Global Research Bytes Episode 1: Reading with Jack Chen and Dan Willingham


Global Research Bytes Episode 1: Reading with Jack Chen and Dan Willingham

Jack Chen & Dan Willingham headshots
Transcript of Interview with Professors Jack Chen & Dan Willingham

Emily Mellen  00:07 

Welcome to Global Research Bites. I'm Emily Mellen and I'm here with Jack Chen, from East Asian Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, and Dan Willingham, from Psychology, to talk about their collaborative project “Reading: A Conversation,” which proposes a workshop on interpretations of reading to be convened at UVA next May 26 and 27. Thank you for being here with me. 


Dan Willingham 00:28

Glad to be here. 


Jack Chen 00:29

Thank you for having us. 


Emily Mellen 00:31

Can you tell us about this workshop and the genesis of this collaboration? 


Jack Chen 00:34

Sure. So, I'll go. This is Jack Chen.

We're interested in the concept of reading in pluralistic cultural contexts, as well as the scientific and empirical accounts of reading. We are looking at ways in which biological bases make reading possible and how these intersect then with the cultural histories of reading, the cultural developments of reading, including silent reading, reading aloud, orality within cultures, print culture, and the various kinds of media substrates that have affected and inflected the histories of reading. So, in general, we have two broad contentions or two broad sort of positions that we're interested in exploring. The first are how these empirical dimensions of reading are complicated by the cultural dimensions, speaking to the human constitution as sort of a biocultural entity. And the second contention or position that we're taking is the question of how neuroscientific approaches to reading are not in contradiction to aesthetic, religious and philosophical models of reading, what we might broadly term as the phenomenological sort of models of reading, and how we can find ways to speak across these sort of disciplinary divides, addressing what has often been referred to as the “explanatory gap.” That is the gap between physicalist and what we might think about as a phenomenological account of brain and mind.


Dan Willingham  02:03  

What I love about that description is it so beautifully highlights, I think, what's been missing from my field’s analysis of reading. So, I'm a cognitive psychologist and cognitive psychologists have been intensely interested in reading for about 30 or 40 years. And that has been a matter of initially focusing on mind and sort of what is happening in the mind when one reads. And because of the application to education, we've also been interested in the process by which children learn to read and what can be the most effective ways to instruct children to read. And then starting perhaps 15 years ago, with the sort of explosion of work in human functional brain imaging, there's been increasing interest in describing the parts of the brain that support reading, and then also trying to use brain imaging to help both diagnose and come up with remediation for dyslexia. Now, all that said, the way the scientists have conceived of reading is really quite narrow. And to be fair to my gang, I mean, this is the way we usually start, right? We've been interested in very simple reading tasks, how people extract meaning from individual sentences under really pretty artificial conditions. And, especially, the meaning of reading has been quite narrow: what it means to read has really been, “can you get sort of the bare bones of communication?” And the narrowness not only applies to the function or the depth at which we're thinking about comprehension, but also, in the narrowest sense of culture, we've been very limited, we've looked at mostly American and British readers, and some in Western Europe, and then the last 10 or 20 years, there have been an increasing number of readers of other alphabets, especially East Asia, but it still remains quite narrow. So, there's so much potential profit for people taking a scientific approach in understanding, coming to a deeper understanding, of what it means to read and how people think about reading and the benefits that people recognize accruing from reading. So, that's why I'm just so excited about this project. 


Jack Chen 04:59

Yeah, and if I can just add to that, I mean, again, I'm also excited in similar ways, because I think, in literary studies, our concept of reading is just as narrow, I think, in our own way of thinking about it. We often use reading as a metaphor for interpretation and we're not really thinking about reading in these actual, almost fundamental ways of how we process information,, how we understand what's in the text, how we translate that into, then, our understanding or mental sort of concepts. And there have been, I think, shifts in literary studies to try to take account of recent advances in cognitive sciences, there's a whole school of cognitive literary studies. A lot of these, however, I feel like are still nascent, there's still sort of in the beginning stages of grappling with the scientific paradigms. And in literary studies, I think there's a way in which– and I'm, you know, I’m aware of my own limitations– I think there's a danger for literary studies to try to appropriate scientific advances without fully understanding what's actually happening in those fields. And so there are misunderstandings, and a kind of a jargonization, I think, of what's happening, often, in the scientific discourse. On the other hand, I don't want to... I feel like it's important for us to make these mistakes. That is to say that, you know, if we aren't trying to reach out and to communicate across these disciplinary divides, then, you know, we're always going to be within our own model of reading and it's never going to extend beyond the phenomenological.


Dan Willingham 06:36

We all need to do a little epistemic trespassing if we're going to if we're going to make progress. But I also think it points, you know, you said, we need to make mistakes. But what's so wonderful about an event like the one that we're planning, is that you have an expert on site to tell you immediately “Well, that's not exactly the way that we think about it,” right? And again, that's why I think it's... it is wonderful to sort of venture into other fields and sort of raid their storehouse and bring things home. But it works so much better when you've got experts on the spot. 


Emily Mellen 07:12

Yeah, that's wonderful. Thank you for the lovely overview. Can you tell me a little bit more about the workshop itself? So you'll be bringing in experts from various fields, not just literature, and– literature, languages and cultures– and psychology, but also other fields beyond that?


Jack Chen 07:29

We're bringing in other people in cognitive sciences, Worthy Martin, here in IATH, will be a participant. And so, you know, we're hoping to expand this also to anthropologists, as well as people in Religious Studies.


Dan Willingham 07:44

Yeah, and folks from the School of Education. And I think the, you know, in terms of what to expect, we're sort of keeping our options open. We've got a couple of reading meetings planned over the course of the year before the big event in the spring. And so I think a little bit we're trying to feel out, before we get rigid about exactly what the events are going to be, I think we're trying to feel out the group, but I think we very much have in mind that, you know, it's called a conversation. And so, we do not have in mind that, well, it'd be a bunch of talks, and you know, there'll be a nice dinner, and then we'll go home, you know, the point is to set up activities and events where people really will have a lot of opportunities to interact. 


Jack Chen 08:27

Yeah and, so, the only instruction so far that we've given to the people who've confirmed participation is [to] talk for about 20 minutes on something that you think is important for everyone to know about. So, you know, we've given ideas, you know, on adaptability is something that, you know, I think someone that we hope will come, Marianne Wolf from UCLA’s Center for Dyslexia, will be able to speak about. She's the author of Proust and the Squid, thinking about mind across different sets of entities, right? Another person has proposed on shared attention, thinking about reading with children, right? And so we're really trying to think about, you know, in our own sort of of disciplinary formations, what we might each bring and share with everyone else. 


Emily Mellen 09:13

Can you tell me a little bit more about the interest in reading that each of you are bringing to the table? The two of you?


Dan Willingham  09:19  

I'm interested in cognition and education, very broadly conceived. So, I'm very much a generalist and spent the last 15 years thinking about how what psychologists know about the mind and brain can be usefully applied in classrooms. And not just sort of big picture ideas, but really Monday morning, what a teacher might do differently. And so, I've come at reading from that perspective and have been concerned with reading instruction and also what parents can do to guide children to do more reading at home. That's another longstanding interest of mine because what we do know [is] that every parent– regardless of their own education, how much they read– every parent likes the idea of their children reading during their child's leisure time, and very, very few children do it. So, that's not a new problem, by the way, people think that's all now because it's something that's particular to the digital age, but it's a long standing problem.


Jack Chen 10:34

Can I just say, Dan is the author of The Reading Mind, which is an amazing book that everyone should go and read. I read that in preparation, sort of from my conversations with Dan and I learned so much from it. I'm… my background is Comparative Literature. So, I'm a generalist in my own way. I'm interested broadly in what is literature and although I have specific expertise in medieval Chinese literature as that particular archive of work that I do most of my work on, the questions that I am interested in actually arise from particular moments in these texts. So, about maybe, I don't know, gosh, maybe 10…15 years ago, time passes, I published an article on silent reading in the fourth century in China. It’s one of the earliest accounts of solid reading and it predates Augustine's moment of silent reading, which is the most famous moment in Western literature when he notices Ambrose reading to himself. And, you know, from that I became interested, actually, in some of the cognitive scientific approaches and the physicalist accounts of what reading is like, from things like, you know, the saccadic movements of the eye, which this poet, Tao Yuanming, doesn't quite demonstrate, but the way in which she talks about his scanning of the text is much more evocative of saccadic movements than it is of the kind of reading aloud that was the assumed modality of reading at the time. So that, you know, was a project that I shelved. I wrote an article about it, I published that, and I hadn't come back to it until I started thinking about this Global History of Reading project, and then I got in touch with Dan. And I realized that there could be so much more this conversation could really sort of open up in all sorts of really interesting ways. And as Dan was saying, the idea of the conversation is something that is open-ended, you know, we have no particular outcome in mind. I mean, the idea is to learn from one another and if something comes of it that extends a conversation, then we're all for it.


Emily Mellen 12:32

That's fascinating. That's great. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.


Dan Willingham 12:37



Jack Chen 12:38

Thank you for having us.


Transcribed by