The History Department is fortunate to have many talented staff members who work to make the Department run. We couldn't exist without them, and so we're introducing a Staff Spotlight feature! This quarter we're spotlighting Peggy O'Donnell, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies and Assistant Instructional Professor in History and the College. O'Donnell talks below about her work as an administrator and an instructor, her own research and writing, and what she did before coming to UChicago.


What does an average day at UChicago look like for you (in the pandemic or not)? What's the breakdown between your time spent with the Undergraduate Studies Committee versus as an Instructional Professor?

I wear a lot of hats, which is a fun part of my job, but it can get overwhelming. I've learned to (try!!) to organize my days so I switch hats as infrequently as possible. When I can pull that off (which isn't always...), some of my days are very teaching focused: I prep for class, teach, and hold office hours to discuss readings or assignments. Other days are devoted to advising History majors and minors, answering emails, handling any (big or small!) issues that come up with our students, and keeping track of student progress to make sure everyone is advancing toward graduation as they should. I meet with students to talk about anything from their courses to their majors to their lives and futures. If there is one best part about my job, it's getting to know students outside of the classroom — where, since I'm not grading or assessing them, I can get to know them in a more relaxed, informal way. I'm biased, but I think our students are just the coolest, most interesting, kindest people, and it's a total joy to know them. Other days are more administrative: planning events or the curriculum for future years, or supporting faculty. And when I can, I try to protect some time to do my own research and writing.

How long have you been at UChicago?

I started at UChicago in the fall of 2017, as a postdoctoral instructor at the Pozen Center for Human Rights. That was supposed to be two years, but at the end of the first year History advertised my dream position, to teach and advise History majors and minors. It was an incredible stroke of timing and luck to be able to take on this role in the fall of 2018.

What did you do before working here?

I finished my PhD at Berkeley in the spring of 2016, and that fall I started a postdoctoral fellowship at the United States Military Academy at West Point! I packed up everything I owned and headed to the Hudson Valley, having zero history with the military and no idea what to expect. It was a real learning experience (I got a lot of mileage out of Berkeley-to-West Point jokes, as you might imagine) and a really intense teaching experience. West Point is a military academy, but it's also a liberal arts college, with small classes and high standards. I taught a lot of sections of European History to first years and had so much fun with them. When I was a graduate student, I thought undergrads could be really intimidating (they're smart!). After my trial-by-fire teaching experience at West Point, I realized just how lucky I am to get to hang out with them all the time.

If you could design a new class to teach right now, what would it be?

I'd love to teach a class on the history of environmentally-focused population control movements. We'd start with Thomas Malthus and then visit French feminists at the turn of the twentieth century, Zero Population Growth activists in the American 1960s, and women's groups lobbying at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. It would touch on feminism, environmentalism, eugenics, racism — tons to talk about.

What's one thing you wish students knew about you, the Department, and/or the University in general?

How much they mean to me/us! When I was an undergraduate, my professors were really important to me, but it never really occurred to me that they might feel the same way. Our students are such a huge source of joy in my life, and I know I'm not the only one in the department who would say that. Every spring, when a new class of History majors and minors graduates, it's bittersweet: we of course want to see them head off into the world, but it's hard getting left behind. We miss them!

Can you tell us about your forthcoming book? What about your other writing in Jezebel, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere?

My first book is tentatively titled Without Children: The Long History of Not Being A Mother, and it should be out in the next year or so from Basic Books. The book is a history of childlessness, mostly in the United States, mostly in the last two centuries. It's often suggested in political discussions or in media coverage that Millennials invented the concept of not having kids, because we're lazy or immature or spend too much money on avocado toast or whatever. But my book suggests women have not been having children for decades, centuries, and not for entirely different reasons than young people today: a lack of community support or financial stability, infertility, concerns about the impact people have on the environment, and the desire for different lives. I hope it's a good and interesting historical narrative. But I also hope it speaks to tons of smart, engaged readers who are thinking about motherhood or non-motherhood in their own lives, a generation for whom reproductive decisions are increasingly fraught — and for whom it might offer some comfort to know that, historically speaking, we're not alone. Writing creatively and finding ways to tell historical narratives that connect with wide audiences, including and especially outside of academia, is what I'm passionate about and that drives most of my work.