile question, quite the contrary; the inquiry was generated by a nonfiction piece by Pam Houston I read in Pushcart 2019 (this is the second Houston essay that’s really given me something to bounce off of) which was in part dismissive of a corpus-based technique she referred to as distant reading. I wanted to know how to respond to such resistance, since I find the use of such analysis, as I’ve encountered it in three moocs now, to be fascinating. How does one respond, I asked, so such dismissal? Is there an example where statistical methods have changed traditional literary interpretation?

Prof. McIntyre took the time to give me a rather extensive response that included several points: evidentiary confirmation of intuition and rhetorical persuasion with evidence is no small thing in itself; and that changing interpretation is not the point, but adding greater nuance to existing interpretation is. He provided an example from his own work on Hemingway’s use of subordinate clauses (Papa H does not underuse them, as is often claimed, but uses them in direct speech rather than narration) and gave me the link to a paper using semantic prosody, one of the concepts examined in the course, to consider an alternative to irony in a particular poem.

It’s been my experience that discussion and staff participation is one of the strengths of FutureLearn. This is the second time I’ve received a detailed and specific response to a question related to, but slightly outside, the course material. It’s really quite exciting. This would be a great class for anyone who’d like to better understand how writing affects us, from how literature works to how politicians and salespeople try to influence our choices. Even those who’ve done significant prior work in literary analysis will probably find something new, particularly in the final week.

2 responses to “Stylistics MOOC: How something is written can matter as much as what is written

  1. I am of course constantly feeling that I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to, always feel behind, always only produce a fraction of what I set out to. So, no, I won’t take this course. But you made it sound fascinating and I am sure I would benefit from it.

    • Too bad you can’t stretch out a day for more than 24 hours once in while, isn’t it!
      The great thing about moocs (at least the free versions) is that you can take as much or as little as you want, skipping over anything that isn’t particularly relevant to your needs. For example, you could take Week 1 on foregrounding, which I consider very relevant as a reader/writer, in its entirety, and parts of Week 2 on characterization, skipping the implicature section (I find implicatures great fun, but they’re more important for formal literary studies than for practical reading/writing). That’s about 2 hours total. Of course, once you get started, it’s hard to stop ;).
      I compressed W3 and 4 quite a bit, since I was overwhelmed with other moocs and the new BASS. But I still found a lot of relevance, to the Bump story in particular.
      When we’re done with GA, we should take a mooc together, it’d be fun!

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