Home During the Coronavirus

My college students thought their semester was over, but it was just beginning

"It's just that the semester was going so well. All my classes were working together, including this one." Jen Clancey stood before me after I had dismissed the last in-person class of the semester. It was the week before spring break. The course was Storytelling with New Media, and she was killing it. She'd gotten "off the hill," as we like to say. Denison University is a beautiful campus overlooking the village of Granville, but we like our students to go cover things that might be called "real life." Jen interviewed a family the day before they held a heartbreaking farm auction. She was exploring ways to develop that story, but now she would have to leave the state, and leave her sources. And she wasn't alone. All the students had unique, original stories that they were developing. Now it felt like all this work was just being taken.

I struggled to give students options to save the semester. You can use archival material. You can get subjects to film for you. Worse comes to worst, you can interview via Zoom. But each day the Covid-19 story got bigger, state orders more dramatic, casualty predictions more dire. International students were now told they had to leave campus. Domestic students had already left, and now they were told it would be a while before they could come back and get the rest of their stuff.

I hit my turning point when I heard Dr. Amy Acton, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, say that there's a grieving element to what we were all going through. We have to let ourselves feel that. So I took a moment to grieve the lost contact with my students, the end of the projects we had underway, the end of what I had planned to accomplish this semester.

Then I felt the possibilities provided by narrative journalism. What if we all just documented life at home during Covid-19? This would be video documentation; students could just use their phones. I introduced the idea of verite technique, to just record what is happening. to film, film, film. We'll structure the story later. It's a testament to the practice of narrative journalism that it is so adaptable to any situation. And it is a testament to these students that they embraced this concept with so much enthusiasm, creativity, insight, and skill. Yes, Jen Clancey did have to leave an amazing story in Ohio. But back home in New Jersey, her mother is a nurse practitioner in a Covid-19 hospital unit. Jen has already edited a scene of her mom preparing for work in the pre-dawn morning that is deeply affecting.

It's safe to say every student in this class has found a story at the home front of this pandemic. After a few weeks of filming, it struck me that it would be a constructive exercise for them, before they begin the work of crafting their mini docs, to select a screenshot from their stash of footage that is in some way representative of their project. It also struck me that such a collection of images would have general interest. Students from a liberal arts college like Denison University come from across the country and around the world, and across the socio-economic spectrum. Here is a first glimpse of work by students who are profoundly "off the hill," who are documenting a historic moment in time in images both quite ordinary, and quite extraordinary.

-Doug Swift, Zanesville, Ohio

[Best experienced on a horizontal screen]

The International Experience

Denison University, Jingyue "Melissa" Wu

Denison University, Jingyue "Melissa" Wu

Jingyue "Melissa" Wu is a Chinese student who expected to stay on campus, like much of the international contingent, when the first two-week order to disperse was given; then she was told she had to leave campus, and chose to go home; then she had to wait while two flights were cancelled; then she underwent an arduous 48 hour trip home; and then she endured a 14 day quarantine alone in a hotel room. For four weeks, she felt like she was living her life behind a "No Trespassing" sign. Melissa is now home with her family in Hangzhou, China.

Aditi Singh

Aditi Singh

Aditi Singh was unable to return to her family in Malaysia due to travel restrictions. She is staying with a friend and her roommates in Madison, Wisconsin. When Aditi first arrived in Madison, the housemates took her on a hiking adventure and the group oddly came across an old WWII bomber set up as a small "museum." Aditi says, "Experiencing the inside of that plane and going back to one of history’s greatest moments, just to come back to living in one of history’s greatest moments was surreal. It felt timeless. Just as my grandma carried uncertainty within her as she lived through the war, I carry uncertainty as this pandemic passes. We’ve both had to wait, be patient and rely on our countries to get through this."

When Khue Le returned to Vietnam, she had to stay in quarantine for 14 days in a military facility on the thirteenth floor. When her family came to visit, they could only look up at Khue from street level.

Many students went home to "ordinary" life, but they are capturing extraordinary moments forged by unique circumstances.

Madison Royce is giving thanks for her family, for the pizza, for the delivery person, and for the beautiful day. Her brother David indulges. -Ella Royce, Rochester Hills, Michigan

Livvy, Lena, and Luke Bruursema start their Friday morning with Phineas and Ferb." -Jaley Bruursema, Chicago, Illinois

Sarah Barney and her sister Emma are both home from college, distance learning. They take time out to bake cookies that they can send to far-away friends. And dance to old favorite songs. -Sarah Barney, Oak Harbor, Ohio

Cathy Riley (right) shops for groceries at 5 a.m. so she can beat the crowds. She lives in the Detroit area, which has been hard hit by Covid-19. -Calvin Riley, Grosse Point Woods, Michigan

Erika and Stefan Bloodworth take advantage of extra home time to work on a deck, under a pecan tree, that Erika will use for yoga and meditation. Erika's business, Radiant Mind, Body and Spirit, has been negatively impacted by Covid-19. -Sam Bloodworth, Columbus, Georgia

Todd Wright adopted a "therapy dog," Rona, as a companion to weather the stay- at-home phase of Covid-19. Here Rona gets a lesson on how to use stairs. Todd also just completed his Ph.D. dissertation, “Exploring the Evolving Concept of Artificial Intelligence," but was unable to celebrate with his colleagues due to social distancing. -Eili Wright, Tipp City, Ohio

[Below] Ben Gunther leads a Passover Seder via video conference for the extended family. -Jake Gunther, Somerville, Massachusetts

Other students are documenting the work of family members who are teachers, financial planners, health care workers, small business owners, and retail employees.

Connie Scully, sixth-grade English and creative writing teacher, relaxing after a long day of online teaching, watches news of Covid-19. Matt Scully, Director of Digital Integration and Innovation, finishes his work day by sending emails to teachers. -Abby Scully, Charlotte, North Carolina

"Gotta make your eyes look bright. It's the only thing they'll see." Ellen Clancey, nurse practitioner, prepares for another day at work in a COVID-19 hospital unit in NJ. During the day she wears rubber gloves, two layers of face masks and a face shield, making her and her coworkers unrecognizable.  -Jen Clancey, Princeton Junction, New Jersey

Laura Harrington is trying to keep her dog training business, Canine Communication, alive with online training tutorials. Here, she practices on Marty, resident student and home pet. -Graham Harrington, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania

Mark Godfrey is the VP and Senior Portfolio Specialist for an asset management subsidiary of a large insurance company. Here he takes notes during one of many video conferences he has throughout the day. -Charlotte Godfrey, Denver, Colorodo

Angie Laughhun is an essential retailer. Since the onset of Covid-19 she now must be at work by 4:45 a.m. When she brings groceries home she is careful to wipe items down [title video clip]. -Rainbow Ratliff, New Lexington, Ohio

Ed. Note: The Narrative Journalism program at Denison University has been supportive of this course as has Maggie Messitt, the Mellon "Writing in Place" Fellow. 

Mini-docs will be completed in May.