A Note to the Class: Using Your Shared Life Experience

Dear Class,

In the course of our Constructions of Gender in Literature class, we have engaged in a large number of conversations that can be described as difficult, emotional, funny, awkward, or informative, ranging a larger number of topics; however, there has been one common theme throughout our discussions. There is a common theme of shared life experiences. As a class, we enjoy relating the topic in the essay or book to our own lives. In fact, Ms. Reid shared that we have been the class that has done this the most frequently in her many years of teaching. Although this has led us into some interesting conversations about gender roles for modern-day women or how our school views gender identity, recently there has been some frustration when someone uses a life experience to try to relate themselves to a character. 

 A study was done by the University of Amsterdam to test whether or not trying to find or having a life experience that is similar to somebody else’s life experience allows anybody to read the other person’s emotions better. They took videos of people sharing a negative emotional experience, who also told them what emotions they were feeling when they were sharing their story, and showed them to 800 viewers or “perceivers.” The perceivers watched the video and then were asked what emotions the storyteller was feeling. In the 800 “perceivers” tested, those who had experienced a negative experience similar to the storyteller were actually less accurate at predicting the feelings of the storyteller than those who did not have a similar experience. I was surprised by these findings because I always believed that your personal experience allows you to better understand people’s emotions. I think that these findings can be translating to the work that we do in this class and how by looking at characters through the lens of our similar experience, it actually inhibits us from accurately judging their emotions. 

I am obviously guilty of reading a novel or essay and trying to find my own personal anecdote or experience to relate to it. When reading “The Angel in the House” I couldn’t help but think about the older women in my life and how they have been subjected to this narrative, and more specifically how I notice this narrative in their lives. However, it is important to realize that this way of looking at a text may actually prevent us from seeing the character’s hardships or gauging their emotions in an accurate way. By taking yourself and your life experiences out of the equation and looking simply at the text, the characters, and their experiences, it is much more likely that inferences that you make will be more developed and correct, especially when the experiences that they are dealing with, although they may have similarities, are much different than your own. It is unreasonable for me to ask you to not see yourself at all in a text, as that is only human nature, however, it is important to recognize when you are comparing yourself to the text. By taking this step, you can note the bias that you may be exerting onto the characters and how this may have impacted your perception of their story. 

I hope that you can take these ideas with you into whatever English courses are ahead of you!

Thanks for a fabulous semester,



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