Guest Post by Rachel Heald
Science suggests that, for some, mind-wandering triggers retrospection and ‘mental time-travelling’. In other words, when our minds wander, they tend to wander to ourselves. To our histories and then to our potential futures. This can be a good thing. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Brain & Cognition, the University of California, and the University of Aberdeen conducted two studies designed to test the linkage between mind-wandering, retrospection, and prospective thinking (1). They conclude that diving into one’s past is important in stimulating innovative thinking about the future, either because retrospection triggers the same brain regions that are triggered by future thinking or because self-reflection itself is imaginative and therefore triggers broader imaginative thought.
This is my dissertation year, but Covid-19 and the political climate here in the U.S. left me, like most, scattered and stuck, worried and, yes, retrospective. With an excess of time and much uncertainty about how to find focus and meaning in my dissertation, I decided to ‘retrospect’ back to the beginning and dig out the roots of my interest in children’s literature and culture. Alison Waller’s monograph ‘Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics’ (2019) seemed a good starting point. It is impossible to read Waller’s book without retrospection. And it led me to a path that ultimately changed my perception of myself as a researcher and inspired a dissertation project I’ve enjoyed every step of the way.
Centered on Waller’s interviews into the re-reading process and memories of childhood books, the monograph extends the work of a number of other researchers in oral reading history, psychology, book history, and, of course, children’s literature. These researchers are attempting to understand the nuanced ways a child’s emerging identity entwines with childhood reading and memories of it, with culture, and with the adult self. But Waller’s poetics is also a cautionary tale, exposing the pitfalls inherent in attempting to recall the reading past. In so doing, it pushes the remembering researcher to ‘excavate’ (as Waller puts it) deliberatively, particularly because nostalgia unavoidably shifts our thinking.
Waller and other researchers have found that many people recall the ‘situatedness’ of their childhood reading before and even more than they recall the substance of what they read. As I did my own excavating, I found this largely true. I realized my memories of childhood reading trace to the adult who introduced me to childhood books. My mother was passionate about reading and children’s stories. Both her embodied expression of text – she read to me dramatically, enacting stories as much as reading them – and her expressions of self as a female in our culture and time, all of this seeped into my understanding of these stories. It extended beyond, to my relationship with reading and to my understanding of children’s culture and its connections with society.
This understanding inspired me to center my dissertation on my mother’s relationship with her favorite children’s stories. Although I certainly view this as an opportunity to understand the woman who was such a tremendous influence on me, my aim is also mercenary. I plan to use her story as a case-study that will allow me also to excavate (to hijack the metaphor) the layers of my own understanding of ideas that intrigued me most during my time at Roehampton, and particularly during this surreal Covid year. Some of the additional theorists whose work I am digging into include J.A. Appleyard, Hugh Crago, M. O. Grenby, Karen Littau, Margaret Mackey, Sarah Pyke, and Shelley Trower. Their ideas are helping me to frame a methodology through which to read the story of my mother’s childhood reading life.
Because my project is entwined with my memories, the process has necessarily been recursive. I’ve found myself cycling between flashes of recollection and my theoretical research. In any other year, I’m not sure I would have recognized it this way. But everything we learned this spring in the Archives & Research module worked neatly in tandem with my Covid-heavy mind. The module taught us to approach all of our research as archivists, with an open mind, allowing connections to emerge, and embracing re-visioning. In fact, it was only because of that thinking that I finally realized my project is inherently an archival one. It rests not just on my ‘memory archive’ but also on my own informal ‘family archive’. This hasn’t been an easy or straightforward process for me but, fortunately, it’s bullied my monkey mind to sit still, at least for a bit.
And this brings me back to the science of retrospection. Beyond its challenges, this deep dig has also inspired so many questions I hope to consider with future research. My ‘imagination domain’ has been triggered, and I’m excited about the new-to-me areas of theory I want to pursue. So, though I would never claim that Covid-19 has a silver lining, in my dissertation project and the satisfaction this process has given me I catch a glimpse of an incandescent thread.
(1) Smallwood, Jonathan, Jonathan W. Schooler, David J. Turk, Sheila J. Cunningham, Phebe Burns, C. Neil Macrae. ‘Self-Reflection and the temporal focus of the wandering mind.’ Consciousness and Cognition. (2010).
Rachel Heald is a postgraduate student in the MA in Children’s Literature (Distance Learning) at University of Roehampton.