“A Keen Vision and Feeling of All Ordinary Life”: Pandemic Journaling in the History Classroom

tags: teaching history, primary sources, COVID-19

Michelle Orihel is Associate Professor of History at Southern Utah University. She researches the politics and print culture of the early American republic and the Atlantic world.

Diaries have long been some of my favorite historical sources. On two occasions, reading diaries awakened my historical imagination. Reading Anne Frank’s diary in grade eight launched my interest in studying history. For the first time, I learned that history was about studying how people in the past lived — their thoughts, complaints, hopes, and fears— rather than simply a list of names, events, and dates. Likewise, in my second year at university, I read the diary of a seventeenth-century Puritan clergyman, Ralph Josselin. His frequent complaints of the mundanities of a runny nose and navel lint particularly stuck in my memory. Was that history too, I wondered? Reading Josselin’s daily record of family, work, and physical ailments humanized the often-stereotyped Puritans in my mind and it taught me about the historical significance of everyday life.2

Now as a professor, when teaching the American history survey, I try to avoid the history as “just one f*cking thing after another” trap. I begin the course by introducing students to historical thinking. I use clips from the documentary A Midwife’s Tale to introduce them to the concept of doing history, so they understand that historians’ work entails doing research in a variety of primary sources and then interpreting those sources. Students also read Carl Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian,” his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, in which he argued that historical thinking, defined as “the memory of things said and done,” is neither a foreign nor an obscure experience to humanity. Since memory is essential to functioning in our daily lives, we all think historically to survive, even if only to question ourselves: “Did I pay that bill yesterday?” In answering that question, we reconstruct yesterday’s actions in our minds and perhaps even search for physical (or in today’s case, digital) evidence of that task. There it is — historical thinking! Thinking historically about one’s own life, my students learn, is a foundation for thinking historically about other people’s lives.

Though I loved reading diaries, I’d never considered asking my students to write their own journals until I read a tweet by historian Leah Richier about her pandemic journal assignment. When my students returned to the virtual classroom after March break, I also asked them to write about one page per week for the rest of the semester. I had no idea what students would make of the assignment. Almost immediately a few students asked if they could write shorter daily entries that added up to one page per week. Since many of the historical diaries I’ve read have been organized in this fashion, I could not object. Students also asked me if they could write more than a page per week, a rare question when I assign writing to students!

In the end, students made the assignment their own. Their journals reflected their extraordinary diversity. Some students focused on what they did and the material conditions they faced. They wrote about struggling to establish a new routine, keeping up with school work, moving home or living in apartments and university residences, cooking, eating, exercising, grocery shopping, playing video games, or watching their favorite movies and shows. Other students tracked their emotions. They expressed the sentiments of fear, despair, outrage, and uncertainty in reaction to the pandemic and the switch to remote learning. Most combined the material and the emotional in their diaries. Some students coped by writing down what they were grateful for, while others understandably vented about the difficulties they faced. While some students focused on their own lives, others connected their struggles to the contemporary or historical events. Most important, many students demonstrated an awareness of being in history. A few students acknowledged that their journals would be primary sources for future historians, the raw materials from which scholars piece together the past. Some used book metaphors to describe their pandemic experience, saying they felt like all of a sudden they were living in a history book that had yet to be written. As one student quipped, “being part of a major historical event sucked,” a sentiment that all of us, weary of the pandemic, can probably sympathize with right now.

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