In January 2020, I showed students a clip of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in the documentary A Midwife’s Tale. Ulrich discusses how she reconstructed the life story of midwife Martha Ballard from the sparse entries left behind in Ballard’s diary. The diary covered all aspects of life on the Maine frontier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — from birth to death, and the countless everyday tasks in between. Many of Ballard’s entries focused on running her household. “[M]y Girls washt and washt the floors,” Ballard recorded on May 20, 1793, the repetition of the word, “washt,” conveying the laboriousness of the task. Several days later, she “fe[lt] very much fatagud.” Yet, the diary was not all about drudgery. A certain beauty shines through Ballard’s mundane entries. “[W]e bakt pumpkin peis,” she noted one spring day, the “we” most likely referring to the experience of baking pies with her daughters. One can perhaps imagine the boisterous day in the Ballard household, with women talking, gossiping, laughing, and maybe even bickering a little as they rolled out the pie crusts and prepared the pumpkin filling together, the aroma of pumpkin and spices filling the air. As monuments to everyday life, diaries enable historians to reconstruct such scenes from the daily lives of people in the past, not just prominent men who won battles or led revolutions, but ordinary men and women who did ordinary things like baking pumpkin pie.1
When talking to my students about Ulrich’s work on Ballard’s diary, I had no idea that two months later I’d be asking them to keep their own journals of mundane happenings during a pandemic. I devised this impromptu “pandemic journal” assignment as a partial substitute for the final exam after the sudden and unexpected switch to remote learning in mid-March. A last-minute addition, the journal assignment complemented my teaching of the American history survey. By keeping a journal, students used their own experiences to learn about social history and the historical significance of their daily lives, a theme that I had stressed since the beginning of the semester.
Diaries and Everyday Life
Diaries have long been some of my favorite historical sources. On two occasions, reading diaries awakened my historical imagination. Reading Anne Frank’s diary in grade eight launched my interest in studying history. For the first time, I learned that history was about studying how people in the past lived — their thoughts, complaints, hopes, and fears— rather than simply a list of names, events, and dates. Likewise, in my second year at university, I read the diary of a seventeenth-century Puritan clergyman, Ralph Josselin. His frequent complaints of the mundanities of a runny nose and navel lint particularly stuck in my memory. Was that history too, I wondered? Reading Josselin’s daily record of family, work, and physical ailments humanized the often-stereotyped Puritans in my mind and it taught me about the historical significance of everyday life.2
Now as a professor, when teaching the American history survey, I try to avoid the history as “just one f*cking thing after another” trap. I begin the course by introducing students to historical thinking. I use clips from the documentary A Midwife’s Tale to introduce them to the concept of doing history, so they understand that historians’ work entails doing research in a variety of primary sources and then interpreting those sources. Students also read Carl Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian,” his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, in which he argued that historical thinking, defined as “the memory of things said and done,” is neither a foreign nor an obscure experience to humanity. Since memory is essential to functioning in our daily lives, we all think historically to survive, even if only to question ourselves: “Did I pay that bill yesterday?” In answering that question, we reconstruct yesterday’s actions in our minds and perhaps even search for physical (or in today’s case, digital) evidence of that task. There it is — historical thinking! Thinking historically about one’s own life, my students learn, is a foundation for thinking historically about other people’s lives.
Though I loved reading diaries, I’d never considered asking my students to write their own journals until I read a tweet by historian Leah Richier about her pandemic journal assignment. When my students returned to the virtual classroom after March break, I also asked them to write about one page per week for the rest of the semester. I had no idea what students would make of the assignment. Almost immediately a few students asked if they could write shorter daily entries that added up to one page per week. Since many of the historical diaries I’ve read have been organized in this fashion, I could not object. Students also asked me if they could write more than a page per week, a rare question when I assign writing to students!
In the end, students made the assignment their own. Their journals reflected their extraordinary diversity. Some students focused on what they did and the material conditions they faced. They wrote about struggling to establish a new routine, keeping up with school work, moving home or living in apartments and university residences, cooking, eating, exercising, grocery shopping, playing video games, or watching their favorite movies and shows. Other students tracked their emotions. They expressed the sentiments of fear, despair, outrage, and uncertainty in reaction to the pandemic and the switch to remote learning. Most combined the material and the emotional in their diaries. Some students coped by writing down what they were grateful for, while others understandably vented about the difficulties they faced. While some students focused on their own lives, others connected their struggles to the contemporary or historical events. Most important, many students demonstrated an awareness of being in history. A few students acknowledged that their journals would be primary sources for future historians, the raw materials from which scholars piece together the past. Some used book metaphors to describe their pandemic experience, saying they felt like all of a sudden they were living in a history book that had yet to be written. As one student quipped, “being part of a major historical event sucked,” a sentiment that all of us, weary of the pandemic, can probably sympathize with right now.
“that roar which lies on the other side of silence”
Reading students’ pandemic journals humbled me. The experience brought a famous passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch to my mind: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Eliot’s novels depicted the hidden or interior life struggling amid the social setting, but journals, a record of one life lived in a historical moment, also reveal a glimmer of that hidden experience. Students’ journals illustrated their individual struggles, something I’m not always aware of when I meet them in the classroom. Reading their journals brought me closer to that “keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life,” an overwhelming, almost paralyzing feeling. All I can do with this new emotional knowledge is move forward with even greater sensitivity and compassion for students, encouraging them to care for their physical and mental health and their intellectual development, while continuing to try to find ways of using history to help students make sense of their lives and place in society.3
The pandemic journal assignment ultimately helped students extend the lessons they had learned in my history classroom into their own experiences. I like to think of it this way: for the first eleven weeks of the semester, we focused on learning other people’s stories in American history. For the last four weeks of the semester, students’ own lives and stories took precedence. Students learned that their lives are not separate from history. Besides concerning memory and inquiry, history is part telling stories. Keeping a journal enabled students to tell their own stories in the midst of a pandemic. Through storytelling, we connect ourselves to others, living and dead. We forge narratives of hope and resilience for ourselves and the future, narratives that are both totally unique, and yet part of a larger history.
- A Midwife’s Tale, directed by Richard P. Rogers. (1998, PBS, 2006), DVD. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Vintage, 1990). Return to text.
- Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (New York: Bantam, 1994). Alan MacFarlane, ed., The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616–1683 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1976). McFarlane also wrote a classic study based on that diary. Alan McFarlane, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, a Seventeenth-Century Clergyman: An Essay in Historical Anthropology (Norton: New York, 1977). Return to text.
- George Eliot, Middlemarch (1870–71, New York: Penguin, 2003 rpt.), 194. Lisa Michelle Smith, “‘Feeling as a new organ of knowledge’: Nineteenth-century physiological psychology and George Eliot’s Fiction” (Ph.D., University of Toronto, 2008). Return to text.