Telling Our Story, Part 2: Jennifer Bown, Affect, and the Thought of Feeling

Cognitive theories have long informed various aspects of study in the humanities, often emerging as a corrective to arguments that accord too great a role to environmental influences. The study of language acquisition was one of the first subjects to accommodate serious study of the brain. For example, when in the 1950s B. F. Skinner made his “behaviorist” case for the acquisition of language, arguing that children learn to speak by associating particular words and their combinations with specific meanings (almost like a dog learning a command like “sit”), Noam Chomsky developed an even more renowned counter-thesis that language acquisition is only possible for a brain that is hard-wired for such activity. It is the elements of which we are made and not simply our environments, Chomsky argued, that predispose us to language. Chomsky’s position became known as the theory of “universal grammar,” and while it has met with a variety of pointed criticisms over the years it also opened a “cultural” and historical field—language—to the sciences by way of the study of the brain. A similar story might be told about literature, or even culture itself, both of which have also come under increasing scrutiny by cognitive theorists. Such work has attracted the attention even of non-specialists, for it purports to shed light on the biological limits of human possibility. Stated inversely, cognitive theory reputedly divulges the grist of human capacity from which any cultural edifice (language, culture, and representation in all its varieties) subsequently takes shape.

But over the past decade, a conviction has grown that cognitive theory has defined brain activity too narrowly. In the terms we employ above, cognitive theorists have seemed at times to fail to account for the brain’s own “environmental factors”—perhaps most provocatively, for the mind’s ethereal forces in the form of feelings, whether they be general moods, specific emotions, or vague inclinations: affects. This last category has become one of the most exciting areas in the study of the humanities, precisely because it connects cognitive activity to dimensions of the brain that are themselves culturally conditioned, whether by such large social categories as race or gender or simply by the countless vagaries of quotidian experience. Affect represents intellectual terrain in which the humanities and the sciences interact.

It is on this terrain of affect that Jennifer Bown, a Russian language specialist in BYU’s Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages, is conducting her research. An article she co-authored in 2010 makes the case that “a host of affective responses are natural concomitants of language learning experiences, and that working with emotions—when, for example, feeling confused, coping with mistakes, overcoming frustration, and maintaining some degree of enthusiasm—is a critical part of sustaining the learning process.” Much of her work involves “emotion regulation,” the mastery of destructive feelings like anxiety that undercut the learning experience. In addition, she also considers the social and cultural milieu in which language learning takes place. A 2011 article co-authored with other BYU colleagues examines the ways in which learners’ identities are shaped by both micro- and macro-social factors, further exploring how learners’ identities affect the experience of language learning. Fittingly for somebody whose work addresses environmental factors, Jennifer gives particular attention to such out-of-class learning contexts as distance learning, study abroad, and foreign language housing. Among the topics she considers here are the roles of gender and religious identity in the study abroad experience, the nature of student interactions in study abroad, and the formation of community in foreign language houses.

Underpinning Jennifer’s diverse research interests is a concept of language acquisition as a complex social and cultural phenomenon. And underwriting this approach is a new, more holistic way of theorizing how people learn—a method rooted in the study of affect. Sitting at the frontiers of cognitive science and beyond the territory traditionally claimed by the study of culture, affect represents one of the most interesting new fields of humanistic inquiry.

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