Confronting a Pandemic
The AHA Supports Historians with the Help of NEH CARES
When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, the AHA staff reacted quickly. As we navigated new work-from-home routines, got to know one another’s children and pets, and adjusted to Zoom meetings and Slack consultations, we also recognized that the crisis prompted specific needs—and unexpected opportunities—for the community of historians.
With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) via the CARES Act, the AHA launched “Confronting a Pandemic: Historians and COVID-19” in June 2020 under the direction of Emily Swafford. A series of virtual programs and two new online resources, “Confronting a Pandemic” was designed to both highlight the expertise of historians and help them navigate the uncertainties of a new virtual world, particularly transitions to remote teaching. In addition to creating resources for immediate use, “Confronting a Pandemic” has opened new avenues for the AHA to explore as it continues to support historians through the changes and evolving challenges brought by the COVID era.
NEH support has been crucial in launching Virtual AHA, a yearlong series of programming that features content drawn from our canceled annual meeting, as well as newly created events to help historians virtually navigate professional development. In summer 2020, we launched two content streams—the Online Teaching Forum and Virtual Career Development—to meet the immediate needs of historians. By December, these two streams produced more than a dozen online sessions that have garnered more than 1,000 registrations and over 1,300 views of the recordings. In this virtual environment, constituencies who might not otherwise interact with AHA resources, including K–12 teachers and historians outside the United States, found their way to these sessions.
The Online Teaching Forum has produced 10 events, a combination of interactive workshops and traditional webinars. As teachers navigated the ins and outs of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other software, AHA staff were right there with them, learning how to make our content both secure and accessible, developing scheduling and marketing workflows on the fly, and tackling myriad technical concerns. In crafting this series, AHA staff are grateful for the generosity of colleagues who shared resources still in process (including the teams at H/21 and Middle Ages for Educators), and we are indebted to networks of colleagues already deeply engaged in these issues. In particular, colleagues involved in the AHA’s History Gateways initiative proved to be important collaborators as we built a library of digital programming. A regional conference planned for Utah was converted to a pair of virtual panels, and colleagues at the John N. Gardner Institute for Undergraduate Excellence provided crucial content related to the pedagogy of teaching online. As part of History Gateways and organized by Julia Brookins, the AHA offered a virtual version of our annual Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses, including a keynote address by the Texas commissioner of higher education, as well as several course-based discussions.
The second stream, Virtual Career Development, grew out of a need identified at past annual meetings for quality professional development aimed at graduate students and early career historians. As a pandemic-induced recession prompted many departments to pause graduate admissions and wreaked havoc on academic job postings, graduate students and early career historians seemed especially vulnerable to the disruptions of COVID-19. Rooted in the AHA’s network of partners from the Career Diversity for Historians initiative and organized by Dylan Ruediger, this stream produced well-attended webinars and workshops aimed at helping early career historians identify their own agency in the face of historic challenges, whether that means retooling their path through graduate school or pivoting their career plans.
Webinars have been a vital connection in a year when we are hungry for ways to build and maintain professional relationships.
From these two streams, Virtual AHA has grown to include additional content streams that continue to be produced and made available, including the AHA Colloquium (sessions from the canceled 2021 annual meeting) and History Behind the Headlines. All are free to attend, and AHA membership is not required to register. By December, over 16,000 people had attended Virtual AHA webinars or viewed the recordings on Facebook and YouTube.
Debbie Ann Doyle, AHA meetings manager, reflected on the past year: “We have learned a lot about the possibilities and limitations of the webinar format. It has been a vital connection in a year when we are hungry for ways to build and maintain professional relationships.” This has been a learning experience, with feedback from attendees vital to the process. As Doyle says, “People who may not have attended the annual meeting recently have been able to join us to discuss scholarship and engage in professional and career development. At the same time, feedback reveals a desire to interact not just with the panelists but with fellow participants in ways that are difficult in the webinar format. It will be interesting to see what lessons we can carry forward into the future.”
Before most of us realized the extent to which the pandemic would upend our lives and threaten healthcare systems, many historians anticipated the repercussions that would reverberate through everything from supply chains to civic life. In conjunction with the American Association of the History of Medicine and the History of Science Society, both AHA affiliated societies, the AHA began in March 2020 to collect and organize a bibliography that includes historians’ popular and scholarly publications, podcasts, and lectures, as well as collecting initiatives to preserve individual and community experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States. With ingenuity and collaboration, A Bibliography of Historians’ Responses to COVID-19 has grown into a polished resource with more than 400 entries.
Melanie A. Peinado, who joined the AHA as an NEH CARES–funded researcher, created a first draft of the resource and has shepherded its evolution. Like the AHA’s virtual offerings, creating the bibliography stretched the staff’s imaginative muscles. “Figuring out how to meaningfully organize hundreds of entries was quite the creative challenge,” says Peinado. “I found myself making daily adjustments to the taxonomy, and I continue to tweak it on a regular basis to reflect the expansive range of pandemic themes that historians have covered since March 2020.”
To improve the bibliography’s accessibility for users, the team created a Zotero library that includes 145 searchable topics. Unexpectedly, the bibliography also provided educational experiences for undergraduate students. As part of a history of medicine class at Virginia Tech, a team of students annotated entries for the Zotero library and wrote review essays, gaining hands-on learning of digital humanities tools in the process. The AHA also worked with Ciara Cronin, an undergraduate intern from the University of Chicago, in organizing the bibliography. In the coming months, Peinado will continue to compile entries, update the online bibliography, and add to the bibliographic information in the Zotero library, resulting in a comprehensive collection of historians’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Complementing the AHA’s virtual programming in support of online teaching, “Confronting a Pandemic” also launched Remote Teaching Resources (RTR) in August. The AHA owes the idea for RTR to Ada Palmer (Univ. of Chicago), an AHA member who created a “teaching wiki” for educators to share digital resources that was then adapted into RTR. Under the leadership of Sarah Jones Weicksel, RTR has been refined and developed into a set of vetted resources designed to assist faculty in teaching remotely online. With 240 resources (and more to come), the site has garnered thousands of page views. In order to vet the hundreds of resources submitted to RTR, the AHA hired part-time researchers with expertise in fields as varied as African American history, early modern European history, North African history, the history of East Asia, Latin American history, United States history from the colonial era through the present, world history, material culture, and public history. The researchers—Maureen Elgersman Lee, Erica Heinsen-Roach, Suzanne Marie Litrel, Melanie A. Peinado, and Marketus Presswood—also brought experience working in museums, K–16 education, and teaching at a variety of institutions.
RTR collects digital history projects, teaching guides, podcasts, documentaries, syllabi, accessibility guides, and teacher-created materials that are suitable for the classroom.
The resources included in RTR are searchable and can be sorted by geographic region, theme, period, and resource type. The result is a collection that spans periods from the ancient world to the present and a broad range of teaching topics. RTR collects many high-quality digital history projects, teaching guides, podcasts, documentaries, syllabi, accessibility guides, and teacher-created materials that are suitable for the classroom. There is also a collection of resources dedicated to teaching in remote or hybrid environments. The research team has worked to ensure a professional vetting process, as well as robust metadata protocols, so that RTR will be useful for many years to come.
Where do we go from here? Like many of you, we fervently hope that this pandemic will soon end and that some of these efforts, like the bibliography, will transform from context for the present moment to primary sources for future historians. Yet the AHA has learned important lessons about how to support the community of historians. Virtual AHA will continue through June 2021. Some events, such as the AHA assignment charrette workshop, translated very well to a digital environment. And we were constantly amazed at the ability of our members and colleagues to adapt to virtual environments. While little can substitute for the stimulation and creative energy of an in-person gathering, AHA staff will continue to explore how our annual meeting and regional events can be supplemented by virtual events.
Similarly, the response to RTR and the bibliography has been robust. They were created to react to a specific moment, and AHA staff have been overwhelmed by how well they have been received. “Confronting a Pandemic” enabled the assembling of a skilled team of researchers and the development of vetting protocols, which leaves us hopeful that we might continue to add to RTR, in lower volume, going forward. And RTR itself has already borne unexpected fruit. During the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, AHA staff began to see a refrain in social media and email: How do I teach this tomorrow? AHA staff realized we could help. Within hours, drawing in large part from RTR’s metadata, AHA staff produced first a Twitter thread and then an online resource of teaching tools, providing crucial context for classroom conversations. The resources have been shared by outlets as distinct as the New York Times and the US Embassy in Turkey.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. It has certainly been a year filled with challenges new to most of us, but we are hopeful that the community of historians will emerge with an even greater sense of purpose, with the staff at the AHA poised to help.
Emily Swafford is director of academic and professional affairs at the AHA; she tweets @elswafford. Sarah Jones Weicksel is director of research and publications at the AHA; she tweets @SarahWeicksel.
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