Document Type



As a historian and coordinator of a secondary social studies licensure program, I have spent the last few months working with teachers and others to gather documentary evidence about the experience of COVID-19 in my state. I felt compelled to gather documents as a historian. Collecting written and digital materials made me think (and talk with teachers and their students) about the nature of historical documentary evidence, past and present. The sources that document a community’s experience of this global pandemic are diverse: video of a birthday parade, a photo of a yard sign recognizing that a high school graduate, a graphic showing how to convert a scarf into a makeshift face mask, a meme complaining about those who ignore science. These all matter alongside more traditional documents such as newspaper articles and illness statistics. How does thinking about this moment help us think with students about the nature of historical documents—and the limits to what we can and cannot know about the past and even the questions we think to ask? Nike produced an ad that said, “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.” This is as much a historical document as a letter from a mayor to another official describing impact in a local setting. Can we use this ad and examples like it to help students think about how we document the past and about the nature of our discipline of history—that we are reliant on both evidence and the questions we know to ask about the past? Suddenly there is renewed interest and attention to the 1918 influenza pandemic—will we have new (even improved) questions to ask about that past event because of our present? That is to say, we think about the past as informing the present, but how does the present inform the questions we ask about the past? This brief essay of 1500-3000 words would incorporate some elements of student submissions of evidence from this spring and think through the classroom implications of these questions.