The "DH origin story" has become a genre, as I'm reminded by Brandon Walsh's recent Scholars Lab post on his. I've written mine too, including a couple takes on coding at the Data-Sitters Club at the Data-Sitters Club, and on the DH at Stanford blog.
What we write less about is the things that happen in the rest of our lives, which fall largely outside the bounds of the origin story narrative. They sometimes get a passing reference (Brandon mentions his relationship being a reason to want to stay local), but we don't dwell on the role they play in the story. And yet, their impact on how we work can be a profound force in shaping the story, in what we do and how.
More than a week ago, my whole family left on a cross-country road trip. I don't have the vacation days to join them for the whole summer, and remote work has fallen out of favor in the library, even though the department I work with is utterly empty during the summer. If you asked me to describe my house, one of the words that would immediately come to mind would be "loud", so having everyone suddenly gone makes the place feel eerie. It's like some post-Rapture scene, and I'm the only one left behind.
On one level, the timing was fortuitous: the Sunday they left, I had 30 hours to put together a video for SUCHO, which had won a Europa Nostra / European Heritage award (please vote for us!), but we'd spaced on the video production requirement, and there was funding available for it that I could donate to our equipment fund. I had a phase in college when I was serious about video editing, so as soon as they drove away, I dug up and dusted off that mental space. 10 hours later we had a draft with placeholders for additional volunteer footage; the whole thing was ready by my 11 AM meeting on Monday. A little rough around the edges compared to some of the video productions (complete with drone footage and professional sound editing) but it captured our ethos and was something we could be proud of.
Making that video required the kind of focus that I never get-- at least, never for that long. I miss it sometimes. My family being on the road has also given me a taste of what it feels like to have complete control over my own schedule. I haven't had to weigh trade-offs and impact on other people when I leave the house before dawn or get home at dusk -- or do both in the same day. The ongoing push for 4- or 5-days-a-week on-campus presence at work feels like it's modeled on an ideal employee who doesn't have the constraints that come with caregiving. At least, the fall on-campus plan has felt like a much smaller ask, living as I have this last week. It's a dilemma for people like myself whose life doesn't fit that model. What are our options when the metric that's suddenly most-prized draws not on our creativity or efficiency or ability to support patrons, but on physically showing up -- which has more to do with life circumstances than anything we do? I'm not going to file for divorce angling to be the non-custodial parent for the sake of my job.
When we write about DH origin stories, we talk about things like workshops that opened our eyes to different research possibilities, or events we were fortunate enough to be invited to at just the right moment. But this week I've realized how many important things for me have happened without me noticing it at the time, bit by bit. One early morning on campus, it dawned on me: I had just spent two hours carefully, deliberately, repeatedly working through the process of getting the digital knitting machine working. I'd run into one problem after another, but I had calmly addressed each in turn, starting over and over and over. I don't think of myself that way: I hate puzzles, I hate starting over, I hate repeating things. I am impatient and quick to get frustrated. This is no small part of why, in my own narrative about myself, it took me so long to learn how to code.
But I did learn. And what's more, I've been enthusiastically taking up areas of crafting that I've sworn for years I don't have the patience for. Knitting and crochet? Not only am I doing them, I'm also spinning my own yarn! Which should raise the question, then, what changed? And the realization I had over the knitting machine was that it's been parenthood. Particularly with very small children, bizarre and tedious troubleshooting is a big piece of what you're doing day-to-day. Everything is wrong but they can't tell you why, or the words don't make much sense. It's an awful lot like working with code, or knitting machines.
I am very good at my job. This I can say confidently. And with equal certainty I can say that a lot of the skills I draw on every day -- patience, flexibility, creativity, improvisation, figuring out complicated interpersonal and/or technical systems enough to get what I and others need -- are skills I have developed or sharpened as a parent.
I hate seeing the ways that parenthood, and care responsibilities more broadly, get treated as a liability in academia. It catches me off guard every time someone (including/especially faculty) apologizes profusely for missing an event or meeting because they've had to pick up a sick kid from school. I've tried to do my part by being very open upfront in my classes about my life situation (three kids! two hour commute each way! life is messy, sometimes stuff comes up, but we can work it out and I'm here to support you when your life gets messy!) and also with the faculty I work with. In March 2020, my default Zoom background was the three kids pressing their hands and faces against the glass back door-- it captured my working conditions, such as they were.
But this week has given me reason to think I should go one step further in these brief explanations about who I am and what my deal is. Not just "I have three kids" (and, implicitly, that doesn't have to be a show-stopper for this kind of work) but explicitly, "I have three kids and this has made me better at this kind of work."
My DH origin story runs through kid wrangling on 13-hour road trips and pushing swings at the playground and negotiating to leave beloved stuffies safely at home, at least as much as it runs through directories and DH infrastructure building. There are lots of ways you can develop skills like patience and persistence, but this is how I've come about mine. And I think it's past time to weave that explicitly into my story.