Re-Time Shifting and the Single Parent

A couple years ago Sean Takats described a process of time-shifting archival research that was a pretty good description and assessment of the power of digital tools in archives. One of his key points was that “we’re simultaneously escalating the evidentiary basis for any research project.” As he said at the time, that wasn’t news to anyone who had been to an archive in the last five years. I bought a good point and shoot digital camera in 2004 for several hundred dollars in order to collect more documents and deal with the growing cost of photocopying. It was a great investment, a workhorse that I made tens of thousands of images with.

My visit to Philadelphia archives last fall and this research trip to Austin-area archives has illustrated a countershift. Takats indicated that the Bibliotheque National de France had become just a very nice library to do research. I find as a single dad that archives have become almost the only place I have the ability to do research. The place I used to time-shift my archival reading to — nights and weekends, are no longer available. After a brief bout of exercise I pick up my son from day care, play out in the yard and make dinner, read some books, take a bath, and then go to bed. After twelve unrelieved hours of work and kid care, I don’t have the emotional energy to perform any work tasks unless a painful deadline is approaching. Even the regular hours of the workday are taken up with teaching and prep, meetings, and mundane bureaucratic tasks. The notion of a 40/40/20 division of Research/Teaching/Service responsibilities is a joke — it’s more like 10/60/30. The special trip to an archive has become again just about the only place I get the uninterrupted time and space to read through a lengthy document or set of primary sources in full.

What are the implications of this? First, it’s that I’m shifting the most important part of my work life to time that I’m not getting paid — the summer. Second, I’m shifting it out of the evenings and weekends I used to cram with work until the birth of my son. That was productive in a sense, but not very healthy overall. Prior to her death, my wife and I only took a single one-weekend vacation in the 8 years we were together. All other travel was for work or family. So that’s good. I realized after a couple of months as a single dad that I could not and should not make my son compete with my work for my attention. I had to find a way to get the work done without compromising how I was raising him. Shifting back to intense archival visits seem to be the answer. Even though I still do take many digital images in the archive, I’ve got to spend more time reading the documents there to have at least a mental index of the documents, and in some cases a pretty full recall of the source contents.

This also means I’m lowering the evidentiary basis for my research. On its face we could say that is a bad thing, but we could also conclude (and I’m trying to do so) that it will be possible to have a meaningful project based on a smaller but concise set of sources.

Week 5 Renovation

Down to the wire. We were aiming for December 6th and it would be close — finishing the project before I left or leaving some stuff hanging over. And how much?

Basically, it was a couple coats of paint. When I decided to refinish the kitchen and half-bath floors, that more or less needed to happen while we were traveling. So then we pushed back completion of the half-bath in order to do as complete a job as possible (getting under the sink and stool). That was already planned to be incomplete. What we mostly didn’t get done was the large amount of painting.

I was a bit worried earlier in the week. I had invited some friends over for dinner Saturday and expected to be able to do a nice job of hosting. But the plumbers had a problem with my old sink and all the workers were stepping over one another and I didn’t see how it would get done.
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Week 4 Renovation

Thanksgiving Week. A few short days then one full week to get it all done. But we’re putting things back together now, rather than pulling them apart. At the end of last week the plaster was finished and we were ready for cabinets in the kitchen and resurfacing everywhere else, then fixtures.

The shelving and cabinets are custom built. The shelving arrived last week and started to go up Monday and Tuesday. The whole kitchen project is idiosyncratic, so the cabinet design is equally idiosyncratic to suit our situation.

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Week 3 Renovation

Week 1 got us off to a good start. Week 2 was delays, catchup, and seemed overall to show a lack of progress. I was eager for things to get moving this week if we are to have any hope of meeting our project deadline. But these things don’t always go how you want, so Monday was not very active — just some preparation for the spray-in insulation on Tuesday, including laying the bathroom subfloor. When I first contacted the contractor, Shelter Alternatives, they also suggested I get an energy audit with their partner business, Energy Check. One of the upshots was that the basement was leaking heat, as was the pantry/half-bath. Spray-in foam insulation was recommended for the bathroom all around.

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Week 2 Renovation

The story of Week 2 was…not much happened. The discoveries of the end of week 1 (asbestos-y tile and an old plumbing/carpentry cockup) put the brakes on much of the work from this week and led to a series of rolling delays.

Monday was carpentry. The solution to the cut joist and overly aggressively notched joists in the bathroom was cross bracing, rather than sistering.

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Week 1, Reno/Rehab

The work: there are three things I’m having done on my new/old house. The first is re-converting the “pantry” off the kitchen back into a half bathroom. This is a little room, about 5′ x 7′, taking up part of the back porch space, that became a bathroom to serve the first owner, Henry Whitlock. Once he grew advanced in years he wanted a bathroom on the main floor so he didn’t have to use the stairs so much. The plumbing is “still there” but the codes have changed and the work may not have been the best quality in the first place, so it’s not an easy change. In addition, there was very little insulation to this room, so the energy audit showed it was really leaking heat.


The second thing is related to the first; since I’m moving the fridge out of the pantry, I’ve got to have a place for it. Thus, I’m moving a doorway a bit and putting the fridge in a new corner, along with some cabinets and shelving. Then I’m putting in new butcher block countertops to replace the older tile countertops that are there.

The third thing is updating the upstairs bathroom. This is mostly resurfacing (paint and flooring), shifting a bit of plumbing, and putting in a new tub/shower. This is the only photo I have of the bathroom pre-reno because no one ever wants to record its image for posterity.
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The Whitlocks

Henry Whitlock was a painter.

He had once been a farmer, but moved to Blacksburg and built the house at 201 Giles Rd. in 1927. At that point Blacksburg was so small it did not have street addresses. Whitlock’s father and uncle had been building contractors and he had some experience with the trade, so he took a position at VPI and eventually moved up to a crew foreman position.

In the 1940 census, the Whitlocks indicated a home value of $5500, which inflates to $91,880 in 2013 dollars. The house has become MUCH more valuable than it was, in part due to improved features (e.g. radiators rather than coal stoves), a bit due to further development of the property (the finished 3rd floor) but largely due to the overall development of Virginia Tech and Blacksburg.

Henry Whitlock and Rosa Whitlock had a sizable brood. As of the 1940 census, 6 children lived in the house: Hortense (25), Ralph (19), Sydney (17), Josephine and Jewell (14), and Henry Jr. (7). There were actually 10 children (4 boys 6 girls), all of whom survived to adulthood as far as I can tell, meaning that for several years TWELVE PEOPLE lived in the house. This was not a Catholic family but Episcopalian.

Whitlock lived to the age of 102 and lived in the house until he was about 100 years old, according to the previous owner. In his later years he made the dining room his bedroom and made the pantry off the kitchen into a half-bathroom. This was a good idea that was subsequently changed back to a pantry for some reason — I’m going to change it back to a half-bath again. You can still see the location of the hinges on the dining room door frame to the kitchen where they put in a closing door. Whitlock eventually sold the house to a former VT football player and now real estate developer, Bill Ellenbogen, and moved into a nursing home in Virginia Beach. Here is the text of the only online obituary I can find on the web:


BLACKSBURG – Henry Byrd Whitlock, 102, father of Mrs. James P. Scott of Newport News, died Sunday, Oct. 29, in Heritage Hall Nursing Home.

He was born in Montgomery County.

Other survivors include five other daughters, four sons, 27 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

Arrangements are incomplete.

Hoy-McCoy Funeral Home is in charge.

His wife, the prodigious Rosa Whitlock, seems to have passed away in 1977 and there is, lamentably, no online obituary for her.

I tracked down one of Whitlock’s few surviving children, Harry, now 96, and had a halting conversation with him over the phone the other day.

Blogging SACRPH (and the Academic Life)

This past Saturday I participated in a panel at SACRPH on blogging for academics. It was unfortunately fairly lightly attended, but there was a good discussion especially prompted by the commenter, Anabel Quan-Haase, who studies digital humanities centers and practitioners.

One of the things this panel illustrated for me is that academic (certainly historians’) concerns about blogging have not changed much since 2004 when I started blogging.* The main one is about taking time away from writing for publication. The second one is about putting ideas out that will be swiped by someone else. Both of these have to do with the publish or perish standard we have adopted for tenure and tenure-track positions, as well as tenure-track hopefuls. If there was a third, I would say it was about the issue of feedback and community.

This was very frustrating for me for a number of reasons. It may be that I have a dramatically different experience than many others, but my experience with blogging is that it invigorates my writing. If you want to write, you’ve got to write — in any number of venues. The times that I am too busy to blog are the times that I am too busy to write. And related to this, for historians at least, is the notion that the writing for publication you are doing is so important. It’s not. Work on your book. Your articles are nice, but they don’t make a career or an intellectual legacy. You’ve probably got to get one out to be taken seriously on the job market, and a couple related to each book project would be nice in order to do promote the book and do something with all of the material you get, but really anything beyond that (maybe 3) will probably see diminishing returns. This is of course different for social scientists.

Maybe even more frustrating for me was the idea of the scarcity of time and the implications about the academic lifestyle. I estimated, even in my most intensive publication-writing periods, about an hour a day of ACTUAL WRITING — fingers on the keys and words on the page. Over the course of a seven-day week, I’d say that’s about right. I MIGHT put that up to two hours if I were only looking at weekdays. During the week I am putting in 7-8 hour days,** but there is a lot of reading, searching for articles and books, working with data, scrutinizing maps, photos and other visual material. All of this might be seen as taking away from WRITING, as well, but you of course see that it is what makes the writing possible and high-quality. And I’m on leave. During a teaching semester I also have to make power points, grade papers, read and write about topics for classes, etc., and then there is committee/service work. There is a ton of stuff to do.

But the point is, you CANNOT let that lower priority stuff overtake your top priority. In an academic-publication sense, the top priority should be your book. But that’s not the real top priority. The real top priority is your overall well-being, a happy family/personal life, and enjoyment of your position in an affluent society with a time-flexible profession. I hope anyone who reads this and is considering an academic career holds this top priority. If you don’t, you are going to be miserable and you should not get into the profession. Work will take everything you give it and want more. And then more. And then more. And people will see how much you get done and want you to do MORE! And you cannot let this happen. If you are not taking time for your family and consuming healthy food and getting exercise and enjoying the daylight hours, you would probably be better off in an 8 to 5 job where at least you would be able to leave work at the office.

In an affluent society, people with our skills should use their work to find the highest level of personal fulfillment and well-being possible. Your scholarly productivity should be part of that! I get a lot of fulfillment and enjoyment from my research and I also believe it is and will be beneficial for society. But I’m not going to make myself miserable doing it and neither should you (accepting there will be some hard days). If you’ve got something to say that isn’t right for a journal, blog it! And then go take a walk. And get an ice cream cone. And then come back to the office and work on your new article idea. But God, I would hate to think all of these people with great jobs were making themselves miserable rather than enjoying it and were only thinking about what they HAD to do rather than what they WANTED to do.

As usual, SACRPH (and a conference trip) was invigorating. Quan-Haase’ comments were well structured, in contrast to the fairly loose presentations I and others made, which was a nice counterweight to tie certain threads together. Perhaps more soon.

*As a side note, I remember doing introductions in a grad class with Matt Lassiter where there were a couple Masters of Urban Planning students in addition to the usual PhD students (I was doing both a PhD and MUP and so straddled these worlds). The MUP students all had blogs and talked them up, but I was really ashamed when Brandon Zwagerman mentioned my blog because I was so oriented to the traditional standards and values of PhD programs. Fortunately, Lassiter was quite tolerant, even enthusiastic about the work and potential of bloggers, which is just one of the reasons he was such a great influence.

**The time I can spend on work is limited/enabled by being a single parent. There were periods, especially as a candidate and before my son was born, when I didn’t go outside (or hardly even move) during a 16-hour day and those were effing MISERABLE. So being a single parent is hard and can seem limiting, but it is so much better than being an isolated hermit who dedicates every waking hour to work.

Great Depression Higher Education Enrollment

Something just clicked for me in a new way. I have been saying in my book, Building the Ivory Tower, that the economic collapse of the Great Depression prompted a crisis for higher education, as well. This is not a revolutionary idea, indeed it’s well accepted. However, in making this claim I wanted to illustrate the changes with some hard data. Turning to one of my favorite quantitative sources, the Historical Statistics of the United States, 1 I put together the following chart:

Ignore the scale on the x-axis. Data is spotty the earlier you go, but in the relevant period, post-1919, the data is for every 2 years.

You can see that there was declining growth in enrollment from 1929 to 1931 and then a pretty significant drop from 1931 to 1933. The numbers go from 1,101k in 1929 to 1,154k in 1931, then to 1,055k in 1933. That’s about a 9 percent drop from 1931 to 1933 — and that’s a crisis, as any admissions director could tell you. But we have to think like the administrators of the time, who were looking at average yearly growth of 50k per year from 1919 (598k) to 1929 (1,101k). With a decade-long trend like that, administrators must have been expecting a continuing trend of growth, much as stock watchers and general business enthusiasts were predicting in the period. So to go from 50k growth per year to 50k drop per year in the course of a couple years must have been gut-wrenching.

It means that not only was there the absolute decline from 1931 to 1933, there was the enrollment gap, much like the output gap we see economists looking at in recessions. This would be the difference between actual student enrollment compared to what had been going on (and expected) over the course of the last decade. Projecting 50.3k growth from 1929 to 1933 — just continuing the average yearly growth of the preceding decade — would have yielded 1,302k students in 1933. And the real numbers, 1055k in 1933, are more than 18% below trend — the enrollment and institutions the administrators would have thought they were going to have in 1933. And that’s an even bigger crisis than I realized.

The story isn’t all bad — you can see in the above chart that higher education eventually did nearly make up the gap over the course of the 1930s, reaching enrollment of 1,494k in 1939 (vs projected 1,604k, or 6.7% below trend).

And then there was World War II.

  1. Data comes from Table Bc523 of the HSUS.

At the Precipice

After six weeks of grief, logistics planning, and dealing with bureaucracy, I may finally be ready to dust off my historian’s hat. Am I ready to take the leap? My hold on historical knowledge has never felt so slippery as it has these past few months.