Liberation or Burden? Debating the Childist Turn

Nic Hilton is a first year PhD candidate at the Children’s Literature Research Centre at the University of Cambridge studying growth and maturation in the novels of Patrick Ness, while Madeleine Hunter is a second year PhD candidate studying convergence in twenty-first century children’s media. They have very different feelings on the childist turn. 

On May 30, 2018 the Cambridge Children’s Literature Research Centre was proud to host Dr. Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak and her seminar on “The Childist Turn in Children’s Literature Studies”, a follow-on from the centre’s recent International Symposium on Intergenerational Solidarity in Children’s Literature and Culture. This symposium was a joint venture with Anglia Ruskin University, where Deszcz-Tryhubczak is the current Marie Sklodowska-Curie visiting fellow. Both the symposium and the seminar spoke to paradigm shifts currently taking place within the field of children’s literature research and so we’ve taken the opportunity to consider what we’ve learned and debate our emerging childist turn in the context of this engaging and entertaining presentation.

Liberation – Nic Hilton

Collaboration and Liberation. These are the two words that stood out to me when Deszcz-Tryhubczak was explaining her current research project: ChildAct – Shaping a Preferable Future: Children Reading, Thinking and Talking about Alternative Communities and Times. The project involves a participatory research approach to the study of literary utopias and how adult and children inhabit, share and imagine common spaces, and is part of a larger paradigm shift happening in our field where we are becoming more metacritical of our own methodologies, particularly when it comes to empirical research. We are becoming more aware of how we can conduct research with the children we want to study, allowing the research to provide a more encompassing way of viewing the subject of inquiry by performing a convergence of the perspectives of the researcher and the children with whom she is working. ‘Working with’ is the key to this type of research, and when it is carried out successfully it can allow the co-researchers the opportunity to question and challenge established forms of interpretation.

This type of research – as well as having children being the co-creators of it – can seem very overwhelming but just listening to Deszcz-Tryhubczak really illuminated just how creative this type of research can potentially be. Collaborative knowledge production with children creates a dynamic community that is always emergent. The really exciting aspect of participatory research comes from no longer being the organising agent of the sessions. You could see the joy in letting go of what happens in Justyna’s description of her own “becoming the smog” in Un-Lun-Dun, as directed by the children. What came across most forcefully from Justyna’s description of her own experience was how extremely liberating it was to see what would happen and what could come from allowing children to take responsibility for their own input into the research. In letting go, genuine collaboration between adult and child can unfold, allowing spontaneous relationships with the children to form and thus allowing for new and creative insights into what children do with the texts we offer them.

Overall, participatory research is about belonging – creating common spaces where young people and adult readers can collaborate towards a better understanding, whether that be of their perspectives and priorities of the world and environment around them or on the more specific topics of the research being carried out. It is where research is focused on action, experimentation, and community building. However, this research is an incredibly demanding process and one that constantly evolves as the co-researchers begin to interact and develop in their understanding. The mutual learning that can take place within this type of research is not only beneficial to the adult research but also enables the child participant to gain skills that will enable them to interpret and engage with the world around them. The challenge for the researcher lies in how a researcher performs their engagement with the children that they are studying, whilst also studying them.

Burden – Madeleine Hunter

While listening to Deszcz-Tryhubczak discuss her foray into the world of child-led research, there was one word in particular that she used that has stuck in my head and that I feel captures the contradictions and complexities that are innate in our field’s current paradigm shift: burden. Deszcz-Tryhubczak used the word in relation to her discussion of how she actually went about organising and structuring her research, stressing that it was important that the children with whom she was working were not overly burdened with too much responsibility.

What does it mean to worry about the child’s burden? It was, in many ways a recurrent theme of Deszcz-Tryhubczak’s talk, especially given the nature of her current research project on literary utopias and adult and child co-imaginings of possible alternative worlds. The current generation was even at one point referred to as the “janitorial generation” – a term which was new to me and that refers to the hopes, responsibilities and obligations that we have already invested the children of today in regards to “cleaning up” (get it?) our worst excesses.

And yet, while this may indeed be their burden, the asymmetry of power between adult and child that child-led research sets out to disrupt and thus critique nevertheless persists, placing some significant obstacles between children and their attempts to manage this burden in the present. Deszcz-Tryhubczak revealed to us how a host of economic, industrial and political realities intruded on attempts by her child collaborators to address problems within their community, and the myriad conversations between herself, teachers and parents that unfolded over the children’s heads.

In child-led research the child is considered to own the research – what does this mean in practice? For Deszcz-Tryhubczak, it means that presentations from the children are played at conferences where the research project is presented and that all the participating children and their teachers are listed as authors in publications. Even though this works to the detriment of Deszcz-Tryhubczak and her academic collaborators and the scoring of their own research output, it is a burden Deszcz-Tryhubczak proudly bears and serves as a powerful example of exactly the kind of respectful and reciprocal interaction that she advocated; an act of mutual appropriation in pursuit of intergenerational cohesion.

And yet, if they own it, does that mean the children can decide how they want the research the published? Do they choose the journals and the conferences in which it will be presented? And what if they were to decide they did not want the results published at all? Such an event would indeed be an assertion of intergenerational interdependence, but one that would spell career disaster for the researchers involved and would do so because of a host of economic and industrial factors related to how academic research is funded and assessed – all of which are veiled from the children who “own” the said research.

In light of this, I maintain a scepticism about how “mutual” the mutual appropriation at the heart of the childist turn truly is. In our attempts to empower the child as a subject in our discussions of our subject, we cannot side-step the fact that these discussions unfold at our instigation, our discretion, and on our terms. After all, who is it that decides the child should be studied?

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