The old saying about obstacles sometimes being disguised as opportunities has taken on a new meaning for UW-Eau Claire students in Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei’s public history seminar class.
All Blugolds are living through COVID-19, but the students in Jiménez Frei’s class also are helping to shape how future generations will understand the pandemic and its impact on the world.
“There is no doubt that what we are living through is a historic moment — certainly an unwelcome and difficult moment, but also a defining one,” says Jiménez Frei, an assistant professor of history. “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people in every part of the globe, shocked us, reshaped our daily lives, and made so many realize just how interconnected we all are.
“As historians, we know this is a moment we must document for the future, especially as everything seems to be shifting and moving rapidly. How will future generations understand what happened, and whose voices will be heard?”
To help answer those questions, Jimenez Frei and her public history students have partnered with UW-Eau Claire McIntyre Library archivist Greg Kocken and archivist Jodi Kiffmeyer of the Chippewa Valley Museum to create an archive capturing COVID-19 stories from UW-Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley and preserving artifacts related to the pandemic.
The oral histories and artifacts live in the Chippewa Valley COVID-19 Archive, a digital site they created to document how the pandemic, as it unfolds, is affecting individuals and communities in the Chippewa Valley, says Jimenez-Frei, noting that similar efforts are underway in communities around the world.
“The project allows individuals and communities to express and document their understandings and experiences living through the global pandemic and will serve as a resource to help researchers better understand its impact on the Chippewa Valley, rural areas and Wisconsin as a whole,” Jiménez Frei says.
An unexpected learning opportunity
Jiménez Frei’s students already were working on an exhibit for an area park when UW-Eau Claire moved all classes online in mid-March because of COVID-19.
Continuing to work on a physical exhibit in virtual class setting was not going to work, she says.
However, she realized the pandemic did present a unique learning opportunity for her public history class, which includes five public history graduate students and eight senior history majors.
“As a historian, I felt a strong sense of responsibility to document what is surrounding us now, and recognized this as an opportunity for my students to see how projects can sometimes shift quickly in the field of public history, and how the skills they have learned will help them adapt,” Jiménez Frei says.
She surveyed her students, giving them the choice of continuing the original project as best they could in a digital form, or pivoting to rapid-response collecting to document COVID-19 and its effects on everyday lives.
The class unanimously choose the latter and jumped into the new project immediately, she says.
Capturing stories and collecting artifacts
For their revised class project, students are capturing oral histories of people on campus and in the community about the impact of COVID-19 and also documenting artifacts relating to the pandemic.
“We want to capture history as it happens, preserving everyday experiences, stories, photos, digital artifacts and other ephemera that will create a picture of what it was like, and to create that picture with as many diverse perspectives as possible,” Jiménez Frei says.
Artifacts may include everything from photos of empty grocery store shelves and pandemic-inspired window displays, to documents relating to COVID-19, including university emails to students.
Future researchers will be especially interested in the oral histories because they capture the emotions, memories and individual thoughts and reflections of people during this time, Jiménez Frei says.
Often during historic events the voices preserved are of those who hold influence or positions of power, but the students are collecting oral histories from a cross section of Chippewa Valley residents.
Potential interviewees include public health officials, community leaders, university administrators and students, educators, artists, essential workers, senior citizens, small business owners, farmers, and residents providing perspectives from the Hmong, African American and Latinx communities.
“We aim for this archive to reflect the diverse voices in the region, particularly through the oral histories,” Jiménez Frei says. “How else to capture the daily experiences of essential workers, parents juggling working from home and homeschooling, health care workers, families who lost income, small business owners or residents who donned a mask and stood in lines to vote?
“What I hope these oral histories will show is a broad range of human experiences of the pandemic and how it affected everyone in ways that we could not have previously imagined. That, I think, will be very valuable to researchers, policy makers and students in the future.”
Students embrace the archive project
Helping to ensure that diverse voices from throughout the Chippewa Valley are among those heard when future generations study COVID-19 is an incredible opportunity, Jiménez Frei’s students say.
“Textbook histories often reflect the experiences of the wealthy and privileged,” says Shane Carlson, a public history graduate student. “There will be plenty of information available on the responses of world leaders, elected officials, corporations and the media.
“Who is going to tell the story of the local distillery that shifted toward producing hand sanitizer to help meet the needs of their communities? Who is going to tell the story of our community’s incarcerated, some of whom fall asleep each night terrified that one sick inmate will quickly turn into 90 sick inmates and less access to treatment?”
All those voices deserve to be heard because they tell a powerful story, Carlson says.
“I hope these oral histories are revisited and picked apart by curious generations to come,” Carlson says. “I hope those generations see the fear, the joy, the sadness and the love of these uncertain times.”
In addition to capturing oral histories, Carlson also is documenting pandemic-related artifacts around Eau Claire, such as a social-distancing-themed poem a neighbor posted on their fence and uplifting messages written in chalk on the sidewalks.
While Carlson is focusing on the Eau Claire community, Glen Walborn, a senior public history major and German minor from Weyauwega, is capturing stories about the pandemic from the campus community.
Among those he will interview are UW-Eau Claire’s student body president and the university’s intercultural immersions coordinator.
“I hope these interviews will provide valuable information about the university’s response to COVID-19,” Walborn says. “They should provide perspectives on student reactions to the outbreak, the response of the student government and the reaction to the outbreak by the university’s administration.”
Keeping with his university focus, Walborn also is archiving all pandemic-related emails sent by UW-Eau Claire to students, documenting how and what the university shares as the crisis unfolds.
Erin Hall, a public history major with a minor in sociology, says it is a “little surreal” to find herself in the dual roles of historian and student, both documenting COVID-19’s impact while also learning to adapt to new ways of living because of it.
“Not only are we students who are struggling to adapt to online learning, but we have to also be conscious of what this experience is like in the moment,” Hall says.
That said, since oral history is her favorite kind of history, Hall is eager to interview people about their experiences and thoughts, capturing stories that will help future generations better understand this moment in time.
“When I say, 'social distancing' everyone right now knows what that means,” Hall says. “In 40-50 years, newer generations might not know what that meant, or the seriousness of what happened in 2020.”
Since many of the students working on the project moved home because of the pandemic, they also are taking photos of their hometowns to show what they look like during COVID-19.
“Wausau, my hometown, is very arts centered and weekends are filled with people hiking, shopping downtown and going to theater productions,” Hall says. “Everything had to come to a standstill, and now downtown is barren and no longer filled with life.
“I took photos of a large park that used to explode with people but is now surrounded by caution tape and warnings about the Safer at Home order. It's haunting to see these places desolate knowing how busy they should be.”
Hopefully, the photos and other artifacts students capture may someday be used by museums and history centers to create COVID-19-related displays, Hall says.
Campus, community collaborations
Kocken, UW-Eau Claire’s archivist, already was working on a pandemic-related archive project when Jimenez-Frei shared her idea for the class project.
Since they had similar goals, it made sense to combine their efforts.
“COVID-19 is impacting almost every aspect of peoples’ lives, and that impact will likely continue to reverberate through society for years and decades to come,” Kocken says. “There is so much we do not yet know, but it is clear the impact of this crisis will profoundly change our lives.
“For that reason, it is important to document how it is impacting every corner of society. Future scholars will study the social, economic and political effects of this crisis in order to better understand how this moment in history profoundly changed us.”
Kiffmeyer, an archivist at the Chippewa Valley Museum, also sees the value in capturing regional stories and artifacts relating to the pandemic.
“As an archivist, my approach to many things in life is wondering how our present stories will be told by people in the future, so from the beginning I was looking for ways to document COVID-19 in the Chippewa Valley,” Kiffmeyer says.
When the CVM’s director asked her to create a community collection of photos about the pandemic, she contacted Kocken for advice and he invited CVM to join the university’s collaborative archive project.
CVM will help promote the archive, identify community members willing to share their oral histories and assist in other ways, Kiffmeyer says.
“It’s important to capture these stories now because they’re often overshadowed by the bigger headlines and are in danger of being lost,” Kiffmeyer says. “The everyday details of life during a difficult time add richness to history, and it also helps people in the future learn how others have coped with frightening and stressful circumstances.
“I also believe it’s important for history to include the voices and experiences of people who are often underrepresented in more formal archives. This project will allow me to seek out those people and encourage them to contribute.”
Next steps in the project
Jiménez Frei now is a researcher for the COVID-19 Oral History project started at Indiana-University Purdue-University Indianapolis and a curator for the global archiving project, Journal of the Plague Year, which began at Arizona State University.
“Given these collaborations, the materials UWEC public history students collect for the Chippewa Valley COVID-19 Archive also will be housed in these larger collections, which already have garnered national press in The New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine,” Jiménez Frei says.
In the fall, students in her "Introduction to Public History" class will work alongside the community partners to build on what her seminar students and others accomplished this spring.
“I am incredibly proud of the students for taking on this new project halfway through the semester,” Jiménez Frei says. “I think it says a great deal about their motivation and resilience that they have taken it all on with such enthusiasm.”
For more information about the Chippewa Valley COVID-19 Archive Project, contact Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei, assistant professor of history, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Greg Kocken, head of special collections, at email@example.com.
Top photo caption: A public history class is creating an archive of stories and artifacts from the Chippewa Valley. The class, which meets virtually, includes (from left) Glenn Walborn, Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei, Abby Jurusik, Jack Nord, Erin Hall, Jack Halls, Andrew Ziehr, Emily Brunschon, Shane Carlson, Nick Eggert, Isaiah Steig and Victor Lokken. Not pictured: Karen Kilby and Alexander Michalski.