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Sharing Resources on Health & History

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I think it’s safe to say that none of us are experiencing the spring semester we envisioned when it began in January. I was on Spring Break when COVID-19-related closures, cancellations, and postponements began. My college extended our break a second week to give faculty time to plan for fully-online teaching and students an opportunity to figure out what their at-home technology needs will be. 

For students who take all their courses in traditional, on-campus classrooms the change to fully online is daunting. A few have emailed me and expressed concern about their internet access. I’ve sent dozens of emails to students over the past seven days with instructions about plans for this coming week online. I can only hope that students are able to access email at home and are carefully reading my messages. It is my hope that in the months that follow this crisis there will be a larger discussion about internet access for all. As a commuter campus, many of my students rely on the college’s computing center or their public library for WiFi access necessary for their academic work. With the campus completely closed to human visitors, it remains to be seen what the impact will be on students’ ability to complete courses.

No doubt we are all struggling to learn as much as possible about the current pandemic while  finding ways to help our students understand the historical context. For those of you not familiar with the history of medicine and healthcare in the United States, I want to recommend some resources that may be useful during this time.

For general suggestions about connecting the history of medicine to survey-level US history classes, see my blog from January 2019 “Making Connections: History & Medicine”. If you have not previously incorporated healthcare history into survey courses, now is a great time to start planning to do so in the future. 

Revisiting my 2018 blog about influenza may also be helpful, see “Sharing ‘the Flu’ with Students”. My US History II students studied the 1918 outbreak in February. I’ve heard from several students who feel some relief in having historical context with which to evaluate this current crisis. 

Finally, there are many informative articles being published online that can be useful in our struggle to contextualize current events for today’s anxious students. I highly recommend history faculty visit PULSE: Medical & Health Humanities, a site produced by scholars in the Netherlands; particularly useful is Professor Manon Parry’s article “Learning from the (Recent) Past” (March 23rd, 2020). In addition, many scholars are sharing materials online to help each other through this challenging teaching moment. The American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM)’s Facebook page is a great place for historians and teachers to ask questions and exchange information, including primary sources, during this crisis.

Finally, it may also be meaningful to remind your students that they are living through a major historical event. Suggest that they keep a journal or scrapbook to memorialize this period of their life. Historians of the future will one day be gathering evidence of what we experienced during this pandemic. Encouraging our students to document their personal experiences is a great way to connect them to the larger human narrative that we seek to share as historians. 

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.