Students as oral historians of the pandemic

Note: this article originally appeared in Humanities Hub.

For years I have incorporated oral histories into my class assignments. Students, although initially daunted by the idea of having to interview someone, learn a remarkable amount from the process. At a minimum, they pick up rudimentary interviewing skills. Often, they learn something new about a family member, friend or their community, and about the historical question they’re researching. At a more intangible level, they have deep, long conversations on new topics—an experience that many of them note is quite rare in our fast-paced, social media-obsessed, sound bite society.

But this fall, when it came time to launch my long-planned new gender studies and history course entirely devoted to the theory and methods of oral history, I wondered if the COVID-19 teaching context would sink the enterprise. University policy—and common sense—meant students could not do in-person interviews. Moreover, to assist students grappling with the challenges of the pandemic, I had chosen to run the course asynchronously, which added further complications to teaching oral history. In the hope I could make lemonade out of lemons, I signed our class on as a partner to the J. Willard Marriott Library’s COVID-19 Digital Collection initiative.

The library rightly believed it was important to document the experience of ordinary Utahns with COVID. Leveraging the “citizen scientist” and crowd-sourcing ethos that’s a growing part of the academic enterprise, Anna Neatour, Jeremy Myntti and their team built a website where folks could upload photographs and stories about life in the midst of a pandemic. They also created space on the website for oral histories. The initial interviews on the site were by a faculty member with medical personnel at the U hospital. But the library was excited about the possibility of having interviews with diverse narrators done by students covering a wide variety of topics. Given the challenges, could students pull it off? The answer turned out to be, unequivocally, “yes.”

After spending several weeks introducing students to the history, ethics and key debates in the field of oral history, we turned to project design and oral history practice. As part of our background research, we read news articles and developed a COVID-19 timeline for Utah. I ensured they were comfortable using Zoom for interviewing and had them watch me do a sample interview. We developed a protocol for processing the oral histories including securing release forms from interviewees. I then turned them loose to take practice oral histories with family members and friends about their experiences with COVID. Each student chose an aspect of the pandemic on which to focus, but they were aware of other students’ interests and were tasked with pursuing those topics if they came up in the interview.

Soon thereafter they started posting their initial oral histories to our class archive. As I listened, my growing sense that they were an excellent group of students was confirmed. I also learned that Zoom actually works quite well for oral histories. It allows students to reach a diverse range of narrators much more easily than in-person interviewing. Most importantly, students had an excellent experience. Given the opportunity to either undertake an oral history project on a different topic or to continue on with their COVID interviewing and thereby add more interviews to the library’s COVID collection, the vast majority chose to continue recording histories of this complicated time. Those interviews are now being processed by the library and will become an invaluable resource for researchers and the public.

If you’re intrigued by schooling during COVID, parenting children with disabilities, anti-mask attitudes, work during the pandemic (including as a sky-diving instructor and a merchant marine), the response of skiing and the outdoor recreation industry, loneliness, pregnancy during the pandemic, the differential effect on Latinos and Black Americans, the COVID-driven mutual aid movement, arts, political activism and other fascinating topics, I hope you’ll go to the webpage the library created for our class and listen to some of these fascinating interviews.

Media Contacts

Morgan Aguilarcommunications specialist, University of Utah Communications