Next semester I will be on sabbatical. Instead of teaching five classes, I will dive headfirst into a research project that has been taking shape for three years now. A new research project is a great big unknown, which is a little bit terrifying. This week’s blog will be the first in an occasional series that focuses on historical research and writing.
The last major research project I undertook was my doctoral dissertation. While dissertations in themselves are fraught with anxiety and roadblocks, completing my degree was enough to motivate me to push through the challenges. This time around the experience will be completely different: no academic advisor, no semester-based deadlines, and the flexibility to follow the questions and evidence wherever they may lead.
I’m hoping that if I use this blog as my one-woman Research Seminar I will keep my project on a forward-moving track the way Dissertation Seminar helped me through my dissertation all those years ago. So this week I’ll start at the beginning:
My project -- broadly conceived -- is a study of care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the early twentieth century. In the aftermath of my own medical crisis in 2004 I became increasingly curious about the history of women’s healthcare. I began to search for narratives to satisfy my curiosities and was introduced to the works of Gerald Grob and others whose studies examined the way that mental illness was addressed by American society as far back as the colonial period.
For nearly two years, while teaching full time, I read everything I could find on care of the mentally ill in the US. In addition to narratives histories that encompassed expansive periods of time and documented the evolving roles of asylums and hospitals, doctors and psychiatrists, I also read regional histories about places like Boston’s famed McLean Hospital and New York’s Willard Psychiatric Center. These studies evaluated the specific challenges addressed by patients, families, community organizations and state legislatures. They shed light on the value of local history in the study of healthcare.
Ultimately what I discovered is that I’m most interested in the period from the turn of the century until the start of World War II. And, I want to specifically learn about the communities in which I live and teach. I want to be able to share stories of local people and institutions with my students when my sabbatical concludes.
I’m hopeful that the archival work I will begin this January will uncover the lives of women who struggled with mental health problems in this era and lead me to some bigger questions. Laws protecting the privacy of patients in state hospitals will likely have a major on my work and the stories that are available. I’m excited, nonetheless, to engage in the detective work necessary to bring these stories to life. Stay tuned!