Pandemics, Parenting, and the Historian’s Craft

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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When I locked up my study carrel and left campus to pick up my son at preschool on Friday, March 13th, little did I imagine that within a few days my entire life would change. Within a week, the city of Boston shuddered to a halt – as did my archival research into the city’s public health history.

As the weeks and then months of quarantine plodded forward, I found myself at a loss, my writing at a standstill. How could I make progress without access to archives? More critically, what work could I do while caring for a four-year-old for twelve hours a day? I had no objection to using television as a babysitter, but past experience indicated it would only take me so far. The average episode of “Peppa Pig” would buy me about eighteen minutes, give or take. Preschoolers aren’t known for their extended attention spans, so I figured I had four “Peppas” [1] per day, in one morning and one afternoon block of time. That meant that I needed to make whatever progress I could on my dissertation in about 72 minutes per day. Any additional time I could spare would be icing on the cake, but I knew I couldn’t count on it.

72 minutes.

An hour and twelve minutes.

If my historian-hero Marc Bloch could write a field-defining book amid a world war, I could certainly write a half-decent dissertation chapter during a pandemic, right? [2]

On the other hand, Marc Bloch didn’t have a four-year-old with a penchant for climbing bookshelves and no sense of self-preservation.

I decided to start with a task that could be done in “Peppa Pig”-sized increments of time: analyzing and processing the last archival materials I’d been able to access – Boston University’s former student newspaper, the Boston University News. I wanted to know what role college students played in the city’s public health, particularly the effort to legalize birth control. At my visit, I combed through hundreds of pages of issues from the late 1960s, looking for references to pro- and anti-birth control activism on campus. I cross-referenced that information with Boston Globe and Boston Daily Herald issues available on ProQuest Online. Now, reviewing my files, a few of the same names kept coming up as campus student leaders: William England. Nancy Quartin. Richard Schweid. Wendy Sue Rosloff.

Since I couldn’t move any further institutionally – I’d exhausted the information available online and who knew when the archives would be open again – I pivoted. I couldn’t leave my house to visit an archive, but I still had access to a wealth of twenty-first century online tools: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Boston University undergraduates in the late 1960s would likely be in their 70s now. Why not use this pandemic time to see what I could glean from those individuals who lived through these years? At worst, I’d be out a few “Peppa Pig” time blocks; at best, perhaps someone would be willing to share a few reminisces.

So, I became a detective.

In my pre-graduate school life, I worked as a professional fundraiser for various nonprofit organizations. That expertise now came in handy. I polished up my rusty research skills and got to work. During my four “Peppas” each day, I sifted through LinkedIn pages, Google searches, and obituary listings. Though most were dead ends, each successful search revealed something new and tantalizing about my subjects. I inched closer and closer to my goal while my son developed a quasi-British accent from too much Peppa Pig exposure.

Finally, I hit the jackpot. A LinkedIn email found its way to the correct Richard Schweid, former Boston University undergraduate and vocal pro-birth-control activist. He dropped out of BU prior to graduation, and now lived in Spain. An acclaimed journalist and documentarian, Schweid had written a book I’d read years earlier, never dreaming that I’d one day interact with him in person.

Richard responded graciously to my initial email with an incredible amount of memories to share. We struck up a correspondence. Richard essentially put into motion the landmark Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird when his student group invited birth control activist Bill Baird to speak on campus in 1967, and his memories of the event added information I’d not seen anywhere else. Not only did he fill in the blanks left by some of the Boston University News reporting – the paper at that time was occasionally censored by the University – he emailed me scans of his own memorabilia, including documents otherwise only available in paper copy in various archives. He replied to all of my questions, and even connected me with other student activists with whom he was still in touch, including one person still living in Boston.

Richard and I discovered that we are both from the same city, Nashville, Tennessee. In fact, his parents’ bookstore in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village was the first place I discovered Marc Bloch, whose The Historian’s Craft inspired my lifelong love of history. Quarantine permitting, we plan to meet there next fall and continue our discussions in person.

I certainly have not made nearly as much writing progress this summer as I’d hoped. Like so many others, the pandemic has put me at least six months to a year behind my projected dissertation schedule. But I have recovered the passion for history that often lapses during the dissertation writing grind. I also have a renewed sense of the importance of my work, especially in this year of worldwide debates over public health, private behavior, and bodily autonomy.

While I resist the urge to find a ‘silver lining’ in a global pandemic, I can’t help but acknowledge that it has helped me better understand my historical subjects. If the archive’s doors hadn’t been locked – if I hadn’t had to parcel out my time in Peppa Pig-sized increments – I never would have access to the memories and information Richard’s email brought. I wouldn’t have made a friend halfway across the world.

Moreover, connecting with some of the individuals involved in the fight for birth control in Massachusetts – such as Richard Schweid – reminds me that the questions I’m grappling with aren’t esoteric questions of mere historiographical importance. The events I study had direct and in some cases catastrophic impacts on women and men who walked the same streets I do every day. Their children stand next to me in the grocery store line; their grandchildren sit in my undergraduate history classes. Their college roommates remember them every five years at class reunions. Their memorial plaques stay mounted to old brownstones on Beacon Street, just a few blocks from my apartment. Historians are expected to be objective and emotionally distant from their subjects. Yet I find that by bringing myself closer to my subjects I feel newly energized, excited about doing the hard work ahead. I feel responsible for telling their story, especially on behalf of those who no longer can.

[Jeanna L. Kinnebrew is a Ph.D. Candidate at Boston University.]


[1] In lieu of the more traditional Pomodoro Technique of time management.

[2] I speak, of course, of The Historians Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of the Men Who Write It .

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