The PCSU Curriculum in Action: American Studies, Public History, & Undergraduate Learning in the Pandemic!

They say necessity is the mother of invention. There may be some truth to that. It has been a crazy spring of 2020. Here at UVA, we began the semester by teaching a new class, AMST 1559 [will become AMST 1060], “The Aftermath of Slavery at UVA and in Virginia.” This course aims to connect the past to the present by examining the ways in which pre-1865 ideas and practices were shaped and re-shaped to meet contemporary white Virginian concerns. The course represents an extended consideration of the long shadow that slavery and racism have cast upon the history, culture, politics, and communities in the Commonwealth.

Although we were watching the pandemic unfold even in January, we could not know then that it would change everything, and do so in the middle of the spring semester. We started the semester with sixty students all eager to learn about the afterlives of slavery and use digital technologies to create public history interpretive tours–models of how we can help educate the public on this complicated history. We hoped then that research and design by students, with vigorous support from course instructors Kirt von Daacke and Ashley Schmidt, would result in a new online tour for an app at the library (we anticipated that these final projects would be able to live on as polished tours).

But, in early March, the world shut down, and UVA did so as well. Students had headed home for spring break and were told not to return–they should stay at home and socially distance while the university extended spring break by a few days so it could transition to fully remote learning. As if the pandemic were not bad enough on its own, the shut down came at a particularly inconvenient time for group projects based upon archival research. The archives also closed, and would not open for several more months. Again, they say necessity is the mother of invention, and we did our best to wholly invent a new class and project as everything moved online and remote.

Full credit to our students, who gamely managed the shift and did what they could given the circumstances. Although the end products could not be fully researched (they had to rely wholly on digitized materials the PCUAS had already collected and that course instructors could access and distribute to students), the class nonetheless embodied the spirit of truth-telling public history interpretation in designing websites. We used a new educational tool here at UVA, Digication, a platform that allowed student teams working remotely to document their project process (from initial design, through revision, to something approaching a “final” tour product) and also develop educational websites.

Although the pandemic ensured that the class and our amazing students would not create “ready for prime time” tours, they did demonstrate the great promise Digication and the assignment has. Some day, when the pandemic and with it remote learning and social distancing are behind us, we will return to in-person educational activity and students will fully research projects like these. For now, though, we tip our collective hats to the students in our class, who somehow made this work! We share links to some of the class projects below:


Old Cabell Hall & Walter Ridley

George Rogers Clark Monument & “Black Tuesday”

Peabody Hall & “The Coat and Tie Rebellion”

Blackface Minstrelsy & Charlottesville’s Freedom & Liberation Day

UVA’s “Desegregation Center” and The Whispering Wall

We miss our students–remote learning in Zoom has been better than complete isolation–but it was so hard on everyone who was committed to the in-person learning that has defined the University of Virginia for two hundred years. We hope we get to see everyone in-person before they graduate.