What historical structures of power and violence made it so difficult for the United States to collectively address the crises of 2020? What could we have done differently, and how can we prevent something like this from happening again? These are the questions that Dr. Erik Peterson and I address in our newly released digital humanities project, A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year (https://deepersickness.com). As we argue in the digital museum and in the accompanying book (Beacon Press, https://www.amazon.com/Deeper-Sickness-Journal-America-Pandemic/dp/0807040290), American racism, selfishness, anger, shallowness, and apathy prevented the nation from saving itself. These factors led to the pandemics of disease, disinformation, poverty, and violence that the United States experienced.
A Deeper Sickness stands apart from other 2020-related archival projects that have emerged in the last year. Unlike the archives at Arizona State University and the Smithsonian, Deeper Sickness is a curated space that encourages visitors to address the historical forces that brought us to this experience. Users navigate our carefully researched and written daily exhibits, preferably with the accompanying book. They encounter our growing collection of source materials, our written analysis of the day, and the stories of diverse groups whose experiences give texture and variance to how we understand those moments. Simultaneously, the site uses peer-reviewed digital exhibits to trace certain scholarly themes through the year, exploring the intersection of history, race, and violence, the relationship between income inequality and access to healthcare, the role of the press and social media in spreading disinformation, and the increasing violence of 2020 as a symptom of a much older trend in American history. Users are also invited to contribute to the conversation by submitting their own stories for publication.
In January 2020, we started two simultaneous and complimentary projects: the writing of a book about the historical roots of America’s response to the unfolding pandemics and a digital humanities site that would offer fuller analysis of the year, including our additional writing, space for outside research, other contributors’ voices, and an archive of over 4,000 sources stored in a Zotero database. At the center of the site are over 200 different exhibits on individual days in 2020. To create these daily exhibits, our team mined historical and current sources daily and interviewed over forty experts. These included epidemiologists, directors of domestic abuse centers, specialists on the opioid epidemic, Black Lives Matter organizers in Portland, right-wing militia members, business owners, the chief of the River Sioux tribe in South Dakota, the Mayor of Albuquerque, a Michigan senator, an Amazon striker, and a number of frontline workers. We combined these sources and interviews with contributors’ stories and our own experiences and analysis to create each daily entry.
We were intent on preserving events as they were unfolding in real time. While future projects will have the conceit of hindsight, they will not be able to capture how difficult it was to understand what was happening, how mistaken we often were, how distorted time felt, and how powerless we turned out to be at times. The daily exhibits offer an immediacy that later works will not be able to replicate, representing an invaluable primary source for future research and teaching.
We established a process and rationale for our source collection early in the project, creating an Entity-Relationship Diagram and hiring a content manager to systematize our data entry. We decided that exact copies of the sources, with all their accompanying errata, would have to be preserved into a database. We did this because modern news data is dynamically generated and constantly shifting, meaning that the material was likely to be edited or lost. We also anticipated that the history of this monumental year would not be free of contention. Americans, as we found, too often substitute folklore for history. Our programming team designed a new tool that pulls our source materials from Zotero and loads them into our WordPress environment. We are continuing to hone the site’s user interface design, making it WCAG compliant, and conducting extensive usability, accessibility, and security testing.
We also conceived of the site as a place for future study of the pandemic year. We created an general “Exhibits” space to house scholarly research, creative projects, digital collections, and meritorious undergraduate contributions. Currently housed there is an article examining television network coverage of the pandemic in the early months of the year, a creative exhibit from the renowned Menominee poet, Chrystos, a data collection of the memes of 2020, and an undergraduate project tracing the protests of George Floyd’s brothers and nephews in the wake of his death. Additional contributions are pending, awaiting peer review.
The conceptual impetus for this project came from Charles Rosenberg’s work on the ways that populations experience epidemics dramaturgically, in well-defined, theatrical acts (Rosenberg, What is an Epidemic, 1–17). We were interested in tracking the evolution of the COVID pandemic from America’s slow realization of the presence of disease, to our attempts to make sense of it, and finally to our negotiated public response. Borrowing from Roy Porter’s work on the methodologies of medical history, we focused on the material conditions of different communities, belief systems, images and symbols, and how people reflect on pain, death, and dying (Porter, The Patient’s View, 175). As the pandemic progressed, we sought to examine the normalized structures of power and violence in America that manifest through law enforcement, everyday practice, and language.
Dr. Margaret Peacock is an associate professor of history at The University of Alabama (Ph.D. in History from the University of Texas – Austin, 2010) specializing in the History of Russia, the Cold War, Media, and Propaganda. She is the author of: Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and Documents from Modern Russia (Cognella Press, 2018). She has also written numerous peer reviewed articles on the history of propaganda in the twentieth century and teaches courses on the subject to graduates and undergraduates. She has been a Fulbright-Hays scholar, a Wilson Fellow, and a Kennan Fellow. She also has an MS in Information and Library Science from UNC-Chapel Hill and six years of experience as an Oracle database designer and Java programmer.
Dr. Erik L. Peterson is an associate professor of the history of science and medicine at The University of Alabama (Ph.D. in History from Notre Dame, 2010). He is the author of The Life Organic: The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017). He has published on the history of biology, medicine, race science, eugenics, and evolution, co-hosts the “Speaking of Race” podcast, and teaches a popular course on the global history of epidemics, the preparations for which inadvertently inspired the Deeper Sickness project.
Immeasurable thanks to a huge group of people contributed time and energy to help our research and build this project.
Dr. Buster Allaway, Advertising, University of Alabama
Dr. Jim Bindon, Anthropology, University of Alabama
Dr. Kate Brown, History, MIT
Amy Burr, Vice President at the San Francisco Federal Reserve
Chrystos, Menominee two-spirit poet
Dr. Jamye Coffman, Director of the Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, Texas
Dr. Evelyn Figueroa, Clinical Family Medicine, University of Illinois
Larry Fox, Restauranteur, Destin, Florida
Dr. Xabi Granja, Spanish, University of Alabama
Hilary Green, Gender and Race Studies, University of Alabama
Dr. Brandy Henry, Social Work, Columbia University
Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, Public Health, University of Alabama in Birmingham
Dr. David Himmelstein, Internal medicine, New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, lecturer at Harvard Medical School
Tim Keller, Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico
Zachary Levine, Director of Archival and Curatorial Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Dr. Robert Lyman, Psychology and former provost of Southern Mississippi University
Dr. Julia Marcus, Epidemiology, Harvard Medical School
Dr. Michael B. A. Oldstone, Immunology and microbiology, Scripps
Sarah Pierce, Policy analyst for the US Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC
Dayna Polehanki, Michigan State Senator
Ann Powers, Music Editor, NPR
Ru Prasad, Emergency Medical Aide, Portland, Oregon
Dr. Melissa Radey, Social Work, Florida State University
Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, Criminology & Criminal Justice, University of Missouri–St. Louis
Maryanne Rosensweig, forensic psychology, Alabama
Shelly Rosensweig, psychology and rehabilitation, Alabama
Sharon Sanders, moderator of FluTrackers.com
Avery Smith, founder of Blessedarethebinarybreakers.com
Dr. Craig Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital
Carter Stewart, Law, The Ohio State University
Dr. L. J. Weaver, Anthropology, University of Oregon
Dr. Mari Webel, History, University of Pittsburgh
Other contributors: Chad Brown, Matthew Chipman, Holly Kyle Dixson, Tom Flannigan, Hudson Ivry, Zsofi Marcus, Joshua Mason, Michelle Meyer, Tegan Murrell, Erin Schmidt, Lindsay C. Sidders, Heather Thomas, Jesse Weston, Hannah Wexner, and Brian Phillip Whalen.
…plus all those contributors who wished to remain anonymous.
Sylvia Cervino, Mikayla Jones, Lauren Tustison, Kenzie Wilbourne, and Jack Mittenthal
Digital museum technical support
Dr. Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Director of the Alabama Digital Humanities Center, University of Alabama
Dr. T. Mills Kelly, Executive Director, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Professor of History, George Mason University
Dr. Chad Crawford, Department of Computer Science, University of Alabama
Jade Teel, Network Engineer and Project Manager
Jackson Foster, Content/Database Manager
Emerson Jackson, Director of Programming
Asa Dillahunty, Site Architecture Consultant
Thanks, also, to our editors and production team at Beacon Press, Jane Dystel and the team at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC, and for generous funding and support from The Alabama Digital Humanities Center, the Department of History, and the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alabama.
Additional Information for Evaluation
A Deeper Sickness illustrates many of the advantages that the digital humanities offer for modern scholars. The scope of our research demanded the use of a scalable medium that would span the boundaries between the print and digital medium. The book and site function independently, but are also one unit, each reinscribing the argument put forth by the other, each performing a critical pedagogical function that will hopefully be of use to future generations. For further guidance on how to evaluate digital scholarship, we refer readers to guidelines posted by the MLA and the AHA.