English students journal their way into history
The primary source journals written by Jordynn Jack’s class will provide valuable insight into daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic for future historians.
When transitioning her course to remote learning, Jordynn Jack, director of the English and Comparative Literature Department’s Writing Program, found a way for her students to contribute to the historical record just by doing their homework. In “History of Writing: From Pen to Pixel,” Jack’s students are writing primary-source journals about their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic for future historians.
“A primary source is a diary, record or document that provides insight into the time it was created,” explained Jack. “We studied women’s diaries from the Civil War and how they documented their everyday lives during a time of upheaval, which students can use as an example of a primary source when writing their own journals.”
Originally, the course emphasized the physicality of writing and the materials used to create primary sources.
“This class was focused on engagement with campus resources. We examined archival materials at Wilson Library, studied historic writing tools like cylinder seals at the Ackland Art Museum and utilized the Makerspaces on campus to practice writing hieroglyphics on papyrus,” said Jack.
When she and her students no longer had access to physical materials or spaces on campus, she found a new way for her students to engage with the material.
“The class was about to start a unit on digital writing when we began remote learning, so the course was easily adapted to suit our circumstances,” said Jack. “I simply modified the unit to include activities like writing on an online typewriter so the students could still experience typing on an antique typewriter.”
When assigning the journal project to her students, Jack provided limited guidance on what they should write about to ensure that they developed their own ideas.
“Although I didn’t explicitly tell them to choose a theme, most students have naturally started writing about specific topics and following narrative lines that provide insight into how students’ lives have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Some students, like Gavin Woolard, are documenting how their daily routines are altered by the shelter-at-home order.
“I only write occasionally about school; mostly I’ve been documenting how my schedule has changed and how there’s so few things to do while stuck at home,” said Woolard. “Half the time I just end up writing about what we’re cooking or picking up for meals because that’s the only new element of my day.”
Will Eskew, a senior and student athlete, documented his realization that COVID-19 would have a lasting impact on his life in his journal.
“It’s a day-to-day record of my reaction to the first major sporting event, an NBA game, being cancelled because of COVID-19, then transitions into my realization that the outbreak would affect my season too,” said Eskew. “In my journal I write about the almost daily updates I received from the University and end when my track-and-field season was officially cancelled.”
Jack also required her students to include some multimedia facet in their journaling: a daily selfie, screenshots of articles they’re reading or photos of their environment under shelter-at-home orders for the historical record.
Eskew focused his media component around the messages he received through the news, Twitter and over email.
“I wanted to include images of the reports I was reacting to in my journal for background, so every entry has a screenshot of a University email, message from my coach or tweet from the World Health Organization,” said Eskew.
While many of her students took the opportunity to write primary source journals, Jack offered her students another way to connect writing and history.
“The psychological effects of journal writing have been proven therapeutic, but I didn’t want to force students to dwell on their feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic if they felt it wasn’t helpful,” said Jack. “As an alternative, some students have designed digital online exhibits similar to those created by the Ackland Art Museum.”
First-year Gwendalyn Flick chose to design an online exhibit on the different forms of writing in ancient Egypt to give herself time to process the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been mostly solitary during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I haven’t fully processed yet how I feel about the situation,” said Flick. “I wasn’t ready to share my feelings with others yet.”
Students were required to write their journals or online exhibits using Adobe Spark to ensure the survival of the materials, either for their own personal recollection or public record.
Jack isn’t the only one on campus anticipating the need for primary sources on life during the COVID-19 pandemic; University Libraries called for submissions from students, faculty, staff and the public on how their lives have been affected.
Anyone who would like to donate their digital documents, video or audio files, web pages or photos can submit them to the University Archives and Records Management Services at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack believes that her students’ journals will serve as valuable primary sources for the University’s record, if they choose to donate them.
“These diaries will show future historians what students were actually going through during this time and give a face to all students struggling to balance a trying personal time on top of academic work,” said Jack.