A Different Conference Bingo (The 2016 CSCY conference)

I’ve just come back from Sheffield, where the 2016 Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth conference was taking place from Tuesday to Thursday. It was a Childhood Studies conference, focusing on the ‘social, biological and material dimensions of childhood and children’s everyday lives’.

This was my first Childhood Studies conference – I generally go to Children’s Literature conferences, but in the past three and a half years, save for a couple of articles, my research has reoriented itself towards neighbouring fields, such as the cultural sociology of childhood and of education, and the history of childhood. While I’m not an empirical researcher, I’m tending towards questions and topics close to Childhood Studies, and I read their journals; so I thought it was high time I went to one of their conferences.

This isn’t going to be a detailed report, but rather some thoughts on the interesting differences between Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies, as far as I can tell from my admittedly limited experience of the latter. Mostly, it was fascinating to see how different those two neighbouring fields are.

This can be visualised in a very scholarly way by looking at the completely different Conference Bingos. Here’s my Children’s Literature conference bingo:


At the Childhood Studies conference, however, I had no Conference Bingo in mind. I had to make it up as I went along, noting resonances, repetitions, funny little tics of language and turns of phrase that were new to me but extremely familiar to CSCY veterans. And there was interestingly very little overlap with current concerns in Children’s Literature studies. Here’s what struck me in particular.

  • Concerns with method

There was a lot of thinking about method going on, almost as a matter of course, both within presentations and in the Q&As. This is probably in part because so much of Childhood Studies is empirical, and so much of that empirical work ethnographic; method and methodologies, ethical considerations and the place of the researcher were constantly probed. This may seem simply like good practice, but it was clear that presenters weren’t just going through the motions; their reflections on method were indissociable from their conceptualisations and theoretical commitments, and practice, theory and method mingled fluidly, in a way that I haven’t really seen happening in Children’s Literature. Method, to put it simply, wasn’t a tool; it was always already thought.

This isn’t to pit Childhood Studies against Children’s Literature – it’s just an observation. If we need a ‘conversely,’ then I observed that at CSCY there was little to no engagement with the aesthetic aspects of the cultural objects studied. When children’s TV, books, films, etc. were observed, literary criticism, aesthetic visual analysis, film criticism, etc. were (at least in the talks I saw) not at all mobilised.

  •  Latourian frameworks, and ‘assemblages’

Granted, this was a conference focusing on the material and biological child, so, as one of the professors there rightly pointed out to me, it had Latour written all over it; and the Frenchman has been a reference for some major Childhood Studies thinkers for quite some time. But there are other theorisations of materiality; so it was interesting to see how much Latour and Actor-Network Theory specifically resonated in the field. It’s easy to see why; ‘the child’ is a textbook example of a Latourian (quasi)object, involved at the same time with many different types of other actants, objects, knowledges, etc. and irreducible to any in particular. Entanglement was one of the recurring keywords.

Another keyword was ‘assemblage’, pulled from a rather different tradition but used almost interchangeably, as far as I could tell, with ‘entanglement’, ‘networks’ or similar expressions.

  • Some unease with both traditional and emergent social categorisations

I didn’t see a lot of criticism of Latour, but in a brilliant presentation on children’s engagement with TV, Fiona Scott of Sheffield University highlighted the necessity to buttonhole Bourdieu once in a while, too, so as not to risk leaving class aside. That’s the problem with Latourian or equivalent approaches: fearing reductionism, it’s hard not to spend all your time describing relations, and shying away from explanations – especially from social causes.

I had a feeling that presenters were tiptoeing around explanations involving traditional social categories; they didn’t mention class, gender nor race as much as I would have thought. It was nothing like Children’s Literature, where such categories are hugely mobilised in analyses of texts. Similarly, I didn’t hear much about emergent categories. There was a little bit of disability studies. Strikingly, I heard the word ‘intersectionality’ uttered only once (obviously, I didn’t go to all the talks – I don’t have a Time-Turner); a major difference here from Children’s Literature.

Yet at the same time, almost inevitably the Q&As triggered reflection on gender, race, class, etc. I’m not sure if it’s because the conference theme kept those categories at bay, only for them to be reintroduced after the talks; or if it reflects some wider discomfort, or incompatibilities, within the apparently current ‘turn’ of Childhood Studies towards materiality.

  • No consensus on ‘agency’ and ‘voice’

Relatedly, the concepts of ‘agency’ and ‘voice’ of the child were in a paradoxical position. Routinely there were calls to transcend them or move beyond them; at the same time, I observed that those concepts were much-used in presentations by researchers who were also educators or teachers. In other words, there seemed to me to be an interesting discrepancy between the apparent theoretical obsolescence of these concepts, and their continued usefulness in pedagogical practice.

From a Children’s Literature perspective, that discussion maps nicely onto the question of child and adult ‘powers’ within and around the children’s text, which is of course one of my obsessive concerns. That’s where I saw, perhaps, the most resonances between the two fields.

  • Reflections on the constructedness of childhood are still important

I was expecting to find that ‘constructions of childhood’ was now a taboo expression in Childhood Studies, but I was happy to see that it was not the case, with the appropriate caveats in place. I think it was clear and uncontroversial that childhood remains a social construct – and one that is structuring for ‘people currently occupying the space socially defined as childhood’, in the words of Nigel Thomas in his keynote on the matter. Those meandering ways of saying ‘children’ are awkward, of course, but they show that the (important) work on reclaiming (as per above) the child’s ‘voice’ and ‘agency’, and the current work on the interconnectedness of children with everything, still allow for space to reflect on what effectively does construct childhood.

  • A lot of political and ethical commitment

Like Children’s Literature, I found Childhood Studies to be an intensely moral and political arena (in the good sense of the word). There was a lot of preoccupation for the future not just of the discipline but, quite literally, of humanity – a remarkable amount of comments and reflections on climate change, for instance – and of the role of children and researchers in this space. All the keynote speakers exhorted other researchers to be politically and ethically committed; they didn’t necessarily phrase it in that way, but it was very clear.

Perhaps the most inspiring bit of the conference for me was Spyros Spyrou‘s keynote, in which he highlighted the power of method to ‘create alternate realities’ – by which he meant, not alternate representations, but truly alternate realities; an effecting shaping of the world. Faced with that, we must resist relativism; we have an obligation to make ethical choices as to which realities we want to come into being.


So what’s my Conference Bingo for Childhood Studies? It can’t be complete nor representative, of course, from a sample of just one, but here’s a try, from my semi-outsider perspective:


(You will note that ‘As a parent’ is present in both.) With that in mind, I look forward to next year’s IRSCL conference at York University, Toronto (not to be confused with the far nicer superlatively better University of York, UK), whose theme is, appropriately, ‘Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies’.

PowerPoint in academic conferences (from abstinence to incontinence)

This isn’t a blog post on ‘how to use PowerPoint’. I’m no PowerPoint expert, and anyway I’m often too lazy to put together properly thought-through PowerPoint presentations for conferences. But I’ve been pondering about the different uses of PowerPoint I’ve witnessed and/or tried, so here are some brief thoughts on their strengths and weaknesses.

1) No PowerPoint

If you’re not over a hundred years old, then not using PowerPoint means either you think you’re God, or you actually are. I’ve listened to exceptional presentations not using PowerPoint. I’ve also listened to atrocious ones. I think it attracts both ends of the spectrum: outstanding people and terrible ones; the brightest and the laziest; the most captivating and the dullest.


The correct reaction to a presenter saying, ‘I don’t have a PowerPoint for you today…’

  • Not having a PowerPoint immediately gets you some negative karma from 90% of the audience.
  • Such presentations can be a pretext for reading an article tailored for publication rather than a paper tailored for a conference, which is a terrible idea.


  • If you do it well, it’s extremely impressive.
  • If you do it well, we’ll all remember your ideas.

People whose non-PowerPointed presentations I like are those who go the extra mile to structure and signpost their talk very carefully, compensating for the lack of visual anchoring. People whose non-PowerPointed presentations I hate are those who take it as a pretext for endless digression. You must be über-rigorous and have some seriously good ideas if you want to convince the audience that they wouldn’t have benefited from any slideshow. (You must also be prepared to see some people closing their eyes or doodling – which probably means they’re much more focused than if you were flashing lots of pretty pictures.)

2) The (almost-)all-pictures PowerPoint

Some people use PowerPoint as visual stimulus, but don’t want to distract from the verbal content of their talk by providing words or sentences on the screen. Their PowerPoint shows a book cover while they discuss the book, or a painting of a reading child while they discuss children’s literature.

While not necessary in any way, those decorative PowerPoints provide staring material.


  • Like number 1, they can be a pretext for people to read off an article to which they’ve added some pictures, rather than a proper conference paper.


  • With a bit of imagination, it can become extremely interesting.

Yes: it’s wonderful when this type of presentation – with a little help from picturebook theory! – offers the opportunity to have interesting gaps between the verbal and the visual – between the text you read and the pictures you show. This can create surprise and laughter, and tremendously increase audience interest.

A good example is Scott McCloud’s Ted Talk on comics – obviously, as a comic artist and theorist himself, McCloud knows better than anyone how to take advantage of the gap between words and pictures.

The trick to get a laugh is to avoid mentioning the picture. Pretend it doesn’t exist and has a life of its own. In a talk I did a while ago, I was saying that adults don’t read children’s books like children do, and meanwhile the picture on the screen was this one.

bush-book-backwardsThe hope is that the part of the audience that’s asleep will be woken up by the part of the audience that sniggers.

3) The ‘hybrid’ PowerPoint: where words and pictures meet

This is the type of PowerPoint I usually do: more pictures than words, but still a healthy dose of verbal signposting – which stage I’m at, which concept I’m discussing. If I read an important quote, I will have it written too so the audience can follow. This type of PowerPoint is pretty good, I think, for people who, like me, have a problem with speaking a bit too fast (that’s an understatement in my case). The PowerPoint ‘underlines’, so to speak, some important concepts and quotations from the presentation.


  • It can feel like it’s just ‘crumbs’ of the presentation, keywords and key pictures but not much around them.


  • Personally, I feel this is the Goldilocks of PowerPoint: just enough visual stimulation in the form of pictures, just enough handpicked information from the verbal material. It seems to be the type most people go for, too, which creates a feeling of familiarity from the audience.

4) More words than pictures: the verbose PowerPoint

This is the PowerPoint strategy adopted by overcontrolling people who really don’t want their audience to miss anything. This type can go from the relatively word-heavy to the frankly verbose, and it’s generally a lot of quotations, bullet points with the central information of each paragraph, complete references for every sentence cited, etc. Generally the structure of the presentation will also be part of this, so everything is full of Roman and Arabic numerals fighting for every last bit of blank space. It is likely that there will be a slide for acknowledgements listing every funding body, anyone who once approached the presenter while s/he was preparing for the talk, and almost everyone else.

The presenter is generally a former or future schoolteacher, or should be one. S/he is certainly very pedagogical.


  • The PowerPoint can easily be put online as is, since it will work essentially as a paper in its own right.
  • You don’t have to listen to the presenter, you can just do what you usually do very well, i.e. read by yourself.


  • See strengths.

As you can tell, I’m not a huge fan of those.

5) The psychedelic PowerPoint of the person who should be working for Pixar.

Also known as the Prezi user, but some PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen have been so full of whirls and twirls and unidentified flying objects that they do just as well. These are the kind of presentations that give you proper vertigo, emit stroboscopic light, trigger three-day migraines if not epileptic fits, and make the scene of the destruction of the Death Star by Luke Skywalker feel a bit slow and lazy in comparison.

Those PowerPoints seem to be implying that a book cover that doesn’t reach its dedicated part on the screen by first dancing the Macarena for ten seconds will not fully imprint itself on the minds of the viewers. They are often full of videos which will rarely play as the presenter intends it, and will require two technicians to be called from the other side of the faculty while everyone in the audience is checking Facebook on Eduroam.


  • You will amuse and entertain.
  • It’s a fun reason to procrastinate actually working on the paper.
  • At least some people will be seeing a presentation like this for the first time.


  • Statistically speaking, I have observed that these are rarely accompanied by good papers, but I’m willing to be challenged on this.
  • So much distraction that the audience might be more interested in the next somersault of the Papyrus subtitle than by what you have to say.

Here are my thoughts on the matter. Feel free to share your own strategies and preferences.

Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower: Conference Report

Of course any press release with the words ‘Harry’ and ‘Potter’ next to each other in the headline is sure to catch the attention of journalists – and they struck gold last week with the announcement of an international academic conference, organised at the University of St Andrews, on the study of J.K. Rowling’s series ‘as literature’.

The beautiful city of St Andrews… much better weather than when I was there!

Predictably, they found a couple of irate (and probably partly misquoted) academics from another office in the Ivory Tower, who expressed indignation at the squandering of thousands of Sickles and Galleons on such worthless endeavours.

I’d personally tend to think that in these dark days when studying the Arts & Humanities is getting more and more difficult for everyone, we should all stick together and support each other rather than deplore the fact that other academics are thinking about things that we think are not worth thinking about. But maybe that’s a very Potterish sort of altruistic attitude which you don’t cultivate if you spend all your time studying Ulysses. Ok, enough sarcasm.

I was there. The conference was a great success, because it managed to strike the right balance between true, heartfelt, endearing passion for the subject matter, and the respect, academic precision and intellectual rigour which such passion can lead to. I have to say I was a little bit worried about the potential geekiness of it all. As an unashamed potterhead, I’m more than happy to sport round glasses and hand-drawn scars at midnight releases – but that’s not what I want academic conferences to be like. Quantum physicists and Kantian scholars can make geeky jokes all they like and dress up as waves and particles if they want to – everyone takes them seriously anyway. But when your subject actually is a Mickey Mouse subject, you can’t afford to be self-deprecating about it. You have to defend it non-stop. You have to be as Sirius serious about it as it deserves.

And thankfully, despite a few Ravenclaw scarves and Gryffindor backpacks, the St Andrews conference did exactly that. Of all the presentations I went to, none were parochial, anecdotal, expected. Some were truly mind-blowing, and masterfully delivered: a jaw-dropping analysis of paternal atonement with the figure of Snape, a critique of pedagogical strategies in Hogwarts and their potential influence on the perception of learning and teaching by young readers, two sophisticated and subtle analyses of racial stereotyping using the representation of Goblins and House-Elves. In short, it was inspiring, rigorous, and not, as I’d feared, a self-indulgent gathering of fans marveling at Jo Rowling’s incontestable storytelling genius.

If it makes people smile, that’s great – but I hope it also makes them think. It isn’t just careless, or uninformed, to dismiss the Harry Potter series as a serious object of analysis; it is intellectually dishonest. I’m sure – well, I hope – that in forty years’ time, when I nostalgically browse through my past blog posts stored in a chip directly implanted in my brain, I’ll laugh that such a conference was ever laughed at. Meanwhile, I look forward to the proceedings and thank the St Andrews people for organising such a successful event in spite of all the Rita Skeeters in the world.

Clem x