Collaborating on the Brigstow Metre and Memorisation Project

Dr William Wootten with Professor Chris Jarrold, from Metre and Memorisation

Literary research is, by and large, a solitary endeavour. Writing poems, which I also do, tends to be no more sociable.  In both cases,  the most important process of collaboration is a matter of second thoughts that happen when drafts are finished enough to be shared with peers and editors.  I had noticed interdisciplinary research projects out of the corner of my eye, but I had never seen the relevance of such projects to what I did myself.  I could and did learn from work in other disciplines, but my research methodologies remained very much those of literary studies.

Then there came the day that the methodologies of literary studies proved considerably less helpful in addressing my research questions than they had been.  While researching the poet Walter de la Mare, I had been revisiting the pioneering 1920s work of I.A. Richards, a critic and theorist who established key norms in the academic analysis of poetry.  Back in the early decades of the last century, Richards had learned much from the empirical psychology of the time and was speculating interestingly on the psychological effects of verse.  Assuming that some of these questions might have been settled in intervening decades, I started to read around, first in English studies and then in psychology only to find that, while we certainly knew more now than they did then, some of the most interesting questions Richards, and indeed de la Mare, were raising remained unanswered.  Yet the majority of these questions ought to be amenable to empirical investigation – or would be if one knew a great deal more about the ins and outs of psychological research than I did.  The time had come to speak to someone else.

I contacted the Brigstow Institute, explained the problem and wondered if they could put me in touch with psychologist who might be interested in similar questions.  The first name on the list was that of Professor Chris Jarrold.  Not only were Chris’s research interests pertinent to the topics I wanted to investigate, he was also at the time the Head of Department in Psychology.  We met for coffee, and I explained to him the problems that were intriguing me, and was delighted to find that he was interested in them too.  Chris also put me in touch with Dr Nina Kazanina.

Soon afterwards, Nina and I also had a productive first conversation, but we didn’t have coffee.  The pandemic had arrived and the era of the online meeting had begun.  Still, these online meetings developed our ideas for studies, particularly around poetry memorisation.  We also realised that in this new, socially isolated world, poetry memorisation could be an activity in which many might find enjoyment, stimulation or solace, and that this might take place hand in glove with both the internet technology we were now using for our meetings and the sort of studies we wanted to conduct.  All this fed into the research bid we made to Brigstow that became the Metre and Memorisation Project, in which the three of us were joined by Rebecca Jackson from Psychology, our Research Assistant, and Meg Dyson, from English and Classics, on a Brigstow Studentship.  We were now designing and then conducting studies to find out how different memorisation methods affected the learning of similar poems (our participants learned sonnets by William Shakespeare). We would also run a schools’ verse recitation competition, which led to us launching, Bristol by Heart, a collaboration with the organisation Poetry by Heart.

Working together across disciplines was successful because we were both interested in the other’s fields, we also respected one another’s strengths.  I had been reading up in relevant psychological research, so I was, I hope, able to enter into meaningful conversations about what we wanted to find out. But the very reason for this collaboration was to bring together people of different strengths.  We would ask each other why we were doing something, or what a particular finding might mean. Here the intelligent question from someone not used to the usual subject specific answers could prove really helpful in thinking through what we were doing and why.  At the same time, it was the subject specific expertise that supplied the convincing answers.  I recall for instance Meg and I both worrying about whether the Excel spreadsheets we were using were calculating participants’ memorisation of the poems in a way that was sufficiently accurate.  But it was Chris who knew about something called Levenshtein  Distance. Likewise, for someone coming from a subject where so much is arguable, it was wonderful to debate possibilities and then have the point settled by an elegant graph from Nina.

Here’s what Chris  had to say about what he learnt about the practice of doing interdisciplinary produced research:

I think it helps a lot if all the partners are invested in the research question. I’m not sure that has to be an exactly equal investment on everyone’s part, or it might be that different people are particularly interested in different aspects of the project. However, we’re all sufficiently busy that it’s not really in anyone’s interest to be collaborating to just provide a service, doing something as a favour without really seeing any value in it to you. In my experience a big barrier to effective interdisciplinary research can be the difference in theoretical perspectives, approaches to research, assumptions, and even terminology across disciplines. I think our project has worked well because that gap is not very big. William happens to think like a psychologist. Conversely, I don’t think Nina and I are complete philistines and we have an interest in art and literature in particular (Nina certainly does). So we understand where everyone is coming from and what they are trying to achieve, and, to some extent, what they think in the way they do. I think we’re also clear on the unique contributions that different members of the team bring. William had the idea behind the project and brings with him the existing theory on poetry memorisation. Nina and I have strengths in designing experimental studies and in data analysis. William was clear at the outset that that’s what he wanted in this project, and as Psychologists Nina and I are always looking to do work that is properly theoretically motivated.

The project has provided an opportunity to extend some methods that we were already using within my research group to a somewhat different area, specifically how we score and measure people’s memory. This isn’t a radical extension of those approaches, but has raised interesting questions about how they generalise and need to be modified for different situations. A somewhat more substantial extension of my thinking has followed from the fact that this project looks at long-term memory while most of my previous work has focussed on short-term memory. There’s a surprisingly large different between these two fields and thinking about how our theories and methods bridge across this gap has been very useful. And because William’s starting point and initial theoretical questions weren’t too far away from my interests I’ve been able to learn a lot from the knowledge he’s brought to the project from his own reading. A good example is the literature that suggests that we chunk or hold on to in memory as many words as we could say in a single breath. That’s not a hypothesis I was aware of before now, but it’s an intriguing one and one that does has the potential to inform my own thinking.

For those stuck at home in a pandemic, the Metre and Memorisation project was a social boon.  Not only did the team meet and talk on the different virtual platforms, like a good modern office, we also had a Slack channel, where the friendly interchange of ideas and information would keep up. Soon, I was talking to Julie Blake and Tim Shortis at Poetry by  Heart, and, in time, my fellow judges on the competition, Ife Grillo and Lorna Smith. When the study started, the project’s social horizon widened even more.  There on Zoom were our participants, interacting with us – but also with each other.  After each of the study sessions was concluded, Rebecca or Meg would ask them about their experience.  These conversations were often revealing to us.  But, as participants reflected on the experience they had just shared and on life and poetry more widely with one another, they were clearly also valuable to the participants themselves.  At the end of all the experiments, I, along with Dr John Lee, a Shakespeare scholar from the Department of English, invited participants a couple of much longer discussions.  These were hugely informative about the process of memorisation, but also about diverse personal experiences around poetry, Shakespeare and learning by heart. Not only did I now know more about what our experimentation had meant to our memorisers, I also realised that my research collaboration had been not just with my fellow investigators but also with our participants.  Likewise, the lovely feedback we received from children and teachers involved in Bristol by Heart was in its own way a form of collaboration.

One last memory.  A month after our last experiment I happened to walking along Deal Pier.  A young man had sat cross legged to recite a Shakespeare sonnet while a thrilled circle gathered round him who, when he had finished, burst into applause.  It wasn’t a particularly well known sonnet, but it was one we had chosen for our experiments.  I didn’t go up and ask him, but I could have sworn he was one of our participants.

Find out more about about this research on the Metre and Memorisation webpage.