Stella Pryce is a first year PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in Children’s Literature.
I have heard time and time again that the first year of your PhD is a minefield of unexpected challenges. Obviously, I have often chosen to ignore these warnings. However, I have become increasingly aware that one of the unique challenges of this time is developing a pathway for a future academic career. What I mis-calculated though is how illusive that pathway would truly be: a transition from ‘student’ to ‘early career researcher’ is so new that it is an identity I have yet to truly grasp. For example, one of the most unexpected aspects of this early journey has been the effects of interacting with more established academic researchers. As they are at a very different stage of their academic journey than me, this can, at the very least, seem a little daunting, when I reflect on my own distance of travelling along the research pathway, and at best, it is rather intimidating. As such, on Thursday the 6th of June, ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’, members of our first year PhD cohort made a visit to Newcastle University to join forces with other emerging researchers, to discuss our recent footsteps in this world of research.
This fantastic opportunity was a collaborative event between several UK universities and Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. This networking opportunity was organised by my fellow first year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Andy McCormack, and it was generously funded by the AHRC. PhD students from the University of Cambridge, Glasgow, Newcastle and Roehampton united to discuss our research interests, which were varied and diverse, ranging from empirical work, to literary analysis and creative writing. Unlike many events of its kind, this colloquium was invigorated by a lack of intimidating hierarchical structure and a collaborative tone that suggested a genuine sense of community within the field of Children’s Literature research.
The conference opened with a keynote delivered by Dr Kimberly Reynolds and Paula Wride concerning Robert Westall’s place within the children’s literary canon. This paper was a fitting way to begin the colloquium as, like the entire event, it was organised with a sense of symbiosis between the archival material from Seven Stories and literary analysis of Westall’s war books. Following a coffee break, the first panel discussion began. We discussed individual research interests, through the unifying lens of ‘textuality’, a pertinent theme that seemed to reappear through the course of papers and private considerations. Our first day in Newcastle was then concluded by the panel focusing on ‘diversity’ and exploring a wide range of research interests from the representation of adolescent transgender protagonists in YA novels, to the representations of refugees in the fiction of Beverley Naidoo. Each panel was punctuated by invigorating questions that appeared to simultaneously challenge and re-energise presenters, while helping all researchers there, re-conceptualise their own trajectories of research. As they defended or expanded upon the arguments of their paper or wider thesis, a common thread was traced in many of the conversations that centred around the usefulness of sharing ideas. Indeed, it was agreed that this process of collaboration was a useful academic task itself, where one learned a great deal by sharing ideas with those working in a different but adjacent field to one’s own. The colloquium style while helping all researchers there, re-conceptualise their own trajectories of research, challenged the typical conference in which a centrally unifying theme will often attract rather similar papers, resulting in a homogenous mass of very similar material. Instead, it seemed to be universally appreciated that each paper was unique and each broad panel title approached this thematic suggestion in a totally different way from the next one.
Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books.
Following a conference meal and much needed sleep, the next day, we met with our fellow researchers at Seven Stories. The morning’s first panel concerned the topic of ‘materiality’ which, made many links with what had previously been discussed about ‘textuality’, and suggested a very diverse range of ways the broad “material” could be interpreted. Once again, the diversity of these papers ranged from empirical to literary. This panel was also underscored by a sense of the paratextual world of children’s books which was interestingly characterised from a historicist perspective in Dr Lucy Pearson’s paper on the CILIP Carnegie Medal, with a focus for discourse around childhood, children’s books and national identity.
The final group of presentations fittingly explored the topic of ‘futurity’, a most useful way of rounding up discussions and thinking about moving forward. While this theme was utilised directly by presentations regarding the concept of futurity in children’s texts (ranging from fantasy fiction, to the posthuman and religious discourses), Dr Zoe Jaques presented ideas on a very different kind of futurity – our own. Zoe’s paper was both a personal perspective on the topic of futurity and a cautionary tale for the early career academic regarding the ‘goblins’ of research ‘rabbit holes’. This discussion was most fitting and I think every PhD student should be duly warned by their seniors of the importance of prioritising your projects, because, as you may have already worked out – a PhD is perhaps the only time in your career you will have such a personal journey to make which allows time to focus entirely on your own research, yet is undoubtedly fraught with unseen distractions.
After a final cup of tea and an opportunity to look around Seven Stories ourselves, we parted ways making vows to our hosts and each other, to stay in contact and continue our collaborative relationship throughout our academic careers. All in all, this colloquium was an outstanding success and I extend thanks on behalf of all participants, to Andy and the AHRC for organising and facilitating a hugely enriching couple of days.
First year PhD students, from the Universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, Newcastle and Roehampton