Monday, July 28, 2008

History with children

I live with four children (and three adults; my partner and our two daughters share a two-family household). Since being a parent has changed the way I think about writing and research (well, it’s changed everything, but I can’t possibly blog about that), I thought I’d write about the process of being scholarly and maternal at the same time. (Disclaimer: Mary actually asked me to share “tips,” but since I have so few of those, I’ll stick to a few comments and leave you to figure out the take-away).

There is nothing like having children of your own to make you realize that the present will soon be the past– which makes understanding that past even more important to me. I have often wondered (and will always wonder, I’m afraid) if I should be doing something more immediate to make the world a place in which I want my kids to live. But I also believe that reckoning with what’s come before is a powerful way to nudge the future in a better direction.

I’m not very good, however, at explaining what I do, and why it matters, to my kids. They are young (four and five years old), which is part of the challenge. But only part; it’s easy for non-academics to comprehend the work of teaching, but the research, and the institutional work (faculties do help make universities run, even as committee work is among the most disdained activities in the profession), are much harder to translate to outsiders. I’m still looking for clearer ways to explain the value created by producing good scholarship and building good law schools.

Parenting takes so much time and energy it’s an easy target when looking for excuses about not writing enough. But I think the forced slow-down can be beneficial, too, in finding the right topic, argument, sources, ideas. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day” (1452).

Having children has also forced me to see multiple perspectives and to be precise with language. Perhaps most important to me as a teacher, it has made me appreciate anew the unruliness of learning.

The other day, my housemates and I had straightened out the playroom, imposing order on a sea of stuffed animals, dress-up clothes, books, blocks, and plastic. Between dinner and bedtime that evening, that fleeting order was entirely undone: there were toys scattered everywhere, across the carpet, on couches, under tables. It was worse than the usual chaos; things had literally been turned upside down. Irritated, I asked the girls, “What were you doing up there?” They said (as they always do in response to that unhelpful question), “We were playing.” “What were you playing?!” I asked, intent on getting an answer. “Tornado!” they exclaimed happily.

As I cleaned up again (and failed, alas, to post the blog entry I had been contemplating that day), I thought about how they’ve learned –in less than a year of being Californians –how close we live to disaster and how to we try to prepare for it (part of “Tornado” was packing food and shoes for the road). They didn’t learn because we told them about it, but because it's where we live.