Russell A. Hunt

Literacy as Dialogic Involvement:
Methodological Implications
for the Empirical Study of
Literary Reading

[as published in Empirical Approaches to Literature and Aesthetics. Advances in Discourse Processes, Vol. 52. Ed. Roger J. Kreuz and Mary Sue McNealy. 479-494. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1996.]

It is often noted that the study of reading is made particularly difficult because of the private nature of the phenomenon. We can only catch glimpses of it as it occurs, because as soon as we begin attending to it, it stops, or becomes something else. Most of our evidence about it is based on inferences from phenomena which we believe to be results of reading -- but the reading itself is not accessible to us, either by observation of others or by introspection.

If reading in general -- the sort of reading we think of as prototypical, the reading of a set of instructions for assembling a cabinet or a letter explaining a contract clause -- is thus inaccessible, it seems particularly forlorn to hope that we could come to any reliable scientific or empirical perception or understanding of the reading involved in the fireside absorption in a novel, or the amazed contemplation of a powerful poem.

Thus the study of what my colleague Doug Vipond and I call "dialogic reading" (our way of characterizing what has often, in other contexts, been called "aesthetic" or "literary" reading), looks at first glance as though it ought to be impossible. It looks at second and third glance even more difficult. We believe that it can be done, but that the attempt to do it entails rethinking some fundamental methodological questions, and moves us toward a set of ideas about the study of human social behavior which offer a new perspective on the way we might perceive, understand, and discuss that behavior. In summary, we believe that a radical rethinking of what we mean by "reading" enforces a perhaps equally radical reconceptualization of how we might go about trying to understand it.

Because I am so familiar with it (and in line with the argument of Jerome Bruner (1990) and others that narrative is one of our most powerful tools of understanding), I will try to make what I mean more concrete through a brief account of our research on "point-driven" or dialogic reading. We spent six years trying in vain to find a way to observe this phenomenon reliably. In coming to understand why it took us so long, we have drawn on a number of sources. One, which I will only allude to briefly here, is the work of the psychologist Kurt Danziger, whose notion of the "methodological imperative" in psychology suggests that researchers too often allow methods to dictate to theory how research is to be done (1985; for a more detailed account of our application of Danziger's ideas to our own work and to the general methodological problem, see Vipond and Hunt, 1992). What is relevant to my purpose here is that considering dramatization gave us a new sense of the importance and place of dialogue in research as well as in reading itself.

To make the role we found dialogue playing in our studies clearer, we turned to the language theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. And more recently a set of ideas about the social nature of literacy in general, and particularly about the nature of the differences between oral and written language, have illuminated this story further for me. A particularly useful formulation of these ideas is offered by a recent book by Deborah Brandt (1990). It is the implications of those theories I want particularly to explore here.

The story, itself, begins in about 1983, when Vipond and I began working together on our attempts to understand the richer and more complicated forms of reading involved in reading "literary texts." Each of us was dissatisfied with the tools provided by his own discipline. I wanted to understand better why students in my English literature classes read and wrote as they did -- for instance, why they were so often oblivious of irony -- but my concerns broadened as our investigation progressed. Traditional literary studies and literary criticism (even reader-response criticism) were not much help, so I had begun looking for assistance in cognitive and developmental psychology, semiotics, and educational theory. Vipond, meanwhile, had been moving in the opposite direction, from cognitive psychology toward more "literary" issues. He was trying to extend work on text comprehension (e.g., Vipond, 1980; Kintsch and Vipond, 1979) to literary texts, because there seemed to be important aspects of reading and response that were being missed by the paradigm in which he was then working.

At first, it all seemed quite simple. We intended to use the methods normally used in cognitive psychology to study the problems raised by literary studies and rhetoric. Empirical and quantitative methods had helped bring about genuine advances in understanding human information processing; it should be possible, we thought, to apply such methods to the problem of what happens when people read literary texts. Such an assumption underlies a great deal of current work in empirical studies of literature (e.g. Larsen & Seilman, 1988; Miall, 1988, 1989).

It seemed clear from the beginning that "experts" read literary texts in a way that traditional psychological studies of text processing did not illuminate very well. Such studies usually used "fragmentary and inane" texts, to use Robert de Beaugrande's (1982) phrase, and thus limited themselves to considering reading according to a simplistic "conduit" (Reddy, 1979) or "information-shunting" (Smith, 1985) model. Such studies tested theories about how information is acquired from text by making statistical inferences from the performance of large numbers of subjects working with simple texts. But these studies seemed to have, at best, only peripheral implications for what we thought was the more complex "literary reading" in which we were interested.

By focusing attention on a different set of texts and theories, we planned to turn the old methods to new purposes, by exploring what would happen if literary texts were substituted for the simple or artificial "textoids" (Hunt, 1989) traditional studies employed, if theories drawn from rhetorical, reader-response, and poststructuralist literary theory were substituted for the information-processing theories underlying traditional studies. As a basic theoretical framework, we proposed to consider literary reading from two different vantage points. One was Chatman's (1978) version of the Russian Formalist distinction between "story" and "discourse." The other was Rosenblatt's (1978) distinction between two quite different kinds of reading, one type ("efferent"), concerned with acquiring information from text, and the other ("aesthetic"), concerned with the lived-through experience of engaging in a transaction with a text.

Partly as a result of an extended consideration of undergraduates' recognition of irony and ironically-compromised narrators (cf. Booth, 1961; Hunt, 1992), we began by conducting a series of what we called "branching text" studies. We were trying to see whether there were a causal relationship between readers' sensitivity to "narrative surface" and their "aesthetic" response. ("Narrative surface" we took to be approximately equivalent to what Chatman calls "discourse" -- matters of tone and point of view as opposed to story events.) We reasoned that if readers could be induced to pay greater attention to narrative surface, they should be more likely to respond aesthetically rather than simply reading for information or events. Obviously, we needed a way to induce attention to discourse, a way to check that it had been induced, and a way to see whether, and to what extent, aesthetic rather than efferent reading had been engaged in.

These appeared to be pretty straightforward problems. We asked a number of university students, as part of their first-year English courses, to read John Updike's "A & P." "A & P" is narrated in the first person by Sammy, a 19-year old grocery store checkout clerk. Readers in the experimental group were assigned a task intended to make them more aware of the story's narrative surface. At two places in the story we gave these readers three parallel paragraph-length continuations. The three continuations, or "branches," were virtually identical in terms of story events, but they differed in tone and point of view. The first branch was consistent in both tone (colloquial) and point of view (first-person) with the rest of the story; in fact, it was Updike's original version. The second branch varied in tone but not in point of view: it was narrated by a first-person protagonist whose tone was formal (as opposed to Sammy's racy vernacular). The third branch varied both tone and point of view: it described the events from the point of view of an uncharacterized third-person narrator.

We asked readers in the "experimental group" to rate the branches, on a 7-point Likert scale, for appropriateness with the rest of the story. The readers in the control group, however, did not see the alternatives -- we merely asked them to pause and think about the story for a few moments at those places. Near the end of the story we created a final set of branches which we presented to all the readers; this time we asked everyone to make appropriateness ratings. What we expected was that the experimental readers, because they had been encouraged to attend to the text's narrative surface in the first two sets, would demonstrate greater perception of surface (in the shape of a higher preference for Sammy's voice) on the third set.

Later, we gave all the readers a set of statements ("probes," we eventually came to call them) that "other readers" had allegedly made, and asked them to rate their agreement with each statement on another 7-point scale (they also had the option of making written comments on each statement). One of the statements was what we took to be a reasonable "point" for the story. (For work on "point" as an aspect of narrative, see especially Livia Polanyi (1985) and William Labov (1972); for an explanation of how the concept might be adapted to the sort of reading I'm discussing here, see Vipond and Hunt, 1984.) We thus took the rating on this critical item as indicating the degree to which the reader had constructed a valid point for the story; that is, had read the text with some attention to aesthetic values rather than as a mere exercise in recall. It was not clear to us then (it is now) that for us to unilaterally assert what a valid point for the story was to rush in where angels might well fear to tread).

We subjected the ratings on the two sets of 7-point scales to analysis of variance (ANOVA), with "group" as a between-subjects variable. The F-tests, we were surprised to see, turned out to be statistically nonsignificant. Readers in the experimental group did not, in fact, rate the Sammy branch as more consistent than did the control readers, nor were the experimental readers more likely to agree that our point was an "appropriate" one for the story. And, in several subsequent studies, similar ANOVAs remained nonsignificant even though we increased the number of readers (to 51) and the number of branches (to 5), reduced the length of the branches (we began calling the sentence-or phrase-length alternatives "twigs"), gave feedback after each one, altered the probes, and so on. Nothing we did -- no pattern of manipulation, however crude -- seemed to create any significant patterns of difference between the groups.

We were, to put it mildly, taken aback. After some weeks of thought and discussion the only hypothesis that we had any confidence in was that what was happening in the reading situations simply wasn't aesthetic reading at all. Apparently, there was virtually no attention or response among our readers to the kinds of surface anomalies we were trying to create and focus attention on. We had thought literary reading was an obvious, public phenomenon, but there was absolutely no sign of it in our data.

There was, however, another phenomenon in its place. We had left space at the bottom of each scale for written comments, and some readers used it. From their comments we learned something that the F-tests didn't tell us; namely, that most of the students heartily disliked "A & P." Typically, they described it as "dumb," "stupid," "boring," "choppy." A significant minority of female readers saw it as enragingly sexist (for a discussion of this response to the story, see Bogdan et al., in press). Again we were surprised. Our expectation -- one we assume was shared by the many editors who include it in their classroom anthologies -- was that "A & P" was a story undergraduates should find engaging. It was only when we began seriously to ask why the story was so deeply disliked that we began to see that our students were not reading it as though they expected it to have any relevance to them. Instead, they appeared to be reading as though their aim were to remember the information in the story, or to follow and remember the sequence of events. Reading it that way, it was dumb, stupid, boring and choppy. It was sexist. It was also badly organized.

Neither of the tasks the students seemed to think they were supposed to perform with relation to "A & P" seemed to have much to do with the strategies we ourselves, and other readers we knew, used when reading the story. We (and they, we thought) read expecting relevance and coherence, and distinguished between Updike's purposes and values -- specifically, for example, his attitudes toward women -- and Sammy's. We read (and we thought they read) the way Labov and Polanyi's listeners to conversational stories listened: with the assumption that the story had a point. Our student readers, however, apparently didn't. It began to seem that the students' responses might be better accounted for by positing not two modes of reading, as Rosenblatt did, but three. We called these "story-," "information-," and "point-driven" modes, and suggested that reading a text in a mode it doesn't "afford" (Gibson, 1979) might result in the sort of disappointment or even anger voiced by some of our readers.

When we first wrote about "point-driven understanding" in Poetics (1984), then, we didn't have much evidence for it among our student readers. The discussion was almost entirely speculative, based on our intuitions about how we ourselves read "A & P" and our guesses as to how other readers, literary critics, and anthology editors must have read it. Clearly, the branching text studies had not produced point-driven reading. Thus we found ourselves in the awkward position of trying to study a phenomenon we couldn't find.

We pursued this phenomenon over the next few years with increasingly complicated strategies for identifying and measuring the kinds of readings we were trying to study. In general, what happened was quite simple: we failed. (For a more detailed account, see Hunt & Vipond, 1992.) Though we continued to find enough evidence that the sort of reading we were looking for existed that we did not abandon our quest, it became clearer and clearer that the kinds of textual and social manipulations we were capable of were not going to promote it. After three or four years of study, the strongest evidence we could find for the existence of point-driven reading was our own intuitions. On the basis of our felt experience we still thought we knew what "literary reading" ought to look like. But we couldn't seem to get it into our lab in order to find out more about it. We were encountering what we began to think of as a larger case of the general problem I began by describing: as soon as we begin attending to reading, it stops, or becomes something else. This seemed even more true of "literary reading." Our attempts to measure it seemed to cause it to evaporate.

Finally, we decided to focus our efforts entirely on merely producing or enabling that kind of reading. How to do that? Following Rosenblatt, we had been saying for some time that aesthetic reading is a transaction between text and reader that is shaped by the particular situation in which it occurs; thus it was necessary to pay attention to all three components. Accordingly, we chose (as we had before) texts that seemed to afford point-driven reading. We chose readers (as we had before) from a range of educational levels. But what we attended to most (as we had not before) was the situation. Although the physical environment was much the same (the reading still occurred in our basement "lab" at the university) the tasks the readers performed, and the type of data we collected, were very different.

One difference was that instead of giving the readers photocopies of the texts they were to read, we handed them an actual, published copy of each text. Another was that whereas before the readers typically performed various individual, paper-and-pencil tasks with respect to the texts, this time we engaged each of them in an intensive, extended, and informal interview -- a "guided conversation" (Lofland & Lofland, 1984: 59) -- about each text. Following Odell and Goswami (1982; see also Odell, Goswami, & Herrington, 1983, and Paré, 1991b), this interview was "discourse-based." What this means is that the reader was shown sentences from the original text along with alternatives that we had composed. For each alternative, we asked the reader whether it would make a difference to her if the new phrasing were substituted for the original, and if so, what kind of difference it would make. By composing the alternatives ourselves we were able to highlight issues of interest, with the added advantage that literary nomenclature didn't have to be introduced. (For example, in some cases we replaced metaphoric language with prosaic language. Some readers thought that much was lost, whereas others said that the prosaic alternative, because it was easier to understand, was an improvement on the original.) In each case, however, the alternatives were treated as occasions for conversation, for dialogue.

After the discourse-based interview, the readers responded, as in previous studies, to probes we had devised for each text. But this time, instead of converting the responses to numbers on a Likert scale and then determining by ANOVA whether there were statistically reliable between-group differences, we used the probes as occasions for still more conversation.

More than 700 pages of transcript resulted. We did not attempt to analyze the corpus into codable statements (in part because we had begun to suspect that the statistical methodology we were using focused on the "normal" cases, whereas literary studies regularly focused on unique or individual cases [Hunt, 1990). Instead we read and reread the transcripts, looking for clear evidence of instances of the kind of reading we were looking for. We had been calling it point-driven, but now, taking the idea from Bakhtin's (1981) insights about the status of literary texts, we were beginning to think of it as "dialogic." We were moving further and further from the notion of "point" as some sort of specific, unitary -- and perhaps unproblematic -- characteristic or feature that a story might in some sense "have," and beginning rather to think of it as a process of establishing, defining and conducting relationships between people by means of texts. In this sense, our conception of the nature of the phenomenon was shifting as the investigation continued.

When we did find instances of dialogic reading (and information- and story-driven modes, too), we tried to account for them by considering the specific conjunction of reader, text, and situation. In doing this, we learned some new, and perhaps surprising, things about the phenomenon we were trying to foster and then study.

For example, we learned that people who read dialogically often expect to be able to "converse with" and continue to refer to the text after the immediate reading is finished; they talk about passing texts on to others, and they are more likely to connect what they read to their own knowledge and concerns. The most dramatic instance we found of connecting or failing to connect reading to experience was this. Two of our readers had actually met one of the authors used in the study, but one -- who, we thought on other grounds, did not read the story dialogically -- made no connection between the stories handed him and remembering that he heard the author read similar stories in a class the previous term. The more dialogic reader did. Dialogic reading seemed to be more prevalent for some texts than for others, and clearly was engaged in more frequently by the faculty members than by the students. We have discussed these findings at some length elsewhere; see Vipond, Hunt, Jewett, and Reither (1991), and Hunt (1989). In other words, it was our sense that finally we were contemplating the phenomenon itself. What made the difference?

The story I've just told (like all stories) can be read in different ways. It might be read, for instance, as a tale of two narrowly empirical experimentalists who eventually saw the light and began using warm, sensitive, enlightened qualitative methods. The studies that began as experiments, committed to quantification and statistical inference, evolved toward smaller-scale projects in more "natural" situations, with an acknowledgment that the data did not necessarily have to be quantified but were to be understood and interpreted as discourse. It might be suggested that we are now studying "everyday" as opposed to "laboratory" reading, and understanding it qualitatively instead of quantitatively.

There are, however, a number of problems in reading the story this way. Realist (quantitative-artificial) and idealist (qualitative-natural) approaches are not the polar opposites they are often made out to be (Hillocks, 1992). Instead, they are better seen as complementary metaphors; each informs the other, and we need both. Another problem is that there seems to be an implicit value hierarchy (one we do not share) in such a scheme; it's far too easy to see the bad guys as either the "number crunchers" or the "storytellers." We would not derive the moral that quantified, "artificial" experiments are bad whereas qualitative, "real world" studies are good. We agree with Douglas Mook (1983, 1989) that external validity is not necessarily a requirement in research -- for some purposes, quantified experiments done in completely "unnatural" laboratory settings are precisely what is needed, because they provide answers to questions posed by theory.

In attempting to understand both our difficulties in getting the phenomenon of literary reading to occur where we could observe it, and why we succeeded when we did, we have found especially helpful the dialogic language theory associated with the name of Mikhail Bakhtin, and the later (and largely independent) development of such a theory which is most clearly apparent in the tradition of composition studies attending to the social nature of written language phenomena (for example, Brandt, 1990; LeFevre, 1989; Paré, 1991a; Reither and Vipond, 1989).

One of the reasons that the social approaches to composition studies have developed independently of Bakhtin's work is that Bakhtin's dialogism -- especially when Bakhtin is considered as a literary theorist rather than as a philosopher of language -- is often taken to be primarily a position from which critics can see aspects of literary texts not noticed before: their many-voicedness, intertextual richness, heteroglossia. His ideas are used, in this paradigm, primarily as support for producing novel interpretations of texts and novel approaches to traditional literary studies; they are not seen to be relevant to the interests of teachers and theorists of composition and literacy development.

There is, however, a more directly relevant set of implications of Bakhtin's ideas, one that is clearer in works such as Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1973) and especially in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986) -- works that are not normally seen as directly relevant to literary theory. The ideas we find in these works help us understand what it might mean to read a literary text in an engaged way, and what it might mean to try to understand that engaged reading. They extend the dialogue outside the world of texts to include actual readers and writers in concrete and immediate social situations.

Putting the ideas in the simplest possible form, a dialogic model of the reading situation would suggest that what we do when we read and write is, under normal circumstances, fundamentally analogous to what we do when we speak and listen. We use language structures which we do not exactly invent, but which are, rather, cobbled together from pieces of language already existing in our literary environment, to produce "utterances." An utterance -- Bakhtin insists that the "utterance" is the fundamental unit of language analysis and use -- is a unique social transaction. It is constructed by speaker and hearer, or writer and reader, on the basis of a text, but is not determined by the features of the text (if it were, it could be repeated). Two completely different utterances may be (indeed, in the strict sense always are) constructed on the basis of an identical text. (An everyday example of this is the way situations determine what "speech act" a given string of signifiers will embody -- in one situation, "I feel a draft here" will be a request for information, in another an invitation for commiseration, and in another a command to shut a window.) Further, and equally important, utterances occur in dialogic chains. No utterance, Bakhtin says, exists except as a response to another utterance, or set of utterances, and no utterance is ever created except in the anticipation of some kind of response to it.

This sounds plausible when tested against our experience of oral discourse, but a good deal less so when we think about the ways in which we interact by means of written texts -- particularly "literary" ones. Although Bakhtin himself insists that everything he says about language applies to both oral and written texts, and that there is no fundamental or principled difference between a monosyllabic response in a conversation in the hall and a multi-volume novel, our traditions of thinking about written and oral language make it very difficult to accept this casual setting aside of the obvious differences between oral and written discourse, and especially between casual conversation and literary art.

The tradition of accepting such a dichotomy is effectively summarized and critiqued by Brandt (1990), who identifies what she calls "strong text" theories of language use and shows how they misrepresent and oversimplify the distinction between written and oral language. In Brandt's formulation, such theories assume that the fundamental nature of written language is to move language out of immediate interpersonal situations, to decontextualize strings of signifiers and to enable language to become more abstract and general. One influential statement of this view is that of Olson (1977; see also Olson and Hildyard, 1983). Olson proposes that the basic movement involved in the movement from orality to literacy (particularly in individual development in schooling) is the disconnection of discourse from the immediate situation and the development of the new, "literate" understanding that it is the "logical" rather than the "social" (or the "literal" rather than the "casual") that must be attended to (Brandt 21). A view very like this in outline is a common assumption of researchers into literacy development in individuals (as in Olson's case) or in cultures (as an instance, Brandt [15-17] cites Jack Goody's work on the emergence of literacy in the Near East [Goody & Watt, 1968]).

Brandt, however, like Bakhtin, argues that this is a false dichotomy and leads to an impoverished notion of what literate behavior consists of. Drawing on her own studies of expert and novice writers, she shows that "in fact, it is the least successful writers and readers who perceive the literate enterprise as a matter of literal text-making or text taking" (57) and that those who are most successful are those who have learned that "rather than learning to disengage from pragmatic events, literacy requires learning how to become purely and attentively entangled" (67).

In other words, the kinds of reading we were looking for in our research subjects (and which we intuitively saw as occurring in ourselves and our colleagues as we read John Updike or John McPhee or Jonathan Swift) were precisely the kinds that were least likely to occur in the situation where the text was not, and was not seen as, a vehicle for an utterance, but was, and was seen as, rather an example of discourse, an occasion for a test, an object for decontextualized contemplation. In Brandt's terms, we were expecting expert literate behavior in situations which apparently called for something quite different; in Bakhtin's, we were looking for dialogic engagement where the subject could find no one to engage with.

When, finally, we succeeded in finding examples of imaginative engagement with texts, it was in situations where we ourselves had opened the dialogue, by handing readers what were clearly real, published texts, the kind readers actually do hand each other, and by engaging in conversation with the readers about and by means of the texts. We had at one point in our earlier work tried to "frame" a text by showing our readers a letter which ostensibly embedded the text in a larger conversational or dialogic discourse, but our readers did not take the bait -- because, we believe now, the letter itself was seen simply as another decontextualized example of text. Embedding the text in an actual conversational situation rather than simply framing it in a hypothetical one made all the difference, we now think, for the readers (most of them) who were not accustomed to themselves making such connections.

Such a view makes sense, we think, not only of what we found but also of what we didn't find. We believe as well that it has powerful consequences for the study of this kind of reading. We have outlined some of those consequences elsewhere: here I want to underline one particular implication. If it is true that the kind of reading we most want to understand, as part of a larger attempt to understand what literature is and how it works, is intensely and thoroughly dialogic in the way that I have suggested, that if it entails not disengaging ourselves from immediate social context and motives but rather seeing the ways in which texts can be attached to and made relevant to those immediate contexts, then we must be particularly careful to be sure that the behavior we study is of this kind. Equally, we must be careful to avoid studying reading in contexts and situations which do not promote such behavior. Readers who are less confident and skilled are, it seems likely, much more at the mercy of immediate social situations, in that they are less able to make such connections in the absence of strong social support.

In the work I have been describing here, one strong and consistent result was that expert readers were much more likely to make the kinds of connections between texts and situation than the less expert readers (this is precisely consistent with the findings of Brandt regarding expert and novice writers). Creating a context which supported using the text as the medium for a social exchange of values and ideas made it much easier for the less skilled readers to do this, and offered us more instances of the sort of reading we were concerned with to study. If literacy is centrally a matter of dialogic involvement with texts, then, we must provide for instances of this sort of involvement in order to understand it.


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