Adapting to the Research Conditions at Hand
The day we landed in Rome I posed my family and our jumbled pile of luggage in front of our new apartment amidst the city’s vibrant chaos. The happy photo meant to announce our arrival in Italy coincided with my son’s fourth birthday on February 27, 2020. COVID-19 had ravaged China and the Lombardy region in northern Italy was in full-blown crisis, but life in Rome seemed normal. I had spent 11 exciting, exhausting months preparing to move my family to Rome to begin a four-month term as a Fulbright US Scholar at the University of Roma Tre. But two weeks to the day after we arrived, we boarded another plane and returned home. Touching down in New York it felt as if we had never left the US. Cut short in Italy, within seven days Fulbright would be suspended worldwide. We had lived through a harrowing week of lockdowns in Rome and now would repeat the experience back home in New Jersey.
With the archives, the university, and the borders closed, my current research interrupted and future projects halted, I asked myself: what happens when the work is left undone?
The Fulbright program offered the opportunity of a lifetime: I could dramatically advance my scholarship in a semester free from the heavy teaching and service responsibilities I typically carry, live in a city I love with my family, and be near archives essential to my research in the history of Italian migration and US immigration policy. I was awarded the Research Lectureship in US History at the University of Roma Tre and was expected to split my time 50/50 between research and teaching in the Department of Political Science. I had taught just one class session, spent only 30 minutes in my new office, and barely begun to set up the archive visits, seminars, and public events essential to my research for a second book when the Fulbright program was suspended in early March. Two weeks, let alone weeks spent under crisis circumstances, were wholly insufficient to achieve any of the goals I had set. I could only watch as the tragic course of COVID-19 in Italy upended my plans and decimated a country I have studied and loved for the last 16 years.
Sitting at a repurposed kitchen stool in front of a makeshift desk, I began to pick up the pieces of my shattered life. I joined a community led by a womxn’s academic writing coach that encouraged me to radically revise both my research and my teaching goals. I learned how to adapt my plans to crisis circumstances, set achievable goals no matter how small, and develop new strategies to keep writing. Based on my experiences this spring and summer, I have three suggestions for historians attempting to balance research, teaching, and living through a pandemic: keep building your network, identify and adapt your writing system to the conditions at hand, and use what you have already collected.
What happens when the work is left undone?
I tapped into an existing support network and worked to build a new one with my Italian graduate students. When I pivoted to online teaching, I saw a need for American-style mentoring among Roma Tre students living under the strictest lockdown in Europe. The extreme limitations had paralyzed my students, but in different ways: some didn’t know how to begin working on their theses again, while others had to rethink their research plans because they also lacked access to archives. As I slowly crawled out of the hole created by the wreckage of the spring, I sought out strategies and advice that helped me build a new research and writing agenda. Seeing how effective my own changes were, I created a weekly support group with Roma Tre students that offered emotional support and shared clear strategies to keep going, and facilitated two related, interdisciplinary workshops with colleagues at my institution. This reinforced my own progress, and dramatically lowered expectations for myself created the possibility of success. Being in (virtual) community made a huge difference in my well-being, which boosted my desire to continue writing even in the face of uncertainty.
Mourning the loss of my research plans was an important part of the process. But if my focus had remained only on what I had planned to do, I would have missed opportunities hiding in plain sight. I looked over my publication pipeline and saw incomplete collaborative projects that I elevated to higher priority. In the process of moving something—anything!—out to peer review, I found the energy to re-envision three of my arrested projects. Don’t underestimate the power of collaborators. As historians, we are accustomed to working alone but having a colleague to share the workload is a powerful way to rebuild the positive momentum essential to moving forward.
Mourning the loss of my research plans was an important part of the process.
I also spent time identifying the tools that support my scholarly practice. For me, Scrivener, Zotero, Tropy, Passion Planner, and the formal structure of co-writing became the foundation for a successful return to research and writing. A writing system that consists of small, achievable steps and tasks helped me turn a dead end into a pivot. Instead of thinking that I needed to work exactly as I had before, I identified the steps more generally key to my research and writing process. Taking an abstract view revealed a new way forward as I adapted to fit the conditions around me.
With archives closed and travel restricted, new research may well be on hold for a while. I asked myself what I could do with the material I already had and the people I already knew. I also connected virtually with new people and organizations. As historians, we are accustomed to working around gaps and holes in the documentary record. By remaining flexible in our research and writing plans, we can keep moving forward even when our archives close, borders shut, and we’re stuck at home.
Despite barriers—in my case, a huge teaching responsibility, lack of institutional support, absolutely no ability to travel, and emotional fallout after losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—we can still move forward to put work that matters to us and our field out into the world.
Lauren Braun-Strumfels is an associate professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College and a 2020 Fulbright Scholar. She tweets @braun_strumfels.
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