American Childhood in 25 Artifacts: Online Publishing in Childhood Studies
by Patrick Cox
Co-Chair, Children and Childhood Studies, MAPACA
To be honest, this collection of 25 artifacts of American childhood raises more questions than it answers, and it raises them by inference and omission rather than by overtly asking. This is perhaps a condition of the form we have chosen: we asked contributors for one image and 50-500 words about it. We wanted 25 artifacts, each with enough text to describe it and its significance, but short enough that a person could browse through several of them in one sitting. We wanted each post to be provocative enough to prompt readers to respond, but short and informal enough that readers felt they could respond without needing to spend months doing additional research. It was conundrum we created for ourselves, and perhaps fitting it has produced a wonderful ambiguity. We now have a collection of numerous products from the marketplace with just the barest mention of children as consumers. More than half the artifacts in the collection are toys, but there is little discussion of the role of play in children’s lives. And our 500-word limit maybe left just enough space to describe a teething stick with built in whistle from 1609, but no consideration of how this little-known tool of comfort and entertainment fits with an early American conception of childhood as inherently evil and in need of harsh instruction.
But that’s where you come in: this collection leaves so much to be said, and asked, and argued. The answers to questions present and inferred, and the questions that still need to be asked, are up to you. The contributors of these pieces have endeavored on a brave mission that does not end with the publication of their words on the pages of an obscure anthology, left for a few years before anyone remarks on them in the next anthology to join the dusty shelf. This is a dynamic publication that, like a live theatre performance, includes and depends upon its audience. It includes the readers’ contribution. It is real-time transactional reading, mutual meaning-making, and a conversation about American Childhood.
The conversation has been started by a diverse group and is already vibrant, far-flung, and at times self-contradictory. It’s a fun and thought-provoking collection. It is multi-disciplinary, in multiple ways. The artifacts in this collection come from media, literature, art history, the marketplace, the past. There are toys, medical devices, graves, furniture… Contributions come from across the academic disciplines, from scholars in university departments of American Studies, English, Architecture, Folklore, Education, Women’s Studies… Not all the contributors (and not all participants in Childhood Studies) come from academia. We received contributions from archeologists, re-enactors, collectors, and several artifacts here are housed in museums and were submitted by curators, making a significant but weirdly uncommon partnership between academia and museums.
These objects come from the lived experience of childhood which insists on a multi-disciplinary approach. It’s not multi-disciplinary as a result of scholars from across the academy having an abstract discussion of shared epistemological perspectives informing one another through varied methodological approaches, and it goes beyond wallowing in questions of multi- vs. trans- vs. cross-disciplinarity. This childhood studies is multi-disciplinary because childhood is multi-disciplinary. The collection demonstrates that multi-disciplinary childhood studies grows organically from the experiences of children as readers, students, creators, consumers, and players. Sociology, history, or what-have-you simply would not be enough to cover all that is here. It takes a village to study “the child.”
This collection is also an experiment in digital publishing and how knowledge is shared, especially in the academy. As we said in our original CFP, “In addition to embracing 21st century publication and communication technology, we hope this project will allow people to participate in MAPACA’s 25th Anniversary who are unable to attend the conference and expand the discussion of children and American Popular Culture to include a wider audience.” In the 21st century, we can think of little reason why the sites of major knowledge exchange in academia, especially those sponsored by academic associations, would be limited by either physical location or traditional routes of publication. Based on the wide range and large number of submissions we received, we believe we are not alone, and we are hopeful for a robust online discussion about these artifacts to extend the conversation even further to those who cannot spare the time or increasing expense of travel to location-specific conferences.
As this project makes part of one conference’s content and scholarship available digitally, it prompts us to consider a similar value in making all of our research available digitally. (We’re happy to say MAPACA is thinking of it.) Of course, this entails more than open access publication of traditionally drafted articles (though we are in favor of this). It also means moving beyond a belief that “the conversation” can only take place among very few people in peer reviewed, slowly published monographs and articles in journals nobody reads, housed in libraries and databases very few can access. It means sharing our knowledge in formats that fit the online world and use the 21st century communication technology that many outside of academia already use: images, video, audio, blogs, blogging carnivals, discussion posts, crowdsourced collections like this one, etc. Each of these forms, and any others we might come up with, are as flawed, inadequate, and incomplete as books and articles but in different ways (we’ve already discussed what’s missing from this one) but they also each come with advantages. And they share the same aim of traditional academic publishing: making our work better, available, and accessible to a far wider audience because we believe it really matters. Online publication in any form is not a cure-all: once you bust through the hardened walls of Ivory Tower publishing and ossified ideas about “what counts” for promotions and raises, you inevitably encounter the banks of the digital divide. But if we actually confront that divide with our own eyes and experiences, not just theorize about it from afar, I suspect we’ll find the digital divide does far less to restrict the dissemination of information than current academic publishing practices.
I humbly suggest we all know this is true. When we know we, and so many others, receive so much of our information digitally, and gratefully make use of the digitization efforts of curators, archivists, and librarians, it is only peculiar not to distribute our own research as feely and widely.
For now, enjoy this effort and join the conversation on Childhood in Popular American Culture contained in these posts. The contributions are listed in roughly chronological order. Each individual post has a space for comments, responses, rebuttals, further readings… Click the “Reply” link on any post (including this one) to add your thoughts to the mix. We have also created an additional forum for discussions of the collection in general that don’t fit under any single artifact. See any themes emerging from the collection overall? Who is—and isn’t—the American Child represented here? Care to propose your own artifact? Or interrogate the voids: no artifacts from children at work? No teddy bear? Nothing from the 21st century? Let us know!
|List of 25 Childhood Artifacts||First Artifact|