Engl 694: Literary Techniques

The Empirical Project

Winter term 2011, M 1000-1250, HC 2.17

David S. Miall

david.miall (at) ualberta.ca | Office hours: Mondays 1:15 - 2:30

 The Reader, 1856, by Ferdinand Heilbuth (1826-1889)

Course description | Timetable | Schedule of topics | Ethical requirements | Assignments | Commentaries | Internet resources | Course policies

Course description

Since the eighteenth century literary reading has enjoyed a certain reputation, but is there any specific feature or set of features that would help distinguish literary from other kinds of reading? Reader response theorists from I. A. Richards, through Wolfgang Iser, to Keith Opdahl have offered a range of proposals on this issue, but the current consensus is that literariness is a social convention: the prevailing interpretive community determines what counts as "literature." Oddly, though, few of the theorists in this debate have considered examining the responses of actual readers; several have remarked that such responses are too idiosyncratic to be worth considering. But is that really so? Here is where the empirical project, the study of real acts of reading, can provide some new perspectives on old issues.

Empirical studies began some thirty years ago, mainly in Germany, with the work of Siegfried Schmidt, Norbert Groeben, and their colleagues, but soon developed additional approaches, notably in Israel (Tsur), Holland (Andringa, van Peer), Canada (Hunt and Vipond, Cupchik, Bortolussi and Dixon, Miall and Kuiken), and the U.S.A. (Graesser, Martindale, Green). In this course we will examine the theoretical departure points of the work of these and other empirical scholars and assess the contribution of their empirical studies to understanding what is literary. This will involve an examination of such domains as (1) stylistics, i.e., the phonetic, synactic, semantic, and other formal features that appear to influence readers' responses to text; (2) narrative, where cognitive and affective features studied empirically include frames or episodes, discourse styles, point of view, and empathy; and (3) cross-cultural differences, where these cast light on the literary and cultural competencies that reading may require.

Students will be introduced systematically to the basic elements of empirical method during the course, and will carry out empirical study of their own. As students will be working with human subjects as research participants, they must familiarize themselves with the ethical requirements for research -- these will be discussed in the first three weeks of the course.

Required reading:

Jonathan Gottschall, Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. New York: Palgrave, 2008

David S. Miall. Literary Reading: Empirical and Theoretical Studies. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

Keith Oatley. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Willie van Peer, Jemeljan Hakemulder, & Sonia Zyngier. Muses and Measures: Empirical Research Methods for the Humanities. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007.

Other readings will be made available (as detailed in the schedule below)

Timetable (tentative)

week readings topic other activities
Jan 9 Empirical studies Intro. ethical requirements
Jan 16 Literary history  
Jan 23 Interpretation Valérie: De Certeau, M. (1984)
Meshon: Sontag (1964)
Jan 30 Stylistics Andrea: Hunt, R. A., & Vipond, D. (1986); Breanna: Miall & Kuiken (1994)
Feb 6 Self Andrea: Seilman, U. & Larsen, S. F. (1989)
Feb 13 Feelings and emotions, I Meshon: Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (2002)
Feb 20 [Reading week]  
Feb 27 Feelings and emotions, II Valérie: Oatley, K. (1999)
Jihad: Oatley (2011), Ch. 5
Mar 5 Literariness  
Mar 12 Narrative / Narrator Jihad: Bortolussi, M., & Dixon, P. (2003); David: Dixon, P., & Bortolussi, M. (2001)
Mar 19 Transport / Literary education Breanna: Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000); David: Hakemulder, J. (2001)
Mar 26   Reports on empirical projects
Apr 2 Cognitive approaches
-- Reports, cont.
Daniel: Gottschall (2008), Ch 2 Method
Apr 9 Theoretical issues / Evolution Daniel: Miall Literary, Ch. 12
Empirical studies / Last questions

Schedule of topics

  topic required readings supplementary readings
1 Empirical studies First we ask whether empirical studies are necessary. What are some of its main theoretical perspectives? We look at how these diverge from the historicist and interpretive trends in mainstream literary studies with its "hermeneutics of suspicion." Graesser et al. show why empirical studies are difficult to do, especially as there is no agreement on what defines an aesthetic response to a text. Miall Ch. 3 provides a basic introduction to empirical method with several examples, while Ch. 7 (optional) provides an overview of the field as a whole.
Miall Literary, Chs. 1, 2; Graesser, A. C., Person, N., & Johnston, G. S. (1996); Miall Literary, Ch. 3 Miall Literary, Ch. 7
Research Design: Table of studies
2 Literary history Martindale argues that questions asked by literary scholars are often amenable to empirical investigation; moreover, some questions can only be reliably studied in this way, such as Martindale's own exploration of how literary styles have evolved through history (details are provided in his 1986 paper). Rose shows that working class readers in the 19th C. had no need of an education in literary conventions to benefit from literary reading (example citations from readers are provided in the Native readers page).
Martindale, C. (1996); Rose, J. (1992); Native readers; Types of research: van Peer, Ch. 3 Martindale, C. (1986)
Native readers, text; native readers' types
3 Interpretation Here we raise the question whether the ordinary reader is interested in interpreting literary texts. Vipond and Hunt found "point-driven" reading elusive. De Certeau quarrels with "official" interpretations of the literary academy that keep the ordinary reader at bay. Ibsch lays out the commitments we make when we undertake to interpret a text, while Sontag in a famous essay declares herself against interpretation.
Vipond, D., & Hunt, R. A. (1984); De Certeau, M. (1984); Miall Literary, Ch. 4; Methods of data collection: van Peer, Ch. 4 Ibsch, E. (1996); Sontag (1964)
4 Stylistics Now we zoom in on some specific stylistic features of literary texts and examine how their impact on readers has been studied empirically. Here the main issue is the special nature of literary language and its impact. Studied as foregrounding by Miall & Kuiken and as discourse evaluations by Hunt & Vipond, reading times and other measures demonstrate the influence of style on readers. Other studies examining different aspects of style are provided in the optional readings.
Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (1994); Hunt, R. A., & Vipond, D. (1986); Experiment: van Peer, Ch. 6 Hakemulder, J. (2004); Emmott, C., Sanford, A. J., & Morrow, L. I. (2006); Van Peer, W. (1990); Van Peer, W. (2002)
5 Self One of the findings of the stylistics studies is that feeling plays an important role during reading. This suggests that reading is self-referential. Seilman & Larsen found that when readers are asked to report what they were reminded of while reading, self-related remindings (recalling the self as active) were twice as common in response to a literary compared with a non-literary text.
Seilman, U. & Larsen, S. F. (1989); Using SPSS: van Peer, Ch. 7; Inference statistics: Van Peer, Ch. 9  
    Research Design revisited: Table of studies
6 Feelings and emotions So how important are feelings during reading? And do feelings play a primary role in shaping our response to a literary text? Different kinds of feeling and emotion during reading are demonstrated in several empirical studies and in Oatley's (2011) overview. Other discussions in the optional section include further empirical studies and an account of the neuropsychology of feeling (Miall, 1995).

Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (2002); Cupchik, G. C., Oatley, K., & Vorderer, P.(1998); Miall Literary, Ch. 6; Oatley (2011), Ch. 5; Oatley, K. (1999)

Halász, L. (1991); Kneepkens, E. W. E. M., & Zwaan, R.A. (1995); Miall, D. S. (1995); Sadoski, M., Goetz, E.T. and Kangiser, S. (1988)
7 Literariness We then confront the question whether literary texts are distinctive, that is, whether we can identify special qualities that call for the designation literariness. An additional question is whether readers have to be taught to respond to literariness or if it is an innate capacity. Two empirical studies on literariness draw on the research on feeling and on self-reference. Zwaan (optional) provides a contrasting position suggesting that literariness is a frame that we adopt as readers.
Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (1998); Hanauer, D. (1998); Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (1999) Zwaan, R. A. (1991)
Literariness debate
8 Narrative Our empirical studies have already focused on some literary aspects of narrative. Here we look at what features characterize effective narrative, such as suspense, and how these were demonstrated empirically by Brewer and his colleagues. Oatley (2011) proposes that narratives are simulations of episodes run on minds in the sense that programs run on computers.
Brewer, W. F., & Lichtenstein, E. H. (1982); Oatley (2011), Ch. 1  
Brewer & Lichtenstein (1981)
9 Narrator Bortolussi and Dixon propose that we relate to narrators as though they functioned as a conversational participant. This insight has several interesting implications that they have explored empirically. At the same time, they bring order to a number of proposals about the reading process made by narratologists.
Bortolussi, M., & Dixon, P. (2003) Dixon, P., & Bortolussi, M. (2001); Dixon, P., Bortolussi, M., Twilley, L. C., & Leung, A. (1993)
Bortolussi & Dixon, notes / Narrative and narrator
10 Transport Following a proposal first made by Richard Gerrig, Green and her colleagues study the phenemenon of being "lost" in a book -- what they term transport. They study the features of the altered state of consciousness that ensues when we are absorbed in reading, and demonstrate the power of a text to invoke transport regardless of its genre (literary or otherwise). Oatley (2011) asks whether reading literary narratives is beneficial.
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000); Oatley (2011), Ch. 7.  
11 Literary education The image of literary reading that has emerged so far may seem rather different from how literary texts are engaged in the classroom. Andringa takes up this issue, showing that class discussions are often stereotyped and disregard literary values. Other perspectives are provided in the optional reading, including Hakemulder's demonstration of the potential of literary reading for multicultural education.
Andringa, E. (1991); Gottschall (2008), Introduction, Ch 1 Theory Miall, D. S. (1996); Eva-Wood, A. L. (2004); Hakemulder, J. (2001)
12 Cognitive approaches Another important paradigm that has recently been reshaping literary studies is the cognitive approach -- which borders on empirical studies in its recourse to certain cognitive theories. Here we survey some of its approaches and consider what they might offer for empirical study. Miall (optional) provides a critical survey of the field.
Richardson, A. (1999); Miall Literary, Ch. 4; Gottschall (2008), Ch 2 Method  
13 Theoretical issues Hanauer offers an overview of the main theoretical positions that have been put forward to support a view of reading or empirical study of reading, and shows how these are arbitrated by his own studies of response to poetry. Hogan proposes that certain features of literary texts are universal and can be found in every culture. Other cognitive-based theories of literary reading are provided in the optional reading.
Hanauer, D. (2001); Hogan, P. C. (1997); Gottschall (2008), Ch 3 Attitude Meutsch, D., & Schmidt, S. J. (1985); Zwaan, R. A. (1996)
Theory and evolution notes
14 Evolution The universalist position of Hogan suggests that it may be worth considering the origins and functions of literary reading in an evolutionary framework. In Ch. 12 I outline an evolutionary perspective based on a functional approach that I term dehabituation theory.
Miall Literary, Ch. 12  

Ethical requirements

Students must complete the Graduate Ethics Training (GET) Course before conducting research. Carrying out your own empirical study is a requirement of this course. As this involves working with human participants, we will review the ethical requirements for the conduct of such research during the first three weeks of the course. This includes guidelines for how to solicit participants, how to inform participants of their rights, how to obtain informed consent, how to debrief participants, and how to ensure confidentiality. All students must be aware of these ethical guidelines, and ensure that they are followed when carrying out their own projects.

For further details see: Ethical documents; Ethics requirements.


1. Two seminar papers (approx. 700 words each), each offering a critical introduction to one of the readings (worth 30% of final grade).

2. Term paper, due April 16. (approx. 2500 words). Report on your own empirical study. The paper will include a theoretical introduction, a methods section, results, and a concluding discussion section (worth 70% of final grade).


Commentaries written by David Miall and students in two graduate courses on a number of articles and chapters on reading; they include theoretical, historical, and empirical studies. Several of the items overlap with readings we are discussing on this course. Each contributor provided a neutral summary of the main points of the reading, followed by a critical review that, in some cases, took account of points raised during classroom discussion.

Commentaries website

Internet resources

International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media (IGEL)

Empirical Studies of Reading: Miall and Kuiken website

International Association of Empirical Aesthetics

Poetics and Linguistics Association PALA

Literature, Cognition & the Brain

I.P.S.A. (Institute for Psychological Study of the Arts)

Institute for Neuroaesthetics

Changing Lives Through Literature (alternative sentencing programme)

Course policies

Policy about course outlines can be found in section 23.4(2) of the University Calendar.

The University of Alberta is committed to the highest standards of academic integrity and honesty. Students are expected to be familiar with these standards regarding academic honesty and to uphold the policies of the University in this respect. Students are particularly urged to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Code of Student Behaviour (online at www.ualberta.ca/secretariat/) and avoid any behaviour which could potentially result in suspicions of cheating, plagarism, misrepresentation of facts and/or participation in an offence. Academic dishonesty is a serious offence and can result in suspension or expulsion from the University.

Because of the seriousness of plagiarism and cheating, it is suggested that students review the definitions of cheating and plagiarism and the related penalties available in the Code of Student Behaviour in the Calendar (pages 728-751) and from the link above; ignorance is not acceptable as a defence in cases of academic offences.

to Miall home page

Document prepared January 2nd 2012 / last revised January 31st 2012