As Eric Hayot recently noted, the sky is falling. Higher education is in crisis mode: state funding for public institutions is plummeting, the cost of college is steadily increasing, and our graduates are entering into an uncertain economy. One predictable consequence is the public perception that the liberal arts are a waste of time and resources. Fareed Zakaria drolly notes that “the irrelevance of a liberal education is an idea that has achieved that rare status in Washington: bipartisan agreement” (20). Not only are fewer students majoring in English, but humanities programs themselves are vanishing. At the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, for example, the administration has laid out a plan to cut thirteen liberal arts majors while adding programs in applied fields (Treinen and Hovoka). It is easy, therefore, for those of us who work in the humanities to feel anxious about our fate within this economic and political landscape. This moment offers—indeed, necessitates—the opportunity for us to consider our discipline’s meaning(s) in these current contexts. Several valuable think pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education and other venues have approached these questions on a broad scale (see, e.g., Fish; Stover), but I suggest that we also approach these challenges like we approach texts—on the micro rather than macro level. What can our day-to-day experiences in the classroom tell us about how and why college students engage with literary studies? What do they value about their educational experience at college, and how might their learning benefit from engagement with literary texts?
In our day-to-day lives as teachers, many of us in the profession predominantly work with general education students—those who are not majoring in English but are taking our classes in order to fulfill general education and degree requirements. While this demographic constitutes a large percentage of the students we teach, it’s often overlooked or marginalized in our discussions of the future of humanities. Indeed, English professors sometimes view teaching general education courses as a price to be paid for teaching major courses, senior seminars, or graduate students. Students taking literature courses in order to fulfill a general education requirement frequently share this reluctance. Filled with deep anxiety about their financial and professional futures, many of our students approach general education as a series of hoops to jump through rather than avenues for intellectual growth. At the regional comprehensive university where I teach—best known for its engineering programs—the student body tends to highly value applied forms of knowledge and views liberal arts subjects like literature with skepticism, even cynicism. These students struggle to make a link between the course material and their anticipated profession: How, for example, does learning about British modernist poetry help one learn how to succeed as a mechanical engineer? Given the prevalence of this perception, it is advantageous for us in the literary-studies field to consider how we might reorient our general education courses so that these students can understand how the coursework aligns with their personal and professional goals. Such a focus might yield benefits that go beyond individual students or classrooms: it can build stronger support for the study of humanities, both in general education and more advanced study, within American higher education institutions.
One useful context for this classroom shift is the connection between reading literature and acquiring social intelligence. Such a focus aligns with many universities’ mission statements. My own states that students should become “broader in perspective, intellectually more astute, and ethically more responsible” (“Mission Statement”). It also matches employers’ priorities. In a survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 96% of employers agreed that “all students should have experiences in college that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own” (Falling Short 4). However, employers are unconvinced that students can do this kind of work: only 18% rated college graduates as proficient when asked specifically about their ability to work with others who are different from them (12). That college graduates might have trouble with these skills is unsurprising, given empirical research on their decreasing social cognition. As shown in a meta-analysis of college student data over nearly three decades by Jean Twenge and others, there has been a pronounced uptick in students’ narcissism—approximately a 30% increase when comparing 2006 scores with a 1979–85 mean (Twenge et al. 884). While Twenge and her coauthors suggest that students might be increasingly self-oriented, the work of Sara Konrath and her coauthors suggests that students are also having more difficulty thinking about other people, let alone understanding them. Their meta-analysis of college students’ scores on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) between 1979 and 2009 indicates that students’ empathetic abilities have declined by 40% over these three decades. This decrease is most marked in two subscales of the IRI—empathetic concern and perspective taking—and most sharp after 2000 (Konrath et al. 186). From these studies, it appears that students can benefit greatly from courses that allow them to further develop the sorts of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that have diminished. Moreover, these findings help us situate literature courses in such a way that allows students to see how our courses’ learning goals connect with broader, highly desirable skills.
In reframing general education literature classes in the context of social intelligence, I don’t mean that we should resort to condescending platitudes—like the humanities teach us “how to be human.” (How many poems do we have to read before we can be recognized as human?) Rather, we can point to recent research in cognitive psychology that has found a positive correlation between reading literature and possessing social intelligence. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano’s widely circulated 2013 study found that reading fiction improves one’s ability to understand the mental states of other people. The work of Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley offers a framework for understanding how reading fiction might improve social intelligence. As they explain in “The Function of Fiction,” a fictional text acts as both an abstraction and a simulation of social experience. Within a fictional narrative, “the specificity of literary characters is maintained,” but “the understanding of the human mentality and action that is depicted becomes more abstract. Because of this, an understanding can, perhaps, be applied to a broader set of circumstances and situations” (182–83). In other words, readers might not have personally experienced a particular social or emotional situation as it is portrayed in a fictional work, but in reading about it they gain broad social knowledge that will allow them to better understand this process. In the simulative world of a story, readers are able to try on different mental states, as expressed through characters; explore motivation; and even predict behavior.
In reframing general education literature classes in the context of social intelligence, I don’t mean that we should resort to condescending platitudes—like the humanities teach us “how to be human.”
Thus, reading fictional works, as opposed to purely informational texts, can offer an enhanced mode of learning. In one study, Joan Peskin and Janet Wilde Astington added metacognitive language to the picture books in a kindergarten classroom and then compared one group of children that utilized these books with a control group that did not have the added language. The control group actually scored better on a test of false-belief reasoning, which, according to the authors, occurred because students in the control group had to do the cognitive work to try to understand characters’ mental states. In contrast, the other group was directly told what these mental states were through metacognitive language and thus did not have the chance to simulate social and emotional experiences. Apparently, what makes literary texts ripe for social development is not simply what’s on the page but what is left out.
As psychologists have been testing the social benefits of reading literary texts, scholars in cognitive literary studies have been integrating approaches from psychology and neuroscience to explore the mental processes through which we read and understand literature. Lisa Zunshine’s work on literature and theory of mind is especially useful. Building on Simon Baron-Cohen’s and other developmental psychologists’ work on autism, Zunshine defines theory of mind as “our ability to explain people’s behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires” (6). Readers employ theory of mind because it “allows us to make sense of fictional characters by investing them with an inexhaustible repertoire of states of mind” (20). In other words, readers use theory of mind to make visible the mental processes that are invisible within the text. For example, a reader might try to make sense of a shocking twist at the end of a novel that reveals the murderer to be a previously unsuspected character. If the character does not explain him- or herself at the end of the novel, then readers have to decide for themselves. Why did this character kill someone? What was his or her motivation? How did he or she feel after doing so? These sorts of questions help us create mental states outside ourselves and build our theory of mind.
In some ways, theory of mind can be described as a way of filling in the blanks of a text. H. Porter Abbott more broadly addresses these rhetorical silences in his discussion of narrative gaps. Reminiscent of Peskin and Astington’s study, Abbott asserts that our understanding of narrative relies not on “its signifying marks but its gaps—openings that at one and the same time do and do not contain story material” (“How Do We Read” 104). These gaps might be minor, such as a lack of detailed description regarding a character’s appearance, or more major, such as Wide Sargasso Sea’s silence regarding the relationship between Antoinette and Sandi Cosway. Narrative gaps thus emphasize the “flexibility of cognitive response” in our reading experiences: if you asked a class to create a backstory for Antoinette and Sandi, you would be likely to hear completely different versions (Abbott, Cambridge Introduction 114). Although a robust discussion might arise when comparing these reader-voiced differences, no one version can emerge triumphant because they all exist as what Abbott calls shadow stories.
Apparently, what makes literary texts ripe for social development is not simply what’s on the page but what is left out.
The kind of shadow stories that readers create often rely on what Suzanne Keen calls narrative empathy, which she defines as “the sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition” (“Narrative Empathy”). While Keen acknowledges, like Zunshine and Abbott, that readers draw on their interpersonal interactions with others in their individual understanding of texts, she also highlights the potential complications—even the dangers—of doing so. False empathy, for example, can occur when a reader incorrectly interprets or misunderstands the motivation and psychology of a marginalized character or situation, or when a reader, having successfully interpreted this character, extrapolates this character or situation to be representative of an entire group (e.g., I’ve read this novel about slavery; now I know what it’s like to endure slavery). Failed empathy indicates another problematic reading response: it describes when readers are unable to make the transition from the page to the real world (Keen, Empathy 159). For instance, a high school educator might happily devour The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and feel empathy for its autistic teenage protagonist but enforce classroom policies that are difficult for students with autism spectrum disorder to maintain.
As Keen’s discussion of empathy indicates, many researchers within cognitive literary studies are skeptical of what they term the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Keen herself is equivocal, remarking that “questioning the causal link between altruism and narrative empathy—such as intense character identification, though there are other forms—devalues neither narrative empathy nor the widespread hope in the socially beneficial yield of novel-reading” (“Human Rights Discourse” 359). Others working in this field are suspicious of the idea that reading literature can make one more empathetic. John Horton, for example, baldly notes that “one can be a highly discriminating reader of such texts while being morally shallow and corrupt . . . one can be a person of considerable moral sensitivity and depth without having the literary skills to fully comprehend the refined and elaborate prose of Proust or late James” (89). This statement reminds us that the assumption of strong reading skills and strong ethics is reductive, even foolish. My own argument is more modest: I assert that certain reading practices can help cultivate students’ social cognition and awareness. By bringing concepts like narrative empathy, shadow stories, and theory of mind into the general education classroom, we ask our students to draw from the same mental process that they use in their interpersonal interactions. Framing this kind of work as crucial to their professional development and future careers—which, after all, is the main motivation for many of our students to attend college in the first place—can help them understand the importance of literary studies in the narratives of their own lives.
Reading strategies oriented toward social intelligence don’t necessarily occur on their own; they must be explicitly brought into the classroom. I’m not advocating that we completely overhaul every aspect of our courses; rather, I agree with James Lang that small changes in pedagogy can lead to significant improvements in student learning and engagement. As a general education instructor, I have found that one of the most effective changes I have made is to do what Hayot advocates—“justify and explain what we do”—with students at the beginning of the semester. Syllabi often come with boilerplate learning outcomes that students have a hard time connecting to their professional development. I have found it valuable in my general education literature classes to introduce data from employer surveys that indicate dissatisfaction with college graduates’ interpersonal abilities and results from studies that show how reading creative narratives can help students to build these sorts of skills. First-generation college students (as are nearly 40% of my university’s demographic) majoring in mechanical engineering, our most popular and populated program, might well be skeptical as to why they have to take an introductory course in literature to earn a degree. Explicitly connecting course content to students’ professional and personal success is an important step in giving students an alternative perspective on the usefulness of general education literature courses.
In my general education courses, I like to introduce the concepts of narrative empathy and theory of mind alongside our first forays into literary texts. Thinking about character psychology and motivation can be especially useful when students are reading a conflict or character too reductively. For example, when I taught Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, many students loathed the titular character. Undoubtedly, Hedda can be unlikable: she’s extremely manipulative and at times mean-spirited, seemingly determined to spread her own unhappiness. Student responses to the play often indicated their frustrations. A common assertion was that since Hedda chose to marry Tesman, she should at least try to be a good wife. Our conversation was beginning to feel unproductive, and so I had students select an action that Hedda performs that they judge unfavorably and write as Hedda, explaining her motivations and point of view. My students offered fascinating, emotionally intelligent ideas about Hedda’s psychology and were much better placed to understand why Hedda might have married Tesman or encouraged Eilert to commit suicide. To be sure, many still expressed aversion to Hedda as a character, but my goal was not to have students like Hedda or to relate to her. Regardless of their emotional response, I wanted them to see her as a complex, troubled character rather than dismiss her as a hollow embodiment of evil. After all, it’s very easy for students, in their leisurely reading strategies, to paint with broad and reductive strokes people, places, and ideas to which they don’t relate. Social cognition involves the reconsideration of our initial impressions so that we can better understand points of view that we find uncomfortable.
Once we have completed classroom activities related to social intelligence, students practice this type of work outside the classroom. One of my writing assignments asks them to create a plausible shadow for a character who has little to no interiority. Using the first person, they also write as their selected character. As students think about selecting a character, I remind them that they do not have to like this character but that they do have to occupy that character’s point of view and create plausible mental states for him or her. The goal of the assignment isn’t to pick sides but rather to show how and why each character acts the way that he or she does. How is this character feeling? Is there a discrepancy between what this character is thinking and what he or she is doing? How does this character view the others who are involved in this conflict, and how does that affect his or her relationship with other characters? Students must also incorporate dialogue and other textual details to ensure that they’re building upon the simulative world of the text.
Student responses to the perspective-taking assignment are generally positive. I’ve had many students say, sometimes in surprised tones, that they really enjoyed writing the essay; several have told me that it’s the only paper they liked writing in their college careers. Some students do express frustration that the paper isn’t a traditional English assignment and therefore they feel more uncertain about how to successfully approach it. However, the students who don’t do well on this assignment fail to do the close and contextualized reading required both for the perspective-taking essay and for a more traditional literary analysis: they typically rely heavily on clichés, stereotypes, and anachronisms and thus are unable to create plausible mental states for the character. On the other hand, students who are successful write papers that demonstrate their strong grasp of several skill sets we want college graduates to have—not only in terms of social cognition but also deep attention, synthesis, and creative flexibility.
Indeed, successful student responses not only demonstrate a strong grasp of close reading but also display the student’s social and emotional intelligence. For example, in a class on African and Afro-Caribbean literature, a student selected Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys of Motherhood for the assignment. While students in the class very much enjoyed the novel, they disliked Oshia, the eldest son of the novel’s protagonist. As a reader, I too often felt frustrated by what I perceived as Oshia’s failings—his self-interest, disregard for his mother’s sacrifices, and eventual abandonment of his family. But this student’s paper offered a compelling counterpoint. Having read multiple sources about Nigerian history and politics during the mid-twentieth century, the student presented Oshia’s decision to pursue higher education in the United States not as an abandonment of his family but as a necessary step to becoming a leader once Nigeria obtained independence. The student didn’t erase the more unsavory aspects of Oshia’s character as the novel presented him: he began the character sketch with Oshia matter-of-factly recalling the death of his brother, which Oshia suggests is fortunate given his family’s difficulty in feeding their children. Since The Joys of Motherhood is written from his mother’s point of view, this loss is agonizing and leads to her attempted suicide. But when told by Oshia, readers can understand how this character might feel differently (as we are told in the literary text, Oshia himself almost dies of malnutrition as a small child). I was deeply impressed—humbled, even—by this student’s ability to look beyond what we’re told in the story and envision a plausible but more sympathetic portrait of this character. Such a moment indicates the type of perspective taking that this assignment can engender.
I began this essay by suggesting the wider contexts that make students suspicious of the value of the humanities. Anxiety about finances and future employment prospects often stifles a general education student’s engagement in a literature course. In this current economic and political landscape, it can be hard for humanities instructors not to feel anxious about their own futures. I want to close, however, with my own sense of renewed optimism having incorporated reading strategies related to social intelligence in my classroom. One of the most satisfying aspects of doing so is witnessing the pleasure that students take from this approach to literature. I’ve repeatedly noticed an increase in student participation in class discussions involving theory of mind, shadow stories, and narrative empathy. Moreover, students are often surprised to find that they enjoy writing papers that involve perspective taking: multiple students have admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that they have gone significantly over the page length because they became so interested in their selected character.
This kind of student engagement is rewarding in and of itself. More broadly, interweaving classroom practices related to social intelligence also suggests a way for us to advocate for literary instruction within the university at a time when both students and external stakeholders question the real-world value of humanities-based courses. We are teaching our students not only content knowledge but also methods of reading that enhance their social intelligence—a highly desired skill in the workplace. Moreover, the classroom environment—with its carefully chosen reading list and the guided instruction it provides—is one of the best places for students to learn these strategies. This approach can help us articulate to our multiple constituencies the continued importance of literature courses in the general education curriculum.
I am grateful to my students for so generously sharing their thoughts and insights during our classes. I am particularly indebted to Adam Mindham, Kayla Miller, and Dalton Miles for their help and their enlightening conversations about literature, empathy, and social intelligence.
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Amanda Tucker is associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, where she teaches general education courses in composition, humanities, gender studies, and international education. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Irish and anglophone literature, transnational studies, and the study of teaching and learning.