On Reading and Listening: a visit from Professor Margaret Mackey to the Faculty of Education

Andy McCormack is an MPhil student on the Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature strand at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. His undergraduate training was in English Literature, and he qualified and worked as an Early Years teacher in schools and in children’s rights and arts organisations before returning to the books.

Listening to interesting people about what interests them is one of the most agreeable ways one can spend one’s time. When these interesting people’s interests intersect with your own, it is doubly stimulating. One of the most exciting elements of living and working in Cambridge is the number of opportunities there are to attend talks and lectures by leading experts in their field: it was a treat to participate in one such opportunity at the beginning of the Easter break, when Margaret Mackey spoke at the Faculty of Education about ‘Moving Experiences: children’s literate lives in a mobile ecology’.

Professor Mackey is well-known to my colleagues studying for the MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at the Faculty, not least because her book One Child Reading (2016) is one of the most beautiful exemplars of the ‘auto-bibliography’: it provided me with a perfect start to my studies in the field of children’s literature (and my work towards submitting ‘essay one’ – an auto-bibliography of my own!). There is always somethings pecial about hearing a thinker whom you greatly admire speak in person, however, and professor Mackey’s talk was all the more insightful and thought-provoking as it offered glimpses of how her research takes shape, changes direction, and finds cohesion in dialogue with her research participants, students, colleagues and crucially, the wider world.

I must hold my hands up and admit to being a hopeless technophobe – I recently swapped my battered old Smartphone (on which I primarily watched music videos and tried to devise new ways of communicating solely via emoji, alethiometer-like, on Whatsapp) for an old Nokia (on which I now primarily play Snake II). I am something of an ostrich, therefore, with my head in the sand with regard to understanding the scandals which seem to break in the news every day: online data harvesting, the commercialisation/politicisation of that data, and ensuing misuse/breaches of privacy. It was educating to consider these crises from the perspectives Professor Makey offered, when she came to describe the ‘surveillance culture’ in which young people today are growing up.

It was very moving to hear Mackey, a professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta, describe the library as a place in which children should be left alone by the librarian: as a place in which children can stretch their wings and choose for themselves. It is interesting, and alarming, to think about how this choice might be changing in the current digital landscape, in which children are ‘recommended’ age and stage ‘appropriate’ texts by programmes which record how they interact with digital texts (which passages they highlight, how long they spend on certain sections) and share that information with teachers, parents, peers, pubilshers, shareholders, and who knows who else. It is also important to think about, in the wake of the real repercussions we read about in the newspapers of our culture of consumption over criticality, and the shift from technology and data sa means of recording and measuring what we do to a means of predicting and influencing us.

Professor Mackey talked about the power of fiction to linger in the reader’s imagination: about its capacity to work as a lens through which we see and interpret the world. Listening to Professor Mackey talk had the same effect on me. A by-product of listening to interesting people about the things that move them can often cause the shifting of your own perspectives on subjects both new and familiar to you: listening to and reflecting on ideas and methods different to my own often helps me to approach my own research in ways that reading books I’ve specifically hunted down for myself sometimes can’t. Professor Mackey talked about how children being allowed to tinker, or play, with texts they’ve discuvered (rather than hunted down, or been ‘recommended’ by a programme) can offer them a means for engaging with the serious work of thinking. Listening, I think, can do the same.

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