Ever since putting together our humanities project for The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP, the aim has been to figure out through research the answer to a simple question: what are the benefits of reading, studying, and discussing literature for someone whose job is not to read it, study it, and discuss it? Our project, "Literature for Everyone," has given us the possibility to answer that question and some others like: "How exactly do we measure the benefits of consuming literature?" or "Are there any other advantages that we don’t know about?" The research has left us (Undergraduate Research Fellow Daniella Felix Puente and myself) with many questions for which we will hopefully find at least the hint of an answer through our project. I will share some of these questions in this entry.
Through the research, we have met with some of the preconceived ideas we already knew we would, for example, that literature and the humanities in general are elitist and intimidating disciplines to pursue, and disciplines, without practical use.
Putting this aside, we have also found opposite perspectives that support the idea that the humanities and specifically literature do not have to be exclusive for the privileged and that they can indeed have practical uses that can be applied in everyday life. We have also had the opportunity to pose new and more specific questions to guide our efforts, many of which have been proposed by student Fellow Daniella.
How can we make literature more accessible and approachable to the general public? Why is a reading community important to motivate others to read? What is the reason canonical works or ancient texts are still relevant in modern times? These are some examples of initial questions based on the research we have studied. Other questions have more to do with moral and social issues, for example, based on this quote in Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, The Case for Rational Compassion: “The question of precisely how writers, producers, and journalists elicit moral concern is a fascinating topic . . . literature, movies, television shows, and the like have drawn people’s attention to the suffering of strangers.” The question posed in this case then would be, what historical written works have caused social and political change? In "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons," Elaine Scarry talks about the mistreatment of foreigners and strangers. She states that our treatment of other people is shaped by how we imagine their lives to be, and literature can give us a window into their worlds. Given this information, we wonder if there is a way that literature can expand the way oppressed minorities are seen for them to be more respected by others.
On the other hand, some sources also focus on discussing how and why students would pursue English majors, along with the practical use of an English degree. In the article "The End of the English Major," it is reported that a lower percentage of students are interested in pursuing a degree in the humanities in general than in the past, and we have as a specific example Columbia University with a drop from ten percent to five percent of graduates between 2002 and 2020, while students' interest in STEM degrees keeps rising (Heller).
It is important to pay attention to this trend, and rather than labeling it as positive or negative, to think about it as an opportunity to ask certain questions about the humanities discipline in general. Although English majors are not necessarily the population of our focus, it is important to pay attention to what literature has to offer for them as well. In a survey, these students were asked what changes they would make for the future of their major, and the top answer was to make a more inclusive, contemporary canon and to have more diversity within the people in the field.
Literature for Everyone has as one of its goals to explore how to achieve diversity and inclusiveness. Our reading workshops have been designed to include a variety of literary texts to demonstrate that anybody can find something of interest and that there are many different types of writers with many different backgrounds. Having mentioned this, another question to pose is: how else can English be a more diverse and inclusive major? If the major is diversified, would the public be more open to pursuing it? How can we indeed make literature for everyone?
Image of the "Literature for Everyone" flyer.
Besides these lines of thought, the research shows some others, such as the idea that literary fiction has the power to make people more empathetic. In the article "How Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Encourages Understanding," Megan Schmidt highlights that through fiction we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession, or age. According to Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, this is because fiction is “essentially an exploration of the human experience.”
Another idea introduced to us through research is that the humanities contribute to holding our democratic society together. According to a 2012 Georgetown University report, there is a link between the liberal arts education and the “taming” of authoritarian attitudes. Liberal arts students were overall more likely to oppose authoritarianism than their STEM counterparts (Goldstein). Besides that, the idea that some literature writers like Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky provide us with the opportunity to calibrate our moral compass and conscience, is also present in Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, The Case for Rational Compassion.
Furthermore, the other aspect of our research focuses on the interactions with our participants which will give us the opportunity to measure and observe firsthand some of what has previously been concluded in the research. As of now, we’re still in the process—though almost done—of putting together each session. The literary texts that we have chosen are diverse. We decided to start the workshops with what we consider the lowest level of difficulty and move up to more challenging materials. We will then read and discuss the following materials in this order: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, and Animal Farm by George Orwell. Our reasoning for what would seem like an arbitrary selection when it comes to themes, form, and authors has to do with the diversity previously mentioned. We wanted a variety of voices, from the young adult writer in The Crossover to the canon writer in Animal Farm.
To measure the benefits of our reading exercises, we designed three surveys that will measure the participants’ levels of motivation and skills before starting the project, after reading each literary text, and at the end of the semester by the end of the project. The initial survey asks questions related to the reading habits of the participants, for example, with what frequency they read in general, and with what frequency they read literature specifically. We will also ask them what they would consider their levels of motivation to take the reading workshop at the moment, and we will lastly ask questions related to the benefits that they expect to gain from the experience. We will administer a similar survey at the end of each workshop and another one at the end of the semester. The surveys will of course be anonymous and voluntary, but we will also rely on our observations during the discussions to come to conclusions in our research. The questions aim at finding the practical uses that reading literature can have in our participants; we want to know what the research that has studied the impact of literature on people looks like in this tiny spec of our community.
The heart of this project is the interactions and the results that could stem from working with the participants. Even though most of our research work has not involved human subjects, it is our interaction with them moving forward that we hope will shed light on the answers we are looking for and will also help us guide and focus our further research.
Written by Diana Esparza-Lara, Faculty Fellow
El Paso Community College, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP
--Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Harper Collins, 2016.
--Heller, Nathan. “The End of the English Major.” The New Yorker, 27 Feb. 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/06/the-end-of-the-english-major
--Schmidt, Megan. “How Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Encourages Understanding.” Discover, 28 August 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/how-reading-fiction-increases-empathy-and-encourages-understanding
A couple of days ago, I came across an article about a letter written by John Steinbeck to Marilyn Monroe—yes, the Nobel-prize winner to the curvy sex symbol. But what would a literary writer be asking from the Hollywood bombshell?