A couple of weeks ago, I attended the IGEL ‘mini’ conference on Literature and Empathy in Göttingen, Germany. IGEL, or the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature has a big biannual conference (next summer it will be held in Chicago, be sure to check it out), and some of its members organize ‘mini’ conferences in the in between years. I keep putting the ‘mini’ in between some bunny ears, since Berenike Hermann and Gerhard Lauer, the local organizers, did such a great job in organizing this conference, that it did not feel ‘mini’ to me at all. There were some great speakers and all of them were talking about empathy in literature. This particular conference format is definitely my favorite: there are no parallel sessions, so everybody sees the same presentations and since there is a specific theme to the conference, people can build on each others presentations. Also, there was more than enough room for discussion during the extra discussion panels after each session. So, at the end of the 2 and a half days I really felt like we had worked together on getting a firmer grip on this particular topic.
Now, I know, especially after attending this conference, that the last word on empathy in literature has not been said, but it was great to see much diversity, and also overlap in the presentations. This might sound strange, but I think overlap is a good thing, because it signifies that were working on trying to clarify the same thing, that within this community of empirical literary studies, which is spread out across the world, we are focused enough to specify the research areas of special interest to our field. Empathy is one of those areas, and the community of people present at this conference all felt its importance, which created a nice, focused, but friendly atmosphere to discuss future research avenues.
Especially research into how reading literature can increase our empathic abilities has gathered popularity, which is not surprising since it is currently putting empirical literary studies as a field on the map, due to, for example, Kidd & Castano’s recent publication in Science. But we still have a long road ahead of us, after all we do not have to convince one another that reading literature is important and thus a worthy research topic, but we need to find ways to convince others; literacy programs, education, funding agencies, etc. What’s more than that, as one of the participants of the conference rightly pointed out, we should take care not to get too caught up with valorization of our research, since reading and literature are valuable in their own right, with or without positive effects on people’s emphatic abilities. Thanks to the organizers for a great conference. And if you are intrigued by IGEL after this post, be sure to become a member (regular membership costs 50 euros and student membership only costs 30 euros, for which you also get the society’s journal Scientific Study of Literature), it really is a wonderful community of researchers!