Asking Students to Reflect on the Historical 2020

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It shouldn’t go unnoticed that as millions of people across the United States were being vaccinated against COVID-19 last week, jury selection was concluding in the criminal case against Derek Chauvin, the police officer accused of murdering George Floyd in May 2020. Two of the most significant news stories of 2020 continue to captivate the public's attention in 2021.


No doubt in years to come history textbooks will chronicle the events of 2020 as reflections of each other: the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis; the horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd; the historic election that put into office the first female vice president. Future historians will be asked to measure the impact of each of these touchstones in our national history as these events will forever be connected in the historical narrative and the public’s collective memory. 


This week, therefore, I’m asking my students to identify aspects of American life that they believe have permanently changed as a result of these national and international events. I’ve created an optional discussion board (extra credit) for students to reflect on the past twelve months. In particular, I want students to evaluate what they perceive as the pace of or lack of change. 


A point of context for this discussion: in women’s history classes we examine the dramatic shift in employment from service areas to the defense industry experienced by American women during the two world wars. In 1917 and 1942, for example, millions of women saw their work lives change dramatically with higher wages and better opportunities. The post-war periods, however, saw those same working-women struggle to maintain the economic gains they had made during the war years. Ultimately most returned to low-paying jobs. In other words, short-term change came and went quickly. Long-term change is still a work in progress.


I’m hopeful that this no-stakes assignment will provide the students with an opportunity to share observations and insights about the past twelve months across their diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. I plan to leave the discussion board open for several weeks so that students have time to consider each other’s perspectives and contribute thoughtful responses. I’d love to hear from other faculty seeking ways to help students to grapple with the events of 2020.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.