This post inaugurates the University of Chicago Department of History’s COVID learning diary series. Throughout the quarter, Ben Miller ‘22 will blog about his life as an undergraduate history student in the midst of the pandemic, from what it’s like to take online classes and hold a digital internship to how the virus has changed his perspective on big historical questions. You can find more of Ben’s writing on his personal blog.
My life in the world of COVID began in Concourse B of Chicago’s Midway Airport. I was jetting back to Maryland for what I expected would be a brief spring break visit, carrying just a backpack and a carry-on bag. I was aware of the virus—it helped explain why the terminal was nearly empty on a Wednesday afternoon—but final papers and to-dos occupied my mind. But in the 30 minutes I sat at the gate, I was overwhelmed by an onslaught of news. First, I learned that Tom Hanks had the virus, then that a spate of positive tests had forced the NBA to suspend games. For the kicker, I received an email from the University announcing that campus was closed and that spring classes would be held online, abruptly suspending my connection with the people and places I had left just 90 minutes earlier. When I finally boarded the plane, it felt like I was shuttling off to a different and unknown world.
During the months of quarantine, I have often returned to that moment at Midway. With no memories of September 11, it is the only instant I have experienced when I felt like my life and everything around it changed in an immediate and fundamental way. It was unsettling, but as a history student, I also found it fascinating. Walking onto that plane, I knew I was being swept up in a moment of disruptive change, one with almost self-evident significance. As I have lived amid COVID, I have had to experience first-hand the sorts of stressors and tensions I had only ever encountered in history books. Exhausting as that has been, it has helped me to appreciate the past and those who lived through it in a more personal way.
Unsurprisingly, enduring the pandemic has given me a new respect for uncertainty. For months I have failed spectacularly at predicting what the succeeding days will bring, and I can hardly imagine what the rest of the year has in store. All this futile prognosticating has forced me to appreciate how people in the past have had no more sense of what their futures hold than I do now. From a distant retrospective vantage, it is easy to see changes like women’s suffrage as inevitable triumphs, or conversely to see Prohibition or Reconstruction as intrinsically doomed, but people at the time had no better way of foretelling the ends of those arcs than we do with the virus. Contingency and ambiguity are constant, and truthfully understanding history requires keeping that in mind.
In a similar vein, the pandemic has made me reckon with the role of historical randomness. COVID, for all the suffering it has wrought, is the result of arbitrary genetic variation. Although factors like biodiversity loss have perhaps made pandemics more likely, the coronavirus emerged at this exact moment in time for no explicable reason. Of course, the virus has contributed to crises with long-standing origins, for instance in American electoral politics and racial oppression, but it itself is essentially a fluke. In studying history, randomness is an unsatisfying answer and an impossible subject, and I had never put much thought into it. Watching the pandemic unfold, however, leads me to believe that no aspect of the past can be assessed without acknowledging the broad power of random occurrence, humbling as that can be.
The last six months have also led me to appreciate the strange banality of upheaval. When I left Chicago in March, I never imagined how deep and long-lasting the disruptions of the pandemic would be, and yet, now it is challenging to picture life without them. Mask-wearing and store avoidance have become routine, and even the sense of isolation from friends and family feels almost normal. Constantly reflecting on the immense loss caused by the virus would make functioning impossible, but I am still struck by how little I consider it. In applying this to the past, I can envision how people acclimated themselves to all kinds of circumstances that appear unimaginably chaotic from a wider angle, be it war and revolution or famine and disease.
Though it is small consolation, my pandemic experience has made it easier to personalize and grasp historical moments in all their hazy, contingent glory. Over the next few weeks, I will share more about how the COVID world shapes the activities of an undergraduate history student. I will write about my experiences with a remote history internship, my independent research, and the day-to-day patterns of online history courses. If you are interested, stay tuned for more.