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This essay was originally presented by Johanna Schoen as part of a panel discussion at the Symposium and Celebration in Honor of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall on September 20th, 2014.

  1. Study history because you like to read other people’s personal mail.
  2. Choose a research topic that is simultaneously politically engaging and complex enough to keep your attention.
  3. Go for the gray areas, the ambiguities, the places where clear answers seem nonexistent.  Go where others fear to tread.  Write about the things that others won’t address.
  4. Do understand your actors in their full complexity.  Even those who are poor and victimized by state policies – unwanted sterilizations, a denial of reproductive control, a lack of access to abortion – might act in ways that are less than admirable.  When I first began to write about eugenic sterilization, I wanted those sterilized to be without blemish.  It was hard for me to accept that some victims of state sterilization programs might lack mental competency, drink too much, be poor parents, abuse their children, or recommend their own daughters for eugenic sterilization.  I puzzled over Jackie’s repeated comments on the margins of my papers in which she challenged me when I ignored evidence of intellectual disabilities in my subjects or dismissed their culpability.  It took me a while to understand that poverty neither breeds virtue nor absolves the poor from all agency and responsibility.  Only much later, did I learn not to ignore their shortcomings, but to describe the circumstances in which they acted, to account for the choices they had and didn’t have, and to depict the full complexities of their decisions.
  5. Don’t vilify your historical actors – even those you don’t like.  Do try to understand why they acted the way they did – what it is they set out to do, why they thought their actions honorable – or at least defensible.  Indeed, it is only in our refusal to vilify others – eugenic board members, sexist and patronizing physicians, bullying pro-life activists – that we can understand both the intentions of our historical actors and the structural context in which their actions victimize others.  After you have described your historical actors in all of their complexities, still call them out for their misdeeds as structural context does not excuse the abuse of power.
  6. IMG_4626Value local history: many of us came of intellectual age in the era of Like a Family.  And all of us understand that it is the details of human interaction – between mill worker and supervisor, pregnant teenager and eugenic board member, patient and abortion provider – that allow us to understand the lived experience of our historical subjects and to analyze the meaning which public policy holds for them.  Susan Wicklund, who spent much of her life providing abortion care to women in the Midwest and in Montana, was for years harassed by the militant anti-abortion group Lambs of Christ.  Anti-abortion harassment against her culminated in the 1990s during the so-called partial birth abortion debate when anti-abortion propaganda depicted all abortions as taking place at term, “inches before birth.” Wicklund, caught up in worries over her daughter’s safety and fears for her own life, had no time to follow the debate.  She did not even connect her own experience with the procedure – after all, she provided only first trimester abortions.  Nevertheless, the debate and propaganda profoundly affected her.   Trying to live with the Lambs of Christ, she became politicized, went public with her work and about the harassment she endured, and forged her political beliefs and medical practice out of this experience.   Wicklund’s personal story – and her local history – give meaning to the lived experience of abortion care – a story that we usually trace in big politics: legal changes, legislative decisions, federal and state policies concerning women’s reproductive rights.
  7. Pay attention to category shifts: I am currently moving and ran across three file folders with Jackie’s comments on my work.   Things that are seen as class issues at one time, she suggests in one comment on my struggles with the meaning of eugenics, will be seen as race issues at another time.  And, I conclude years later, they will never be seen as gender issues – even though that is what they really are – because we still live in a deeply patriarchal society in which women are not recognized as legitimate moral agents with decision making power over their sexuality and reproduction.  There is political power in categories – it is more expedient to fight against race genocide than on behalf of women welfare recipients.
  8. Reproductive rights are part of the larger civil rights struggle
  9. Don’t expect more than one gold nugget in any given oral history interview you conduct.
  10. In order to do all of this work, hide – from students, from colleagues, at day and at night, or you will never get anything done
  11. Don’t hide from journalists – but don’t think that you can influence what they say.  Or that they will be able to quote you correctly.
  12. Collaborate – with graduate students and colleagues, across disciplines and schools.  With journalists, film makers, theater people.  Reach out to archivists, professional organizations that have nothing to do with history, public historians, lawyers.  They will stretch your mind and make your work rewarding.
  13. Intertwine your personal and political commitments with your scholarship.  Be courageous, committed to your work and the political implications of it.  Don’t hide behind historical objectivity when you really should speak out.  Take risks.  It will enrich your life.
  14. Learn not to take work books to the beach, on Christmas vacation, on a trip to Italy, or anywhere else where you are supposed to relax.
  15. Don’t get yourself sucked into an adviser-advisee relationship with your own graduate students — once you have them — in which your advisees spill all the beans about their personal lives, lest you become their therapist or mother – or both — and can never escape the angsting.  Do remember that it is up to your students to succeed.  It’s not up to you to make your students succeed.
  16. Do impart the details of your sex life to your adviser if she asks for it.  This is best done over a glass of wine.
  17. Be clear, yet gentle in your comments to graduate students.  On a seminar paper of mine, which I gave the fetching title “’I’ll never get this done!’ The Incomplete from Hell, Sept. 1989-Nov. 1990,” Jackie notes politely on the margins of p. 23 “I’m not sure, but I think this is getting a little repetitive.”  While discouraging repetition in your students, do realize that you will have to repeat the same comments over and over again.  I will never forget the moment when I had that feeling of creeping exasperation as I repeated the same question or critique on a graduate student paper yet again — and suddenly had a flash back to comments Jackie made over and over again – comments which I did not figure out how to address until the book.
  18. When driving with your advisor to cultural or arts events, tell your advisor upon departing – you are driving her – that of course you know where you are going.  When you get lost – repeatedly – and she calls you on it – feign surprise. Call Bob for directions.
  19. Choose a partner who likes to cook – and who does so really well.
  20. Remember that your ability to live a life that successfully balances home and work will serve as a role model for your graduate students.  I called Lisa a couple days ago to ask her what I learned from Jackie Hall.  And her first comment noted the importance of having Jackie and Bob as role models of an egalitarian academic couple.   They showed us that it could be done as we tried to figure out how to do it.
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