‘I believe in the epistemological value of telling tales…’

otisLaura Otis is an unusual professor and writer. She started out as a scientist and then she crossed over into comparative literature to do her PhD. She has a self-confessed “visceral repulsion” for post-structural theory but she spends her days among literary theorists who feed on this stuff. Otis came to Rhodes to be one of the keynote speakers (the other was postcolonial theorist Robert Young) at the recent AUETSA conference hosted by the English Department. Although she did her undergraduate work in molecular biology and biochemistry, her MA was in neuroscience, and its clear when she talks, that she’s very good at blending and hopping across knowledge systems and using them to generate new kinds of thinking.

She started off by telling us that because of her own resistance to theory and her great interest in the relationship between scholarly and creative writing (she also writes novels) she had assumed her students would find theory as deadening as she did. This brought her into conflict with a student who thought theory was an “exhilarating wind of intelligence” while she thought it was a “strangling force, like a religion… a monster [she] had to save students from”. She had to acknowledge that when it comes to knowledge we have to “leave room for taste and visceral responses”.

She said: “We’ve repressed thoughts like ‘I have a gut feeling that Fanon is right’.” Her own position is that we choose knowledge systems and approaches to it “because they feel right and can be trusted”. This dimension of experience with knowledge and the diversity of types of people and their attachments to knowledge has drawn her into research on how people think. She’s not at all convinced that people are either visual or verbal in their thinking or that there are a tiny variety of “cogno styles”.

Drawing on her neuroscience background she’s spoken to a wide range of people (from scientists to a flamenco dancer, a “range of dynamic individuals”, she calls them) to try to figure out what their “conscious experiences of thought are”. Her questions to her willing participants were:

  • what captures your attention?
  • which senses predominate in your memories?
  • what is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to learn?

In particular, and because of the way the academy prioritises the verbal and dexterous use of language, she wanted to know what the relationship between thinking and verbal expression was like for these people. She discovered that many of her interviewees might be highly regarded researchers and scientists but they also have complex, difficult relationships with words and language. The scientists in particular in the study have told her that:

  • it is often very challenging to take ideas, surface them and convert them into words
  • words don’t capture reality, they are an illusion of comprehension
  • to think is to breathe and use [his] lungs, to put into language is to have to go a level below and work from [his] stomach
  • language restricts and distorts thought; it often prevents thought happening
  • thinking occurs between minds and not in them, so it’s a social thing
  • words are a constricting nuisance

By contrast, a translator told her that if thoughts could not culminate in language, then they were inchoate and another person said “words enable, they give clarity, they organise and are full of delights”. Despite these two extremes, Otis still believes that even the idea of spatial, object and verbal “styles” of thinking are inadequate for the range of experiences explained to her. “The visual-verbal dichotomy (as propounded by thinkers like Temple Grandin) is not helpful in literature or in neuroscience,” she said. For example, a choreographer she spoke to feels the dance “inside her own body, inside the music” as she is working on a new piece of choreography.

When it came to her third question about the hardest thing learnt, she discovered that creative people are drawn to difficulty and challenge. For them, “it’s worth pushing one’s self to learn in foreign ways, and they often convert one kind of thinking into another kind.”

In conclusion Otis said that in order to build knowledge that can be trusted we need to embrace thinking styles that “cut across disciplinary lines”. But she also said that in the academy we often deny the inner life and this alienates us from knowledge. From the 34 interviews she has done she draws the following lesson: “Highly intelligent and creative people have a commitment to epistemology which is both emotional and bodily.” Otis herself longs for “tolerance for how differently people think”.

And finally, to her audience of literary researchers, she remarked that a literary commitment to the text as primary and which ignores the range of responses the text (and author) are evoking is again denying the variety and diversity of human beings involved with that text.

Otis’ methodology for this piece of study was interesting too: as the headline indicates she believes both in the “value of telling tales” (ie leaning on how people make sense of the own experiences) and on “using my own fallability” (ie letting a student challenge a professor and rethinking, reflecting on her own position).

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