Some Things I Learned From My Experiments (2)

This is the second of two posts gathering a few thoughts about my experience of trying to put together Proper Psychology Experiments in collaboration with brilliant scientist colleagues. The first of these is here. As I explained there, I am merging more than one attempt in this description, and I am keeping things anonymous and probably quite unclear. This is for a reason which is, in fact, the point of this post.
      You see, for a while I thought that the process of the experimental design led to interesting discoveries about the text, and a set of intriguing interdisciplinary thoughts, which could be an end in themselves. However, things looked quite different to my collaborators, people building careers from good and successful experiments. They didn’t fall in love with the intractable problems of turning literature, especially drama, into science, as I did. Instead, they saw unsolved difficulties in defining proper experimental protocols, and little prospect of a reliable and demonstrable experimental result (whatever it showed). It took a while, but I saw the point in the end.
      Designing a theatrical experiment was intoxicating fun. Working with actors to achieve a particular combination of text and gesture, for example, finding out what these skilled professionals were able to do, and not able to do, to fit a necessarily fixed idea about what had to be included in one version, and not included in another. The guinea-pig audiences were very helpful, but gathering them was rather hard. Students always have somewhere to be after classes. The process made me think again about what is important in a text: I got interested in the difficulty of adapting a passage, the things which affect the rehearsal process, the moments where it felt like an experimental effect could be hoped for.
      I gave a talk where I showed some bits of film, explained what was being worked towards, and the talk was a success (I think). I told a story about how one day, in a workshop, we made a stage ghost disappear just by not looking at it. A literary audience bought into the dream of experimental rigour, and recognised the critical questions I was addressing. When I spoke to friends about what we were trying to do, they saw the point, and wanted to hear more. I began to think that, even when a properly rigorous set-up did not transpire, and we didn’t get super-promising results in our first, sketchy efforts at trying things out on an audience, I could still write up an interesting article describing the insights gathered from the process.


This optimism was squashed by two specific things. One was a grant application where I described a series of of workshops with actors wherein I proposed to test out, in rehearsal, some ideas about how Shakespeare manoeuvres the social cognition of theatre audiences. The funders, as far as I could tell, were nonplussed by an interest in dramatic process which wasn’t heading towards a dramatic outcome. The second was a discussion with one psychologist colleague who was also nonplussed, this time at the thought that I would parade our failures (OK, nobody said that), or rather that I would put my name to something that had never taken a full and final form. This wasn’t hard to understand.
      So in that previous post I described one lesson I learned: that isolating features of a literary text as experimental variables is an interesting thing to do but stores up objections for the future that are hard to argue against. And in this one, the second lesson is that even if an interesting interdisciplinary process might be absorbing and revealing at the time, and even if the kind of failure experienced is a noble and delicious one, you need secure and defensible results if you’re going to go public in a serious way. The journey, I said, the journey! Maybe only in a memoir; it wasn’t really memoir material; I don’t want to write a memoir.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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