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Grad Student Summer Research in the Age of COVID

History Graduate Students Claire Mayo, Alyssa Culp, Malcolm Huang, and Thomas Maurer spent recent months in archives and libraries in the U.S. and abroad. There were definite challenges in the age of COVID-19, but their project moved forward. Their reports from the field…

Claire Mayo

   This summer, Claire Mayo worked in seven archives in France to understand the regional experience of the Great Flood of 1910 in the Seine Basin. Mayo spent the majority of her time at departemental archives of the Aube, Yvelines, and Val d’Oise to access letters of reparation from local residents. These letters underscore a geography of need to rebuild local economies and highlight how citizens performed Republican citizenship to access needed resources to rebuild. Mayo also worked at national archives with engineer reports and flood prevention policies dating as far back as the flood of 1658. These expert sources elucidate the construction of envirotechnical regimes designed to stop flooding, which upended local practices to live with a river’s flood pulse. The richness of these sources will further nuance Mayo’s dissertation that rescales the disaster temporarily and spatially.  

Claire remarked, “Meeting other scholars at the archives is part of the fun of research. Yet, during a global pandemic, it can be difficult to recognize even friends from across the room and behind a mask. Then again, wearing a mask has become a shared experience for many people, creating a source of commonality for conversation. That was my experience while traveling in France for my doctoral research. Most people in France wear the pale blue masks featured in government-sponsored ads to “Share your blue smiles.” Soon after arriving, I happened to purchase the latest production of masks that featured new colors: soft green, sunny yellow, deep blue, and an orange much like UTK orange. Staff, scholars, and people on the street commented on the color of my masks, and this led to some meaningful conversations about research and why I was in France. I doubt many of these people would have spoken to me without that shared experience of wearing a mask, and these exchanges made my research trip that much more meaningful.”

Alyssa Culp

“This past spring and summer, I was on a Fulbright Fellowship in Munich, Germany. During the first few months in Munich, I had to work with mainly digital documents, but once the covid-lockdowns were lifted it was a rush to the archives. The archives operated very differently than during my last research trip in 2019; there were N95 mask requirements, partitions separating you from the archivists, archive lotteries, and three-hour time slots for certain the state archives. Even with these changes, I was able to analyze physician reports, state laws, coroner records, obituaries, and architectural plans to get a better sense of how cultural and social understandings of death changed with the establishment of the morgue in 19th-century Bavaria. The most exciting part about my research trip was not just glimpsing back in time through archival material, but also getting to experience these places for myself. I spent time hiking around Bavaria to see the very districts my dissertation focuses and even was able to see a few 19th-century morgues that were still standing! Overall, my trip taught me new ways of looking at my topic, its relevance to our present predicament, and how to approach the research process differently in the midst of a pandemic.”

Malcolm Huang

“I went to two libraries in the summer: the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in July and the Winterthur Museum and Library in August. While there, I was consulting primary sources like account books, inventories, and invoices kept by merchants of medicine who were selling tea along with patent drugs in the colonies. Also, I looked at physicians’ daybooks, recipe books, and remedy books. These sources will help me write the last two chapters which are about the circulation and reception of ideas of tea being medicine in the colonies. 

The anecdote that I had was a conversation with the Curator of Books and Digital Collections in the AAS. While there, my main purpose was to look at manuscripts because most of the printed texts there were digitized and put in databases like EVANS. But I still decided to look at a popular medical book with home remedies during the last day of my research trip. I was amazed by its pocket size and was able to talk to the curator who just came back from vacation. I asked her a couple of questions relating to this particular item and book history in colonial era. I learned so much about the things which I could hardly have learned elsewhere.”

Thomas Maurer

Over the summer, Thomas Maurer a fifth year PhD in medieval history conducted research at several Italian libraries for his dissertation entitled, “In that day, the Dragon will Approach the City: Italy and the Apocalyptic Dream.” Maurer examined prophetic manuscripts at the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, as well as a monastic library in Perugia, the Archivio Storico di San Pietro (pictured). These manuscripts contain pseudo-Joachite prophecies concerning Italian cities, written by thirteenth century Italians claiming to be the famed twelfth century apocalyptic exegete, Joachim of Fiore. Maurer will use these sources in his dissertation to argue for a widespread apocalyptic civic identity in thirteenth century Italian communes.