Four Faculty of Arts professors receive research fellowships

Four professors in the Faculty of Arts have a lot to celebrate these days. They are the recipients of this year’s Faculty of Arts Fellowships in support of research. The recipients are Professor Lynne Angus (Department of Psychology), Professor Robert Myers (graduate director in the Department of Philosophy), Professor Alexandra Rutherford (coordinator of the History & Theory of Psychology option in the Department of Psychology) and Professor Richard Weisman (Division of Social Science and Department of Sociology).

“These four scholars have proposed exciting research projects that have been recognized by their peers as worthy of support,” said Robert Drummond, dean of the Faculty of Arts. “It is very satisfying – and a good investment in the future – for the Faculty of Arts to provide some resources in the form of teaching release to assist them in bringing the projects to fruition.”

Angus’ project is titled, “Understanding the contributions of autobiographical memory specificity and emotional arousal to treatment outcomes in brief experimental therapy for depression”. The project will explore how clients tell their stories to therapists, with a particular focus on the relationship between emotional arousal and specificity of these clients’ memories.

Right: Lynne Angus

“Different clients use different levels of specificity when describing memories to therapists,” says Angus. “Some clients are really specific when telling their stories. Other clients relate more generic memories, demonstrating that they’ve collated and summarized their experiences. Still others are just simply vague, particularly when recounting a troubling moment from their past.”

While some research conducted in labs has suggested that vagueness can be a marker for depression, Angus’ project will shift the research out of the lab and into actual therapy sessions. This approach is unique and a first. Using audio and video recordings, Angus and her research team will transcribe these sessions, and then work to identify narrative moments in which clients relate their memories.

“We’re not sure what we’re going to find,” she says. “There is already some evidence from other researchers that clients who have good outcomes are the clients whose memories are generic as opposed to vague – those clients who seem to be able to sort through their memories, identifying patterns and themes in their behaviour.”

Angus stresses, though, that her research will be exploratory. She is also quick to stress the importance of the interplay between emotion and narrative, in general. “When someone says that they’re sad, they’re not really telling us a lot,” suggests Angus. “But stories give definition to emotions. A story can ground a particularly feeling, and a lot depends on how that story is told, and how much detail is given.”

Myers’ project, “The Objectivity of Desire”, will tackle difficult philosophical questions concerning desire and its relation to value. His work springs from problems that have troubled scholars for centuries. René Descartes, for example, famously worried that the existence of an external reality, outside of our mind or consciousness, could never be proven. Similarly, many philosophers have doubted that values could exist independently of our desires. These “subjectivists”, as they’re sometimes called, view desires as mere feelings that spring out of us, out of the self.

Left: Robert Myers

“In other words, subjectivists think that desires are these brute, often innate impulses that external stimuli can only either satisfy or frustrate,” explains Myers. “According to this line of thought, then, things don’t have value until we desire them, until we assign them value. But this argument is problematic.”

Myers hopes to prove that external, objective values do exist outside of us. His research will take a new angle, demonstrating that the very ability of a person to have desires in the first place depends on there being something external to that person, a demand with value that prompts the desire.

“Ultimately, we have to assume that some values are objective and universal,” says Myers. “This means that moral criticism – as long as it’s modest and nuanced – is possible even across cultures.”

Myers has already published one chapter of the project, which will ultimately take the form of a book, a follow-up to his first, Self-Governance and Cooperation (2000, Oxford University Press).

Rutherford’s project, “Beyond the Box: B.F. Skinner’s System in Science and Culture”, will trace the complex history of behaviour analysis, the field of psychology fathered by B.F. Skinner. Skinner, one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American psychology, researched how animals like rats and pigeons behaved in closed systems. Skinner’s students eventually expanded his work, applying its principles to human subjects such as autistic and schizophrenic patients confined in hospital wards.

Right: Alexandra Rutherford

“Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” explains Rutherford, “these behaviourists used what they learned about human behaviour to develop rehabilitation programs for juvenile delinquents, innovate new methods of classroom instruction, pioneer effective treatments for a variety of disorders, and write books on how to quit smoking, lose weight, and even toilet train.”

But as public concerns about the ethics of behaviour modification grew, and the theoretical Zeitgeist in psychology changed, developments in Skinner’s ideas were largely supplanted by a shift toward cognitive approaches. Rutherford’s project, however, will demonstrate that many Skinnerian behaviourists, while marginalized, are still quite active – a fact that is not always apparent in the history books.

“The current histories of psychology and, in particular, behaviour analysis have been oversimplified,” she argues. “By showing how social, cultural, political and institutional factors have influenced behaviour analysis, my project will give a more sophisticated, contextualized picture of a history that’s far from over.”

Finally, Weisman’s project, “Showing Remorse: An Inquiry into the Construction of Criminal Identities”, will explore how remorse has come to play an increasingly important role in the legal system as a way of defining character and as a basis for making decisions about sentencing and parole. Despite these pronounced trends, there is no major work in the social sciences that looks at how remorse is expressed, attributed and validated in public settings such as courts and parole hearings.

“Even a casual glance through the daily newspapers suggests that stories about whether an offender has expressed remorse are extremely important to us,” says Weisman. “Remorse forms a central part of the crime narrative that both the court and the public want to know.”

Right: Richard Weisman

Weisman points to the example of American Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing. “The most frequent question raised by victims and newspaper commentaries the day after the execution was whether or not he had shown remorse,” says Weisman. “Why is this so important to us? And how do we decide whether an expression of remorse is spontaneous or strategic, deep or superficial, sincere or insincere? And who has the authority to make this judgment: the victim, the court or those who claim special expertise in understanding the mind of the offender? And on what grounds do we decide – intuition, ‘common sense’, specialized knowledge or something else?”

While Weisman’s project – parts of which have already been published in interdisciplinary journals – will draw mostly from narratives, interviews, judicial opinions and ethnographic data collected in Canada, the study will also look at examples drawn from other jurisdictions, such as the United States and South Africa.

Faculty of Arts Fellowships are available to recognize and encourage outstanding research by providing the opportunity to complete a significant research project. Up to four Fellowships are awarded annually, with one Fellowship reserved and awarded to probationary faculty (untenured faculty in the tenure stream) displaying promise of excellence.

This article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, a York alumnus who writes on research and innovation.