Day in the working life of a historian: Frances Clarke

Our day in the working life of a historian series continues with Dr Frances Clarke reflecting on the joys and privileges of research collaboration and the academic sabbatical.

U.S. Fleet Visit, 1908. Image via Museum Victoria Collections.
U.S. Fleet Visit, 1908. Image via Museum Victoria Collections.

I think this column is supposed to be about one of my “typical” working days. But since I’m on study leave in the United States this semester, all of my days have a feeling of predictability and calm that’s anything but typical.

I came to the United States a few weeks back to work with my collaborator. I’ve since been living in her house, where I’ll remain for the next six weeks. My phone doesn’t ring. I often don’t look at my email until ten or eleven at night. And I focus only on reading, thinking, and writing – all about as far as I could imagine from a “normal” work day filled with teaching and admin duties.

When I first signed on to contribute to the “Day in the Working Life of a Historian” series, I thought I’d be writing about the joys of collaboration – something that I’ve discovered in abundance over the past few years as I started one project and then another with Rebecca Jo Plant, an associate professor at University of California San Diego who specialises on twentieth-century U.S. history, gender relations, World War II, and the history of psychiatry.

Rebecca and I met during grad school and got into the habit of swapping and commenting on each other’s work. We have similar interests and sensibilities, and remarkably complementary writing styles. And our collaboration seems to work for both of us. We’ve now written studies in both Rebecca’s area of specialty and my own (nineteenth-century U.S. history, with a focus on the Civil War and Reconstruction), and we bring fresh eyes to each other’s material. There’s enough trust between us to share control of the reins and to accept that our very different processes – mine compulsively organised and detail-oriented, and Rebecca’s impatiently chaotic and imaginative – both have equal merit and eventually help get us to where we need to be. And there’s also an important emotional component to the way we work: when one of us is down, the other’s there for support. Even more importantly, when we’re excited about an idea or a source, it’s nothing short of wonderful to share the pleasure of discovery or the knotty process of understanding and creating ideas with someone who is equally engaged. We’ve even learned to write together – meaning one of us speaks while the other types, and then we swap – something I couldn’t have imagined doing a few years back.

"Picciona," in A Selection of War Lyrics with Illustrations (1864), by F.O.C. Darley. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Picciona,” in A Selection of War Lyrics (1864), by F.O.C. Darley. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The only trouble with international collaborations is that we’re constantly out of sync: although I’m here on study leave, Rebecca is busy coping with family illnesses, teaching and admin duties, child care responsibilities, and the presidency of an historical association about to hold its annual meeting.

Arriving here to become a spectator to the tail end of someone else’s semester while I’m on sabbatical stirs all the guilt implanted in me by my (otherwise failed) Catholic education. It’s a constant reminder that many academics – even if they’re lucky enough to have tenured appointments, and especially if they’re mothers – are often so beleaguered and exhausted at the end of the term that they spend the first few weeks catching up on sleep or finishing all those long-delayed tasks that are needed to keep life going. Intensive collaboration, in other words, will have to wait until finals next week.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on a portion of one chapter that looks at why armies first created age-related enlistment policies for our book, which focuses on debates over underage soldiers in American history. My main dilemma at this point will probably be familiar to most historians: sometimes asking simple questions about causation can feel like pulling a thread that unravels the whole cloth, as a topic that was only meant to take up a single paragraph begins to generate dozens more questions that all require their own lines of research.

On the one hand, this is the thing I love most about historical work – following surprising connections and becoming unexpectedly absorbed by something that had been nowhere near my radar the day before. On the other hand, after making a detour away from our book recently to write an article on legal history, I feel as though there’s a giant clock above my head, counting down the seconds as I sit here exploring cul-de-sacs. How long should I let myself go down the byways when we’re supposed to be thundering down the main road, getting closer to our ultimate goal? As one of my other friends likes to say, “Done is the Engine of More,” and we’ve got a surfeit of projects we could be starting if we could just finish up this one. In fact, this might be the one thing wrong with our collaboration: both liable to follow every interesting connection, neither of us is ever going to scream at the other: “Enough!”

"The Little Drummer," in A Selection of War Lyrics with Illustrations (1864), by F.O.C. Darley. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Little Drummer,” in A Selection of War Lyrics (1864), by F.O.C. Darley. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

So I woke up yesterday morning thinking about a source that I’d been reading when I arrived here several weeks ago – the first manual written for military enlistment officers, explaining how they should judge someone’s fitness for army service. That source had got me thinking about the way physicians interpreted growth in an era before experimental research, when and why they started measuring growth in precise terms, and particularly why so many of these early measuring projects were undertaken by military doctors. I’d read what I could in the secondary literature about the early history of statistics and the development of physiology (absolutely fascinating; who knew!) and I’d gone back to many of the original sources used by my manual writer. But I still wanted to know more about him, since his work became the main source cited by enlistment officers across the Anglo-European world up through the 1870s. To get a handle on where he was coming from, I felt like I needed to spend some time in his world. So, basically, my day consisted of going over the indexes to the medical journals in which he published and dipping into studies written by his fellow army physicians. What did I learn from this excursion? Quite a lot, it turns out, although I’ll leave the details for our book. Suffice it to say, it helped me figure out why military doctors were so keen on measuring troops and, more importantly, it brought me to my manual writer’s earlier work, which highlighted an important transitional moment in his thinking that I’ll spend tomorrow fleshing out.

At this point, I feel like writing an ode to the sabbatical. Because this is exactly the kind of research that it’s impossible to do during the university semester, when it’s only feasible to snatch a few hours of research time at most. I find that a lot of historical research can’t be done in small batches. Stopping and starting means forgetting the place where you began. It precludes the experience of being fully immersed in another time and place, where you descend in the morning with a set of questions, follow the threads wherever they lead, and then pop back up at night with sore shoulders and a sense that you understand someone else’s milieu a bit more clearly. And it means that you tend to stay on the main road without venturing onto the byways that might take time to explore but often yield the most original discoveries. (I’m aware, of course, that not all academics gets study leave. But they should, since it’s not a luxury but an imperative for producing great research).

"The Color-Sergeant," in A Selection of War Lyrics (1864), by F.O.C. Darley. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Color-Sergeant,” in A Selection of War Lyrics (1864), by F.O.C. Darley. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If I could write another ode right now, it would be to online research tools like Hathi Trust Digital Library, Open Library, Worldcat, and Google Scholar. Every time I found an interesting source yesterday, I could look up everything else the author had published. I could see who’d cited their work in the past and present. I could find reviews of their research, and quickly attach biographies to most of their names – tasks I now do routinely for every primary source that I read. It’s simply incredible how quickly this new world of research possibilities has opened up. And since I’ve come to understand that context is key to historical analysis – the richer the better – I can’t help but rejoice, even if some of this searching leads down blind alleys.

On my not-so-typical day, then, I spent three quarters of my time looking at medical journals and tracking authors while trying to map out the intellectual landscape of a source that will probably make its way into a single paragraph of our book. In the afternoon, I went for a walk with Rebecca, and exclaimed excitedly about all my discoveries, and then came home and wrote about what we’d just discussed. Was it the best use of my time? I have no idea. It’s possible that I could have written more pages without this day-long diversion. But it’s also possible that our big picture will emerge from the sum of what only appear to be digressions. What I can say for sure is that it’s a huge deal more stimulating and productive to do this with someone travelling the same path.


Frances ClarkeFrances M. Clarke
is a senior lecturer in the History Department at The University of Sydney. Her research interests include nineteenth-century U.S. history, the history of war, trauma, and memory, race and gender analysis, and the history of childhood. She is currently working on two book projects with Rebecca Jo Plant related to age and U.S. militarism: the first, focused on debates over underage soldiers in the era of the American Civil War, and the second focused on the longer history of questions around the military education of American children, the impact of war and violence, and definitions of age.

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