Sunday 1 December 2013

Effectiveness Case Study: Changing Lives Through Literature

This is the eighth post in my attempt to hierarchize media uses according to a utilitarian rubric. My first seven posts dealt with James Cameron’s Avatar, Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, Homer’s The Odyssey, Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera, the Idle No More movement, producing media for a good cause such as the Against Malaria Foundation, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. In this post I examine an organization called Changing Lives Through Literature, which introduces reading to criminals on probation.

Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) is a kind of bibliotherapy. It’s an organization that employs recent knowledge on literary effects toward rehabilitating criminals. It’s a program that began in 1991 when a judge and a professor of English literature agreed to let some offenders be sentenced to probation rather than jail on the condition that they take a seminar on literature. CLTL is based on the assumption that literature has net positive effects on readers strong enough to turn people from criminals to law-abiding citizens.

In 1998, the program was evaluated by Jarjoura and Krumholz, who divided 72 repeat offenders that were on probation into two groups. 32 of the offenders were placed into CLTL programs. The remaining 40 men did not take the program. During the study, six of the men from the program group (18.75%) committed further offences compared to 18 from the other group (45%). Other bibliotherapy groups such as those that introduce literature to teen mothers have also been successful.

CLTL creators are not necessarily media producers. They only introduce people to pre-existing media content. It may then be a little controversial to compare their projects to music, movies, books, and videography. But I’m not evaluating uses of media, not works of art. 

I doubt the owners of CLTL see it this way, but I think bibliotherapeutic efforts imply a continuum of media-culture systems. At one end of the continuum is a perpetual pumping out of new material without ever hanging on to past classics. At the other pole is a system that only reads past classics and de-emphasizes new material. Our current society features some kind of balance of the two: we do have classics that are learned in literature classes around the world but we also have the constant production of new material. CLTL might teach us that we should adjust to an equilibrium that pays more attention to distributing, teaching, and appreciating established great work. This has implications on “actual” media producers. It may turn out that rather than making a painting of my own, I should help others appreciate other paintings that I see value in.

Strength of Impact:
  1. How many people does the project reach?
  2. How significantly does it impact the people it reaches?
  3. How likely are the people it impacts to spread this impact?
  4. How long lasting is its impact?
  5. How grave was the issue pre-impact?
My answers: 
  1. Low
  2. High
  3. High
  4. Medium
  5. Medium

The Changing Lives Through Literature program reaches a “Low” amount of people. The amount of people that graduate from the program each year numbers in the hundreds.

Although it reaches only a few people, CLTL has a strong impact on the people it reaches. The difference between imprisonment and freedom is massive. Those that graduate from the CLTL program are more likely than other criminals to change and stay changed. In rehabilitating criminals, the program also positively benefits others in society who may have been future victims. A criminal acts differently than a non-criminal. Ordinary novels aren’t able to influence such drastic changes in behaviour through their work. The CLTL program suggests that it might make more sense to focus on what to do with already existing literature.

For instance, with reference to SoI-5, maybe more care should be spent toward making sure those in the gravest situations are introduced to literature, instead of caring so much about pumping out new novels for the middle class. This isn’t an argument for prioritizing average utility over total utility. It’s an admission that in most cases, prioritizing individuals in the worst situations is the surest way toward more total utility.

Quality of Impact:
  1. How much does it increase the accuracy of people's models of reality?
  2. How much does it improve people's quality of life?
  3. How much more likely does it make people to act altruistically toward others?
My answers:
  1. 0
  2. +3
  3. +3

CLTL does not just strongly impact the few people it helps. It also has an overwhelmingly positive impact on them.

Unlike works of popular culture, CLTL possesses the potential to make life-changing differences to people for the better, and on a regular basis. Reading books and watching movies is A Good Thing and while people often feel as if a work has inspired them or changed their thinking in some way – and they may even use the words “that novel changed my life!” – it’s very rare for media impacts to rival the change CLTL makes on criminals. This is the case even if the criminals read the same books everyone else reads in English class. Targeting the correct audience can play as large a role in media impact as improving content does.

Not only does CLTL improve the lives of criminals, it also helps them behave better toward others. Rather than stealing and assaulting, they play nicely in non-zero sum games. Just as there is a massive difference between imprisonment and freedom, there is a massive difference between being assaulted, robbed, or murdered compared to being safe and sound.

CLTL only affects a small group of people but it reaches the right group of people to be worrying about. These people are significantly impacted and significantly more likely to change their behaviour to the great benefit of themselves and others.

No comments:

Post a Comment