Exchanging Ideas: the Reader, the Text, and Digital Humanities

Peter Mendelsund explores the relationship between the reader and the text in his essay “What We See When We Read.” Noting the gaps in our mental pictures of characters, Mendelsund explains that characters really become more like a set of rules: “Character description is a kind of circumscription. A character’s features help to delineate their boundaries—but these features don’t help us truly picture a person” (7-8). In revealing the truly vague descriptions of characters, as well as the ways readers might build their own images, Mendelsund’s essay illustrates a distinct transaction taking place between reader and writer, between the reader and the text.

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Literature and Emotional Exploration

Can reading classic literature help students achieve greater emotional intelligence? In “Emotion and Reason,” from Literature as Exploration, Louise M. Rosenblatt examines this question in depth. Fittingly, for the header image I chose a scene from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a book he wrote to help children navigate their own emotional growth and resulting confusion.

Although Rosenblatt uses many examples, one of the most interesting comes from a classroom where students are discussing Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. Because of the emotionally complex nature of the play, the students become embroiled in a conflict of opposite views and emotional tension develops. However, not only did the students find conflict amongst themselves; they also uncovered an internal dissonance over the complicated issues. (Rosenblatt 217-18) Vicariously experiencing the issues of a fictional character, although it may seem like mere pleasure reading, allowed the students to understand more of their personal frame of reference.

Viewing literature as a tool for emotional contemplation requires some shifts in teaching perspective. Firstly, it requires the teacher to subvert their own beliefs, biases, and inclinations while teaching. If a teacher lets these bubble to the surface, they will end up swaying students to an interpretation based on the teacher’s points of reference. Instead, the teacher must emphasize the process of personal exploration that each student takes in reading the literature and be open to their interpretations. Furthermore, the teacher must be comfortable with the fact that when emotions get involved, things can get messy. Keeping these things in mind can allow the classroom and the texts to become powerful sites for emotional discovery.

While the distanced, impartial approach of literary studies has valuable things to offer, it is also important for students to explore the range of human emotions that books have to offer. Doing so allows the reader to take perspectives of literary characters, build empathy, and ponder through how they would address similar situations. I am interested in thinking about how this approach to literature and emotions could translate into the field of digital humanities. Are we restricted to just data collection and visualization, charting bursts of emotions throughout a book or a literary movement? Or can we use the digital humanities to connect readers (and perhaps particularly students) more fully to emotions in literature? I believe that with innovation in the right places, the digital humanities can become a powerful tool for the latter.

Works Cited

Rosenblatt, Louise M. “Emotion and Reason.” Literature as Exploration. New York: Appleton, 1938. Online.

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