Professor Sees Link in Psychology, Literature

The following article was posted in The Brown & White, a Lehigh University student-run publication.

“The collaboration between literary theory and psychology will prosper,” said Suzanne Keen, professor of English at Washington and Lee University, at the Psychology Colloquium last Wednesday.

This renewed interest in collaboration between literature and psychology, which Keen calls “the return of affect,” has several serious implications, among the most important being a marked connection between literature and social justice.

Keen speaks of Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative to incarceration in which instructors guide discussions with criminal offenders about insightful literature. Among the program’s axioms is, “The written word affects us far beyond the moment of reading.” The percentage of repeat offenders in the CLTL program is 20 percent, while those not involved in the program have repeat offenses about 45 percent of the time after their initial incarceration.

Which novels, then, yield the greatest social benefits? Some believe that literature that maintains emotional engagement in processes of empathy has the power to mold citizens who make good decisions on behalf of others.

Keen, however, is more skeptical. She asserts that narrative empathy is not necessarily causal of real-world empathy.

“Literature might change the world, if we decide it ought to,” she said.

Many attendees were intrigued by Keen’s citation of the CLTL program. How can a book be the cause of reform for criminal offenders? What does a criminal rehabilitation program resembling a book club mean for those with sociopathic tendencies?

Keen said she believes it is not the books that cause a change in attitude among the criminal offenders, but rather the discussion led by the instructor that follows the reading.

“Inside every book is a person,” Keen said, and books that criminal offenders may identify with are often chosen.

Offenders are asked to relate to the characters and their situations.

For example, Keen said she had an affinity for the “dream” scenario: An instructor may begin a discussion by citing a character’s dream and then asks the inmates what their dreams are like. The books have characters that turn away from a life of crime or show extreme repentance for any crimes committed.

Keen said Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” has been chosen in the past as a preferred reading for discussion.

Read the remainder of this article here.


2 thoughts on “Professor Sees Link in Psychology, Literature

  1. Despite Keen’s speculation here, I think it is both the books and the conversation about the books that cause the change.

  2. I think that a book can be a cause for reform for criminal offenders as the low percentage of repeat offenders demonstrate. Through the analysis of novels and character development, CLTL is not only allowing the criminal offenders to step out of their own shoes and analyze the actions and thoughts of a character but it is also simultaneously allowing the offenders to find parallels with their own stories and analyze their own character development. I think this multi-faceted program is so impressive in the way it uses books and deep conversation to link offenders, judges and parole officers on an equal ground. The work that CLTL is doing is so important and is a great example of the clear connection between literature, social justice and social change.

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