Meet the Keynote Speakers: Anne Mangen

Anne Mangen kindly talked with us about cognitive humanities, interdisciplinarity, e-readers, and more.

What do the disciplinary connections inherent in the field of cognitive humanities mean to you? How do you engage with these different methods of research and different forms of knowledge in your work?

Cognitive humanities, per se, is a new field to me. However, I have quite some experience with interdisciplinary research, most recently within a European research network (COST Action) in which more than 120 researchers from a range of disciplines (arts & humanities + social sciences + natural sciences and technology) are engaged in empirical research on the impact of digitisation on reading.

Interdisciplinary collaboration has been pivotal to my own research, ever since, during my Ph.D. I spent six months at the technology think tank Xerox PARC. At PARC, I was working with the research team called RED: Research in Experimental Design. This research group consisted of a robotics engineer, an audio/sound designer, an information architect, an electrical engineer, a media theorist/cultural studies professor, and was led by a cartoonist with experience as a toy designer.

RED labelled their epistemology “speculative design”, and this entailed a radically interdisciplinary approach in which the perspectives and expertise from design joined forces with conceptual and theoretical approaches of science and academia, arts and engineering. The stay with RED at Xerox PARC was definitely a genuinely interdisciplinary experience, in a playful but at the same time very thorough and intellectually talented setting.

After completing my Ph.D., I began collaborating with, first, a neurophysiologist/-biologist in the field of writing research, and then spent half a year in the interdisciplinary reading research lab of David Miall and Don Kuiken, University of Alberta, in 2012.

The collaboration that came out of this stay has fundamentally shaped the way I think about the value of interdisciplinarity and the necessity to combine theoretical and methodological approaches, perhaps in particular between the arts & humanities and experiment-based empirical science. The Miall-Kuiken lab is exemplary in combining conceptual and theoretical knowledge from arts & humanities and psychology towards a common goal (advancing our understanding of processes and mechanisms involved in literary reading).

There is a great drive from European governments to bring digital learning technologies into the classroom. Many educators, however, wonder how these new technologies can be employed fruitfully, and how to work against the “shallow” attention associated with digital formats. What are the central questions that should be addressed in such a debate?

First and foremost, we should inquire the research base underlying decisions and recommendations, whether they concern what technologies to use, how to use them, or the claims made about their potential for, and effects on, learning outcomes. Then, I strongly encourage more nuanced perspectives with respect to the kinds of reading (and writing) in question when discussing advantages and disadvantages of the different technologies.

Whenever we discuss “new” vs “old” technologies, we should always keep in mind the content of whatever material is in question (e.g., differences between reading long, linear texts vs short, nonlinear texts), purpose (e.g., leisure/literary vs textbook reading), and also expectations to and experiences with technology. There should also be some degree of consensus with respect to what one considers key properties or aspects of, say, reading as a concept and skill.

For instance, does it matter whether so-called deep reading – that is, reading of longer, more dense and possibly complex, texts requiring sustained attention and focus over time – is not part of what people consider a core property of what one understands as “reading” (cf. Naomi Baron’s concluding paragraph in her recent book Words Onscreen)? I think it matters, and at least I think we should pause and reflect on this issue and how it may affect future generations of readers.

E-Readers and digital libraries have been with us for about a decade now but they have not displaced the physical book, especially in reading fiction. Why do you think that is? Where do you think the development will go in the future?

It seems to me that e-readers (Kindles) will compete with print for certain kinds of texts and certain kinds of reading – such as serial literature, page-turners, etc., whereas print seems to still be preferred for other kinds of texts – perhaps typically, more cognitively challenging texts (whether novels or textbooks).

An important task for research (and one that we are currently investigating in the E-READ COST Action) is whether differences, if they continue to exist, between reading on paper and screen (of different kinds: backlit vs e-ink; small and large) are due to visual or tactile/haptic properties, and how much has to do with readers’ experiences and preferences.