The American Historian
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"Students Choose History: Primary Source Artifacts in the Time of Covid-19"

Kevin Mitchell Mercer

No single event has disrupted modern university-level education and our students’ lives more than the COVID-19 pandemic. None of this was evident when I wished my students well during our last class meeting before spring break. The lectures that day ended with a reminder of the work ahead and the need to come back from break ready to push hard towards the end of the semester.

I never again saw the students in my U.S. History 1877 to Present class at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in person. Between our last meeting and their scheduled return to campus, the global crisis amplified, sending faculty and students home and pushing classes online with little time for preparation. My role as an educator took on an immediate new dimension of crisis management as ramifications of this still mysterious disease threw my students’ lives into turmoil.

There is no way to correctly transition an in-person class to online with no warning or preparation, and getting things wrong seemed as likely as getting them right in the process. I thought genuinely about how I would proceed, calling on hundreds of conversations with mentors, peers, students, and the numerous workshops and trainings I've attended in the past. While much of my syllabus was tossed aside in this moment, many elements of my teaching philosophy felt right and guided me through the transition. Whatever else changed with the remainder of my course that semester, stressing critical thinking and writing, while engaging my students with respect and compassion would remain primary goals. Thankfully, I was able to achieve these goals by synthesizing the above in one key assignment that helped students process both the historic moment and, importantly, their lives in it.

As a history professor at a STEM-focused university with one of the largest student populations in the country, I’ve never seen my first goal in the classroom as teaching history. I’ve always used the study of history as a vehicle to teach critical thinking and writing to students who will need these skills as they move forward in college and beyond. Basing my instruction on these two pillars allows the historical lessons to play a central role in-class instruction; active learning of this type established a cooperative class dynamic where learning and teaching are shared by educators and students. In my experience, students learn better as active partners in engaging content rather than as passive observers who watch me standing in front of the room lost in sermons of historical nuance.

Much of my focus on writing developed through the influence of UCF’s strong Writing Across Curriculum program. In an effort to stress written communication, I present my students with a three-level hierarchy; the formal paper, the professional summary-response, and informal critical engagement assignments. It is this last assignment that became a vital teaching tool during COVID-19 and the basis of my artifact assignment.

Teaching with empathy has always been a hallmark of my classroom approach. Throughout the semester, I use these short informal writing assignments to allow students to move beyond the

lecture and think critically about our studies. I also allow these informal paragraphs to be an opportunity to check in with me about their experience in my course, exam and essay preparation, or outside elements that might be having an effect on success in my class. While I cannot change rules for each student, knowing about long commutes or writing anxieties can help me better understand where my students are coming from and how I can better connect my lessons to their learning.

During the first week of the COVID-19 quarantine, I reached out to my students with one of these check-in assignments. The writing prompt consisted of simple and open-ended questions asking about their experience shifting our class to a virtual setting and what they needed from me. The responses were an open torrent of concerns and emotions. I assumed the virus was challenging my students in many ways, but I had not yet realized the massive disruption most of them experienced due to its consequences.

As much as I may have wanted them to, after being barred from campus, my students were not sitting behind computers eagerly waiting for me to schedule Zoom meetings and build new assignments to replace the lecture component of my course. Instead, many of them were hurriedly packing apartments, moving back to homes across the country, or having to find temporary housing locally. My international students found themselves stuck far from the safety of home as canceled international flights became the norm. Many of my students took on new roles as essential workers in grocery stores, restaurants, and medical facilities. Many felt anxiety about their lives and education. Like most of us, they sought guidance from anyone who could help, including me, as both a historian and their professor.

Students relayed these concerns in their response assignments, helping me understand that my students needed more from me and the course. Consequently, I built into my modified syllabus more opportunities for my students to connect and contextualize their experiences in these unprecedented times in which they lived. The idea of crisis as a way of understanding the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, the 1973 OPEC Oil Crisis, and the AIDS epidemic became the historical theme of my newly built chapter modules and Zoom discussions. I hoped that emphasizing crisis as a means by which to interpret the topics would have an influence on how the students viewed their current lives and world.

In addition, I retooled an old assignment to serve as the cornerstone of this newly built thematic emphasis. In light of what they had learned about crises in the past, I presented a reflection assignment in which I asked my students to consider their own quarantine and suggest an artifact that would both be representative of their lives and could inform a historian or museum curator one hundred years in the future about their unique experience. What item would tell their story?

The objectives here were twofold. First, to consider how historical artifacts work and how they create narratives about the lives of the people they represent. Second, to allow students to contemplate and contextualize the massive generational upheaval they were undergoing. As educators, we often set goals to have students critically think about the world through the lens of history, politics, or even economic forces. Here was an opportunity for students to critically engage their own lives as they were living through a generationally historic moment.

I gave the students a couple of guidelines to encourage them to go beyond the obvious. First, nothing digital. No cellphones, no favorite Netflix binge-watching shows, not Zoom. While I understood all of these things to be essential elements of modern lives in quarantine, I wanted to encourage students to think in terms of tangible items; books, household items, or keepsakes that could tell their COVID-19 narrative.

Second, and more importantly, I also discouraged featuring medical-related artifacts. Masks, test kits, or protective medical gear were just too ubiquitous to the moment. One would assume any future exhibit would already contain these items, and they are, in the end, not all that personal. I wanted them to consider what made their personal experience unique.

The final guideline, and one that was important to me in this situation, was that this assignment be optional. The points available here could be collected on other assignments if students decided this would be too personal or traumatic for them to write about. While I am an advocate for expressive critical writing as a form of therapy, I also understood that my role amid crisis was not to force this moment on anyone.

I encouraged them to think about items that were either personal or education-related, but beyond the guidelines left the selection to them. After they named their item, they were required to write a paragraph explaining to these theoretical museum-goers of the future the significance of their artifact and the role it played in interpreting their life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My students replied to this prompt with powerful and thoughtful responses. Wrapped into their artifacts were narratives that showed lives interrupted and the painful realities of the pandemic.

A couple of students suggested a door as their artifact. For one person, it was the front door that protected her family and father with a weakened immune system from the outside world. For another, the door represented a new boundary between college life and home life as they navigate living in their parents' home for the first time as a college student.

Items that represented the unfinished year emerged as another theme; half-empty notebooks missing the second half of a semester's lecture notes or a day planner with events that would now never occur. Many students suggested unused plane tickets as their items. Some of the tickets were for spring break destinations, while others were for flights back to Central Florida after visits home. 

More than one student represented the act of abandoning their college apartments and dorms mid-semester with their artifact. Moving boxes, abandoned posters still hanging on the walls, and one student's vivid description of their empty dorm room as an art installation all crafted a vision of young lives living between two worlds: a family home and a college home. Their narratives suggest they were not ready to give away these early steps of independence.

Other items showed resilience and an adaptation to new quarantined lifestyles. Workout equipment, a refurbished bicycle rescued from the back of a garage, and sibling bonding over jigsaw puzzles showed students making the best of situations and adapting.

Many students pushed back on my suggestion of not mentioning medical items. They wondered how to describe these moments of their lives without items like masks and medicines. One student

suggested a hospital work badge and took this assignment as a chance to write about her mother, a nurse, and spoke of her in beautiful heroic language.

While all of these artifacts were moving and thoughtful, it was the responses that rambled long beyond the required paragraph that moved me. Reading these long entries suggested to me that I might have been the first person to ask how my students were handling all of this. In the midst of unexpected transitions, trying to help support parents or look after siblings, or working in essential businesses, seemingly no one had given them a chance to think about their own experience.

As history educators, we have had the opportunity through the challenge of this moment to reinforce the inherent value of our discipline and its inclusion in a broad university education. As we adjust our campuses and classes to an uncertain new normal, history education provides necessary context and perspective. This ability to contemplate ourselves and our society while critically engaging in the world around us has long been one of the crucial pillars of studying the humanities. Here in the midst of crisis was that moment to allow our discipline to provide the context and meaning that our students need.

Unlike in past semesters, there could be no handshake from students as they turned in final exams, no student thanks for having a new appreciation of history or writing and critical thinking tools they could apply in their lives and future careers. But in many ways, their artifact reflection papers expressed these sentiments better than any parting comments I’ve received from students in past courses.

Collectively these artifacts demonstrate just how much our students’ lives are now in disruption and flux. More importantly, the artifacts that students addressed represented a successful moment of engagement and critical thought that allowed them to articulate the challenges they were facing through a history-centered context. Even though I, and many of my history education colleagues, felt that abruptly moving our classes online would rob our classes of those big connection moments, in my class and probably in those of others, students showed that they were evaluating this historical moment in a powerful and personal way. COVID-19 induced disruptions fostered the most significant connection with students I have yet to experience as a teacher of history.


Kevin Mitchell Mercer is an adjunct history professor at the University of Central Florida. His research interests include the 1960s counterculture and the intersections between soccer with society in modern America. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinIsHistory