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Why do we get angry, moved, annoyed or sentimental about fictional characters in imagined worlds?

Prof. Peter Stockwell, the lead educator of ‘How to read…a mind’ by The University of Nottingham talks about his first MOOC and teaching cognitive poetics on a short free online course.

How to read... a mindWhy do we get angry, moved, annoyed or sentimental about fictional characters in imagined worlds?

Over the last few months I have been compiling a 2-week MOOC ‘How to read a mind’. It’s an introduction to the field of cognitive poetics – which is using our best current knowledge of mind and language to explore literary reading. I started out on this journey to learn something for myself: about open access courses, about engaging with large numbers of participants, and about how to present my own thinking in web form.

All of the talk about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) around at the moment is mainly focused on the idea of an open online course as a programme of teaching. I’m currently taking ‘Sustainability, Society and You’ by The University of Nottingham and ‘Corpus linguistics’ by Lancaster University (both free online courses on FutureLearn), and it is certainly true that these 8-week MOOCs are analogous to teaching a university course. However, it seems increasingly apparent to me that a shorter free online course is less like teaching and more like research dissemination.

I have felt that in a very short period, the main thing I can do is to say ‘Here is the most recent thinking in this area – what do you think?’ This latest thinking has not yet become settled or paradigmatic enough to form the basis of a thing to be taught yet, so a short online course is much more like a conference presentation with a long space for discussion afterwards, or like a symposium in which everyone participates. ‘How to read a mind’ is like this.

Of course, there is not such a hard distinction between teaching and research – and The University of Nottingham rightly promotes one as the catalyst for the other – but reframing a 2-week free course as the dissemination of research rather than primarily as teaching has all sorts of consequences. It is exciting and I’m eager to hear the thinking of the ‘students’ on the course. It means that my research ideas are instantly reaching thousands of people rather than the sort of slow-burn niche academic audience of my co-specialists who usually read my scholarly books and articles: that is ‘impact’. It also means that I can drop risky and new ideas in and trust all the participants to respond.

I’m really looking forward to welcoming everyone on the course starting next week. If you haven’t done so already, whether you’re a writer, a psychology student, or simply passionate about fictional characters, you can still join the course.

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