Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Adaptation and Perception: Media Convergence: Mainz 2015

Last week I attended a conference on “Adaptation, Perception, and Media Convergence” in Mainz, Germany, and gave a talk on perception and metaphor.  Although including some of the ideas – of mindfulness, mesearch and psychology – that I have explored elsewhere, I felt that something about this presentation was fundamentally wrong.  I could not explain why at the time, but I understood that I had not really put across what I wanted to say.  The talk can be accessed at

It was only this week, four days after the presentation that I began to understand what had happened.  In advocating a form of adaptation studies based on perception and self-reflection, I had gone too far in the individualistic direction, and thereby abandoned the notion of a community of purpose that I believe underpins all forms of adaptation studies.  It is all very well learning how to reflect, but we need to shape our reflections according to the communities we inhabit so that we can continue communicating – and thereby adapting to new situations.  This form of work underpins all screenplay writing in the movies, as well as in the academic field.  In advocating a move towards perception as self-reflection, I had ended up becoming dogmatic; a state of being that is quite contrary to that which adaptation studies should promote.  We need to listen to others as well as ourselves – as Jerome Bruner suggests in Making Stories (2002) – adaptation evolves out of reconciling the perpetual tensions between individual and community values.

The conference as a whole vividly illustrated the truth of this notion.  While listening to and commenting on the papers, I understood that “convergence” actually had two meanings.  It not only referred to textual issues – where media and other texts come to have shared purposes and shared meanings – but it also described the ways in which people from disparate backgrounds come together to discuss similar issues while acknowledging the presence of different ways of thinking.  Kamilla Elliott’s talk on “Add-app-Tation” vividly illustrated the first meaning of “convergence” as she showed how the creation of new apps helped to encourage a variety of approaches to Shakespeare study that did not involve close textual reading.  This did not mean that textual reading should be abandoned altogether; on the contrary Elliott showed how it could be approached in a different way through visual as well as verbal means.  Some of the apps she showed might have seemed childish to older academics; but they might prove exceptionally useful to those encountering Shakespeare for the first time.  The apps could thereby help to expand the Shakespearean community of purpose across a wider cross-section of the people.

Heiko Hecht’s presentation on the effects of furniture, lighting, and their relationship to adaptation reinforced this notion.  By presenting a series of empirical experiments conducted within his department (of psychology), he showed how notions of color and space invariably depended on perception rather than any objective standards.  Such perceptions might differ across cultures – “redness” might signify something different in the Republic of Turkey rather than Germany – but at the same time there existed a shared meaning that could be considered transcultural.  The conflict between these two values of transculturality and culture-specificity is what prompts individuals to adapt.

Rainer Emig’s piece offered some interesting points for adaptation scholars to consider.  Is there such a concept as “authorship,” or has it been superseded by “transmediality” or “convergence”?  Does adaptation studies want to be multi-disciplinary or does it aspire to become a separate discipline?  And does there need to be an accepted body of knowledge (which we might term “theory”) that separates adaptation studies from other disciplines?  As I listened to the talk, I bore in mind a statement made during a coffee break by one of the other participants: those academics who proclaim that their work is “original” or “ground-breaking” might actually be working in a spirit contrary to what Emig suggests.  If adaptation studies values convergence, then it follows that any theoretical or methodological advances within the discipline should evolve out of consultations between people.  Maybe there’s no need to go over old ground – for example, by asking “what adaptation studies is” – but maybe we need to think more carefully about how (or whether) the discipline needs to adapt theories developed in other disciplines for its own particular purposes.

This thought sprung to mind once more as I listened to Pascal Nicklas’s talk on adaptation and neuro-cognition.  He put forward a model of cognition – developed by Arthur M. Jacobs of the University of Berlin and adapted by Nicklas himself – proposing that the human brain works differently when confronted with a literary as opposed to another form of text.  While we might be prompted to ask basic questions as “what defines a literary text?” the model still goes a long way towards explaining the pleasure we might experience when rereading a literary text (as opposed to watching a literary adaptation).  Put another way, Jacobs’s model might help to justify in more empirical terms what Bruner says about the ways in which individuals learn how to adapt to different cultures and different situations.  The fact that Nicklas presented the model in such an accessible and enthusiastic manner suggested a willingness to involve the community in re-shaping individual perceptions, and thereby expand adaptation studies’ field of research.

Dan Hassler-Forest’s talk made similar points through showing different forms of video clip.  While arguing – as I had done – that adaptation creates its own forms of narrative he simultaneously suggested that such narratives converged with other narratives so as to render them comprehensible to others.  The authors of “new” narratives, so to speak, built on “old” values.

One of the most interesting side-issues that emerged from the conference was to learn about government policy as practiced in the United Kingdom, where universities are expected to make an “impact,” through initiatives that help to change (adapt?) existing policies.  Other initiatives, such as going out in to high schools and integrating with wider members of the community, are described as “outreach,” which possesses lesser value than “impact” insofar as it has no effect on government policies.  The Mainz conference had both “impact” and “outreach” in other ways; it made an “impact” in the way it brought people with different approaches to adaptation studies together and made them reflect on what they were doing, and how they could communicate better with each other.  This was something I learned through painful experience, even though it took four days to understand it.  The conference’s “outreach” consisted of integrating papers from different subject interests together – media studies, psychology, cognitive studies, literature – and showing how they might collaborate more closely with one another.  At last it seems that the discipline is beginning to move away from the literature-film-media paradigm into other areas of research.  That is not to say that everyone agrees with what’s being done (there were several “full and frank” discussions throughout the conference), but nonetheless they remain prepared to commit themselves to an ad hoc, as well as transnational community of purpose dedicated to the discipline.

I learned recently that consequent on my presentation, some colleagues believed I was not in favor of adaptation studies.  Far from it: I think its emphasis on learning, shifting perceptions and reflection (both individual as well as community) renders it one of the most exciting places to be within the academic world.  The Mainz conference admirably reinforced this belief.  For this, I’d like to thank Pascal, Dan and Sibylle, as well as all the hard-working people who helped to make this event such an intellectual eye-opener.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Adaptation, Perception, Metaphor

In the mid-1980s I studied for my MA and D.Phil. at the University of Sussex at a time when cultural materialism enjoyed a peak of popularity.  The volume Political Shakespeare edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield originated out of work done in the Renaissance Studies seminar:[i] with contributions by graduate learners and an afterword by Raymond Williams, it was hailed at the time as a landmark text dragging Shakespeare out of the liberal humanists’ clutches and planting him at the center of the contemporary political agenda.  Texts such as The Tempest offered trenchant postcolonial critiques, while stage adaptations such as the Michaels Bogdanov and Pennington’s English Shakespeare Company rendering of the histories provided insights into Britain’s (lack of) influence in the global socio-economic order.  Implacably opposed to the Thatcherite government, the cultural materialists envisaged a time when literature would occupy a central position in a politicized curriculum dedicated to creating new communities of resistance.  Anyone advocating the power of the imagination was summarily dismissed: I remember one professor branding the Renaissance scholar Frances A. Yates as “potty,” on account of her suggestion that the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabethan writing – spearheaded by Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare – referred as much to the development of psychological awareness as political consciousness.
Three decades later the theoretical wheel has turned full circle.  While politics (with a small ‘p’) continues to occupy an important place in critics’ minds, they also admit the possibility of imaginative transformation permitting artists and viewers alike to explore new constructions of being.  Recently broadcast on BBC Two Scotland (with a forthcoming repeat on BBC Four over Christmas), Lachlan Goudie’s History of Scottish Art offers a prime example.  In a program discussing Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his contemporaries, Goudie suggested that members of the so-called “Glasgow Group” embraced a transmedial view of art; they not only worked with canvas and paint but with architecture, design and handicrafts.  Through formal as well as stylistic innovations they infused their productions with an imaginative power designed to draw viewers into close artistic communication.  This process proved liberating: artists no longer felt constrained by the need for ‘relevance’ as they enjoyed a new-found freedom to experiment.  In the next program, “Long Horizons,” Goudie argued that artists of the Sixties such as Eduardo Paolozzi created surrealist collages comprised of popular cultural products designed to prompt reflection on whether the binary separating the conscious from the subconscious response needs to be rethought.  We are reminded of the capacity of the imagination to transform belief.
What bearing does this shift from politics to the imagination have on adaptation studies?  I recently encountered Dan Hassler-Forest’s and Pascal Nicklas’s edited collection The Politics of Adaptation, which boldly announces its desire to foreground “the political and ideological contexts and power relations in which artistic adaptations take place.”  They are concerned with the ways in which globalization and media convergence influence production and distribution, emphasizing “the importance of adaptation as a tool of appropriation and power negotiation in racial and postcolonial debates, as well as in terms of biopolitics and gender” (11).  Through case studies the book maps “larger ideological shifts, especially while examining the interaction between a particular text and its cultural reception” (12).  I find these statement fascinating as they appear to recycle (adapt, perhaps?) the arguments proposed by cultural materialists all those years ago.  Yet I would not thereby assume that Hassler and Nicklas are returning to the past; read in conjunction with Simone Murray’s seminal work on The Adaptation Industry (2012), we understand how the visual media has been dominated by corporate interests dictating the construction of individual adaptations for film and television.  Noam Chomsky’s recent film Requiem for the American Dream offers a chilling reminder about how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by big business.  Movies and television provide one of the principal means to accomplish this task.
On the other hand I would query whether institutions dominate individuals as much as they would like to believe.  Müge İplekçi’s Turkish novel Mount Qaf (Kafdağı) (2008, English translation 2012) follows a number of recent fictional works by showing how the individual/institutional opposition is a western construct existing primarily within the realm of the imagination.  But what if we were to cast off this belief and assume instead that we were members of an anima mundi wherein questions of life, death, belief or non-belief (binaries with their origins in the west) no longer assumed any significance?  What if we approached life as a series of moments to be enjoyed on their own terms as opportunities for adaptation so that we could enrich the lives of those around us?  This Anatolian-inspired faith in the power of the universe might be considered “romantic” by many westerners, evoking Keats, Wordsworth or philosophers such as Goethe with his notion of the weltanschauung.  Nonetheless İplekçi raises two points about adaptation studies which have been largely overlooked to date.  First, the discipline should acknowledge cultural, philosophical and ideological differences that challenge several of its most basic assumptions, especially the use of binaries (source/target text being the most obvious).  Second, adaptation studies as a discipline should concentrate exclusively on the literature-film-media studies paradigm but engage us on a daily basis.  We spend our entire existences learning how to adapt to new situations and new phenomena; until we build self-referentiality into our theoretical work, the discipline will remain on the academic margins, an adjunct to the ‘real business’ of more established fields within the humanities or social sciences.
I do not need to belabor the point about moving towards a more reflective construction of adaptation studies acknowledging the capacity of the imagination to transform the world around us.  Our focus of interest should extend to other types of text – paintings, sculptures and literary fiction not necessarily based on a specific source.  Several colleagues in Fan Studies have enthusiastically embraced this mode of analysis by showing how individual lives have been transformed by Star Wars or the Jane Austen cycle of adaptations, to give but two examples.  I believe that adaptation studies should draw on their insights while extending them into new avenues of research.  It’s not only films that redefine our perceptions – any text can possess similar transformative potential.
For this purpose, I’ve found recent theories of mindfulness extremely beneficial.  Developed by cognitive psychologists and frequently invoked as a means to combat depression, mindfulness encourages living in the moment; to observe our changing thoughts and feelings without judging them.  Rather we should value our capacity to adapt and thereby work towards a better life.  I’ve written extensively about the subject elsewhere; for the purposes of this presentation, I argue that mindfulness places perception at the center of our existences.  Our response to a text promote further adaptation as we make sense of new information or new insights (Raw, “Psychology and Adaptation,” 89-101).  We should also acknowledge the capacity of our imaginations to express the inexpressible.  This is an important point, common to all writers and spectators at cinematic or televisual transactions, which has hitherto received scant attention in adaptation studies.  Susan Sontag drew attention several years ago to our tendency to use metaphor to describe illness, or to use illnesses metaphorically to sum up adverse situations.  The use of metaphor becomes a form of shorthand, a means to stimulate unconscious associations in the interlocutor’s mind (86).  The same phenomenon also crops up in creative thinking and/or problem workshops pitched at business communities, wherein “metaphors and analogies can be really helpful to get […] something that is difficult to share with words” (“Impact Innovation”).  Metaphors do not require explanation; they possess a unique capacity to stimulate and enrich experience.[ii]
What I advocate is a model of adaptation studies that might seem superficially retrograde, flying in the face of the cultural materialist or postmodern thought that underpins existing theories by foregrounding the importance of authorial intention.  In cinematic or televisual events the viewer’s or the fan’s perception assumes equal importance as that of the director or screenwriter.  Through comparing their interpretations, we can learn a lot about how texts are consumed in a variety of socio-temporal contexts.  This model foregrounds mindful engagement: we are not solely concerned with transmediality per se but try to make sense of our shifting reactions to texts as well as those producing them.  We engage in mesearch as well as research, more accurately defined as a quest for self-knowledge through scholarship (Rees).  Metaphors provide a means to communicate the outcomes of this quest to others as well as foregrounding ourselves at the center of the creative process.  The binaries separating “artists” from “critics,” or “actors” from “spectators” no longer matter: everyone should meditate on the relationship between perception and ontology.  It is this seemingly endless process of discovery and rediscovery that renders adaptation studies so endlessly fascinating.

“Black Culture.”  Artsnight.  Dir. George Cathro.  Perf. George the Poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson.  BBC Two 30 Oct. 2015.  Television.

Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield, eds.  Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism.  Manchester: Manchester UP., 1985.  Print.

“Dympna Callaghan.”  Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences: Faculty Directory.  2014.  Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Hassler-Forest, Dan, and Pascal Nicklas, eds.  The Politics of Adaptation: Media Convergence and Ideology.  New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015.  Print.    

The History of Scottish Art.  Dir.  Pauline Law.  Perf.  Lachlan Goudie.  BBC Scotland 2015.  Television.

“How to Express the Inexpressible.”  Impact Innovation 1 May 2014.  Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

İplekçi, Müge.  Mount Qaf.  Trans.  Nilgün Dungan.  London: Milet, 2012.  Print.

Murray, Simone.  The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation.  London and New York: Routledge, 2012.  Print.

Raw, Laurence.  “Psychology and Adaptation: The Work of Jerome Bruner.”  Linguaculture (2014):  89-101.  Print.

Rees, Emma.  “Self-Reflective Study: The Rise of ‘Mesearch.’”  THES 19 Mar 2015.  Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Requiem for the American Dream.  Dir.  Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott.  Perf. Noam Chomsky.  Naked City Films/ PF Pictures, 2015.  Film.

Sontag, Susan.  Illness as Metaphor.  New York: Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 1979.  Print.

[i] At least one member of that group went on to pursue a successful academic career; now the William A. Safire Professor of Modern Letters at Syracuse, Dympna Callaghan began her career at Sussex (“Dympna Callaghan”).
[ii] According to the performance poet George the Poet, our power to create and savor mataphor lies at the heart of all individual and social change (“Black Culture”).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What is Transnationalism?

I hear a lot about transnationalism these days.  I have an essay forthcoming in a book TEACHING TRANSNATIONAL CINEMA: POLITICS AND PEDAGOGY (Routledge, 2016), which concentrates on immigrant identities, transnational encounters, foreignness, cosmopolitanism and citizenship, terrorism, border politics, legality and race.  Further information can be found at

The American Studies Association of Turkey (ASAT) has an event forthcoming at the end of this month on “Transnational American Studies,” that explores Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s suggestion that American Studies should expand its remit into “multidirectional flows of people, ideas, and goods,” as well as establishing “social, political, linguistic, cultural, and economic crossroads” that would enrich our understanding of America and its global impact  The Journal I edit for ASAT, the Journal of American Studies in Turkey, tries to perpetuate this transnational spirit through accepting a wide variety of submissions, not necessarily about “America” as a social, political or cultural construct, but which involve dialogic matters in some way, shape or form.

Yet the more I become involved in transnational studies, the more confused I become as to how to define it.  What distinguishes this mode of thinking from international or multinational studies, or even cross-national studies?  As a Brit living in Turkey editing an American Studies journal, am I a transnational?  And are the majority of papers I hear at conferences comparing one cultural construction with another really “transnational,” or simply a modified form of “intercultural studies,” a concept that enjoyed popularity in the late Nineties but which seems to have fallen into disfavor now.

It was quite by chance that I heard a speech given by Fred Gardaphė, Distinguished Professor at the John D. Calendra Italian American Institute at Queens College, New York, at the Italian American Studies conference in Naples.  Like many scholars in the field, he called for greater collaboration between scholars of different cultures – Italians as well as Americans – to reframe “American Studies” in such a way that it no longer centered on “America” but rather explored questions of shifting identity construction.  This process should be achieved not only through scholarly research but through dialogue – the kind of constructive academic work that requires us not to impose our views on others but rather listen to them.  Although Gardaphė did not describe the model in quite the same terms, he advocated listening rather than just listening; not just taking into account the words people say, but trying to decode the meaning behind them.  This is something way beyond the politics of diplomacy; it requires us to study character – not only the characters of those whom we address, but our own character as well.  We have to be prepared to shift our perspective, to allow for new learning and new insights that might strike us totally spontaneously.  In short, we have to learn openness.

Gardaphė’s arguments struck me as revelatory.  He was not just focusing on transnationalism as a series of general issues – race, politics, class, citizenship – but rather suggesting an a priori willingness to become passionate about listening to and learning from others.  This ability could pave the way for an enhanced understanding of what “transnationalism” represents to individuals and the diverse worlds they inhabit.
I subsequently traveled to São Paulo for another conference, this time on the relationship between adaptation and translation.  While there were interventions focusing exclusively on textual issues, the majority of the participants seemed far more interested in “transnationalism,” as a form of dialogic exchange.  Not only could this process be enacted through reading papers, but – perhaps more significantly – through informal exchanges.  The participants exhibited a refreshing honesty not found in most conferences (which tend to comprise a series of formal papers read out loud for the sole purposes of improving one’s academic résumé), that manifested itself in a willingness to apply the insights learned from listening to papers to their own lives.  How could listening to a paper on translating children’s literature into Portuguese, and the decisions taken by specific translators, affect the ways in which we look at the world?  Is there such a concept as cultural specificity, or is this simply an artificial construct designed to reinforce boundaries between self and other?  Such ontological questions lie at the basis of any transnational outlook.

As I listened to the papers, I began to realize that transnationalism is inseparable from transculturality and translingualism.  Until such time as we learn to dissolve the boundaries separating one subject discipline from another (which tend to be culturally determined), we will not really acquire a transnational perspective.  Likewise we should realize that dialogue between representatives of different nations and cultures does not have to take place in one language; to do so is to impose an artificial hegemony on work that actively resists hegemonic incorporation.  Rather we should be free to use whatever communicative strategies we wish; it’s important for others to understand why we use them rather than simply to understand them.  Form matters as much, if not more than content.

If this is the case, then perhaps we need to start looking for ways in which the events described at the beginning of this post can be amalgamated, thereby permitting participants to think across disciplines as well as cultures.  Only then can they acquire the breadth of openness that might pave the way for a genuinely transnational view of life.  Maybe American Studies needs to come out of its disciplinary cocoon; likewise Film Studies.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Overcoming Essentialisms

I listened today to a speech by translation studies scholar Luc van Doorslaer, rather provocatively entitled “Is There such a Thing as Turkish Translation Studies?”  This was the plenary session in a conference held at Hacettepe University, Ankara, entitled: “Extratranslation in Theory and Practice: Representation of Turkish Culture through Translation.”  I thoroughly enjoyed the speech, which rather than attempting to answer the question of whether “Turkish Translation Studies” existed, looked instead at some of the areas in which Translation Studies (hereafter termed TS) could be analyzed at the institutional as well as the linguistic level.  In the end van Doorslaer concluded quite logically that there really wasn’t anything clearly identified as “Turkish Translation Studies”; rather there existed a body of work which might be more accurately termed “Translation Studies in Turkey.”

Fair point; but as I reflected on van Doorslaer’s lecture, I wondered whether our colleagues witnessing the paper might think in the same way.  In the questioning that followed the paper, it was clear that many participants were trying to explain to him how the Republic of Turkey was essentially different in the way it approached translation, favoring an historical and/or literary approach rather than a linguistic one.  One young man insisted that it was imperative for all Turks to “engage with the past,” so as to understand their present.

I am all for the idea of using the past to engage the present, and vice versa, but I wonder why the questioner felt it necessary to use the descriptive term “all Turks.”  I was prompted to look once again at the title of this conference (“Representation of Turkish Culture”), and wonder precisely why the organizers had kept that term “culture” in the singular.  While there has certainly been movements to promote a national culture in the post-1923 era, we have to take into account the inescapable fact that there exist as many cultures in Turkish territory as there are people.  Perhaps the essentialist term offers a sense of security to its users at a time of perpetual socio-political unrest.

Or maybe not.  Looking at van Doorslaer’s lecture in light of recent work published in the Republic of Turkey in translation (as well as in other related disciplines such as education), I detect a marked reluctance to engage with personal issues; how cultures are shaped by individuals and vice versa.  There is a peculiarly distancing effect evident in the research; it is invariably written in the third person, based on qualitative or quantitative evidence backed up with extensive scholarly apparatus.  It is certainly scholarly, but tells us little about how the writers feel about their work; what it means to them.

The reason for this detachment is institutionally shaped: scholarly work can only seem “scholarly,” if it is written impersonally, in a mode as “scientific” as possible.  Through such methods any writer, irrespective of their origins, can be approached equally; they have written articles according to internationally recognized (i.e. western) standards.  This might be a laudable aim in itself but leads to the kind of essentialisms (or generalizations) that tell us little about the writers’ subject positions or the cultures they represent.  Hence it’s very difficult to formulate a transcultural perspective on the material.

This is where I think adaptation studies can really make its mark on the disciplinary agenda in the Republic of Turkey and elsewhere.  It does not need to follow TS’s lead and look at issues of institutionalization, source/target text relations, academic traditions or historical research.  Inspired by political theorists such as Weber, psychologists like Piaget, and constructivist educators such as Jerome Bruner, this nascent discipline can focus far more closely on relationships between individuals and cultures; and how “adaptation” in this sense represents a perpetual process of reshaping, as individuals learn how to socialize themselves to new cultures, and cultures are reshaped through individual contributions.  Through such approaches we can understand the interrelatedness of different disciplines; how our understanding of concepts such as “Turkish culture” depends not only on an awareness of government and/or educational policies, but how such policies are consumed at different times by different individuals.  Through adaptation studies we can perhaps understand better why essentialisms continue to be a driving force within academic life, especially in departments striving for their academic and professional survival in a financially straitened environment.  More importantly, we could learn something more about ourselves and why we continue to pursue our academic (as well as personal) research.

We have a lot to thank translation studies for – in broadening our awareness of the interrelationship between language and translation policies and how they impact our daily lives.  Van Doorslaer’s plenary speech made this perfectly clear, even though his conclusions (advocating a more pluralist view of research) flatly contradicted the agenda suggested by the conference’s title (and the questioner’s perspective).  Nonetheless I think that adaptation studies can acquire an identity of its own, provided its practitioners are prepared to free themselves from translation studies’ coattails and make a bid for autonomy.  If nothing else, van Doorslaer reminded me of the importance of fulfilling this objective, for which much thanks.

Laurence Raw

15 Oct. 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Adaptation, Acting and Emotional Transformation

I’ve read a thoroughly generous review of the book I co-wrote with Tony Gurr, Adaptation and Learning: New Frontiers (2013) by Dennis Cutchins, published in the latest issue of Literature/ Film Quarterly.  Describing it as “as different from any other book on adaptation studies you have ever read,” he describes how we adopted a broad conception of adaptation as “a time-honored survival and educational strategy […] a kind of master narrative for some of the most important human activities.”  On the other hand, he believes that we should have spent more time developing the connection between adaptation as a media process/product and adaptation as psychological development (or “survival skill,” as he calls it).  I’d love to have known more about why he felt that his first impression of the book “was not positive” (Literature/ Film Quarterly 43.3 (2015): 233-5).

Cutchins’s comments set me thinking; how could that connection between the two constructions of adaptation be reinforced?  We could argue that the media/process product known as adaptation represents the result of creative endeavors by several artists – actors, directors, producers, screenwriters – all of whom have exercised the power to adapt as a survival skill (if they didn’t, then they would lose their jobs).  Hence the finished product comprises a palimpsest of several adaptations, each one produced by an individual artist and all of them reshaped into a coherent whole.

Yet perhaps there is another way of addressing this issue.  I’ve just finished Edward Dwight Easty’s primer on Method Acting.  Published as long ago as 1989, it is a primer designed to introduce learners to the theory and practice of an art inspired by Konstantin Stanislavsky, and disseminated throughout American theater culture by Lee Strasberg.  Some actors positively recoiled at its theories – especially Britons brought up in a more pragmatic construction of training – but the Method has inspired many performers, notably Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey and (for older readers) Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Reading through the book, I was struck by the way in which Easty insists on actors being totally involved psychologically in the creation of a role.  Until they have learned to inhabit it, and understand the characters’ motivations, then they will never give convincing characterizations.  Actors have to become sensitive to the world around them; to understand the behavior of people they encounter, both on and off the stage, as well as their own reactions, and use that experience as the raw material for their performances.  As they act, either on stage or in front of the movie camera, their performances change all the time in response to external stimuli – the other actors’ reactions, the placement of props – as well as their innermost feelings.  Hence no two performances can ever be the same.

While watching a Method actor at work on screen – for example, Brando – we can see a controlling intelligence at work.  He inhabits his characters; every moment he occupies the screen assumes significance as a means of understanding how he feels and reacts.  In a sense his performance resembles a musical score, with the “notes” suggested both by the way he speaks and moves.  In other words, we watch him adapt to different situations, in order to survive and/or negotiate them.

This experience might offer a way to answer Cutchins’s query.  Watching a finished adaptation (a media product, if you like) is seldom a dispassionate experience.  Brando, Dean or Spacey’s performances engage us at a subliminal as well as a rational level (otherwise, why should so many fans have wanted to reproduce their mannerisms off screen?).  They offer us examples of how to adapt to different situations that we can use to determine our future lives outside the theater.  The intensity of the actors’ characterizations offer us examples of adaptation in action, as well as showing how texts are transformed through use of paralinguistic as well as sonic abilities.

This experience should remind us that the art of screen adaptation is only partially to do with textual transformation.  We have to bear in mind that there are other aspects of an adaptation to consider, especially in terms of the actors’ performances.  I engaged with this issue in a recent piece on David Rabe’s Hurlyburly (1999), published in American Drama on Screen (2014), but overlooked the psychological consequences of the performances.  We can only understand precisely what processes were involved in adapting Rabe’s text to the screen, and how they were developed by the cast (including Spacey and Sean Penn), if we understand the ways in which human beings adapt to experiences.  The actor rehearses the kind of processes we engage in every day.  To sum up my argument in a phrase, we learn more about what is involved in adaptation as a psychological by watching actors adapt in a mediatic adaptation.

I realize that I might be playing with semantics here, but this kind of approach is precisely what is being employed – to great advantage, it must be said – by our colleagues in Fan Studies.  Perhaps we ought to propose future collaborations in order to share our mutual insights.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Deconstructing the Adaptation Studies Critic

I’ve just read Thomas Leitch’s very generous review of Patrick Cattrysse’s DESCRIPTIVE ADAPTATION STUDIES published in the latest issue of ADAPTATION, where he accuses the author of being prescriptive, as well as being in favor of a “science-based discipline,” suggesting, perhaps, that there might be some conclusions to which everyone, regardless of context and culture, could subscribe.  Leitch himself prefers to describe adaptation as “endlessly debatable, revisitable, [full of] adaptable questions, insights, and leaps of faith,” even though he describes Cattrysse’s work as indispensable as well as infuriating.  The review can be accessed at

I don’t want to comment on Cattrysse’s work anymore (I reviewed it for Literature/Film Quarterly and referred to it frequently in subsequent blog-posts and essays; but what does warrant further comment is his assertion that any discipline can be “science-based.”  I wonder what that term actively signifies: does it mean that it consists of a series of indisputable precepts beyond negotiation?  Or can adaptation studies be reconfigured as a series of experiments designed to prove a particular theorem?  Will we be able to divide further essays for Adaptation or Literature/Film Quarterly into sections in a fashion similar to those used in pedagogical studies, with particular sections devoted to “problem,” “literature review,” “application,” or conclusion”?

Or is the entire notion of “science-based” disciplines the invention of critics desirous to prove that what they are doing represents an important contribution to their specific discipline?  I grew up with the work of F. R. Leavis, a controversial figure of mid-twentieth century British literary criticism, who insisted on critical objectivity; any poem, or other text, could be analyzed with scientific precision, producing a series of indisputable conclusions on content and form.  This is how I learned to “do” practical criticism; by dividing my textual analyses into content and form, I could understand in minute detail precisely what the writer was trying to communicate, with a depth of knowledge denied to ordinary readers.

I’ve just finished reading Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s satirical novel The Time Regulation Institute.  Originally published in 1961 under the Turkish title Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü, it is a wildly funny satire of bureaucracies, where legions of people spend most of their time doing nothing.  One of Tanpınar’s major concerns lies in emphasizing the difficulties of separating truth from fiction: people believe what they want to with little concern for veracity.  The hero of the novel is an illiterate with little or no self-reliance; catapulted into prominence in the Time Regulation Institute, he has a whole past invented on his behalf that transforms him into an ideal husband, Stakhanovite worker and intellectual visionary.  No one bothers to question him, even when the Institute collapses.

Tanpınar’s satire encourages us to consider precisely how and why certain discourses are perceived as authoritative in preference to others.  In the case of the novel’s hero, it is his status at the centre of the company that renders him an authoritative figure.  The fact he is manifestly unqualified for the task doesn’t really matter; in fact, it proves a positive advantage based on the principle that ignorance is bliss.  I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but it seems to me that the reason why Leavis’s (or Cattrysse’s) assertions are given credence is for a similar reason; it’s not what they are saying that’s important, but the status of the speakers themselves.  If we accept what they are saying, then perhaps we might share their status in the future.

What has this discussion got to do with adaptation studies?  Theoretically speaking, not much.  But what Cattrysse’s comment does reveal is the presence of a battleground, where critics and theorists of different disciplines are competing for recognition of the kind Leavis enjoyed half a century ago.  The stereotypical image of scholars beavering away in their ivory towers developing ideas is nothing but a myth; adaptation studies specialists – myself included – are as publicity-conscious as anyone writing in the public sphere.

But perhaps this is no bad thing.  The more scholars contribute interventions, the more possibilities emerge for theoretically informed debate – not closed debate over “scientific” principles, as Cattrysse might assume, but debate between colleagues from various disciplinary origins as to how the discipline might advance as a self-contained unit, or how adaptation studies might be used to advance other disciplines.  We need authors like Tanpınar to skewer our pretensions, and thereby understand how scholarly positions are constructed and reconstructed across cultures.  I value Cattrysse’s comment, if only to show how the critic-as-authoritative-figure is an ideological construct that needs to be debunked.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Adaptation Scholar as Public Intellectual

Over 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the meaning and function of the intellectual in The American Scholar.  He put forth the idea of the “One Man,” by which he meant the complete person, or the person who embodies all dimensions of human potential and actuality – professor, scholar, statesperson, artist.   Emerson's intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action; to preserve great ideas of the past, communicate them, and creates new ideas.  He is the “world's eye,” communicating his ideas to the world – not just out of obligation to his society, but out of obligation to himself.  Public action is part of being the One Man, the whole person.

One such public intellectual in our contemporary world is the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has devoted his long career to discover the ways about how people think differently, and communicate his findings through a series of best-selling works such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985).  His recently-published autobiography On the Move – dramatized as a BBC Book of the Week and available on the IPlayer at the following link ( – offers an honest account of his life, proving beyond measure how his medical and psychological researches contributed significantly to his development as a person.  The title is ambiguous: Sacks was perpetually “on the move” throughout his life, as he emigrated from the United Kingdom to the United States, and indulged his passion for motor-cycling across the country.  Yet he was also mentally “on the move” through his professional researches, as well as his encounters with individual patients.  He learned how to learn – a process that is often difficult for anyone to acquire – and subsequently describe that learning process through his books.

In many ways Sacks’s books, including his autobiography, are classic works of adaptation studies, proving beyond doubt how our encounters with people (as well as texts, if we can call a patient a “test”) contribute significantly to our personality development.  We never remain the same personalities; each encounter changes us in some way.  The fact that someone like Sacks has been so ready to share that process of development through his works proves the truth of this.  Although a brilliant scholar in his own right, he has retained that humility separating the truly great from the ordinary; a desire to share his findings, as well as change his views according to the situation.  In Emersonian terms he has become “the world’s eye” through a combination of openness, resilience and empathy.

I believe that anyone involved in the practice as well as the theory of adaptation studies has the potential to emulate Sacks’s achievement.  It’s just a matter of emphasis; rather than simply concentrating on the minutiae of textual transformation, or restricting our focus to fan studies (or other aspects of the film studies umbrella), we should be prepared to acknowledge that the practice of adaptation is fundamental to our lives.  Even when we watch films, either in the cinema, on television, or online, we can develop the kind of empathy that helped someone like Sacks gain an insight into human personality.  If we can transfer that empathy into our day-to-day exchanges, in the classroom, in the office or elsewhere, then we are well on the way to learning something about how human minds work – especially our own.  Adaptation specialists should learn how to be, as well as to think; to be prepared to climb down from their scholarly ivory towers and learn how to learn through contact with everyone, not just fellow adaptation specialists.  Not only will they acquire a greater understanding of human behaviour, but they will learn how to adapt themselves to different situations; and hence rehearse what most adapters do when they are faced with the demands of adapting a text for cinematic or televisual purposes.

Many of these ideas are not new; I have referred to them in several previous blog-posts.  But I do think that we need to be able to widen our focus of attention away from the film-media-cinema nexus and learn from the examples of others in different professions.  Sacks understood this lesson well; his book Awakenings was later adapted into a successful film with Robert de Niro (1990).  If we could understand how his researches into neuroscience gave him a greater insight into the adaptive process, then perhaps we’d also acquire the breadth of knowledge that can transform us into public intellectuals as well.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Who Really Cares About "Original" Texts?

Like many of their colleagues in related areas, some adaptation critics find it difficult to rid themselves of the kind of concepts that ultimately impede the discipline from moving into new and suggestive areas of research.  One such concept is “fidelity,” which I have discussed in a previous blog-post (; another is the concept of an “original text,” understood as the primary text providing the source for most adaptations.  Witness a recent review of The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen appearing in the Times Literary Supplement (5 June 2015): “that astringency […] essential to the novels – not all of the entire zombie-werewolf-dating-advice-listicle-slash-fiction tide can erode the force of the woman’s single, intelligently ferocious narrative voice” (p. 26).  Adaptors can reshape Austen’s novel as much as they wish, but they will never be able to recreate the force of the “original.”

Recently on BBC Four there appeared a documentary, first broadcast in 2008, called Artful Codgers, profiling the Greenhalgh family from Bolton in northwest England, who for many years systematically deceived the art world, including dealers, museum curators, private collectors and auction houses, with their cleverly produced fakes.  Shaun was the craftsperson behind the whole operation, producing brilliant works in his garden shed; while father George was the salesperson, expertly inventing stories that fooled everyone about the so-called provenance of the fakes.  Their crowning glory was the creation of the Amarna Princess, a statue of Tutankhamun’s sister purported to be over 3,000 years old, which they sold to their local museum for £440,000.  The documentary is available via YouTube on

The documentary teaches an important lesson; sometimes fakes can be so good that they can be mistaken for the “original.”  Shaun Greenhalgh was a brilliant craftsperson in his own right, consciously setting out to expose the pretensions influencing most of the London-based art world.  It did not matter to him that he was producing “fakes”; he tried to do the best that he could with limited resources.  The viewing experience of the documentary is an interesting one – far from censuring the Greenhalgh family, we admire them for their sheer audacity in managing to succeed for so long.

In light of this documentary, we should perhaps be careful with our value-judgements when considering any form of adaptation, whether consciously planned as a fake or simply responding to the themes and structure of any source-text.  They are neither “better” nor “worse” than the source-texts, but simply different; the product of different imaginations at different points in time and space.  Contrasting source with target texts tells us a lot about how individuals respond to one another; how they use the experience of reading a source-text to make sense of their own lives, and set down their discoveries in printed form, or rather talk about them orally.  It doesn’t really matter whether Jane Austen’s Fight Club – a memorable YouTube mash-up of Pride and Prejudice – recreates the author’s “single, intelligently ferocious narrative voice” (what is an “intelligently ferocious” voice, anyway?)  Rather we should look at the video as an early Noughties response to a classic novel, shaped by a mosaic of intertexts including Simon Langton’s unforgettable television version of the mid-Nineties involving Colin Firth and the wet dress-shirt.  To consider any adaptation as an “inferior” rendering of a great novel tells us more about the prejudices (myopia) of the person making that comparison, rather than the texts themselves.

Then why does this preoccupation with “originality” still survive?  Partly, I think, the reason lies in the continuing obsession with literature that dominates much adaptation studies criticism.  Even when writers are looking at new developments within the discipline from a transmedial or transcultural perspective, they are still preoccupied with how classics are “reinvented” in different contexts.  I believe that there needs to be a significant shift of focus away from “literature,” or even from texts per se, with greater attention paid to why people want to adapt, and why adaptation as a process is often fundamental to the act of learning about ourselves and the worlds we inhabit.  We should also be more critical of ourselves and admit to the fact that the privileging of literary texts – especially the “originals” – over other texts attests to the survival of Leavisite and/or New Critical values in our academic cultures.  It’s time they were consigned to the depths of history; in an era shaped by the insights of post-structuralist and cultural materialist work, we need to approach all texts, whether literary or otherwise, without prejudice, and look at how and why we recycle them in our particular socio-economic contexts.  In that way we might discover precisely why “adaptation studies,” is such an important discipline, not just an off-shoot of literary-film-media studies.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Reactionary Turn To Fidelity Criticism

I’ve just taken a look at some of the special articles now available on the Adaptation website.  For those not in the know, Adaptation, published by Oxford University Press, is one of the leading journals in adaptation studies publishing cutting-edge work in the field. Two articles in particular attracted my attention – one proposing a model of adaptation that accounts for the persistence of fidelity, as well as claiming that fidelity deserves ongoing academic attention; the other defending fidelity criticism as “an essential tool in the intertextual toolbox of adaptation studies.”  The articles can be accessed through the Adaptation website, with abstracts available on

As someone with an interest in translation studies, I was interested to compare these ideas with work in translation dating back to the late Sixties.  As early as 1969 Eugene Nida was proposing a more dynamic model of fidelity based not on textual equivalence but one that “evokes in a receptor essentially the same response as that displayed by the receptors of the original message.”  Ernst-August Gutt defined fidelity in terms of “resemblance in relevant respects,” with the term “relevance” depending very much on the purpose of the translated text.  William Frawley advocates the abandonment of the term altogether, as well as the notions of “good” or “bad” translations, replacing it with one of moderate vs. radical

I’ve always been flummoxed with the idea of fidelity, because I really do not know what the term signifies: “fidelity to what?” has always been my default question.  Historically speaking in adaptation studies the concept was always used as an intellectual stick by literary-minded scholars to beat film adaptations with, so that they could re-emphasize the superiority of the “original” text.  Alternatively the concept has been used by adapters to determine the quality of their work: in this sense “fidelity” is a guarantee of quality, encouraging viewers to want to watch the adaptation.  In both of these cases the term “fidelity” has a specifically ideological connotation, telling us more about those who invoke it, rather than the status of the texts they are referring to.

Such notions, I thought, were an accepted part of adaptation and translation theory and did not need to be discussed once more.  Personally I find the entire concept somewhat archaic, the product of a stereotyped way of thinking – in adaptation studies, it dates back to 1957 when Bluestone published his Novels into Film – that not only invokes binary oppositions but suggests a subaltern relationship between source and target texts.  Given that “adaptation” is a process common to all of us, I see little or no point in accepting that relationship: an adaptation is a creative work in its own right and needs to be treated on its own terms, not as a “version” of an “original,” the perennial bugbear of fidelity criticism.

Although I have no evidence to prove it, I think that the persistence of fidelity criticism in adaptation studies has three justifications: first, that the discipline to a large extent remains almost exclusively concerned with the literature-film-media paradigm.  Very few scholars, except perhaps those working in fan or audience studies, have approached adaptation in psychological terms.  By remaining within that paradigm, adaptation studies concerns itself principally with source and target texts; how a literary text is transformed into a film; how a film becomes a video-game; how a video-game becomes a film, and so on.  Hence fidelity criticism functions as a means by which scholars can introduce some form of value-judgement, as well as looking at what is “gained” and “lost” through the transformative process.

Second, the trust in fidelity criticism reveals adaptation studies’ almost obsessive preoccupation with textual issues.  There are some highly suggestive theoretical works within the discipline that try to introduce new perspectives drawn from translation studies (for example, Patrick Cattrysse’s Descriptive Adaptation Studies), but these interventions are few and far between.  There are aspects of Cattrysse’s arguments that I disagree with – for example, his use of binaries as a way of thinking – but I do believe he has a point when he advocates a movement away from text, even when they are looked at in relation to the adaptation industry.

Third, I believe that fidelity criticism provides a means by which adaptation studies tries to assert its individuality, its essential difference from translation studies.  In a recent issue of The Guardian, Heather Stewart argues that globalization is under attack at present, with many economies deciding instead to adopt more national, localized perspectives.  The same holds true for some branches of adaptation studies; rather than trying to search for transdisciplinary alliances with other subjects, the discipline has tried to set up its own intellectual fences, one being fidelity criticism.  This I believe is a fundamentally reactionary strategy; if adaptation studies wants to establish itself globally, and become a genuine participant in radical academic agendas, it has to adopt a more open, collaborative, and ultimately deconstructionist mentality; to use the insights from other disciplines to re-examine its own ideas, while developing its own ideas that encourage a similar process of re-examination in other disciplines. 

Perhaps we ought to consider why recent adaptation scholars are so concerned with fidelity, especially in an area of the humanities which likes to assume a left-liberal stance to contemporary politics and cultures.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Hegemony of Binary Oppositions

I've been attending a fascinating event this week at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi in Romania - "Going East: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Travel and Intercultural Communication.  More information about it can be found on the link  The term interdisciplinary can often conceal a multitude of seasons; sometimes it is used as a mode of convenience to bring together colleagues from different subject areas who spend little or no time trying to consult with one another but end up being confined within their own specific research interests.

This conference has been different.  Bringing together travel literature specialists, literature specialists, translation studies experts, geographers and energetic polymaths, it has made a special effort to address issues of travel, not only as a physical but an emotional act as well.  One's emotional travels inevitably involve a process of psychological adaptation to different environments.  Some colleagues think of travel literature as something distinct from 'fiction,' but this conference has suggested otherwise; reading about the travels of imaginary characters helps to stimulate readers' imaginations and thereby encourages them to make emotional travels of their own.  This is what we might describe as empathetic adaptation.

Yet still I fear that colleagues in various disciplines tend to adopt defensive positions, especially where interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and transculturality are concerned.  One thing I've noticed, running throughout many presentations at this event, is the presence of binary oppositions as a way of looking at the world.  People might want to question them, or even ponder their existence, but there seems a reluctance to look at things in different ways; to initiate new processes of thinking that go beyond the rather tired oppositions between west/east, self/other, translation/adaptation, north/south, text/ reader, and so on.

Readers might ask how one might go about thinking in different ways.  Let me illustrate with reference to a recent performance I attended, given by a French modern dance company.  What became increasingly tangible as the dance unfolded was that the choreographer had made a conscious effort to analyze the act of speaking in tongues in a different way, through a combination of movement, speech and music.  There was no specific 'theme' to the dance; we were invited to ponder the role of speech in society through visual metaphors, as portrayed through the dancers' bodies.  The acts of hearing and speaking were considered through movement, through an appeal to different senses.  This proved a highly suggestive means of addressing the topic; I felt that the choreographer had approached the performance rather like a piece of clay that needed to be reshaped in different ways so as to encourage us to think differently.

The metaphor of the piece of clay also works well as an alternative to binary oppositions.  In looking at how we respond to the world around us - in other words, adapt to it - why don't we reshape the oppositions in different ways, reconstruct them like potters might do on their wheel?  Why don't we take the clay that makes up our world and use it to reshape our perceptions?  Sometimes the shapes we form might seem formless - illogical, perhaps - but through that very illogicality we might learn how to adapt ourselves in different ways.

This is not an easy process, I admit.  Maybe we cannot achieve it at once.  Perhaps, as a start, we might think of another process of adaptation; rather than reinvoking the binary oppositions per se, why don't we find ways of working through them, around them, or across them?  This process should encourage us to reflect on why - or more importantly, whether - they exist, except in our own minds as defense mechanisms.  What does a binary opposition look like?  Can we touch it, feel it, or sense it?  Or do they prevent us from enjoying these sensory experiences?

My suggestions might seem rather abstract - idealistic perhaps.  But I believe they are perfectly achievable if we set aside our preconceptions and acknowledge the power we possess within ourselves to adapt to any and every given situation.  The human brain has an almost infinite capacity to accommodate different, contradictory ideas, rather than trying to distinguish between them.  Why don't we give it a chance, and banish the omnipotence of oppositions to the intellectual graveyard?  By such means we can help create new and highly suggestive models of transdisciplinarity or transculturality.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Forms of Adaptational Writing and How They Challenge Scholarly Analysis

I've just been attending another conference - the international F. Scott Fitzgerald event held at my home university.  The details are accessible at  It's been a tiring day listening to a variety of papers on a selection of topics, but inevitably the main focus of attention has centered on THE GREAT GATSBY, not just because it's Fitzgerald's best-known work, but because it has been adapted so many times for different media.  Even non-literary specialists can contribute to this type of event, especially if they're into the most recent version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The opening speech offered a close analysis of time in THE GREAT GATSBY, using the image of the broken clock in Nick Carraway's house in Chapter Five of the novel as a starting-point for a complex evaluation encompassing Einstein's theory of relativity as well as modernist concepts of science.  I admired the speaker for his dedicaton as well as the close structure of his piece, each point carefully illustrated with quotations from the text.

As the presentation unfolded, however, and the speaker talked about the interiority of Fitzgerald's prose, I began to wonder whether his form of academic discourse really could demonstrate how and why the novel has exerted such a particular fascination on readers worldwide ever since it first appeared in 1925.  I remember reading it for the first time in 1976, when I had to do a paper for my "O" Level English Literature course on "Flawed Heroes," and made a labored comparison between Fitzgerald's piece and Thomas Hardy's THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE.  Since then the novel has never failed to move me close to tears, through repeated readings and viewings of adaptations across different media - radio, cinema, television.  The theme of Gatsby's basic optimism and trust being gradually exposed in a world of surfaces has always seemed enduringly popular in any world devoted to capitalist values.

While reading the novel or watching an adaptation, I believe that Fitzgerald's prose appeals to us not just on a conscious but on a subliminal level, reminding us of just how difficult it is to adapt to new environments, especially the kind of environments whose inhabitants remain largely indifferent unless you are fabulously wealthy.  It is Gatsby's trşumph, but ultimately his tragedy, that he seems to adapt to the world of Long Island high society, but discovers to his cost that he can never be part of it.  His exploits are ours; whenever we move to a new culture, either by emigrating or simply shifting to a new city (or even suburb), we have to learn how to adapt ourselves, while the worlds we inhabit have to adapt likewise to accommodate us.

Such issues, I think, help to explain why THE GREAT GATSBY is a great work of literature, prompting us to look beyond the words on the page and imaginatively empathize with what Fitzgerald is trying to tell us.  It's a prime example of what might be termed the "beyond-wordism" of great texts, engaging our subjectivities and prompting us to find a lot of ourselves in Gatsby.  We all have our Gatsbyesque stories to tell; they might not be as spectacular as Fitzgerald's, but they are similar in tone and outcome.

Listening to the speaker offering a Leavisite exegesis of Fitzgerald's text, I wondered whether perhaps this form of analysis might miss the novel's subliminal quality: detail might overwhelm the design, so to speak. I certainly admired what the speaker had done, and the amount of time and energy he had spent putting the piece together, but I did feel there was something Casaubonesque about it, reminiscent of that unfortunate character in George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH who spends his entire life imprisoned in an ivory tower and becomes all but impervious to the life unfolding around him.

What I'm saying is that perhaps close textual analysis is counter-productive to the experience of a novel or film or any fictional text.  Maybe we should learn to sit back and let them wash over us; to savor the brilliance of the writing and understand how it has the capacity to change our lives, or at least make us reflect on our existing lives and learn how to adapt to new experiences.  Leave aside scholarly objectivity and let subjectivities roll - or, better still, forget the distinctions between the two and just ENJOY!!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Adaptation Studies and Adaptive Learning

It’s amazing what we can find while trawling the online archives.  I came across a blog recently entitled Adaptive Learning in ELT, a guide to alternative forms of ELT and language learning written by Philip Kerr, a teacher trainer, lecturer and materials writer ( The blog describes a kind of approach that apparently will “impact on the lives of language teachers very soon,”; if they do not become more aware of what’s happening, they might be out of a job very soon.  It involves a (re-)consideration of educative methods “in the bright light of particular, local contexts.”

Adaptive learning is apparently driven by technology – an “online learning and teaching software that uses an Intelligent Teaching system to adapt online learning to the student’s level of knowledge.”  Software can deliver individualized study programs; following a simple test of different reasoning skills, it can provide a personalized curriculum that can be measured against that of other online learners.  It might involve a process of gamification – in other words, obtaining points for having completed various tastes – but this might prove of limited interest. 

To work out the parameters of adaptive learning, it is necessary to obtain particular data about learners: identity data (who are you?); user interaction data (finding out one’s online habits so as to improve user experience and retention); inferred content data (working out how a piece of content ‘performs’ across different users); system-wide data (grades, disciplinary records, and attendance information); and inferred student data (what does a learner know and how do they respond?)

Once such platforms have been created, textbook companies will be able to produce and modify content according to context; providing greater contact between companies and individual educators.  This should lead to more individualized learning, with a consequent improvement in particular outcomes and testing methods.  Educators and learners can avail themselves of the software to forge new alliances, taking into account their local needs, and hence adapt themselves continually using the software as a basis.

There are snags: language educators might find it difficult to use this software with mixed ability classes; who will pay for the training needed to implement the schemes using the software; how will educators respond to materials that might threaten their future job security; and how will learners respond to adaptive learning, once it becomes something “different”?  Kerr recommends that problems should be identified and prioritized before adaptive learning is presented as “the solution.”  Commercial interests should not be allowed to assume more significance than the needs of individual learners.

Kerr draws a distinction between “theory” and “practice,” and suggests that any educational ideas such as adaptive learning need to be subject to adaptive processes – for example, perceived significance (the idea must answer a question central to the question); philosophical complexity (adaptive learning must mesh with educator beliefs); occupational realism (it must be possible for the idea to be put into immediate use); and transportability (the idea must be rendered accessible in a form that educators can access).  Kerr believes that “big bucks” might win the educational debate; their emphasis on introducing the software might instigate the “creative disruption” that adaptivity promises.  Turkey provides an ideal venue to experiment with this new software; it has “a large and young population,” with a large government-funded project designed to increase English awareness in schools; it has launched one of the biggest EdTech projects in the world; and it has one of the world’s highest proportion of internet users.

Kerr’s discussion is highly intriguing, focusing on a conflict between individuals and institutions that lie at the heart of every adaptive exchange.  Yet there seems to be inherent complacencies at the heart of his arguments that might prove disconcerting for some.  First, he assumes that computer-assisted learning will be the bread-and-butter of all classroom exchanges in the future.  I am no ostrich, hiding my head in the sand from new technological development; but it is a fact that the majority of language learners in the Turkish context have only limited access to technology.  Second, the model of learning he proposes is inherently top-down, despite its emphasis on learner empowerment.  They have to make use of technology provided for them by the textbook and/or computer companies.  The fact that learners have the power both to subvert and challenge strategies determined in advance by the companies.  Third, Kerr’s arguments make no mention of the relationship between adaptation and communication at the verbal and nonverbal levels.  Anyone conversant with the work of Piaget and Bruner understands that adaptation lies at the heart of the ways in which we come to terms with the world and the people within it.  To assume that adaptivity centers solely round the relationship of individual learners to the software they might use is to omit the fundamental basis on which we learn how to adapt.

Perhaps most significantly, Kerr’s blog makes no mention of how “adaptation” might work in other disciplines, especially adaptation studies with its focus on transmediality, transformation and the viewers’, artists’ and writers’ relationship to the process of (re)shaping texts.  The way in which people come to terms with the texts they watch, write or film is much the same as the way in which they learn English; it’s a lot to do with mental processes, drawing on the imagination as well as the creative instinct – the kind of things that no textbook publishers can ever really regulate.

Although couched in the terms of being a “brave new world” of ELT, adaptivity, with its emphasis on top-strategies, contains occasional echoes of the world created in Huxley’s famous novel of the same name in which learners are given online soma so as to restrict rather than promote their creative (and hence subversive) instincts.  Call me antediluvian if you wish, but I’ve come to learn in recent years that no one can predict the way “adaptation studies” as a psychological as well as a textual process will affect people.