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Johnson to unravel 'tangled story of reading" in HF talk

December 3, 2013

Johnson to unravel 'tangled story of reading" in Honors Forum talk

Dec. 3, 2013

Rebecca Johnson by Eric Jenks
Rebecca Johnson (Photo by Eric Jenks ’08)

“Unraveling the Tangled Story of Reading” is the title of the 16th annual Jon R. Ramsey Honors Forum lecture, to be presented by Rebecca Johnson, associate professor of psychology, at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3. Free and open to all, the talk will be in Gannett Auditorium, Palamountain Hall.

According to Johnson, “The ability to read is a miracle. Although humankind invented reading only a few thousand years ago, for many of us, we effortlessly and quickly extract meaning from small visual characters presented on a page. Yet despite the fact that most of us are quite good at reading, the mental processes involved are highly complex.  In his 1908 book, Sir Edmund Huey stated, ‘To understand what the mind does during reading would be the acme of a psychologist’s achievements, since it would be to describe very many of the most intricate workings of the human mind, as well as to unravel the tangled story of the most remarkable specific performance that civilization has learned in all its history.’”

She will explore the cognitive processes underlying reading by looking both at how skilled reading takes place as well as how brain damage can affect the reading process. “Understanding more about how normal readers process letters and words gives us a better picture as to how the human mind encodes and makes sense of arbitrary symbols used in written communication. Studying individuals with brain damage allows us to see the effects of a skilled reading system gone awry. These two fields inform one another and the combination of these two research areas leads us to a much deeper understanding of this remarkable skill of reading,” Johnson said.

A Skidmore faculty member since 2007, Johnson is primarily interested in studying the cognitive processes involved in reading, a skill that enriches our work and down time. Her research involves studying the reading behavior of normal, skilled readers to understand how the mind usually processes written text. She also studies people who have difficulty reading as the result of brain damage.

In 2011, Johnson taught a Scribner Seminar titled “Reading Minds: The History and Science of Literacy” to 16 first-year students. The course helped them to learn multiple perspectives on reading, the historical background and cultural significance of reading, and the psychological and neurological underpinnings of reading. As part of their course work the students organized a book drive that resulted in more than 1,100 books collected and presented to the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Albany Medical Center Hospital.

Johnson is a summa cum laude graduate of Georgetown College, where she earned a B.A. degree in psychology and communication arts. She holds master’s and doctoral degrees in cognitive psychology from the University of Massachusetts.

The annual Honors Forum Lecture, launched in 1999, was renamed in 2004 in honor of newly retired Skidmore English professor and administrator Jon Ramsey. In nearly three decades at Skidmore, Ramsey served as associate dean and dean of studies and as director of student academic affairs; he was instrumental in creating the Honors Forum and the Office of International Programs. 


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