Kayaks in the Ocean: On the Second Cambridge Symposium on Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature

Today’s blog post comes from Christopher Owen, a PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University. Chris’s research focuses on intersectional systemic oppression in middle-grade fantasy novels.

It was the day of the Second Cambridge Symposium on Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature, and I was so nervous. I’m a PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University, living in the city of Cambridge—brilliant people surround me from both universities, but Cambridge’s reputation tends to leave people thinking there’s only one university here. So if anyone has imposter syndrome, it’s me. Though I think, on some level, we all have imposter syndrome. In academia, this is especially true. Academia is where new scholars stare into the ocean of knowledge they don’t (yet) have with nothing but a kayak and a compass that may or may not be working. It’s daunting and terrifying and sometimes we feel like the only person in the ocean.

And then, one day, we look through our telescopes and see someone standing on land. Finally, land! We expect that person to stand there boldly, sure that the rock beneath their feet is solid. They’ve found their little island and we’re still stuck in our kayaks. There is no room for two on that rock. You can therefore guess at my surprise when I met Peter Stockwell, a man whose feet are firmly on his rock, who turned out to be wonderfully down to earth and kind.

Peter Stockwell explains mind-modelling.
But the most remarkable thing happened at this symposium. It was designed to allow graduate students to share their work. I was in a room with brilliant people, and I was worried I couldn’t compare to any of them. But instead of feeling like I was less, I felt like I was a part of something special: a community. This was a day we all spent encouraging and supporting one another, and it was fantastic.

Peter – who, as described by Maria Nikolajeva, wrote the “bible” to cognitive poetics – gave a fascinating keynote presentation on mind-modelling. He spoke on theory of mind and empathizing with fictional characters. He used examples from children’s literature, even though that is not his field. It was generous of him to consider our approach, and he humbly admitted it was new for him. His presentation was clear but complex, and it felt like he was opening a dialogue among equals, rather than teaching those he considered inferior. Peter set the tone for the day, leading us into a symposium dedicated to mutual respect.

Empathy, as it turned out, was not only a part of his keynote presentation, but was a central topic of conversation and research for the rest of the day. In fact, empathy was touched on in every single presentation. I don’t have the space to expand on each presentation, but topics ranged from empowerment, identification and representation, minority issues, the reading brain, and the cultural significance of specific metaphors. Everyone received supportive feedback, with the occasional critical question meant only to improve the direction of the work. This symposium allowed us to not only share our work, but to come together as we each go forward.

We were a small group of graduate students, sitting in our kayaks, looking out into the endless sea before us. And then a lifeline was thrown, a rope passed from one kayak to the next, and suddenly we weren’t alone in that ocean anymore. We’re still all paddling forward, but now we’re paddling together. The sun is shining and no one is going to drown. There’s still an ocean ahead, but for now, even if just for a little while, the paddling feels a little less daunting and little more exciting.

Land, ho!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s