Digitization and Pandemic Parenting

Pamela VanHaitsma, Penn State University

I was in the late stage of research for my next book project when news of COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S. closed down universities, archives and, just as memorably, campus daycares. My project, tentatively titled The Erotic as Rhetorical Power: Romantic Friendships between Women Teachers, is a queer feminist history of rhetoric that recovers the civic contributions of women teachers in same-sex romantic friendships during the long nineteenth century. I argue these relationships, far from being simplistic instances of social constraint or sexual repression, were animated by an erotic of rhetorical power that enabled the women’s public work as teachers of rhetoric and rhetors in their own right.

At the point when archives and daycares closed I had completed most of my research, but I had not yet visited the Cornell University Archives that house the Emily Howland papers, 1797-1938, which contain correspondence from the romantic friendship between abolitionists and freedmen’s teachers Sallie Holley (1818–1893) and Caroline Putnam (1826–1917). My plan had involved completing that in-person research before drafting the full book manuscript during the 2020-2021 academic year. But how could I forge ahead with the archives closed and a toddler at home?

My inner critic still imagines another kind of scholar. This fantasy scholar would not push the book project forward without first seeing all the archived correspondence in person. She would delay the project until she could visit every archive. I am not she. I am still enough of a scholarship girl and working-class striver that I genuinely believed I had to finish the book manuscript so that my tenure materials could report the accomplishment of the goals set out in the prior annual review. So I kept grinding forward, even as the organization of my writing schedule was upended by having a child at home all day. (I did so not by bootstraps, to be clear, but with support from my spouse, in-home childcare providers, and a graduate research assistant.)

My new plan was to request that portions of the Howland papers, Holley and Putnam’s letters especially, be digitized and the surrogates delivered electronically as soon as that option became available. As many archives reopened with limited in-person hours and expanded digitization services, I also requested scans from over ten other archives that housed less significant bodies of records. While waiting for the scans, I wrote as much of the book manuscript as possible so a draft could still be completed that year.

Not traveling to examine the Howland papers in person was a loss that was manageable, but not inconsequential. When I received the digitized letters, they arrived mostly as expected based on the range of secondary scholarship I had consulted. Unfortunately, though, there were a couple specific letters that could not be located in the scans by me or a research assistant. Although I trust the letters exist, I cringe to quote from these letters second-hand, citing lines I have not myself seen in manuscript form, however otherwise mediated manuscript collections themselves are. I take great care to acknowledge the secondary citation without unduly undermining my scholarly authority as an untenured woman.

There is another loss, too—the loss of the queer writer who craves these words not only as scholarly output or progress to tenure, but as the material of surviving and thriving. I call to mind the words of Hil Malatino, who describes his engagement with “trans archives and hirstoricity” as a means for “cultivating resilience,” as a “turning to the historical record for proof of life, for evidence that trans lives are livable because they’ve been lived” (7). I call to mind, simultaneously, Julietta Singh’s characterization of the “erotic relay at work” in the archives, of “the historian’s erotic desire for her archived object” (82). I desire queer and same-sex romantic letters—those of Holley and Putnam, as well as others I have written about—as evidence of acts of resilience and embrace of the erotic. Although the central argument of my current project does not require me to see all of these letters in manuscript form, there remains a part of me that does “desire” them as “proof” of romantic and erotic, professional and rhetorical, lives possible.

At the same time, there was a certain gain in being prompted to examine some of the letters in digitized form—and here the word “gain” brings to mind pregnancy, a body that expands to accommodate the growth of a child whose length is in the 99th percentile. More to the point, it brings to mind a kind of archival shutdown, forced by COVID-19, that I struggle to put in place for myself and my new little family. The last time I traveled to archives, I was well into my second trimester of pregnancy and still not sharing the news in many professional contexts. The trip was physically challenging. It hurt to sit the entire day in the same spot, and something about being pregnant and so far from my spouse left me feeling vulnerable as a traveler. While passionately invested in archival work, I did not want to be in the archives that week. But I also anticipated, rightly so, that I’d want to be there even less over the next year or two. So I went.

During the summer of 2020, I probably also would have gone, because it seemed like the thing I needed to do intellectually and professionally. I had a baby at home, approaching a first birthday, but I had also revised and resubmitted an article when that baby was just weeks old and I was still on so-called parental leave (again, made possible by my spouse). I will try to say it more plainly, though I am still a pre-tenure striver who is pained to say so: it was a relief that I could not go to the archives that summer because of COVID. I did not want to leave my baby, or drag my baby and spouse to a hotel, for a week.

Relief is not the full story, of course. The inequitably distributed havoc caused by COVID-19—and by those unwilling and unable to face facts or take basic precautions to reduce its spread—is incalculable. But I am grateful that I had to stay home that summer with my family. That archives put into place such clear and robust procedures for requesting digitized scans of manuscript collections, which helped facilitate the remainder of my digital research. That I could receive a PDF, study and write about it in my home office while my little one was downstairs with my spouse or a childcare provider, and still enjoy those precious few weekday hours when we get to start and end the days together.

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