On Being Present, as Parent and Historian
I was excited to begin a yearlong sabbatical in the fall of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic, though, meant that rather than catching the Metro from my home in Silver Spring, Maryland, to the Library of Congress three days a week, I would be at home all day, every day. And so would my three children, ages 7, 9, and 13, who would be “Zoomschooling.” While friends and colleagues, almost unanimously, commented how wonderfully that worked out, I thought differently. The pandemic presented three problems. How would I manage a productive research and writing schedule without leaving the house? How would I manage these things with my children also at home? And would my children learn much staring at a screen all day? Our individual and collective needs, and time to think, were inextricably bound.
Some colleagues suggested I not worry about “sabbatical productivity,” especially with three children at home during combined pandemics of COVID and brazen white supremacy. This was caring, and rare, advice in the academy. Many contingent and untenured faculty with young children, ailing parents, or affected by state violence are struggling and are concerned about material consequences of this disruption. As a tenured professor with three rather independent children who get along, I felt lucky to have fewer pressures to contend with. But I take comfort and joy from reading, research, and thinking. My research on the funding needs precipitated from crises during the Black Freedom struggle speaks directly to current “mutual aid” and bail fund relief efforts. The urgency of my work was palpable.
Before I made any plans for the autumn, I waited until my children’s Zoomschool started, to see how involved I would need to be. If I needed to sit with them all day, then I was looking at early mornings and late nights with my research. One morning, during the second week of school, I stood in the kitchen preparing my breakfast. I saw my second grader’s hand raised. “I can fix her problem,” he calmly suggested after the teacher unmuted his mic and recognized him. “If she can’t get on with the ID,” he offered his advice, “then she can click on the arrow, then go to the teacher’s name, and then she can get on that way.” I threw my hands up and exclaimed, “I think we’re good here.” He’s comfortable and encouraged enough to help others. I gave myself the green light to sketch out a work plan.
Our individual and collective needs, and time to think, were inextricably bound.
My days would be clear cut: write for 30 minutes before 7 a.m., run and work out before the children start school, eat breakfast, and hover to see if I’m needed to troubleshoot connectivity issues. When I get the thumbs up, I frontload the research and writing in the morning. In the afternoon, I read and hear about my children’s day.
For historians, sabbaticals provide extended time to travel to archives, but this moment required remote research. With hands stretched forth, I looked to the cloud; surely a sign would come. Thousands of jpegs and scans from prior archival visits, online databases, and digital history projects illuminated my research plan.
I think of myself as among the last generation of historians to still cling to paper, but I could not possibly print thousands of documents from the cloud. Because I have not physically touched them, I have not thought about them. I now had the time and urgency to stop resisting the digital turn. Frankly, as my digital humanities colleagues have helped me see, the “digital” just gets remade over time. The microfilm was a technology, as is paper and pencil, filing systems, and other “non-electronic” comforts I long for.
Public and private digital humanities projects gained greater currency. I was ecstatic that the Library of Congress had already made the entire Rosa Parks collection available online. I also used subscription-based ProQuest History Vault, which has digitized many collections for my research, such as the NAACP Papers. As useful as these collections are, their reliance on keyword searches limits the research process. They are a fantastic start but trips to the LOC to look at these papers in person will be required to supplement this research. My graduate assistant introduced me to Adobe Acrobat Reader, Zotero, and Scrivener to experiment with an electronic workflow.
After about a month of our family’s new schedule, I noticed my son squirming in his chair at his desk, also known as the dining room table. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He replied, “Nothing, I’m good.” Something was wrong, but he did not complain. I also discovered he was submitting incomplete work. The problem, my wife and I realized, was that he simply needed company. Not boxes, but people. Next to him. His older sisters work side-by-side in another area of the house. They just need me to stay out of their way.
In response, I still work uninterrupted in my basement office for two hours in the morning. Midmorning, I take my research files to my son’s oversized desk and work alongside him, which prevents our screens from being barriers. My presence is useful for both of us.
I now had the time and urgency to stop resisting the digital turn.
My concerns about working while my children are home were unfounded. The collaborative working space has allowed us to talk about our scholarship (we try to avoid the word “homework”). They routinely inquire about my research. I have no idea if they’re truly interested or just being polite, but I’ll take it. I benefit from learning about their scholarship in real-time: striking facts about dinosaurs, finding the A and D on the violin, or rigid motion and congruence. Moreover, they help each other.
They would prefer to be at school, and I would prefer to be at the LOC. As a parent, I am lucky to be around them. As a historian, I hope they draw on these loving memories at home to counter memories of the horrors outside. Presence helps bring calm in crises. My presence in this disruption revealed what might be built anew.
Quincy T. Mills is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is currently serving on the AHA’s Committee on the Wesley-Logan Prize. He tweets @QuincyTMills.
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