Like the Black Death and the Great Plague of London before it, the novel coronavirus pandemic will one day be merely part of the historical record, reduced to a chapter in a textbook, an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a slightly inaccurate Wikipedia page. (Who knows, maybe the new slang terms spawned in the past three months—covidiot, quaranteen, Zoomer—will even find their way into some future version of Urban Dictionary.) When that time comes, institutions like Haverford want their scholars to have access to eyewitness accounts of the outbreak.
“I think it’s important to preserve these experiences for posterity so that we have a fuller picture of the human experience of this pandemic,” said Liz Jones-Minsinger, the college’s Archivist and Records Manager. “Historically, archives have done a much better job preserving institutional histories than the experiences of individuals.”
In an effort to document first-person experiences of what is, by all accounts, a truly once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, Jones-Minsinger and her colleagues have invited students, faculty, and staff to share their thoughts and feelings about COVID-19 in any medium they want—photography, videography, drawing, painting, writing, printmaking, et cetera. They are joined in this mission by Students’ Council and the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) consortium, a community of private U.S. colleges and universities to which Haverford belongs. Both Students’ Council and HEDS sent out surveys on the College’s response to the pandemic in mid-April.
According to a preliminary analysis of the HEDS survey data provided to the Clerk by Dean of the College Martha Denney, most students seem relatively satisfied with the Zoom calls and Moodle forums that have replaced their classes, though many complain of Internet connectivity issues and report that they suffer from “screen fatigue” and a pronounced lack of motivation to do homework or take tests. Concerningly, however, the majority of responders were Caucasian (56.3%) and/or cisgender (91.9%), calling into question the inclusivity, and by extension the accuracy, of the results.
The HEDS survey had received about 400 responses as of April 20. By contrast, Jones-Minsinger has only received nine responses so far, ranging from “reflections on the transition to online learning” to “descriptions of how daily life has changed” to “concerns about health and finances.” Frequently used words include “devastated” and “grateful.” The range in tone and content, she says, “highlights the fact that college is so much more than coursework” and, for my money, illustrates how the pandemic has cast a shadow over every aspect of people’s lives.
“I think a lot of us are experiencing grief right now,” Jones-Minsinger said of the broader Haverford and human communities. “Recording our experiences can sometimes help us come to terms with a senseless situation, even if we can’t make sense of it.”
Modern mental health and wellness scholarship bears out her convictions. Writing therapy, a technique pioneered by the social psychologist James W. Pennebaker in the 1980s, has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of OCD, PTSD, asthma, anxiety, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and a whole host of other physical and psychological illnesses in both men and women. The act of putting experiences like sexual assault and feelings like profound sadness into words seems to help people process trauma and move on with their lives. Studies even suggest that sustained writing therapy may provide a boost in immunocompetence, or the immune system’s ability to identify and eliminate threats—all the more reason to put pen to paper right this minute. (Researchers have found that art therapy has many of the same positive effects).
Should you choose to share your work with the college, Jones-Minsinger said, the submission form will be open well into the summer. Though she hopes that more students, faculty, and staff (especially faculty and staff) will provide materials for preservation, she emphasized that she only wants them to do so if they feel that it would increase their emotional well-being in some way.
“I would tell people considering submitting…that they should consider whether or not it would benefit themselves, not just future researchers,” she said.
The submission form is available here.