History: a source of inspiration for navigating 2020

Submitted by Xiaoshun Zeng on

As 2020 draws to a close, the year's dramatic sociopolitical events (from the local to the global) call us to ponder—“How do we make sense of what has happened in 2020?” To this question, members of the Department of History have provided valuable sources of inspiration. Through a broad range of student-oriented and public-facing events, History faculty and students have demonstrated the strength of historical inquiry in guiding meaningful conversations around the most crucial issues of the year—race, the election, and the pandemic.

In fact, going virtual has allowed the Department to reach a broader audience than ever for its public events. On October 22, two weeks before the general election, the Department organized an interdisciplinary panel—“Why Race Matters: the 2020 Election.” Talking to an online audience of over 170 people—many of whom were UW undergraduatesAssociate Professor Arbella Bet-Shlimon, Assistant Professor La TaSha Levy (American Ethnic Studies), and Associate Professor Sophia Jordán Wallace (Political Science) shared their expert insights on the timely topic of this year’s election through the lens of historical and present-day dynamics of race. The panel was sponsored by History Diversity Committee and moderated by Associate Professor Laurie Marhoefer. To continue the conversation, the panelists have created a reading list for anyone interested in diving deeper into the topic of race and politics. The UW Daily also ran an article that summarizes on the key takeaways of the event.

Members of the History Department are using other digital tools to engage the public as well. Graduate students Oya Aktas and Madison Heslop, jointly with other members of the People’s History group, have launched a collaborative public history project—“A Peoples’ Landscape: Racism and Resistance at UW.” As the first large-scale project for the People’s History student group, this digital map aims at providing readers with a historical and spatial guide to the legacies of racism and colonialism embedded within the UW campus.

Last but certainly not least, history classrooms, now entirely remote, have continued to serve as key sites of intellectual stimulation. In Autumn 2020, three history courses related to the topics of global health, race, and US politics had strong appeal for first-year and second-year undergraduates.

The interdisciplinary course HSTCMP 247 Global Health Histories (Associate Professor Adam Warren) usually attracts a large enrollment across the Seattle campus. This fall, students showed even greater enthusiasm for the topic. Hayden Goldberg, a sophomore intended to major in political science/economics, remarks that the course has helped him “put the COVID-19 pandemic and broader systems of health and medicine into historical context.” “This has helped me make better sense of the actions and interventions we are seeing today,” explains Hayden.

Lia Villaruz, a sophomore planning on a degree in global health, agrees. “The material from HSTCMP 247 has demonstrated that pandemic and the social issues associated with it are nothing new,” she says. She adds that relating the course to a broader sociopolitical context has “created the urgency within me to think critically in order to determine the true crisis: capitalism and racism.” Thus, she notes, it's important to recognize that “we are operating around the same institutions that have historically stolen from marginalized peoples.”  

Students enrolled in HSTAA 231 Race and American History (Dr. Roneva Keel) have also come to appreciate the relevance of history to present events. Among these students is Sofia Siddiqui. “This course has taught me so much about how race has been defined through the decades,” said Sofia. “In some ways,” she explains, “events in 2020 show how history can repeat itself, and learning more about trends and events that happened then can help us navigate similar situations now.”

One final course that has spoken to our present moment is HSTAA 110 American Citizenship (Dr. Nathan Roberts). Amelia Ouellet Rich, a freshman interested in anthropology and political science, remarks that the course “has undoubtedly been the most impactful and influential class this quarter.” “The class and material have helped me understand the reality that the structure of the United States was constructed to perpetuate structures of inequality,” explained Amelia, “citizenship has been used throughout different historical periods to perpetuate and rationalize systems of inequality, culture and systems of racism, and discrimination.”

Gauri Doshetty, a freshman in psychology (intended), agrees that HSTAA 110 “has been very insightful, enlightening, and interesting.” “Taking this course has definitely given me broader perspectives into why the American system, even today, can disproportionately affect some groups of people more than others,” says Gauri. Looking toward the future, she comments that the course has made her believe that “things can definitely be changed, and the country has gone a long way in the positive direction since its birth.”

In her capacity as TA for HSTAA 110, Doctoral Candidate Anna Nguyen shared that “classes like HSTAA 110 are helpful for students navigating the current socio-political events.” “A lot of the questions that we get from students,” she explained, boil down to “the question of ‘how did we get here?’” Remarking on the purpose and relevance of teaching history, Nguyen comments that “I think one of our jobs as educators and historians is to help students understand that the current political moment did not happen in a vacuum.”