Nursing Clio and the Reproduction History Syllabus

Catherine Cocks Discussion

A guest post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Guest post by Sarah Handley-Cousins, executive editor of Nursing Clio.

Sarah Handley-Cousins is the executive editor of Nursing Clio, a blog that is a great model of scholars sharing their work with a broad readership. Its mission is “to provide a platform for historians, health care workers, community activists, students, and the public at large to engage in socio-political and cultural critiques of this ongoing and historical dialogue regarding the gendered body, the history of medicine, popular culture, current events, and other issues that catch our attention.” In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Nursing Clio’s staff created a Reproduction History Syllabus to help people understand how this abrupt end to a federally guaranteed right to abortion could happen.

Feeding the Elephant: Can you tell us how Nursing Clio got started? 

Sarah Handley-Cousins: Nursing Clio was founded in 2012 by executive editor emerita Jacqueline Antonovich, who created the blog as a final project for a public history seminar she was taking in the course of earning a PhD at the University of Michigan. We just celebrated our tenth anniversary! Jacki was sort of radicalized by the public discourse about women and their bodies –  after all, it was the era of “binders full of women” and “legitimate rape” – and was also studying the history of medicine. The blog project offered a way to provide some historical context and feminist commentary on what we were seeing in the news. We’ve grown so much since then: we now have a team of about twenty editors, have published over 1500 essays, and have officially become a 501c3. But our mission stays the same: to use our platform to explore all the ways that the personal is historical.

FtE: Your mission aims to bring “historians, health care workers, community activists, students, and the public at large” together. That’s a really broad range! How do you bring these diverse groups into conversation with each other?

SHC: One simple answer is that there’s no barrier for entry: we regularly publish work by professors, scholars, graduate students, undergraduates, health professionals, and many, many others. But I also think we help to foster conversation because we work so hard to ensure that our essays are accessible – they’re free, of course, but they’re also brief, concise, and fairly informal. We hope for the widest authorship possible and the widest readership possible. I love that our content editor Lizzie Reis regularly has her students submit the papers they write for her class to Nursing Clio for publication, helping create a robust collection of undergraduate essays. I also think our special series on nursing history, Beyond Florence, is regularly read by historians of medicine and nurses alike, sparking broad-ranging conversations about the legacy of founding figures like Florence Nightingale. But we also have evidence that our essays are read well outside of the academy. Not that long ago, an incredible essay by the scholar of Ireland Cara Delay went viral on Reddit. I’m not sure there’s a better indicator that your scholarship is necessary, relevant, and accessible! 

FtE: What has been the best result of these conversations?

SHC: In some ways, I think the result is invisible to us. I know that we have readers that we’ve never met or even heard from, so it’s wonderful to imagine that something we’ve published is coming up in a casual conversation in a coffee shop somewhere. But the result I am proudest of is that Nursing Clio essays are read by undergraduate students all around the world, in programs ranging from History to Medical Humanities to Women’s and Gender Studies and more. I love that we’re helping to bring diverse perspectives on health, medicine, and history to students.

FtE: Why did you start the Reproduction History Syllabus?

SHC: Over the years, reproductive health and abortion have become particular specialties for Nursing Clio. We’ve written and discussed and published so much in our ten years about reproductive health activism and the necessity of abortion access that, when the Dobbs decision came out in June 2022, I immediately knew that we had to find a way to respond. What I really wanted to do was cry – but I also knew we needed to find a way to use the skills, knowledge, and platform that we had as Nursing Clio to speak to the moment. We responded in a couple of ways, like publishing a protest essay with information on where readers could get information on finding abortion providers, places where readers could donate to help support abortion services, or volunteer their time to support providers and patients, but we also wanted to find a way we could share our specific expertise in the history of women’s health that might be useful. One thing I know many people seek out in moments of crisis or anger is to try to learn – trying to answer for themselves, how did we get here?  I had facilitated some adult reading groups in the months after Donald Trump’s election, for instance, where the readings about politics and citizenship offered a deep and meaningful way for participants to grapple with the political situation in America at that moment. The Reproduction History Syllabus was a way to say to our readers: here, read this. It might help. (And gosh, I hope it did and still does.) 

FtE: Given that people can submit suggestions for the syllabus through the website, what are your guiding principles in selecting which suggested works to include?

SHC: When we first plotted and launched the syllabus, we were just concerned with sharing information as quickly as possible, but it soon became clear that we needed to make some critical decisions about how to best organize titles. It also became clear that we just didn’t know everything. One reader noted that we had a section on reproductive justice, but didn’t actually have titles that accurately reflected that field. They were right, and we were grateful to be put on the right path to making our syllabus more representative.  Initially, we planned just to  include titles related to reproduction in United States history. However, quickly readers shared work offering global perspectives, and we realized we needed to reconsider. I think we found a great way to organize titles – though I know there are probably a dozen things we could do to sharpen it even more!

Now, I gather all the submitted titles and typically double check that they seem relevant. Often, I’ll even do a little search using my library’s database or Google Books. But the titles are almost always excellent and relevant, so I go ahead and add them. One challenge is simply keeping up with submissions! I’m grateful so many scholars and readers around the world have taken the time to read our syllabus and suggest ways to make it broader and better.

FtE: What tips would you offer to other scholars who want to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of their work to a broader public?

SHC: I think scholars often assume that the general public isn’t interested in their little corner of research or analysis, but they absolutely are! People are eager to learn, especially as it relates to the problems and debates going on in the world around them. People are eager to hear what you have to say!

At the same time, scholars have to think critically about how to translate their academic work into writing that is compelling and informative but also brief and concise. You need to have a hook and a story; you have to learn how to cut the historiography and cite differently. It’s also hard to let go of jargon and dense writing – after all, we’re trained to do that! It takes work and skill to communicate scholarship to a broad audience.  But you don’t have to learn that on your own. Most blogs have fantastic editors who help writers shape their public-facing work. I’m especially proud of our editing collective, which thoughtfully helps our writers through this process. If you’re open to feedback and willing to learn a new genre of communication, the end result will be great

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an assistant teaching professor at the University at Buffalo. In addition to serving as the executive director of Nursing Clio, she is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.

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