Through the Looking Glass

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Think back to your first literary experience. How likely is it that you were initially exposed to a tale on the printed page?

Editor's Note: Since the interview of Adrianne Wadewitz and Heather Banis, a tragic accident has claimed the life of Wadewitz. We've decided to keep the original text as a tribute to her. A memorial service on campus April 14 was attended by her family, her partner, colleagues, students, and friends who came from around the world to pay their respects. Wadewitz's colleagues and friends are also organizing a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in her memory on May 23. Click here for more information.

Think back to your first literary experience. How likely is it that you were initially exposed to a tale on the printed page? How different might that experience have been if your earliest reading experience was through an iPad instead of a Golden Book? First-year students enrolled in the Cultural Studies Program (CSP) course Through the Looking Glass: Perspectives and Reflections on Childhood are gaining insight on literacy in the digital age. 

Over the course of the spring semester, they are researching how digital technology shapes the early literacy of children by writing their own digital children's story and assessing how actual children in Occidental’s Childhood Development Center respond to digital texts.

Karen Oliva ‘17 said that she and her fellow classmates—all first-years—were attracted to the unique writing opportunities the course presented. "From the description of the course I knew that Through the Looking Glass was not your conventional writing course," she says. "We would get to write blogs, our own picture book and write our research paper about children; it all sounded like so much fun I had to sign up."

The course, which also investigates the multiplicity of ways in which childhood has been, and is conceived from, the 18th century to the present, is co-taught by Adrianne Wadewitz, a postdoctoral scholar in the Center for Digital Learning and Research and a literary critic and digital learning expert; and Heather Banis ‘82, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology who is currently working on her first children’s book.

"For me as a clinician, I’m constantly thinking about how complex human behavior is," says Banis, whose first literary memories include reading the Dick and Jane books, first published in the 1950s. "You can’t look at it from just one slice, and with this CSP we’re getting a really nice slice of a complex phenomenon." 

Wadewitz, who was a young connoisseur of the Little House on the Prairie novels, said that unlike their older counterparts, young children adapt quickly to electronic reading devices. "Adults are so afraid of breaking something they spent so much money on purchasing. You don’t have any of that with kids."

The unique course is one of several programs funded through a $250,000 grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, established to promote undergraduate research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences in partnership with local arts and cultural institutions.

The combination of Wadewitz’s and Banis’ skillsets has paid dividends in the classroom. Banis recalled one instance in which there was a classroom debate about children’s rights. "They had a great theoretical debate and I came in with just a hint of neuro-scientific evidence on the way the brain develops," she recalls. After hearing Banis’ points, the conversation became more nuanced. "We have to be flexible and trusting enough that that could happen."

According to Oliva, the professsors' areas of expertise have also widened the scope of the writing students complete in the class. "For example, Professor Wadewitz helped us write concise and detailed claims that told the reader exactly what the main argument is, and Professor Banis has introduced us to writing scientific journals," she says. "By learning two different types of writing, I have also learned how to address different audiences."

It certainly helps that both instructors share a passion for books and literacy. "Don’t teach something in a class like this that you’re not passionate about," says Wadewitz. "If you don’t like the topic, it’s going to come through when you teach it."