Maintaining Engagement & Helping Future Historians

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For me, and no doubt many others in the Macmillan Community, staying motivated since the widespread social distancing orders and campus shutdowns began in March has been extremely difficult. I’d love to be able to say that I’ve used extra time at home gained from not commuting to write or to read. Instead I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time keeping track of how many weeks it has been since I was last in my campus office (seven) and how long it has been since I had my haircut by a professional (seventy days). Some of the things I never thought I could miss -- a student walking into class after I had started lecture and asking a question I had already addressed -- are now the mundane normalcy I long for.

When it was clear that I would have to move classes from on-campus to online, I made a few changes to my syllabi. I had intended for students in one class, for example, to be using books and other library reference materials (not online) for an end-of-semester project. The closing of our campus as well as public libraries meant changing the assignment drastically to accommodate the students while still meeting the academic demands of the course. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can only do my best with the situation that all of us faculty face in this pandemic. I’ve said much the same to students who have been in touch about work and family issues that are significantly hampering their ability to complete the semester. 

This week, then, I want to find some positive areas on which to focus amidst this scary and depressing academic semester. There are some interesting assignments and projects being created by historians in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that are helping me to stay interested in the larger challenge of historical memory that will be so critical to future generations. Here are just three examples: 

The Washington Post last week highlighted an assignment created by University of Central Florida adjunct faculty member Kevin Mitchell Mercer in which students were asked to write about an artifact from 2020 that historians could use a century from now to tell the story of the pandemic. The Twitter discussion that followed the newspaper's coverage of Mercer’s assignment provides some insight into how our students are struggling with this major disruption in their academic and personal lives and will be valuable to future historians studying the social implications of the pandemic. 

In light of the intense focus now placed on 1918, the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE) has put out a call for fellow historians to more fully document the history of the 1918 pandemic. SHGAPE will publish contributions by historians and other academics as blog entries intended to expand understanding of the 1918 pandemic while we grapple with the current crisis. Interested researchers from any field should visit this link

Finally, the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy seeks public participation in its effort to document the experiences of Americans in pharmacies during this pandemic. The organization invites the public to “share your pharmacy stories, photos, videos, artifacts, and other documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic.” For more information visit the Project’s web site

The advertising industry keeps reminding us that we are “all in this together.” So what are you doing to keep yourself intellectually motivated during this difficult time? Are you planning for summer and fall classes or simply trying to get through the end of spring semester? Please share!

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.