"In conveying America’s stories...public historians stand at the front lines of historical knowledge and collective memory." - Vicki L. Ruiz*
During the spring of 2020, Drake students became public historians.
The semester began busily for students in HIST 194 Intro to Public History, taught by Dr. Megan Sibbel. The class engaged with a series of readings and activities aimed at providing a foundation in the methods and theory of public history. The practical side of public history came to the fore with visits to Jordan House, a historic house museum in West Des Moines, and an after-hours, behind-the-scenes tour of the State Historical Museum and its collections. Students also engaged with curators and public historians in the field.
In late March, however, everything changed.
Online classes posed a unique challenge for a class engaged with the practice of public history. It became clear that collecting oral histories during this unprecedented time would provide a unique opportunity for students to engage with historic events. The COVID-19 Oral History Project ultimately reflected both the urgency of rapid-response collecting with its focus on preserving artifacts during and immediately after crises and the vigorous methodology that defines the practice of oral history.
As the project took shape, students interviewed one another and a narrator of their own choosing. In addition to documenting the perspectives of Drake University students during the historic COVID-19 pandemic, students preserved the experiences of younger siblings, grandparents, spouses, and friends for the benefit of future researchers. Public History students also created digital image collections to accompany the oral histories. Ultimately, the oral histories and digital collections will be preserved at the Drake University Archives.
For students, the COVID-19 Oral History Project provided an opportunity to engage with the historic nature of the global pandemic through a public historian's lens:
Ryan LeFort, Digital Media Production, Class of 2021: "This oral history project is unlike anything else I've done at Drake University. After spending an entire semester learning about public history and the institutions that uphold it, I was able to put my experience and knowledge into practice. By interviewing individuals and documenting the events taking place, I learned more about what it means to be a public historian and what it means to contribute to something bigger than myself. I believe that the work we did during this semester will impact future research and generations when looking back on the course of these events."
Raeann VanDrongelen, History and LPS, Class of 2021: "My experience with the oral history project was quite rejuvenating and reflective leading to a much more positive outlook on my quarantine experience. Interviewing my classmates and friends, I discovered that everyone was struggling to find clarity yet had a new and different sense of hope. Not only was this project beneficial to producing a new outlook on the current historical moment, the class overall motivated me to reconsider my relationship with historical interpretation. I am increasingly skeptical of historical interpretations in the best way. Even now as I attend Black Lives Matter protests, I find myself documenting the experience for purposes of rapid response collecting and preservation of this historical moment. Public History was one of my favorite classes I have taken at Drake, and I left with concrete skills to improve my critical thinking, historical analysis, and passion for the study of history."
*Vicki L. Ruiz, "The Power of Public History," Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, February 1 (2015).