My PhD was on writing about food in fifteenth-century England, and was concerned with addressing two issues. The first: what is the relationship of the body to the concept of self, and how can writing about food contribute to how we understand this relationship? Food, after all, is taken in bodily but intersects with social, religious and medical conventions, amongst others, and their associated discourses. The second: what kind of access do we get from texts to lived experience from past periods? What kinds of conceptual frameworks and methodologies are the most productive for responding to this question?
By the time I’d finished my thesis, I was very keen to start a family, and that’s where the trajectory of my research took an unexpected turn. On the one hand, I found that having children seriously curtailed my research opportunities – no surprises there, but let’s just say this was more dramatic than I’d expected. On the other, I found myself, as a parent, reading a great deal about child development, starting with books intended for the general public, and gradually moving to research papers. The penny eventually dropped; my existing interest in embodied cognition was undergoing a transformation, as I learnt how, from infancy, we came to know our world through our bodies. From a broad distinction between Cartesian, dualistic models of subjectivity and embodied selves, I was now developing a revelatory awareness of how so-called higher cognitive functions were inextricable from our physical and emotional experiences. Furthermore, the “self” was now becoming less meaningful than the relationship between selves; that is, our intersubjectivity.
This has all had a profound effect on the way I read medieval texts, but it has also developed into a new research interest. Last year, I was fortunate to become an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre for the History of the Emotions. My project, “Affect and the Child’s Voice in Middle English Narrative”, focuses on moments in medieval texts where children speak for themselves, and the historically specific nature of the meanings that their voices bear. Almost as soon as the project was announced on the website, I started getting feedback suggesting that this work need not be limited to the Middle Ages. More urgently, it became clear that when, and how, living children have access to voices that are effective in their environments is a hugely problematic issue in contemporary Australia and beyond. Exploring the voices of literary children, and the progression of such voices through history, is an important aspect of this new area. But I also realized that this was a bigger conversation. As a result, this year, my project has been extended, and I am delighted to be the convenor of a symposium taking place in September: “Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia”. I am seeking an interdisciplinary dialogue not only amongst researchers, but one that will also include members of the public for whom these issues are pressing, and other groups who have relevant insights into the question of how children come to speak for themselves. We will consider the literal voice, the notion of voice as empowering, and the factors that complicate access to either of these, such as disability, trauma, and discrimination to name a few. We will also look closely at the very basic question of why telling your own story matters. Why is narrative such a powerful personal experience? How and when, developmentally, do children obtain this capacity? What are the consequences for a sense of self if that ability is not well developed? Is it a serious loss? Can we support children in acquiring it, or are there alternative ways for them to express their own stories?
The symposium will also explore how prepared we are, as a society, to actually hear what children are saying: what kinds of listeners are we? What do we do when we don’t like what we are hearing? Our responses are crucial to the success of children’s capacity to speak for themselves.
As a humanities researcher, I happy to look back at what seemed to be serious disruptions to my academic life, and see that they have enhanced my interests and my knowledge, if not my timetable! And I am excited about expanding the work I do through interdisciplinary conversations, as well as through community involvement.