When history goes viral
Photos by Ariel Ramirez, Amber Alexander Payne, iStock April 17, 2020
UD’s Department of History is finding teachable moments in the coronavirus pandemic
Best wishes. Kind regards. Cheers.
In the world before COVID-19, any one of these would have been an appropriate way to conclude an email. But since the coronavirus pandemic? Sign-offs have adopted an equally polite — albeit ominous — tone. Forget “sincerely.” You are firmly in “stay healthy” and “keep safe” territory now.
So… what’s the big deal? With so many changes happening in the world at break-neck speed, who cares about something as innocuous as an email signoff?
It’s a fair question — or at least it would be, if this were only a matter of online etiquette. But, according to the experts, this is about something much bigger. This is about history unfolding in real time.
Centuries from now, academics might analyze these signoffs for a window into life during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. They might examine journal entries or social media postings or — who knows? — that YouTube video of a guy playing tic-tac-toe with his turtle during a moment of quarantine-induced boredom. What humans put into the world during this unprecedented period is archival material. It will shape the coronavirus narrative for generations.
“This pandemic is a unique opportunity for all of us to become historians,” said Jaipreet Virdi, an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. “Everything around us is going to become a primary source.”
Along with her colleagues, Virdi has pivoted mid-semester and adapted her curriculum to reflect the current reality: Students are living through history, and teachable moments abound. In her course on the history of health activism, a recurring theme has been how major health crises have affected the lives of everyday people. Since the outbreak, students have become their own subjects. In place of a planned essay assignment, Virdi is having the class contribute to multiple Google Docs. In one, undergraduates are documenting life under quarantine — from what they are seeing in their neighborhoods to what they are eating to, yes, how they are signing their emails. Eventually, these documents might be submitted to Morris Library’s Special Collections and Museums as part of a local archive.
One of the discussions inspired by this virtual journaling has centered on all those lockdown-inspired memes floating around the web — specifically, the ones poking fun at the typical quarantine wardrobe (sweatpants) or the typical work-from-home diet (anything in sight). The memes are meant to elicit a chuckle, sure, but this project encourages students to draw a deeper analysis.
“These things are funny at face value, but they also convey a feeling of displacement,” said Jaanvi Mehta, a student in Virdi’s course. “As a class, we’ve discussed how the majority of people in society derive a sense of value not just from routine, but from a productive routine, and that’s been taken from us. On the other hand, it feels insensitive to complain about a loss of routine when there are people fighting for their lives on ventilators. Contributing to this project has helped us grapple with some of these more complicated emotions as they arise. It’s given us a voice.”
Reflecting on the present also allows for a deeper understanding of the past. No longer are previous pandemics abstract episodes in a dusty textbook — they are the now.
“I feel like I’m living through similar difficulties as the people I’ve studied, and that develops greater empathy,” said Dael Norwood, assistant professor of history. On Instagram, he’s been updating his own quarantine archive, and he is encouraging his students to do the same. “As a historian, empathy is where the work gets done. It’s the muscle for understanding perspectives of people who came before.”
One of the ways this empathy manifests is in the development of new research questions. For instance, all that stockpiling of toilet paper happening now? This is not merely fodder for another silly meme — it sparks inquiry about the practice of hoarding during the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 or the cholera epidemic of 1832.
To leverage the present in this way, Norwood polled students in his U.S. history course to see if participants would like upcoming units to focus on epidemics and disease. Unanimously, they voted yes. When it comes time to discuss, say, the rise of the cotton South, the class will read about opportunistic traders in New Orleans who used claims of yellow fever resistance to sell enslaved laborers at higher prices — and they will examine how the current health emergency reflects race relations.
“One of the things very clear from a lot of these crises is that existing structures of race, gender, and class hierarchy don’t go away during something like this,” Norwood said. “In fact, they get worse, or those lines become harder. The way governments responded in the past should give us insight into what some of the problems are going to be.”
During a moment like this, bracing for problems is a commonly cited reason for studying history — the practice helps clarify just how bad things are going to get. But there is another, more optimistic, incentive. Examining the past serves as a reminder of how society has evolved.
Consider Lawrence Duggan, a professor specializing in the later Middle Ages and a survivor of measles, German measles, adult chicken pox and a near-fatal staph infection. His course on the historical importance of plagues, offered at UD since 2017, has become all the more salient since the COVID-19 outbreak. This semester, students will conduct a family disease-and-death history going back at least two generations — a staple of the course for the last four years — and they will write essays comparing today with the Spanish influenza of 1918-1919. That outbreak, which infected approximately 500 million people, is counted among the most lethal events in history, but it is also responsible for accelerating improvements in sanitation, community mitigation measures and scientific research. Victims of that pandemic had no antibiotics to treat secondary infections like pneumonia.
“There are so many ways in which we are enormously blessed and privileged,” Duggan said. “Knowing something about the past helps you to appreciate that. It keeps you from taking the present for granted.”
So the next time you feel tempted to close an email with a plea to keep safe or healthy, remember that an equally appropriate missive during this unprecedented period might be to stay resilient. If history teaches anything, it’s that — when confronted by hardship — people survive, rebuild and grow.
“The human spirit can be quite extraordinary in dealing with adversity of this sort,” Duggan said. “Especially when there’s a collective will.”
Be well. Stay stoic. Have faith.