|GUEST POST| The Monkey Mind and Inspiration

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.    

A drawing by my mother at about age 11. I recall at best faintly her reading to me the Beatrix Potter stories referenced and that evidently formed part of her cultural memory.

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.  

 A stack of books that always sat on my mother’s shelves (some post-date her childhood and were purchased for reading to me); I will likely consider at least Dr. Dolittle, Kim, and Le Petit Prince — which she called her ‘favourites’.  

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. 

Children’s Literature Postgraduate Research Scholarship

The School of Humanities at Roehampton is pleased to announce that the current round of applications for our annual PhD Scholarship in Children’s Literature is now open for studies commencing in October 2021.

The Scholarship is fully funded by the University of Roehampton, School of Humanities (English and Creative Writing) and covers Home fees of £4,407.00, as well as an annual stipend at current Research Council rates (£17,285.00 .p.a. for 3 years full-time subject to satisfactory progress). In addition to the time spent on their PhD project, full-time students funded by the university shall be available for the equivalent of 6 hours of additional work per week over 40 weeks per year. Where this involves the student undertaking teaching or teaching-related work, the time for preparation, marking and related administration shall be included in those six hours maximum per week.  NB International (including EU) applicants would need to be able to pay the difference between Home and Overseas fees for the duration of the programme.

This studentship will be awarded to an emerging scholar of the highest calibre working in the field of children’s literature or creative writing for children and capable of submitting a PhD thesis within 3 years. We welcome projects that reflect the School of Humanities’ commitment to research and knowledge exchange and its investment in interdisciplinary approaches to creative societies, social justice and inclusivity. We encourage applications from people of all backgrounds and identities, and we are especially keen to hear from candidates of global majority ethnicities who are currently underrepresented (the university’s EDI policy can be found here). Applicants should hold a Masters Degree in a relevant subject—such as children’s literature, or creative writing for children—or equivalent professional experience. They must also be able to demonstrate strong research capabilities and fluency in spoken and written English that meets the university’s entrance criteria for doctoral study. The school’s interdisciplinary approach to children’s literature and creative writing draws scholarship into fields such as memory studies, oral history, eco-criticism and environmental activism, colonial or postcolonial studies, diaspora literatures, sexual orientation and gender studies, philosophy, performance, digital literacies, print culture, and experimental writing (prose, poetry, and non-fiction)—we are keen to support projects in any of these areas.

Our Children’s Literature Scholar will be supported by the school’s lively research culture, which has a dedicated journal for postgraduate researchers—Roundtable is published by Roehampton’s Fincham Press. They will work with postgraduate researchers across the school, taking part in regular drop-ins and a programme of research training that equips them for a range of careers, such as academia, publishing, arts administration, or professional writing. They will join our vibrant community of researchers in children’s literature, working with internationally renowned scholars in the field, enjoy editing and writing opportunities with our International Journal of Young Adult Literature (IJYAL), and have access to children’s literature and young adult research networks across the UK. They will also benefit from our Children’s Literature Collection and archives and from links with local partners, such as Barnes Children’s Literature Festival. Candidates will be asked to contribute to the School of Humanities in various ways, taking on a range of roles including teaching (training will be provided), conference organization, or journal editing. For this reason, candidates for the Children’s Literature Scholarship will need to live within regular commuting distance of the University of Roehampton. Research training provision also requires regular attendance on campus (though some sessions will take place on-line). The university is set on a beautiful, traditional campus in South West London and provides its students with exceptional facilities, high quality teaching and a close-knit, collegiate experience. It has a diverse student body and a cosmopolitan outlook, with students from over 130 countries.

Deadline for applications: Monday 31st May 2021

For further information or for informal discussion please contact:

Dr. Lisa Sainsbury: L.Sainsbury@roehampton.ac.uk

Details of how to submit your application can be found here:

https://www.roehampton.ac.uk/graduate-school/degrees/ Please visit https://www.roehampton.ac.uk/graduate-school/ to find out more about postgraduate research at Roehampton. For all non-academic queries relating to the studentships, please contact Graduate School Admissions on 020 8392 3715, email graduateschool@roehampton.ac.uk