When do current events become “history?” When can we feel like we have the perspective and hindsight to be able to make sense of what is or has just happened to us? How do we know—or is there even a way of knowing—what sources of information will be important to the future?
The students in HIST 4101: Applied History were faced with those questions as the Covid-19 crisis emerged late in 2019. At first it seemed distant, foreign, but as the new year came and the virus spread, it became clear that it would affect all of us eventually. The news worsened, and as students and faculty left for spring break on March 6, many no doubt wondered if they’d be coming back.
Of course, they didn’t. While students relaxed with family, took long-awaited spring break trips, worked on class projects, or put in extra hours at their jobs, one university after another closed their doors and transitioned to “remote” teaching. On March 12, Marquette did the same. Students were allowed to come to campus to get their belongings out of the residence halls on Sunday the 15th, but by the next week, when classes were scheduled to start up again, the students were gone. And by the end of the week, virtually all faculty, staff, and administrators were working from home. Eventually, 250 employees would be furloughed.
This meant that the library would also be closed.
As a result, with the eleven students in Applied History locked out of the resources they needed to complete their class project, and with many hunkering down in other cities and states, we had to “pivot,” as they say. I decided that we should create a project that chronicled and reflected on the ways that Covid-19 had and would continue to affect the MU community—the students and their families, of course, but also the towns and cities in which they lived. This project is not a complete history of the pandemic’s effects on Marquette, of course—there will be additional months of disruption and discomfort—but it does provide a time capsule that preserves for future historians some of the experiences of members of our community as crisis approached and then washed over us.
The class divided into three teams, each offering a different way of measuring the impact of the crisis on the Marquette community. The “Archives” team collected questionnaires from scores of Marquette students and others; the “Hometowns” team created a Storymap showing how the crisis affected students living in different parts of the country; the “Timeline” team produced a timeline showing how the crisis unfolded internationally, nationally, and at Marquette. Finally, each student contributed a “Reflection” that highlighted how the crisis affected them and their families.
About the site: As instructor of HIST 4101, James Marten acted as Project Director. The students who provided the content for the site were: Maddie Anderson, Nathan Batty, Heyley Bowman, Karina Cerny, Abby Gorzlancyk, Keagan Lenz, Alex Montgomery, Howard Norrish, Michael Powell, Erin Schmidt, and Ian Wolff. Elizabeth Gibes of MU’s Digital Scholarship Lab provided extraordinary advice and technical guidance.
Additional information: Other institutions and organizations have also seized the opportunity to record history as it happens. Local and national examples include:
The public history program at UWM has built A Milwaukee Coronavirus Digita Archive.
The Wisconsin Historical Society has created the COVID-19 Journal Project: Collecting History as it Happens.
A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID19 is a collaboration of public historians from around the country.
PhD alum Karen Kehoe is involved in a COVID-19 project in Westmoreland County, PA, where she teaches at Saint Vincent College.
Graduate students at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis have created the COVID19 Oral History Project.