Meet the keynotes: Professor Lydia Kokkola

Portrait: Lydia Kokkola

Professor Lydia Kokkola (Foto: Luleå University)

In this series of interviews, we will present the keynote speakers at the IGEL Conference 2018.

Lydia Kokkola is professor and chaired professor at the Department of Arts, Communication and Education, Luleå University of Technology.

What brought you to empirical research in the first place, and to studying the role of literary reading in the classroom?

I was originally trained as a primary school teacher, although I began my career working in pre-school education in Finland. I was working in an immersion setting: the children (aged 4-7) were all Finnish speakers, but I spoke to them only in English. I soon noticed that the children used formulaic phrases accurately, but also creatively in unexpected contexts. The most popular phrases used by the children were instructions they had heard me utter (e.g. “wash your hands”), but they also used chunks taken from songs and stories (e.g. “come quick Ville is the wild rumpus in the playroom!”).

I wrote my licentiate on this phenomenon and then went on, in my PhD, to examine what happened when Finnish speaking children learned to read in English in these immersion classrooms. Again, I noticed that the support offered by literature clearly made the process of learning easier.

Throughout my post-graduate years, I was constantly in schools working with teachers, giving story-tellings, listening to the pupils and I fully intended to return to school life, but my plans changed and I went into literary studies, although I still consider myself to be a teacher first.

I left empirical research for about a decade, more for practical reasons than an ideological shift, although I strongly believe that empirical and more theoretical literary research complement one another and I’ll explain more about why I think this during my talk. I returned to empirical research just six years ago, and again my main concern is the ability to read critically in English as a foreign language. So much of the information people read today is in English, and we know how hard it is for non-native speakers to recognize features such as irony, let alone deliberate attempts at misinformation.

I believe that narrative literature provides the support learners need in order to develop vital critical reading skills, and our current research project, funded by the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg foundation, is testing this hypothesis.

Which topics will you address at the IGEL Conference 2018?

I want to examine the qualities of “literariness”. I’ll be using examples from the project to contrast “literary” responses to texts with other responses to texts, such as reading for information. I’m particularly interested in instances where there seems to be a mismatch between the text type and teenagers’ responses. Some of the mismatches arise directly form the teaching situation, but sometimes the readers come to these responses completely independently. These are places where empirical research can prevent us from becoming blinded by our pre-conceptions. I am hoping it will start a discussion on the methodological challenges of the field and the contribution empirical studies of literature have to make within language education.

What, from your perspective, is the main importance of IGEL?

IGEL creates a space where literary scholars who use empirical methodologies can come together and learn from one another. Until recently, these kinds of approaches have only been fully accepted within education studies, and researchers who presented empirical research at a literary conference were not always well received. I certainly received put-downs implying I wasn’t really capable of doing proper literary research in my early career when the fashion was to write “A Derridean/Kristevan/etc reading of____” paper. There has been a change, and the renewed interest in the reader has resulted in more acceptance of the need for empirical studies. I think IGEL can promote this type of research, but I also hope that IGEL members will publish and present their empirical studies in other contexts as well. Cross-fertilization really does produce the most robust research!

What are your expectations for the IGEL Conference 2018?

I have very high expectations! Every aspect of the planning has been thought though in great detail. I am looking forward to meeting people whose work I have read, and getting to know about new lines of research. On-line connections through email and so on are all very well, but there is nothing like the conversations over coffee at a good conference to spark the imagination!