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Who am I?


© Rachel Harrison


I am a member of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford, and research the intersections between mental health and fiction-reading (see below), as well as writing a book on consciousness and a blog on eating disorders. Last year I was Postdoctoral Training Coordinator for the Humanities Division, responsible for developing training and support provision for all humanities early-career academics at Oxford. I am now also exploring the possibility of creating an app to support recovery from anorexia with total calorie counts or bodyweight targets; you can read more here.

My primary research activity at the moment brings together my professional background in cognitive literary studies and my personal experience of anorexia in a project at the boundary of literary studies, experimental psychology, and psychiatry. The project focuses on the relationships between eating disorders and fiction, in particular two connected questions:

1) Does a personal history of eating disorder affect how people read and interpret fiction?

2) Can reading fiction influence eating-disorder outcomes, and if so how?

You can read more about my research here. Last academic year I was a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). The project, entitled Eating Disorders and Real-Life Reading, involved theoretical, empirical, and outreach work conceived and conducted in partnership with the eating-disorders charity Beat. In 2015-16 I also co-convened a reading group 'Books, Minds, and Bodies' which brought together academics and others for weekly reading-aloud of fiction by authors including Dostoevsky and Ted Chiang. We hope to publish the results of our preliminary data-gathering soon.

From 2010 to 2014 I was a Junior Research Fellow in Modern Languages (French and German) at St John's College, Oxford. I have a BA in French and German from the University of Oxford (2004), as well as a Masters (MSt) in European Literature (German, 2006) and a DPhil in German (2010), both also from Oxford. 

My current research builds on my previous work in cognitive literary studies, which explored the experiences we have when we read fiction, and in particular what makes some fictional texts seem realistic and others not. I developed a scientifically informed approach to investigating how readers respond to textual features, using the framework of what I call 'cognitive realism' (the extent to which a text's evocation of cognition corresponds to how our minds actually work). My first monograph, Kafka's Cognitive Realism, put these principles into practice in the context of Kafka and enactive cognition, particularly visual perception; it was published by Routledge in February 2014. (You can listen to me talk about the book and why I wrote it here.) I then went on to consider other realms of cognition, like memory, in other authors and literary traditions, with the aim of starting to answer the question of whether the periods of literary Realism and Modernism are as different as is often assumed.

My current project means a lot to me because it brings together two important parts of my life, my love of literature and my personal history of mental (and physical) illness, and because it has the potential to make a difference to real people suffering from serious illnesses within and beyond academia. I feel strongly that the academic world could and should do much more to address the widespread stigma and secrecy surrounding mental health, and do all I can to be open and honest about the realities of mental illness and health as I see them.

For six years I lived on a narrowboat in Oxford, and I now split my leisure time - when not powerlifting - between boat, convertible, and motorhome.


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