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History Graduate Students Set Foundation for USM’s COVID-19 Oral History Collection

Fri, 07/24/2020 - 15:34pm | By: David Tisdale

Center for Oral History and Cultural HeritageThe stories of the major events shaping the lives of Mississippians and Americans – the U.S Civil Rights Movement, World Wars, economic crises, elections, natural disasters, and more – can be found in the vast collection of interviews with people who witnessed and experienced them firsthand in the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage (COHCH) at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), located on its Hattiesburg campus.

That collection now includes the voices of those affected by another, and ongoing, historic event – the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused significant loss of life and economic and social disruption the likes of which have not been seen in this state and country in nearly a century.

Late in the spring 2020 semester, as the pandemic began to more greatly impact the U.S. and Mississippi, students in the USM Oral History graduate course (HIS 785), switched gears from their original assignments to use the knowledge and skills gained in the class to that point, including those involving formal interviews and transcription, to seek out the stories of those directly affected by the virus. These included health care workers, law enforcement, first responders and others in the private sector deemed “essential” in the fight to mitigate the effects of the pandemic – as well as those who contracted the virus and recovered.

Dr. Kevin Greene, director of the COHCH and who served as instructor for the course, said once it became clear in the spring that a shelter in place order for Mississippi was imminent, he knew immediately that his traditional approach to teaching the course would be moot, as USM switched to online instruction for the remainder of the semester. He then pivoted to building a COVID-19 oral history project from the ground up through the course, in hopes of developing a nucleus for a larger project once the situation evolved to a safer point.

“The pedagogical and hypothetical scenarios I would have created in the course before went out the window,” Dr Greene said. “So, I put all the students in particular teams for various project elements, assigned experienced and/or advanced graduate students to take leadership roles, and together, we designed the project to document essential and frontline workers, as well as recovered COVID-19 patients.”

Dr. Greene said the students’ work resulted in approximately a dozen oral histories from a large swath of Mississippians. And like the Hurricane Katrina collection housed in the Center, he believes the project will continue for some time after the pandemic has passed, as more stories are gathered about the experiences Mississippians and others whose lives have been interrupted by COVID-19.

“The students in the class, by leaps and bounds, drove this project to where it's currently heading and I'm proud of their work and accomplishments. By all respects, I threw them to the wolves in terms of field work, and nearly all responded brilliantly.”

Sean O’Farrell, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts and a USM Ph.D. student who just completed his first year at the university, was a student in the course. He and his classmates met the challenges that came with transitioning to online instruction in the latter portion of the semester.

“The class was drastically altered as a result of COVID-19, but the project that was created out of this has undoubtedly helped us as students to learn how to build an oral history project and will hopefully illuminate the ways that COVID-19 has impacted individuals throughout the state,” O’Farrell said.

“We split up into various teams to divide the work between research, interview coordinators, transcribers, and the technical side of recording and formatting audio. I was the research team leader, and I definitely think that position helped me to become more organized in my own work; but I also feel like it helped me become a better communicator in terms of trying to coordinate with team members, fellow team leaders, and Dr. Greene.”

O’Farrell said the fast pace of the project also allowed him to see how creating an oral history project works, especially in a crisis or quickly changing situation.

“Building this on the fly was essentially like a crash course over email and Microsoft Teams meetings,” he continued. “But I feel as though going through this situation with classes and the pandemic immediately highlighted to us the immense value in oral history as a field. Seeing how a project is built will also be beneficial to me in the future, because I plan on using oral history extensively for future research.”

USM History graduate student Brittany Ann Carey, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, interviewed her parents for the COVID 19 project, as both were deemed essential workers. Carey’s father works at a grocery warehouse, and her mother is a cook at a daycare.

“These interviews might illustrate the changes needed in considering what jobs are and are not "essential" and show that every occupation provides a benefit needed to keep businesses, families, and individuals afloat, in some aspect,” Carey said. “I think the stories of their experiences will provide an inside view of the problems this virus has caused, from a physical and mental health perspective to an economic one.”

In addition to the practical experience gained from the project, Carey said she would not have known about the ways the pandemic has impacted her family without interviewing her parents and hearing how it had affected them, emotionally and otherwise.

“I’ve also learned some of the skills necessary to be a successful public historian in an abnormal circumstance, and I am excited to see where this project goes,” she continued.

Ross Walton, who oversees digital production and preservation initiatives for the COHCH, said the HIS 785 students provided valuable additions to the Center’s collection through their work in the course.

“Oral History programs around the world are finding innovative ways to capture the powerful narratives of those on the front lines of this historic and tragic event,” Walton said. “Once again, the USM Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage is leading by example, as these students have given future generations a means for understanding what life during this time was like, both for Mississippians and the entire nation.”

Since 1971, the USM Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage has collected and preserved more than 4,000 interviews featuring the stories of Mississippians from all walks of life. The collection has proven an invaluable resource for researchers, journalists, teachers, students, documentarians, and museums. For more information about the USM Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, visit https://www.usm.edu/oral-history-cultural-heritage/index.php.