Rutgers-Camden trio are childhood studies pioneers

The three trailblazers (from left) - Lara Saguisag, Deborah Valentine, and Marla DeMesquita Wander - head to an end-of-the year departmental lunch on campus.
The three trailblazers (from left) - Lara Saguisag, Deborah Valentine, and Marla DeMesquita Wander - head to an end-of-the year departmental lunch on campus. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 04, 2013

After they receive their diplomas in childhood studies this month, three Rutgers-Camden students are likely to continue to face the same assumptions and questions they have for the last six years.

Theirs is the study of childhood, not children per se or child psychology, and Rutgers says they are trailblazers in the first such doctoral program in North America.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, people would be, like, 'Oh, so you want to become a preschool teacher,' " said Lara Saguisag. "I do take time and explain to them ... that it's an interdisciplinary program. We examine different texts, different objects, different spaces [in order to examine] the assumptions we have about childhood."

It's complicated.

Their research on comic strips, playgrounds, and adolescent health decisions crosses disciplines including history, sociology, and anthropology. The concept of studying children seems simple, and Deborah Valentine, 45, readily acknowledged she wasn't sure what the discipline would actually entail when she joined the school's first accepted cohort in the doctoral program in 2007.

Today, she discusses "childhood" vs. "the conceptions of childhood" and talks at length about "the street vs. the playground." Valentine's research on playgrounds in the early 20th century is based in history and theory, but, she said, has real-world implications, such as how and where to build playgrounds.

Marla DeMesquita Wander's research on adolescent participation in health care may be the most immediately practical. For instance, the decision whether to vaccinate adolescents against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus infection was, she found, often influenced by age-related beliefs about children, innocence, and sexual purity. The result, she said, is that social beliefs intrude on a medical decision.

"My concern was, are adolescents being heard?" said Wander, 60. "The decision is [often] made based on parent perception of the child, and the child does not want to change those perceptions."

Saguisag's research studied the way that social beliefs are transmitted through the portrayals of children and adults in early 20th-century comic strips.

The range of their work sets a precedent for the discipline, faculty members said, in part because they helped shape the department that now has more than 200 students, including about three dozen doctoral candidates.

"In a straight, traditional program, the kinds of projects people do, you can kind of anticipate. These projects, because they tend to combine disciplines, are much more difficult to anticipate," said Daniel Heart, the 56-year-old psychology and childhood studies professor who served as the department's first chairman.

Saguisag, 39, has accepted a tenure-track position to teach children's literature at the College of Staten Island, part of the City University of New York.

Wander and Valentine will continue to teach classes - the former as an adjunct at Camden County College, a position she has held since 1999, and the latter at Rutgers-Camden and St. Joseph's University, while seeking ways to utilize their theoretical work in the real world, perhaps advising policymakers.

Wherever they end up, they said, the last six years will continue to shape the way they see the world.

One day, after teaching a class about the dangers of stereotyping adolescents as rebellious and moody, Saguisag found herself riding a train with a group of teenagers.

"There's all these teenagers and I'm like, 'These stupid teenagers, they're so noisy!'," she said, bursting into laughter as Valentine and Wander nodded in understanding. "I caught myself thinking these same assumptions. . . . For me, I think that's the best thing, that I'm able to critique myself."

All three laughed as they traded stories about their new perspectives, which Charles Watters, the current chair of the department, said was one of the goals of the program. Their work breaks ground for research, he said, and serves as an important first step in the growth of the discipline to other schools.

Childhood studies is popular in Europe, Watters said, and conferences hosted at Rutgers-Camden have received interest from across the country. Programs will soon pop up at other schools, Watters predicted, and childhood studies will follow women's studies and gender studies into academic acceptance.

"At first, when I began this program, I was really unhappy about being first, like, why do I have to be a guinea pig, being experimented upon?" Saguisag said. "And then I realized that I was given this role, I'm being given this gift to help shape a program ... help shape this field. It's such a gift."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh

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