American studies project documents pandemic experiences with interviews, photos

Media Credit: File Photo by Donna Armstrong | Senior Staff Photographer

McAlister said the interviews were originally meant to only focus on pandemic experiences but grew to include topics like the presidential election.

American studies faculty and students are documenting the GW community’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a project to demonstrate how the crisis shaped modern history.

Faculty and students teamed up on the project to record video interviews through Zoom with students, their families, faculty, staff and alumni to illustrate the virus’s social and political impacts on their lives. Researchers said interviews and donated materials, like photographs and drawings from GW community members, will be available on the GW Libraries’ archives for historians and researchers to use to understand life during the pandemic.

Melani McAlister, a professor of American studies and international affairs, said she initiated the project last May with funding from the American studies department and the GW Humanities Center. She said staff working on the project has conducted about 70 video interviews so far, which last around 35 minutes, with hopes to finalize the project by the end of this summer.

“We’re capturing people’s experiences of the pandemic in real-time, in a way, over the course of the year,” she said. “We’re not reinterviewing people but you have a range of different moments that we’re capturing, and as a historian I know that those kinds of oral histories that capture people in the moment can be very useful for future historians.”

She said project members have hired undergraduate students as research assistants to ask friends, relatives and peers about the pandemic in interviews.

She said researchers collaborated with the archives to index and “digitally download” the interviews to make their transcripts searchable online. She said the archives also helped develop donation forms for pictures, emails and drawings to document participants’ experiences.

McAlister said interviews focused on the subject’s quarantine experience, mental health and adjustments in work and school during the pandemic. Other major events, like the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 presidential election, also appeared as topics in interviews as the past year progressed, she said.

“We’ve been interviewing all year, so the interviews we did last May are very different than the interviews we did last week in terms of where people are at, what their experiences were or even the questions we ask have evolved,” she said.

McAlister said the project offers students an opportunity to serve as “knowledge producers” for historians, providing historical documents accessible to future generations. She added that the interviews have allowed subjects an opportunity to process the emotions they experienced over the past year.

“One of the students in my class just told me that she was interviewing her friend about her experience and she said, ‘Thank you for helping me get my assignment done and doing this interview,’” McAlister said. “And her friend said ‘Oh no, thank you. This is the first time I’ve really been able to think back and assess what this has meant.’”

McAlister said the project lacks the resources and funding to finish, but she recently applied for a grant from the D.C. Humanities Council to extend the project into the summer. She said the funding would allow her to hire GW staff to collect more interviews with other University community members.

“We’ve gotten quite a few interviews but there are quite a few people at GW, so there’s a lot of stories that we would still like to capture,” she said.

Kim Probolus, a professorial lecturer in American studies, said her interview subjects expressed a “real concern” for various social justice movements like the BLM movement, which have received national attention during the pandemic.

“There’s a real recognition that the pandemic is bringing out existing inequalities, particularly those related to race, and students from really diverse backgrounds are grappling with this,” she said.

Probolus said she asked some of her students to submit photos and interviews to the project and even received a podcast and a recording of one of her student’s Zoom classes.

“I was proud of the way that students were actually thinking about, for future historians, how best to record the present so that historians in the future would be able to write a history of this unique time,” she said.

Brigette Kamsler, the University archivist, said the archives provided the oral history and “donation agreements” necessary for the interviewers and interviewees to understand how researchers would use the conversations.

“We are living history every day, and the first-hand accounts being documented via the oral histories will be able to show the experience to future researchers,” Kamsler said in an email.

She said faculty and students involved with the project have completed one semester of interviews and have submitted the necessary paperwork to transfer the project to the archives.

“It was a great opportunity to team up – the University Archives was already doing some outreach via our survey to the students, and Professor McAlister’s class took it further with the oral history interviews,” she said.

Sneeha Bose, a senior majoring in American studies and a research assistant for the project, said recording the GW community’s experiences has brought students, faculty and staff closer together after departing campus so quickly last March. She said she helped conduct video interviews and contributed her own pandemic experience through an interview.

“When campus shut down, everyone sort of separated and the community fractured,” Bose said. “But here within this archive, we have this cohesive narrative bringing together the stories of the GW community.”

She said documenting these stories is “essential” so future generations can see what life was like and how it changed over the past year. She said the project is an opportunity to learn about personal hardships during a pandemic and “GW’s own history in the moment.”

“There’s this release in being reflective about what people are going through and what has happened in the past year and actually thinking about it instead of just trying to get through it,” Bose said. “That sort of reflection remains important both for our own psyches as well as thinking about it in a greater social context.”

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