Tag Archives: in the news

I may not have the answers, but neither does social psychology

One of the double-edged swords of working in the humanities is that the news media doesn’t often report on the findings we publish in journals. Double-edged because on the one hand, we don’t get much popular exposure for the work we do, and on the other hand, that work doesn’t get grossly mischaracterized as tends to happen when the media reports on the findings of a particular study. So it’s not often that I see sloppy reports about study findings that actually relate to my academic interests.

But a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about reading and identification (though that’s not how the authors phrase it) has been getting (typically hyperbolic) headlines: Do Your Favorite Book Characters Change Your Life?, You are what you read, study suggests, ‘Losing Yourself’ in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life, etc. Each of those articles was more unhelpful than the next in figuring out what this study was actually claiming about reading and (implicitly) fiction, so I had to take a look at the study itself.

The results summary in the abstract gives a nicely succinct synopsis of what the authors are claiming about their research:

“Results from Studies 1–3 showed that being in a reduced state of self-concept accessibility while reading a brief fictional work increased—and being in a heightened state of self-concept accessibility decreased—participants’ levels of experience-taking and subsequent incorporation of a character’s personality trait into their self-concepts. Study 4 revealed that a first-person narrative depicting an ingroup character elicited the highest levels of experience-taking and produced the greatest change in participants’ behavior, compared with versions of the narrative written in 3rd-person voice and/or depicting an outgroup protagonist. The final 2 studies demonstrated that whereas revealing a character’s outgroup membership as a homosexual or African American early in a narrative inhibited experience- taking, delaying the revelation of the character’s outgroup identity until later in the story produced higher levels of experience-taking, lower levels of stereotype application in participants’ evaluation of the character, and more favorable attitudes toward the character’s group.”

There are a couple of things about this study I find interesting and potentially useful, and a great many more I have reservations about. First of all, this being social psychology, the terminology is significantly different than what I would tend to use. The authors focus on “experience-taking,” which they define as follows: “We propose that when experience-taking occurs, readers simulate the events of a narrative as though they were a particular character in the story world, adopting the character’s mindset and perspective as the story progresses rather than orienting themselves as an observer or evaluator of the character.” That definition has some implicit genre-limitations, since any number of fictional modes attempt to intentionally disrupt the reader’s ability to adopt a character’s mindset. But that aside, “experience-taking” seems to be very similar to Kenneth Burke’s idea of identification or consubstantiality, a definition I lean heavily on when I talk about fiction, identification, and reading here and here. According to Burke, “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, and individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.”

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Reading race in The Hunger Games and The Help

This is old news, but I’m perennially behind and just getting around to talking about it: The internet got all astir a couple of weeks ago when the tumblr Hunger Games Tweets started collecting tweets from Hunger Games fans who were surprised and often angry to learn that two of the book and movie’s most sympathetic characters were black. Buzzfeed has screenshots of ten of the most offensively racist tweets here. The discussion of the tweets has had some pretty remarkable staying power–HuffPo published a response less than a week ago, and Slate published both an interview with two of the teens whose tweets were published on Hunger Games Tweets and a response from the tumblr’s creator.

There are a lot of reasons both the tweets and the online reaction are interesting. As people commenting on the tweets are quick to point out, the novel is very explicit about Rue’s and Thresh’s race—they are described as having dark hair, dark brown skin and dark eyes. They also come from the district responsible for agricultural production that, based on the second book, seems to correspond roughly to the American southeast. They’re fairly explicitly marked as black in the novel. Beyond that, the issue of race and casting for the Hunger Games has been a hot-button issue in certain parts of the internet for quite some time.

So a big part of this discussion has been about reading comprehension, misreading, and even authorial intent. The teens who tweeted their surprise at Rue’s race are poor readers, and they’re often called out as such. But while some tweets just reveal those poor reading skills—generally expressed at surprise that Rue and Thresh didn’t look the way the teens expected them to—others reveal a deeply troubling racism—admissions, for instance, that the tweeters didn’t care about the characters once they found out they were black.

That second aspect of the tweets gives way to some interesting discussions of race and racism, as well as a nice breakdown on the New Yorker‘s “Book Bench” of the history of the blonde, innocent, angelic, and dead little white girl (from Little Eva to Jon-Benet Ramsey). Notably, even if Rue doesn’t fit the type, Katniss’s little sister Prim certainly does.

In the post on Slate, the tumblr creator separates the misreaders from the racists, implying, as I think many of the discussions about the tweets do, that the misreading is understandable, while the racism is deplorable. That may be true, but I think it’s worth attending to the way the two are deeply intertwined.

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Master’s degrees, earning power, and specialization

The Times education section has taken a break from its usual chronicle of anxious students and even more anxious parents desperately jockeying for Ivy League admissions. This week, Education Life turns to grad school, declaring that the master’s is the new bachelor’s, whatever that means. Mostly what it means is what we all knew–that it’s increasingly tough to land a solid job with the potential for advancement with only a bachelor’s degree. The article claims, though, that a master’s degree (“Once derided as the consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D. or just a way to kill time waiting out economic downturns”) can now provide a necessary leg up over the mere BAs.

Of course, not all master’s degrees are created equal, and another article lays out the return on investment for different programs. Not surprisingly, a master’s in engineering comes with a significant bump in earning power, but then, it’s not exactly difficult to find a job with a bachelor’s in engineering, either. On the other hand, a master’s in social work is necessary to get a job in the field, but it’s such a low-paying field that even with a solid job, it’s likely to take quite a while to pay off the graduate school loans.

The article makes sure to point out that while a master’s program may provide a respite from the economy and an increase in earning power, a PhD, even in engineering, requires a sacrifice of both time an earning power that is generally not borne out by increased earnings later on. But then, as if to comfort those of us who’ve made the poor decision to stick it out for the PhD (see here and here), the author reminds us that graduate programs in journalism still exist, and that people are evidently willing to pay $50,000 for a one-year master’s in journalism from Columbia. A journalism degree, by the way, boosts starting salary to $39,000, assuming you can actually find a full-time job, which only 31 percent of Columbia’s class of 2011 was able to do.

In other words, a master’s degree is not in itself a ticket to a higher salary, or even a job itself (my MA in English, for example, is not likely to get me hired anywhere but a private high school). A master’s degree can be evidence of specialization and vocational training, and, as the author of “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s” points out, the increased emphasis on the degree is a win for employers, since it essentially means that future employees train themselves at their own expense.

The call for specialization implicit in the master’s degree is at odds with what this Education Life article from 2009 claims employers are looking for from students with a bachelor’s:

“There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on ‘the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,’ 81 percent asked for better ‘critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills’ and 70 percent were looking for ‘the ability to innovate and be creative.'”

I point this out because one of the major tensions in the university right now is the degree to which an undergraduate degree should provide specialized vocational skills, versus broader and more fundamental liberal-arts skills like thinking, reading, and writing. The article presents the proliferation of master’s programs as addressing a need for specialized practical learning in specific fields. But the article also notes that the draw of the master’s may be as much about credentialing and distinction as actual skills:

“‘There is definitely some devaluing of the college degree going on,’ says Eric A. Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, and that gives the master’s extra signaling power. ‘We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,’ making a bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers.”

If the master’s is really about distinction in a job market where more and more people have bachelor’s, then we would do well to continue to place emphasis at the undergraduate level on fundamental, transferable skills, particularly writing and critical thinking–equipping students with the necessary skills to communicate effectively and learn on the job, or to do well in a master’s program if that’s what the field requires.

Some historical perspective

As someone who studies late-nineteenth century American literature and the ways it interacts with political, social, and economic conditions of the day, I have a hard time understanding opposition to unions. I try, I do, and I realize that many people see unions as protecting mediocrity and closing ranks around incompetence. I also understand that, as with any institutionalized power structure, some people abuse the power the union provides them with. And the slow process of dealing with teachers in New York City’s reassignment centers makes it clear that union bureaucracy can be crippling.

But while we might question the efficacy and priorities of some unions, it’s hard to take issue with the concept itself. Hard, that is, if you enjoy your 40-hour, 5-day work week, paid overtime, workman’s compensation, and protection from being laid off at whim with no warning, severance pay, or justification. I’ll leave the history of labor in the twentieth century to someone else, but suffice it to say that working conditions at the end of the nineteenth were bleak. Reading account after account of horrific workplace accidents, factory shutdowns that left employees and their children dying of starvation or cold, young children sent to work to support their families, strikes broken by violence and intimidation, and parents working ten hours, six days a week for just a few dollars each week gives you a pretty good sense of what working conditions might be like without unions (and what working conditions are still like in many places around the world). And this same period saw extensive wealth-building among the nation’s richest citizens (in 1890, one percent of the citizens held seven-eighths of the wealth), growth and consolidation of corporations and monopolies, and the expansion of industrial capitalism, none of which did anything to improve working conditions for the seven-eighths of the population that held one-eighth of the wealth.

So when I hear the governor of Wisconsin threatening to call in the Wisconsin National Guard to quell protestors, it’s hard not to think about the Pullman Strike or even the Haymarket Riot. I get the sense that a lot of folks—those who aren’t steeped in this stuff every day—don’t realize the extent of the changes unions brought to American labor conditions. (Of course, there are also plenty of people who do, and the protestors in Wisconsin are getting support from a number of unexpected places.)