Anna Shusterman is an Associate Professor of Psychology, a former K-12 science teacher, a developmental psychologist, and the director of the Blue Cognitive Development lab at Wesleyan. When not teaching or learning languages, she reads plenty of fiction. The Argus sat down with Shusterman to ask what’s on her bookshelf.
The Argus: Where does your interest in language come from?
Anna Shusterman: I am interested in how we know things. And not just how we come to know things, but what is the architecture of human knowledge? To understand that, you have to understand how it gets built, so that’s how I ended up in cognitive development. My background in undergrad was neuroscience. Actually, my original background was in comparative literature. I just wanted to study a bunch of languages. I was taking a bunch of language classes, and I took an intro neuro class pass/fail for kicks because I figured I should. It was the Brown curriculum, so we didn’t even have gen-eds. You just picked what you want. So I was trying to be responsible, and I took one science class, and I loved it. There was one lecture about language and the brain, and it just blew my mind. That professor became a lifelong mentor to me, and I started working in her lab that summer, and then I just switched. I became interested in “how can I learn languages?” Then it became “how can I know anything?” and I ended up doing a lot of neuroscience.
When I finished, all I knew is that I didn’t want to cut up any more rat brains. I didn’t want to learn any more methods for killing rats. So I became a science teacher for a while, got my head straight about what I actually wanted to do with life, came back to this question of how we know things [and] the structure of our knowledge. I became very interested in watching kids from kindergarten to 12th grade learning science concepts. So I study conceptual development, and I study it with [a] language angle because that’s always been a particular interest of mine. The big research question is how we come to know things, how does cognitive development work, and what is human knowledge representation like? The question that I focused a lot of the research in the lab on is how language shapes our conceptual understanding.
Are we going to have different perceptual knowledge as a function of speaking different languages, or any language versus no language? So if you take a three-year-old who has one set of words and a five-year-old who has a bigger set of words, can you articulate the difference in their conceptual states as a function of their different language states? That’s the question I started with, but you can turn it on its head and ask how cognitive maturation supports language development, what kind of representations you have to be able to encode in order to learn words for those meanings. If you have no semantic concept to have a word for, then it’s hard to learn the meaning of the word. So I look at both angles.
A: How do you find time to read?
AS: I try to read fiction. I used to read [academic writing] a lot, but I don’t now. I’ll read news; I’ll read The Atlantic or The New Yorker or whatever. I haven’t read a nonfiction book in a long time. Occasionally I will read a memoir, which I guess doesn’t count as nonfiction. I started to listen to audiobooks, which is my newest thing while I drive because I live half an hour away [from campus]. I just listened to “Wild” [by Cheryl Strayed]. That was fun. I listened to Alan Cumming’s autobiography. I’m also reading “Inherent Vice” [by Thomas Pynchon]. A friend was reading it and loves it and was constantly quoting it. That one I’m reading in book form. It’s a tough one to read at night. And then I read a book called “Generosity” [by Richard Powers]. I saw [Assistant] Professor [of Psychology Psyche] Loui reading it. She finished it and said it was really good, so I took her copy. I really liked “Generosity” a lot. A lot a lot. I feel like if I looked at my bookshelf I could find some books that I love, but I kind of enjoy them while I’m reading them and move on. This office is just not where my fiction books are.
A: What do you read for fun?
AS: I have two kids, so I end up reading a lot of children’s books. I love “Wonder” [by R. J. Palacio]. I think everybody should read “Wonder.” It’s a kids’ book that hasn’t transcended like Harry Potter transcended, but it should. In the summer we take a lot of long road trips, so I started downloading audiobooks because I thought that would make it go a little faster. We downloaded “Wonder.” That was our first audiobook, all of ours. It’s a story about a boy with a severely disfigured face. It’s told from his perspective, and his mother, and his sister, and his friends, and other people around him. It’s about how he goes from being homeschooled to entering a new school, what that experience is like for him and his whole family and people interacting with him, and his classmates as they adjust, [and] the school administrators. The story is beautifully told in chapters. Each chapter is someone’s different perspective so you get a sense that each character gets to tell their own version of the story. You hear about the same events often from three or four different perspectives, and the author just does [an] incredible job capturing a 16-year-old girl, a 10-year-old boy, a dog, all of these different versions of the same story, so listening to it with kids is like this cool bonding experience where everyone is doing this perspective sharing. The people who made the audiobook got different actors to read the different chapters, so it’s really like a radio play, and the story is just beautiful. That’s my plug. I think it should transcend. It’s a bestseller amongst children’s books, and it’s a good rallying cry for why children should be reading fiction, not just nonfiction. You can’t learn to do that kind of perspective-taking just reading opinion essays.
A: What is your favorite book of all time?
AS: That’s not fair. Once upon a time I would’ve answered it quickly. I would have just said “Catch-22” or “The Name of the Rose,” but I recently reread out loud with my kids “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” and that might be my favorite right now. It’s a Salman Rushdie children’s book, but again, transcendent. It has tons of plays on words, it’s gorgeous, especially if you have passing familiarity with Arabic and other languages. There’s a lot of wordplay. It’s the most gorgeous book.
This interview has been edited for length.
This article was corrected on March 5, 2015 to correct the following errors: this article originally described Shusterman as a linguist. She is a developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist. This article originally misquoted Shusterman as referring to three-year olds having “no set of words.” She used the phrase “one set of words.”