April 18 2021

Trends in the Publicly Engaged Humanities in the Pandemic Moment

Michelle May-Curry, NHA Humanities for All project director

a collage of illustrations, clockwise from left: woman at a desk facing a desktop screen with faces in the conference window; woman walking and wearing a mask and yellow sweater; man with a backpack faces a bookshelf; man in a cap and mask walks while carrying a tote bag; a woman sitting with a laptop on her lap and sniffing a flower in front of a large window; a man faces his computer and gestures as if he's speaking

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many humanists set out to document the quickly worsening global health crisis. As the months progressed, a summer fueled by national protests against police violence and immigrant detention made apparent the overlapping social consequences of public health disparities and racial injustice amidst the COVID-19 crisis. In this context, scholars from a range of humanities disciplines created public-facing projects that aimed to record and understand the effects of social isolation, mass-death, higher mortality rates for Black and brown people, a steep economic downturn, and our collective digital existences. 

The National Humanities Alliance’s Humanities for All initiative has been working to collect and document these publicly engaged humanities projects with particular attention to how scholars have been leveraging the methodological tools of the humanities to address this moment of crisis and change. Across these projects, we have noticed three trends in the field: humanists have cataloged the breadth of pandemic experiences through oral history and archival collection methods, they have creatively navigated the digital pivot with interactive programming, and have made meaning out of this moment with perspectives from history, literature, and art. 

Most common across projects has been the use of oral histories and archival collection methods. These largely digital projects have used storytelling and critical reflection to amplify community voices and histories and help individuals navigate difficult experiences related to the pandemic. At Arizona State University, the Journal of the Plague Year project has published and mapped personal essays, images, and articles about the pandemic, collecting thousands of entries on their website in a matter of months. At Florida International University’s Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab, students from the honors college were given disposable cameras and asked to document what it felt like to live through a summer of uprisings and isolation. Participating students then wrote reflections on what they experienced and told their stories through short podcast episodes. The resulting archive of stories sits at the intersection of arts and humanities, as students curate their lives through images and narrative. 

Humanists have also turned to global histories and literature to draw connections across cultural contexts. Many Title VI National Resource Centers have organized programming for secondary school teachers around themes of global health and histories of pandemics. The University of Michigan’s International Institute, for example, organized a 3-day virtual workshop for history, social studies, and English teachers titled Pandemics and Power in World History & Literature, where teachers learned how to use humanity’s historic encounters with disease to have challenging and timely conversations with students through literature. In lieu of in person events and speaker series, the University of Iowa's Obermann Center for Advanced Studies produced Pandemic Insights, a Youtube series of filmed conversations in which Iowa faculty, community partners, students, and staff helped viewers understand the pandemic through the lens of their research. Reflecting a range of humanities interventions, Pandemic Insights conversations include lessons from WWI writers on grief and death, reproductive health and the language of emergency” and cinema in a moment of global crisis.

Perhaps most strikingly, by embracing digital platforms public humanities projects have expanded educational access and partnerships both within the university and across community organizations during the pandemic. At the University of Madison, Wisconsin’s Humanities Center, Aaron Fai notes how their Humanities Responders program—a COVID-related rebranding of their Humanities Exchange program—was able to fund a virtual convening for the leading LGBTQ+ nonprofits in Wisconsin’s Dane County to identify common needs during the pandemic, overcome previous barriers to collaboration, and coordinate community resources. Led by Yidong Wang, a UW PhD candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the event facilitated an unprecedented moment of coalition-building for the region’s queer community organizations. At Barnard College, professor of history Nara Milanich used funding from the Institute for Latin American Studies to create a remote summer research initiative for twenty undergraduates and masters students on COVID-19 and Central American migration. The research-advocacy project partnered with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an organization that represents unaccompanied migrant minors in legal proceedings. Alongside a series of webinars led by faculty across higher-ed institutions, students also received research training from Barnard-Columbia librarians that prepared them to do a deep dive into Central American and Mexican press, government, and NGO sources.

However, other universities, particularly those in rural areas with less internet connectivity and fewer digital resources, have noted that the lack of in person contact has almost entirely extinguished their connection to their community partners, a difference that highlights the resource divide between urban and rural institutions and communities. 

Given the rapid proliferation of these projects across higher education spaces, several scholarly societies have compiled lists of discipline-specific projects. Scholars of religion have responded to the pandemic in a variety of creative ways. For instance, the American Religious Sounds Project, co-directed by Amy DeRogatis and Isaac Weiner, asked the public to submit their COVID-19 religious sounds. The Duke Divinity School launched its Responding Faithfully: COVID-19 initiative that collects and shares theological reflections and media from faculty and students. In May 2020, Andrea Jain, editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, noted her concern about the effect of the pandemic the career development of caretaker colleagues in the field. As a result, a robust editorial team has issued a JAAR call for papers on the Pandemic, Care Work, and Inequities in the Study of Religion. Conversations about the effects of coronavirus have taken place across media—from Gonzaga University’s Flannery Lecture (turned webinar) on Perspectives from Public Health & Theology: COVID-19 to discussion about the effect of the pandemic on religious festivals on an episode of the Religious Studies Project podcast. This is a mere sampling of the ways scholars of religion have recognized and documented the effect of COVID-19 on the lives of religious practitioners—and on their own lives as students and scholars.

Together, these initiatives present models for understanding how humanities methods can intervene in moments of social reckoning by creating spaces for collective storytelling and civic action. In the coming year, we will be working to document the lessons learned through these individual public humanities projects through our Humanities for All Blog as well as through in-depth profiles on our website. We are also partnering with directors of compelling initiatives to implement customized surveys that measure their impact on participants’ perceptions of the humanities and civic-minded behaviors. We invite you to partner with us in these efforts, and hope to provide insights across projects that benefit the whole humanities community.