For a while now, I have been wanting to write a blogpost about this podcast I discovered, to break up the sciency blogposts of the last couple of weeks. The podcast is called Imaginary Worlds (“how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief” is the tagline) and it is hosted by Eric Molinksy. This show is basically a dream come true for a story world loving nerd like me. Every 2 weeks, Molinsky publishes a new episode with a particular theme related to the notion of imaginary worlds. He discusses all kinds of narrative media, all kinds of genres, and takes fresh and intersting perspectives on these narrative world and their world-builders.

Imaginary Worlds Logo by Eric Molinsky

Some of my favorite episodes include: The economics of thrones and starships, in which economists discuss the costs of running the seven kingdoms of Westeros or building the Death Star. This episode changed my view on economists, as I used to view them as rather boring and unimaginative. However, like the podcast argues economists and fantasy and science fiction writers actually have a lot in common, especially when it comes to drawing up projections and making predictions. Fantastical story worlds basically take economic models to the extreme.

Another favorite of mine was Magical Thinking. I love reading fantasy, science fiction, magic realism or absurdistic novels, and a lot of what attracts me to these kinds of novels are the magic or alternative science systems they introduce. There are huge amounts of work being put in by authors to make their fantastic story worlds feel authentic and give them depth, without actually spelling out the differences between their world and our world. This episode is all about magic systems in some of the great contemporary fantasy literature – Molinksy even interviewed two of my favorite fantasy authors: Lev Grossman and Patrick Rothfuss. I appreciated how this episode discusses the dilemma that magic systems pose: if there is magic in a world, presuming that magic is powerful and can fix things what mere mortals cannot, how are there still conflicts worth writing about?

This podcast has, on multiple occasions, given me inspiration for my research or even new ways of looking at the topic of narrative absorption, a topic I have been studying for years now. I think this has to do with the fact that my research is about the general experience of feeling absorbed in a book, whereas this podcast is looking at individually absorbing narrative worlds. For xample, the episode I was listening to today – The theatre of the mind – about radioplays, actually gave me some great ideas for a paper I am writing with my colleague Elke Lange from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics on the experience of absorption while listening to audiobooks. Our mind is challenged differently when listening to something than when viewing something: we have to put in more work. At the same time, there is also a lot more possible in books and on radio than in film and tv. Some things are just not translatable to a screen.

This podcast often takes me back to the time when I got started on this strand of research, when it was just my own anecdotal evidence of getting lost in a book that I had to work with and I was trying to put my finger on what it was that was able to transport me to fictional worlds. I think that over the course of nearly 10 years of empirically investigating narrative absorption, I sometimes feel like I have lost touch with what fascinated me originally: the intricacies of some story worlds, the craftmanship behind it, the intense and lasting impressions these worlds made on me. When investigating aesthetic experience empirically within a scientific context, these fascinations shift to controlled settings, minute text manipulations, and the search for significant effects. It can sometimes take the joy out of the experiences I am trying to understand. But for me listening to Imaginary Worlds on the way to work, has brought the joy right back and given me inspiration to liven up my research with absorbing examples and put a little magic back into it.

I can highly recommend this podcast to any researcher interested in narrative absorption or any story world loving nerd in general. Enjoy!

Two years ago, I wrote a blogpost about the new Training School Program of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (IGEL) and now I am happy to report we are creating a nice momentum. This past summer we organized two training schools, that were both received enthusiastically.

Our first training school – right before our biennial conference in Stavanger – was on the topic of Psychometrics. The aims of this Training School were to teach early career researchers coming from the Humanities the basics of psychometrics. This field of research is devoted to the development and validation of measuring instruments. We focused mainly on self-report instruments, but also introduced alternative measuring instruments. The participants learned – through lectures and hands-on sessions – to design a questionnaire based on qualitative data; to analyze and reduce the data using exploratory factor analysis; and to validate their resulting scale using confirmatory factor analysis. Together with Arthur Jacobs, Emy Koopman, Don Kuiken and Jana Lüdtke, I provided the lectures and hands-on sessions.

What was great to see was that apart from learning these new methodologies, the participants also were able to find their own peers. I should explain. The field of empirical literary studies is not established in a traditional way: most of the PhD students in our field are employed at humanities departments where running experiments and statistical data analyses are not common practices. Often these students have to find their own way, which can be rather lonely if you are the only student in a department conducting empirical research. This is exactly what IGEL training schools are for: providing these students with the training they need to successfully complete their PhD research. Providing the students with a peer-to-peer support system was an added bonus that, to be honest, we had not anticipated. But, wow, I was glad to see it happen!

For the second training school, my colleague Gerhard Lauer and I went back to Aachen – I wrote a blogpost on the lecture I gave there last year at this wonderful new group Art GogLit – to teach a four day training school on Empirical Methods for the Humanities. I have given this type of training school a couple of times now, and I am always excited to do it. Being asked to give this course, means there is new interest coming from Humanities departments to learn empirical methods and statistics, to take a step forward in restructuring their views on what the Humanities are and how we should teach our students. This group of students was particularly motivated and really really good!! I am excited to see the Ma-theses and PhD projects that will be written by these participants! It is always great to welcome new people to our IGEL community.

Speaking of which: if you haven’t done it yet, go check out IGEL’s new website. It is shaping up to be a great resource on everything empirical literary studies. Also, it will keep you up to date on when our next training schools will be organized.

 

Since I started my new postdoc position at the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel, my colleagues and I have been writing grant applications furiously! We want to become a hub for empirical literary studies in Europe and for that we need money, and cool new projects and enthusiastic new colleagues! Last week, we got lucky; enormously lucky! Or actually, let me rephrase that: last week our hard work finally paid off: all three of the proposals that we had written and submitted to the SNSF (the Swiss National Science Foundation) Digital Lives funding scheme got accepted! At the start of December we will kick off three projects on online social reading and writing. I am – naturally – very excited about this prospect!

The project that I will be focused on is a collaborative project with my colleagues Simone Rebora from the University of Verona and Piroska Lendvai from the University of Göttingen, revolving around the website Goodreads.

Social media platforms like Goodreads are online environments where millions of people come to share their love for the written word. Thus, in the digital age the act of reading, has started to involve a social component that goes far beyond that of a real-life book club or public poetry reading. This exploratory project focuses on the growing phenomenon of online social reading, by exploiting the data source that is Goodreads and developing new methodologies to study the wealth of qualitative data about (social) reading and text evaluations that it offers.

So far, the treasure trove of data available on Goodreads has not been empirically investigated, and this is partly due to the fact that new methodologies have to be developed to extract the data from the website in a meaningful way. This is exactly the gap that our project aims to fill. By analyzing reader reviews on Goodreads using textual entailment and text reuse detection (methods from computational linguistics) and comparing them to statements on the Story World Absorption Scale (SWAS; Kuijpers, Hakemulder, Tan & Doicaru, 2014), we will investigate: (1) the potential of converting Goodreads into an extensive qualitative corpus for the computational analyses of reader responses; (2) the validation of the SWAS through comparison with reviews on Goodreads; and (3) the comparison of readers’ absorption across different genres.

It is important to study these online social reading phenomena, as they are becoming exceedingly popular and provide new ways for people of all ages to acquire storytelling and literacy skills (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2014). The potential impact of this project is widespread as it will construct a new corpus of interest to researchers from different fields and develop methodologies that can be fine-tuned to be used on various other online corpora that are made up of natural language.

Finally our paper on “Understanding and appreciating literary texts through rereading” is published online at Discourse Processes. I wrote a post on rereading 2 years ago in which I mention working on this paper. So this has really been a long time coming and I am very happy that it is finally here. If you are interested, this link will take you to the full version of the text. Happy (re)reading!!

 

Apart from learning about the nature of absorption, my PhD research mainly taught me that research consists for a large part out of making mistakes and then learning how to avoid them in the future, and accepting the fact that this is how research works. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, I do believe that science nowadays is very much focused on productivity, efficiency and thus on presenting only positive, hypothesis-confirming results. Whereas I think we can actually learn more from our rejected hypotheses and the unavoidable mistakes we make along the way. That is certainly true for my research on absorption.

My first post doc project at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics evolved from a dissatisfaction on my part about what I was able to find (or rather not find) in my PhD project and this feeling of ‘what if…’. What if we had chosen a different point of departure, what if we had formulated the research question in a different way, what if we had chosen different measures. Obviously, that is what happens within research, or rather, what is supposed to happen. And thus my aim for my first post doc project was to measure absorption during literary reading, but this time using physiological measures in order to investigate absorption online, while it is happening.

Measuring absorption using eye tracking

Now, at the start of my second post doc position at the University of Basel’s Digital Humanities lab, I am finally using eye tracking methods and capturing absorption in different ways. Well, what have I been doing then in the last three years? Research meanders, it is not straight forward and I meandered and completed several other projects, all absorption related, before I was ready for eye tracking. This has of course to do with the rather steep learning curve of such physiological measures and the analyses strategies necessary to analyze their data in a meaningful way, especially for someone coming from traditional humanities.

I am looking forward to my time at the University of Basel, working together with Gerhard Lauer and Berenike Herrmann, revisiting the question of what textual features inspire absorption using new and exciting measures and methodologies. Having a chance to look at a problem in a different way, using different tools to try and solve it is really inspiring. As is the new direction I am envisioning for my absorption research at the DH lab: using methodologies from digital humanities to approach absorbing online reading experiences and diving into the field of bibliotherapy more fully. Up till now I have merely dipped my toes in the water, but it is an exciting field where not a lot of empirical research has been done on the effects of reading literature on people’s well-being. And that is exactly what I want to be doing!

 

I am super proud! Just last week Narrative Absorption came out: and edited volume on all things absorption within the field of empirical aesthetics. This is the culmination of the absorption project my PhD was a part of.

Narrative absorption

Together with Frank Hakemulder, Ed Tan, Miruna Doicaru and Katalin Balint we collected papers from the most prominent researchers in empirical literary studies on the topic of absorption. Of course, we also added our thoughts on absorption after studying it for four years. I have to say, a lot of hard work went into this volume, but I am very happy with the result!

I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for the state of the art in absorption research. I hope you will be be absorbed!

 

A little while ago I received an invitation to give a lecture in Aachen. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that just recently the Department of English, American, and Romance Studies at the University of Aachen has started The Aachen Research Team Cognitive Literary Studies (ART CogLit). The aim of the group is to

combine qualitative-hermeneutic and empirical approaches to literary studies and intend ARTCogLit to be both inclusive and interdisciplinary.

Their current research project T-REX is as cool as it sounds and investigates textual triggers of experientiality in readers. It is a cutting-edge digital humanities project that stays close to the experience of real readers! I am very curious to learn more about what they are doing and just very glad to see that the empirical literary studies community is expanding in numbers and in methods!

Their very first event is the Aachen Colloquium on Literature, Emotion, and Cognition, and they invited me to be a part of the line-up. And what a line-up it is! I am incredibly proud to be included on this list of terrific speakers – and feel a little disappointed that I am not in the Aachen area to come and listen to the other lectures. Anyway, my presentation is coming up and I just wanted to give anyone who is interested a little sneak peek, and of course blatantly advertise myself and ART CogLit’s wonderful colloquium!

In the summer of 2015 I gave a lecture at the Courant Research Centre at Göttingen University in which I described the difficulties of trying to measure absorption and of conducting empirical research in general. For my lecture in Aachen I will be revisiting this theme, but with a different twist. At the end of my 2015 presentation I gave some suggestions for further research, which I am glad to report I have taken up myself since. In the last few months I started a series of eye tracking experiments in which my colleague Sebastian Wallot and I are trying to find objective online measures of absorption. And I am happy to finally be able to present the first results of the first “eye tracking absorption” study in Aachen. Other than communicating these results, I am looking forward to discussing the general merits and challenges of Empirical Literary Studies with my absorption research of the last couple of years as case study.

For anyone whose interest I peaked, but who is not in the Aachen area, the ART CogLit group is livestreaming my lecture! For more information check out their twitter or webpage. The lecture will take place on Monday June 12th at 16.00. I am excited!

Last year, I wrote about absorbing books into your bloodstream: a different way of thinking about reading and absorption. Instead of just thinking about the book as being able to absorb us readers, this blogpost was about seeing the reader as the one that absorbs the books she reads. Over the course of a lifetime one can absorb a lot of books; and this can leave a trace.

I keep lists of books I read, on Goodreads, in my planner. My visualization of the things I read – the trace that absorbing them left behind – has always been linear or chronological: a catalogue. But this week, I  saw this amazing exhibition at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, that changed my way of thinking about the absorbing trace of books a person reads throughout their life. Stephan Huber now has a permanent room in the MMK where his beautiful landscape sculptures are on display as well as – and this is what I stood gaping at for 2 hours – his “Reise durch den Überbau”. Freely translated it pictures a fictional map of his life’s journey in terms of his artistic, philosophic and literary influences. It looked phenomenal, but more than that it opened up a new, spatial way of thinking about my personal reading history, a way of keeping track of the trace that is so much more than a mere catalogue.Books etc.

At different times in your life you are inspired by different things, different styles, genres, authors. Presented on this map as clusters of islands where Stephan Huber’s intellectual life’s journey went past. Seeing it all laid like that out in this map was just breathtaking. It made me realize that reading rarely happens in a vacuum: yes, the activity itself is mostly solitary, but reading one book might inspire an interest in a similar one, from the same author or the same genre. And some books make more of an impact than others, they inspire more associative reading and thus they shape your intellectual journey, your readers’ identity.

A spatial understanding of literary reading is also what inspired “The Tourist Map of Literature“, which I found when googling ‘maps of reading’ after seeing Huber’s personal map. This website allows you to see a  spatial representations of groups of authors, based on the name of an author that you yourself enter into their system. The “map” that pops up shows you authors that are spatially farther or nearer the author that you typed in, showing you more or less similarity and thus providing you with insight into what you could read next.

I think it is going to inspire my own personal map of lifetime reading. To be continued…

 

 

At the end of last year, my colleagues and I published a paper in Scientific Study of Literature on a special kind of absorption experience: one that is focused on deviating text features. Some definitions of literary experience seem to imply that reading a literary text cannot be a particularly absorbing activity – and that if it is, it is probably not very good literature. Rather literary experiences, according to foregrounding theory, revolve around a readers’ response to deviating text features. Deviation from conventional ways of storytelling that is.

Absorbing Stories in a bookcase

Absorbing Stories in a bookcase

In our paper – Reconceptualizing Foregrounding. Identifying Response Strategies to Deviation in Absorbing Narratives – we argue that instead of simply assuming that foregrounding and absorption are mutually exclusive, they could also be considered as co-occurring. For example, when a reader or film viewer is absorbed as a result of an attention grabbing deviating aspect of a story. This is from the abstract of our paper:

In the present paper we examine the co-occurrence of different responses by means of a data-driven qualitative approach. The analysis of interviews about absorbed experiences with written and cinematic fictional narratives focused on occurrences of and responses to perceived deviation. We identified seven strategies in response to deviation that may be described through three underlying dimensions: absorption, agency, and valence. Findings suggest that perceived deviation is associated with intense and meaningful engagement with narratives, rather than obstructing this engagement.

Without giving too much away, our analysis resulted in seven distinct strategies that recipients adopt in response to deviating elements in either a text or a movie (i.e., striking/novelty response strategy; uncertainty/disambiguation response strategy; symbol/insight response strategy; blank/imagination response strategy; obstruction/adjustment strategy; forceful absorption response strategy; and forceful character engagement response strategy). In each of the seven strategies experienced deviations in a film or text lead to some form of absorption. Although we did see instances of dissociation, such as a sense of frustration, in general estranging devices do not necessarily estrange audiences. On the contrary, they may deepen their involvement.

In addition, the paper is full of beautiful illustrations of absorbing reading and viewing experiences, that, every time I read them, give me warm and fuzzy feelings about my research. These are the kinds of experiences that made me want to do empirical research on absorption in the first place and I am glad we have been able to give them a prominent place to showcase them.

In sum, this is a paper that I am really proud of. It was part of our absorption project and entailed an extensive qualitative study – my first big qualitative study. I enjoyed our working together on this project and I believe this paper really has something new to add,

both to the field of foregrounding research and to that of absorption research. So, everybody look out for the second issue of volume 6 of Scientific Study of Literature for a deviating story on absorption!

The International Society for Empirical Studies of Literature (IGEL) is collaborating with the COST Action group E-READ to organize its first Training School in Empirical Methods for the Humanities. The Training School will be hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany on the 22d until the 24th of September of this year.

I posted this on IGEL’s website in April of this year and it is also one of the reasons why I haven’t had the chance to post regularly. Every summer is busy because of conference season, that was no different this year. However, this year I also took on the organisation of IGEL’s first training school in their newly established training school program.

The aims of the Training School are to teach early career researchers coming from the Humanities the basics of empirical research methodology and to stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration. The participants will learn – through lectures and hands on sessions – to design and set up an experiment; to decide on measuring devices and statistical tests, to use statistical procedures to explore data and conduct basic inferential tests, and to report results. We hope to ‘lure them over to the dark side of empirical literary studies, where we have fancy methods and statistical tests to investigate literature and its effects’. I am putting it like this, as there are still a large number of people working in Humanities who are not convinced at all that we should do interdisciplinary work to further our research. We at IGEL are all about interdisciplinary research and in the future we hope to also organise training schools that will give psychologists and social scientists the tools to perform close readings and foregrounding analyses (amongst other things) of literary texts. In short, we hope to bridge the divide between disciplines and put IGEL on the map as ‘the place to be’ if you want to learn how to conduct empirical research on literature and other art forms, wherever you are coming from.

One part that I am especially proud of is the mentor system we have set up to support our training school program. We matched every participant to an experienced member of our IGEL community with similar research interests. That researcher will mentor the participant before the training school – providing guidance to the participant to further develop their research question and design – and after the training school – collaborating with the participant to conduct and report the experiment developed during the training school. We are very lucky at IGEL to have such a committed and passionate membership, because the response about this mentor program has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Many thanks to all who are participating. Let’s hope this training school will be a success and the first of many more to come! I am looking forward to it!

For those of you who are interested in the training school, but are unable to join us, the lectures will be live streamed. You can contact me at IGELboard@gmail.com if you would like to have access to the livestream. We will set up a twitter feed as well that will allow you to ask your questions and join in the discussion from afar! And if the timing just isn’t right, there is always the next training school! If you want to be kept informed, send us an email.

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