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Curating a pandemic

March 20, 2020

ASU team leads effort to archive effect of COVID-19 on everyday lives

From ancient cave paintings depicting epic hunts to modern-day Instagram posts boasting avocado toast brunches, it’s a natural human inclination to document our lives — one that becomes even stronger when we are faced with a shared global crisis.

Perhaps no one knows that better than historians. Last Friday, after President Trump declared a national emergency amid the swift spread of the novel coronavirus, Arizona State University Associate Professor Catherine O’Donnell emailed colleagues in the public history program at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies asking if there was something they could do to connect their students as historians to this moment.

“A lightbulb went on,” said Associate Professor Mark Tebeau, an urban, public and digital historian who heads the public history program and read through O’Donnell’s email with mounting enthusiasm.

Over the weekend, Tebeau assembled a website, enlisted the aid of graduate students and mobilized a global network of scholars — including colleagues at Northeastern University in Boston and George Mason University in Virginia. “A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19” is now up and running, already with more than 160 contributions from individuals around the world and thousands of unique site views.

The inspiration for the website’s name came from Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which documented the experience of the bubonic plague as it ravaged London in the year 1665. Tebeau used Omeka — a free, open source web-publishing platform used to teach curation — to host the site. While its origin is academic, with grad students and scholars doing much of the curating, anyone can contribute.

“In a sense, this is kind of guerilla history,” Tebeau said. “We want stories from everyone: those who are not as digitally active, older folks who are at the greatest risk, communities of color which may be impacted differently than others. The best archives are those which are most representative.”

One of Tebeau’s own contributions is an audio message sent by ASU President Michael Crow to faculty, staff and students updating them on the university’s response to the crisis and advising them to “stay frosty,” a line from the 1986 film “Aliens.”

Over time, and once social distancing is no longer at the top of everyone’s priority list, Tebeau hopes to engage writers, artists and community members in public programming and maybe even host a conference related to the project.

ASU Now asked Tebeau, O’Donnell and School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Director Richard Amesbury to answer some questions about what makes this archival project special and how to contribute.

Question: How is this archive unique?

Tebeau: What makes this such a good historical document is that it goes where the crowds drive it, through social media and existing scholarly networks, both at ASU and around the country. It’ll take the direction that people who contribute want it to take. And in some sense, that’s also how history is written. There’s this old saw that history is written by the victors. Actually, history is produced by people who create records of material that we can interrogate later on. This act of curation is a first blush at making history. And the beauty of crowdsourcing is that it let lots of people contribute with their different perspectives.

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The homepage of "A Journal of the Plague Year," built by a team of ASU historians.

Q: Does our modern-day ability to crowdsource a historical archive make it richer than something like Defoe’s novel, which only documented the plague from one perspective?

Tebeau: I’m not sure it makes it richer; it makes it different. The ways in which we’ve experienced these moments in the past is through artists and writers. Then the emergence of mass culture, public culture, began to give us a wider array of voices. Now in the internet age, we have an even wider array of voices expressed in the world. We now take more photos than we’ve ever taken. But one of the challenges of the digital age is — how do we collect those things? There’s so much. So in some ways, we spend less time making sense of everything we’re creating (photos, memes, etc.). What this archive does is ask people, “How is your everyday life being shaped in this moment?” It allows us to get a closer look at the diversity of human experiences.

Q: Why is student involvement so important?

O’Donnell: When students imagine the materials someone in the future would need to understand our current moment, they are thinking and acting like historians. They both analyze and empathize. I think they are also taking pleasure in understanding themselves as intentional observers rather than only as unwilling participants, but that is the case for everyone who contributes, not only for our history majors.

Tebeau: It gets them to think about the role each contribution plays, and to think about the historic process and the way in which different types of resources tell different stories. A personal photo will tell a different story than a screenshot of Instagram or a Twitter meme from someone’s phone or computer. So it gets them thinking about the choices they’re making as far as what items they include and the kind of story that will tell. We’re asking our students to think deeply about what it means to be a curator.

Q: What kind of material are you looking for?

Tebeau: I suspect if I go through the database as it exists now, probably a quarter of it is pictures of empty shelves. And I want people to move beyond the empty shelves and over-the-top hoarding. I want to see the more common things that people are doing. We want to get to that next level of engagement, to see how this crisis is shaping people’s lives and how we can represent that in this archive. One of the photos I contributed is of my son visiting colleges a couple weekends ago, at a time when we were still trying to figure out whether he should even have gone or not. So we’re looking for everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Q: How does one determine what is worthy of documentation?

Amesbury: The historical significance of one’s own times is always difficult to assess. We tend to be too close to the events of our own lives to achieve much perspective on them. But we do have access to something future historians might not — namely the texture of our own immediate experience, including the very disorientation and uncertainty characteristic of being caught up in events beyond our control. A Journal of the Plague Year is a chronicle of the particularities of the present which might otherwise be forgotten — internet memes, empty classrooms, shelves bare of everything but cream of mushroom soup. This project — like the phenomena it seeks to track –—is completely fluid, and we are at the very beginning stages. We welcome the involvement of anyone, anywhere in the world, who would like to contribute to the historical record of these unprecedented times.

Top photo: Kristin Mickelson, “New York City Taxi: Stop the Spread,” A Journal of the Plague Year: an Archive of CoVid19, accessed March 20, 2020,

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ASU for You gathers resources for everyone so learning doesn’t stop

March 21, 2020

University has compiled tools for education at all levels and ages in one website

Editor’s note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

Arizona State University has gathered a vast collection of its online resources onto a single platform called ASU for You, available now as people stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ASU for You offers a wide array of content, much of it at no cost, for all learners — from elementary school students to adults — as well as resources for teachers and parents who are navigating teaching and learning at home. The site, launched on Friday, has 16 areas of content, with more to come. It includes:

  • Free online course materials for high school students from ASU Prep Digital, including art history, chemistry and economics. 
  • Free self-paced modules in areas such as entrepreneurship, healthy aging, caregiving and sustainability.
  • All-ages articles and resources from ASU’s famous Ask a Biologist and Ask an Anthropologist sites. Both include experiments, puzzles, quizzes and videos, with ideas for teachers.
  • A huge cache of free information from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College for parents with kids at home and for teachers who are moving to online instruction. There are sample daily schedules for families with younger and older students with links to curriculum content.
  • Professional development courses created by ASU experts in topics including human resources, marketing and organizational diversity, some free with many priced at $149.

One interesting resource is Infiniscope, created by ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to offer all-ages virtual space exploration with adaptive “mission” activities. 

The site also includes links to courses in the NASA Psyche Mission Innovation Toolkit and the World War II Studies continuing education classes, a partnership between the National WWII Museum and ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies.

“We’ve assembled learning resources for all ages, from K–12 to continuing education,” ASU President Michael Crow said.

“In uncertain times, where schools may be unable to convene and traditional learning may be disrupted, ASU is providing a way to continue learning.”

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ASU is always using the expertise of its faculty to create resources for the community, and the ASU for You site has been in the works for several months. The COVID-19 crisis accelerated the timeline, with schools closed and many employees working from home. ASU for You is designed to allow people to stay engaged with learning and life during this pandemic and beyond.

The landing page will be continuously updated as more ASU units add links to their content for the community.

ASU maintains a separate support site for its faculty and students, who converted to online classes for the rest of the spring semester. ASU for You is for the broader community, including people looking for enrichment as well as those interested in a pathway to earning a degree. Earned Admission, which allows potential college students to test the waters and make progress toward an undergraduate degree without committing financially or risking their GPA, is discounting its prices of credit conversion from $400 to $99, with the $25 credit eligibility fee waived, through Aug. 17. New courses will start March 31, April 7 and April 14 to help students take advantage of this.  

“As precautions are taken to ensure safety, people are seeking new methods to leverage online and virtual communications to keep learning on track,” said Kim Merritt, managing director of learning enterprise. 

“ASU is uniquely positioned to provide tools and partner as we navigate this together as a community."

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News