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The Future of the Profession
For two days last August, nearly a hundred international scholars met at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at the University of Surrey in Roehampton (U.K.) to discuss "The Future of the Subject." Kimberly Reynolds (the Director of NCRCL) invited me to attend, probably because of my gray hair. That gray hair served me well since the attendees soon discovered that you can't discuss the future of the discipline without examining its past.
Now in my fifties, I count myself among a second generation of scholars in the field; and while there are others in my generational cohort, out of consideration to sensitivities they might have about my mentioning their ages, I will not identify them (though they will know who they are). I studied under Francelia Butler at the University of Connecticut, who was one of the great pioneers in the field and someone I would identify as part of a first generation of scholars in Children's Literature. And now, there is already a third generation on the scene: young scholars amending and criticizing what their predecessors have done.
In my experience, general discussions of our profession always begin in the same way, and that was the case in Roehampton. Individuals complain that they have to defend the legitimacy of their field to their colleagues, that they and their discipline get no respect, etc. And often these complaints are accompanied by striking anecdotes of others' obtuseness or unfairness, to which the assembled respond with expressions of sympathy and outrage.
I understand the sociological reason for such complaints, and how this litany of woes creates a community among the aggrieved and the righteous. But I must also admit that, by this point, discussions that amount to a Defense of the Discipline fill me with both weariness and nostalgia. Many of us, it seems to me, have gone quite a distance beyond Square One and don't feel a real need to constantly revert to justifications of our specialty. [End Page 236]
My generation fought those battles years ago and (in ways I will soon qualify) I'd say we won. Children's Literature is now taught by hundreds of universities in their literature departments, the Modern Language Association has given the field status as a division and routinely hosts a number of panels at its annual convention, the leading journal in the field is published by Yale University . . . other evidence might be supplied, but I don't wish to travel again this well-worn path of arguing for the field's legitimacy. As the contemporary expression has it: "Been there. Done that."
But in saying "We won," let me make two qualifications. First, I can only speak with familiarity about developments in North America and certain parts of Western Europe; I know that in other areas the evolution of the discipline has been uneven and is at different stages. Second, let me say that I am (and have been) unusually fortunate at my own university to be surrounded by colleagues also engaged with Children's Literature; I realize that there are others elsewhere who are the sole scholar in their field and who may still need to defend their interests and pursuits among skeptical colleagues. But setting aside these geographical and individual situations, and looking at the discipline in a general way, it seems to me that issues of legitimacy are now more or less moot and that, at this point, other issues have arisen that are more pressing when we consider the Future of the Profession
For those genuinely interested in this topic, I recommend Jack Zipes's new book, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. I came away from that book with a worry. For our purposes here, Zipes essentially argues that Children's Literature is a genre maintained by a circle of scholars, that the profession constitutes a kind of closed club, and that in talking...