Kids and Conferences Do Not Mix

As a follow-up to our post of reflections on the American Studies Association annual meeting, we’d like to feature AMS assistant professor Dr. Cary Cordova’s reflection on attending conferences, including ASA, as a mother, and the professional challenges this creates. For more great words from Dr. Cordova, check out our interview with her a few weeks back right here on AMS::ATX.


Kids and Conferences Do Not Mix

Starting with the American Studies Association annual meeting in 2009, it got complicated.  I organized two panels for that year, one for myself and one for the Minority Scholars Committee, but then learned I was pregnant and that my due date practically coincided with the conference.  I hear the panels went well, but I was not in attendance.  In fact, the meeting convened within a day or two of my leaving the hospital with my newborn son.  I have no regrets about having a child, but I do admit the professional challenges have been profound.  I knew life would change, but I did not foresee the specificity of these changes, including how difficult attending conferences would be.

Most conferences do not offer childcare.  The organizers anticipate that participants will be adept at setting up childcare in cities where they do not live.  If one is lucky, the conference takes place in a city inhabited by a family member, or a friend, whom I can ask to take time off of work to help, or who knows someone that I can trust to babysit.  On more than one occasion, I have helped friends in return who are coming into my city and who need help locating a babysitter they can trust.  But if you do not have a contact in that city, exactly how do you vet care for your child?  Perhaps you turn to the various childcare websites, though these sites and the subsequent virtual interviews of babysitters may not instill a parent with the greatest confidence.

The predominant expectation is that you leave your kid at home, but with whom, and for how long?  Thanks to my specialized training, I live far from my family and cannot call on just anyone to watch my son for days at a time.  I have felt more than a twinge of jealously when I see colleagues who live near their families drop their kids with the grandparents for days at a time, free of charge.  For one conference, I opted to fly in my mother to meet me and help me watch my son.  For this, she had to take multiple days off work, and I had to buy three plane tickets to attend a single conference.

Most obviously, the expectation is that I turn to my partner to watch my child.  The presumption that I have a partner to turn to is enormous here, much less that my partner might be free from his own professional commitments.  But yes, I do have a partner, and our relationship makes conferences both easier and more complex, since I am partnered with an academic who works in similar intellectual terrain.  I appreciate that my partner and I like similar conferences and can trade-off childcare when we attend together, but this guarantees that at best, each of us will have a fifty percent chance of participating in the conference.  In the last few years, I think my conference participation has been most visible via the frequent image of me chasing after my son through the halls of meeting rooms and around the lobby of the conference hotel.  This, of course, is not the professional image that one strives for, but it is a reality of my life in academia.

Since my partner and I like to attend the same conferences and engage together with our academic friends, we struggle over who gets to go to which conference, much less which panel.  Often, we try to bring our son to something that is clearly not playing to his interest, which at the moment is everything that does not correspond to Superheroes and Legos.  One year, my partner wanted to hear my talk, so he tried to come and sit in the back row with our son.  The visit lasted all of five-minutes, as our son kept calling out for “mommy” to step away from the podium and come play with him.

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Stories from Summer Vacation: Dr. Julia Mickenberg in the UK

Next up is a dispatch from across the pond! Dr. Julia Mickenberg discusses her time spent in the UK:

A reading of Dubliners at Sweny's Pharmacy in Dublin

A reading of Dubliners at Sweny’s Pharmacy in Dublin

I spent the first part of the summer trying to finish some writing projects, putting together a new Plan II Signature Course on “College and Controversy,” and getting ready to spend six weeks in Ireland and the UK. On July 4th my family left for Ireland, where we spent a week, mostly in the West—we visited Yeats’ Tower (closed, but still really cool, down a narrow lane and next to a beautiful stream) and Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, containing a huge tree autographed by pretty much every literary figure from early twentieth-century Ireland. My daughters busked in Galway, and took in 7 Euros, which they spent on fancy ice cream cones. In Dublin we visited Sweny’s Pharmacy, featured in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and now preserved as a kind of tribute to Joyce: there we participated in a rather magical reading from Dubliners.

Now I’m in Oxford, England, tagging along with a crew from UT’s English department (including my husband, Dan Birkholz), which runs a summer program here. Outside my window are green fields where old men and women do lawn bowling and play bocce, and boys and girls play soccer. Running between two fields (and also just outside my window) is a bicycle path that goes to the city (we’re in an area called Summertown, just north of Oxford) and out into the countryside. Nearly every morning I’ve been running through a green meadow and woods with walking paths, the Thames River slowly winding alongside.

After a bike ride along the Thames

After a bike ride along the Thames

Sometimes I work at home, in my little study looking out over the athletic fields. Other days bicycle into Oxford, which seems to be filled with American students. No matter, it’s still a pretty fabulous place, heavy with history, the kind of place that makes you want to do nothing but read. Blackwell’s Bookstore is dizzying. Every site in town is a literary reference. Speaking of books and literature, I’ve been working in the Bodleian Library, which is probably the ur-library of libraries. There’s an exhibit going on right now in the library about Magic in Children’s Literature, from the Middle Ages to Middle Earth. Pretty awesome stuff, with original Tolkien manuscripts alongside illuminated manuscripts that you can’t believe they’ve just put in a case for everyone to see. I’ve met with some British children’s literature scholars, and Oxford is, of course, home to Alice Liddel of Alice in Wonderland fame, not to mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, etc., but mainly I’m working on the book that’s been preoccupying me for years, on Russia in the American Feminist Imagination, 1905-1945.

So, at the Bodleian. Once I found my way to the place where the books I needed were supposedly shelved, through the maze of stairs and passageways, I stood mystified for a while, with no clue as to how to find the books I needed (and I pride myself on being a library person). Finally an old man asked me if I needed help and I said yes, yes I do need help. Turns out, as I have remarked elsewhere, these English people don’t use the Library of Congress cataloguing system. But I found my books and sat happily reading in the bowels of the library (seriously, I was in the sub, sub-basement). I’m mostly working in the Vere Harmsworth Library, specializing in American culture (yup, they haven’t forgotten us in Merrie olde England). I’m also taking a few trips into London: the chapter I’m currently writing concerns a joint American-British Quaker Russian famine relief effort in 1921-1922, and I need to look at materials in the London Friends House. Several radicals (American and British) managed to get into Russia during the allied blockade by volunteering with the Quakers, who didn’t care about their volunteers’ politics. I’m interested especially in how publicity workers created sympathy for the Bolshevik project by playing on the public’s concern for starving Russian children (child savers presenting the possibility of a glorious future if these children are saved, i.e. child saviors). Doing a bunch of other research too depending on how many trips to London I can squeeze in: at the Karl Marx Library, the Women’s Library at London School of Economics, the Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies, and the World Education Fellowship.

It’s a lot to cram in, what with all the traveling we’re doing, some with the UT Program (Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen-related sites, William Morris related sites, etc.). In the Lake District we’ll see the landscapes that inspired William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, and other luminaries of childhood innocence. And right here in Oxford there’s plenty to do. This past weekend we went on a long bike ride along the Thames, and went punting from the Cherwell Boat House with Lisa Moore (a colleague on the UT program) and her son Max. I’m drinking a lot of tea and spending quality time in English pubs, trying my requisite share of British ales.

Read This: Rebecca Onion Blogs for Slate

Here at AMS::ATX we love blogs (obviously) and we love our UT AMS Ph.D. students (naturally).  So we couldn’t be happier to announce that our very own Rebecca Onion, who recently defended her dissertation entitled How Science Became Child’s Play: Science and the Culture of American Childhood, 1900-1980, has recently launched a blog on called The Vault.

Published by Bain News Service, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

This description of the blog comes our way from Rebecca:

I’m now running a blog on, called The Vault. I post one interesting historical document or object every day, most of which will come from archives, special collections, and museums.

The idea is to showcase stuff that jumps out of the historical record. These are the kinds of documents that made me laugh out loud, cringe, or become unexpectedly sad while doing archival research for my dissertation. Examples thus far: a “lab technician” microscope set for girls from 1958; a photograph of a Better Baby contest winner from 1910; a memo from one of Nixon’s aides in which he suggests alternative names for the space shuttle program.

It’s been great fun to hear back from readers about the posts; I love feeling like I have an audience with which to share my weird enthusiasm for research.

If anyone has interesting documents or objects that deserve inclusion, by all means, get in touch. And follow @SlateVault on Twitter, or like Slate’s The Vault Blog on Facebook, to get notifications of posts as they run.

Grad Research: The Archive of Childhood

This just in from AMS graduate student Rebecca Onion:

At last! The site I’ve been working on with my American Studies seminar (Popular Culture and American Childhood) is now live. The Archive of Childhood was born from the idea, dear to childhood studies scholars and historians of childhood, that the history of childhood should strive to feature more voices of children. Often in the archives these voices are an absent presence, and there’s nothing that can be done to recover them (damn you, estate of AC Gilbert, for failing to save the sheaf of letters from young Erector Set fans to the company!); this project was intended as a way for students to contribute their own experiences with popular culture to a web “archive” while these experiences are still relatively fresh in their minds, while simultaneously practicing the skills of analyzing a primary source and writing for a public beyond their instructor.

For all the details on Rebecca’s exciting new archival endeavor, click here! You can also get all of the updates on her project by following her on Twitter!

Grad Research: Deep in the Wonder Book of Knowledge

Check out this great post from our very own Rebecca Onion on her summer research at Princeton. Here’s a taste:

I just wound up three weeks doing research at the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton, looking at a trove of books about science and industry from the 1920s and 1930s. (Thank you, Friends of the Princeton University Library, for your support.) I thought I might post a version of the brown-bag talk I gave to the Friends of the Library, which gave a more comprehensive overview of the books I saw, but I am, once again, thwarted by copyright (the talk includes a ton of images, some of which are a decade too young to be in the public domain).

So I thought I might instead show off my favorite find, which happens to have been published in 1921:  Henry Chase Hill’s wild encyclopedia The Wonder Book of Knowledge, ambitiously subtitled “The Marvels of Modern Industry and Invention, the Interesting Stories of Common Things, the Mysterious Processes of Nature Simply Explained,” and boasting 700 illustrations.

Read the full post at Rebecca’s excellent blog, Songbirds and Satellites, here.