The Past Becomes Personal: Writing and Teaching During a Global Pandemic
As I wrote my article “Yellow Fever Always Begins . . . Near the Water,” Covid raged around the globe. What began as an academic project born out of a fascination with how people in the early 1800s used maps of the built environment to make judgments about a person’s likelihood of contracting yellow fever suddenly seemed rather resonant in the present day. I revised the article in the hazy, fluid months of stay-at-home orders and online teaching. The question of how historians might aid in this process was at center stage in my virtual classroom. “Let’s bring the value of the past to bear upon the present,” I encouraged the readers of my article. But it was my undergraduate public history students who worked to bring this statement into action. Together, we considered how historians could participate in conscious acts of archival creation to rectify past wrongs done to marginalized groups in public health emergencies.
On the page and in the classroom, I drew scholarly and personal parallels between the early republic and today. “We can draw a winding line back to the pamphleteers of the early republic,” I wrote in the article’s conclusion. “These writers also could not predict the future, but they certainly tried to understand the outbreaks they witnessed and to suggest mitigations.” Pamphleteers penned scores of essays wondering about where yellow fever came from, whether there was an effective treatment, and who was to blame. In the 1800s, civic leaders used pamphlets describing a “disregard [for] cleanliness” as justification to clear away lower- and working-class occupants. Meanwhile, glancing at the headlines of The New York Times, I noticed how journalists also pondered the links between urban infrastructure and our post-Covid future. In 2020, people asked similar questions of the elusive coronavirus.
As a scholar, I wanted to understand how a specific genre of yellow-fever pamphlet containing narrative text, architectural proposals, and spot maps reinforced Americans’ judgments about the kinds of people and places most susceptible to disease. I sought to combine the methods of architectural history and material culture to study the public’s reception of theories about social class and the built environment, and how these theories shaped the kind of infrastructure they built in response. (See Figure 1.) As a public historian, however, I considered the contemporary ramifications of past events, and I taught my students to search for and learn from history’s echoes wherever they could. When the JER ultimately decided to publish the article during the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, those historical echoes grew even louder.
In my digital history class, students explored the yellow-fever outbreaks of the early national period and the influenza pandemic of 1918. From the perspective of the present, and our tiny Zoom boxes, we grappled with how historians might eventually interpret Covid-19 as part of a long history of global public health crises. It was important, students stressed, to create an accessible archive of diverse perspectives and experiences and to address the fundamental inequities that exist in archival collections around the globe. We joined forces with the Journal of the Plague Year—“a digital, crowdsourced archive collecting pandemic stories”—that sought to “address how the pandemic has affected our lives, from the mundane to the extraordinary.” For their final project, students created “Covid Mini Collections” of six to eight items around a central theme, accompanied by a short story explaining how each item met at least one of the following criteria:
- Item of interest to future historians that helps illustrate something particularly significant about the year 2020
- Item that responds to the needs and considerations of an ethical archival collection
- Item that attempts to fill an archival silence and amplify the voices of marginalized groups
- Item that demonstrates something significant about Gen-Z during Covid.
The students rose to the occasion. They conducted oral history interviews with family members and co-workers; collected objects, artifacts, and photos; and gathered born-digital records of emails and social media posts recording both ordinary and unusual aspects of daily life.
Their collection themes were impressive and poignant. One student, an expectant first-time mom, built a collection around pandemic pregnancies. “Marginalized groups of women” who lack access to birth support systems during the pandemic “are [more] likely to face [birth] alone,” she wrote. Other students found comfort in creating items that served as an outlet for their own anxieties. “I’ve never been the type of person who’s good at routine,” one student reflected in a diary entry she submitted. “[B]ut [through journaling] I’ve been curating my own personal archive.” (See Figure 2.) Overall, their efforts highlighted the need for archival collections that reflected the breadth of human experience, especially during a pandemic.
There’s nothing quite as “immersive,” to echo The Panorama’s mission statement, as writing about epidemic disease while living through a pandemic. I think many of us would agree that this is not the kind of immersive history we imagine when we set out to research, write, and teach the history of the early American republic. But, as my students’ rapid response collecting initiatives demonstrated, historians can learn from the archival silences of past health crises and take an active role in centering the narratives and voices of underserved communities.
 Kathryn Lasdow, “’Yellow Fever Always Begins . . . Near the Water:’ Urban Epidemics, Spot Maps, and Early National Architectural Improvements,” Journal of the Early Republic 42 (Spring 2022), 21–51, quotation 51.
 Valentine Seaman, quoted in ibid., 37.
 Spencer Bokat-Lindell, “How Will Cities Survive the Coronavirus?,” New York Times, May 19, 2020.
 Jordan Meyerl and Katy Hole de Peralta, “Identifying and Filling Silences in a Covid-19 Archive,” History@Work, Sept. 20, 2020, https://ncph.org/history-at-work/identifying-and-filling-silences-in-a-covid-19-archive/ ; “Welcome,” A Journal of the Plague Year, Mar. 8, 2022, https://covid-19archive.org/s/archive/page/welcome
Suffolk University’s Moakley Archive, my home institution, later became the central hub for the Boston branch of the collection. “Living Through History,” Suffolk University Magazine, Fall 2021, https://www.suffolk.edu/news-features/suffolk-university-magazine-fall-2021/living-through-history
7 April 2022
About the Author
Kathryn Lasdow is assistant professor of history at Suffolk University.