In March 2020, Kaela Thuney was in the middle of her second semester as a graduate student, and beginning to develop plans for her MA thesis. She hoped to spend her summer break at the National Archives in Senegal, looking into the themes she planned to explore in her work: the slave trade, empire, and gender in nineteenth-century West Africa. “I thought if I could just go over and find some document no one had ever worked with before, I could tie all of those things together in this incredible and cutting-edge way,” she said. Marlon Londoño had received an award from the Institute for the Study of the Americas at UNC and was beginning to plan his visit to the Colombian national archives in Bogotá. Traveling to Colombia, he believed, was the necessary first step towards completing his project, which focused on soldiers’ experiences of the Thousand Days’ War between 1899 and 1902. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he recalled, “but I knew that I was going to go to Colombia, and that this would be the first and most important step.”
Even as UNCChapel Hill shifted to online instruction and governments across the world began closing their borders, Thuney tried to remain optimistic. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll shut down for two weeks, and then I’ll be able to continue on to West Africa for the summer,” she said. In the end, however, Thuney, Londoño, and the other members of their cohort would research, write, and defend their MA theses mostly at home.
The coronavirus pandemic has required all students, faculty, and staff to adapt to new methods of working, studying, researching, and teaching. Archive and library closures, travel restrictions, and administrative uncertainty particularly affected graduate students who planned to research and write their MA theses in 2020. These students, who had little time to develop and complete their projects to begin with, often had to find new source bases, reconsider their methodology, and reformulate their arguments. Furthermore, the summer of 2020 would have provided many of them with their first opportunity to conduct archival research and work directly with historical documents.Many of the archival sources that Glenn Callihan planned to use for his MA thesis are written in a German script very difficult for untrained contemporary readers. In the summer of 2020, he planned to spend two weeks at a paleography course at Moravian College in Pennsylvania before traveling to Germany, where he would apply his new skills to examine the records of local magistrates from the early seventeenth century. In his research, Callihan intended to explore the relationship between Cologne’s Catholic magistrates and the local Protestant community during a period of religious tension and war, hoping to compare it to other cities in the region. Although he was able to completed the paleography course online, he did not have access to the undigitized documents in German archives. While documents produced by the Protestants were easily available, having been transcribed and published in the early twentieth century, he had to rely largely on secondary sources to reconstruct the position of the Cologne magistrates.
The pandemic did not present a dramatic disruption in Pasuth Thothaveesansuk’s research plans. Although he initially planned to conduct research in the US National Archives and the Nixon Presidential Library, and also considered applying for a visa to visit the Political Archives of the German Foreign Office, he found that he was able to draw on the information available in published collections and online archives. As he noted, his global history project, examining West GermanChinese relations between 1968 and 1972, was ironically well-suited to a period of restricted travel. However, Thothaveesansuk was hardly unaffected by the restrictions associated with the pandemic. He defended his thesis at 2 AM local time while under mandatory hotel quarantine in Thailand, where he had returned to visit his family. “At least I got a good pandemic story out of it,” he said.
For both Thuney and Callihan, conducting research during the coronavirus pandemic meant narrowing their focus. Thuney took a microhistorical approach, using Emory University’s Voyages Database to identify a French slave-trading ship intercepted by the British Navy in 1830, which she traced through records available in French and British online archives. Through the example of this individual ship, she examined issues of slavery, abolition, and forced labor in the emerging nineteenth-century imperial order. Callihan jettisoned his initial plan to add a comparative dimension to his project. Paradoxically, he said, focusing on Cologne itself made him more aware of the transnational networks in which the local Protestant community was embedded. In his dissertation, he intends to investigate the political dimensions of these religious networks and the challenges they posed to the consolidation of absolutist states.Completing their theses under lockdown revealed both the possibilities and limitations of remote research. Like many of his fellow students, Londoño found that there were far more resources available online than he had initially assumed. The Colombian Central Bank and Academy of History, Vanderbilt’s online Colombian Collection, and public domain books easily accessible through Google provided him with more than enough material to complete his project. Callihan received help from a fellow student in his paleography class in locating some important published sources. However, relying on published rather than archival sources made him dependent on other scholars’ transcriptions, which he was unable to verify. Similarly, Thothaveesansuk said that while he found valuable information in the memoirs of historical actors, he regretted that he was not able to corroborate it with archival evidence. He looked forward to conducting archival research after restrictions are lifted: “Now that I know the many options I have to do research remotely, hopefully once I do get to work in archives I can do so more efficiently and purposefully,” he said.
For some students, this experience provided them with a new perspective on the process of historical research. For Londoño, conducting research online revealed that there were many possible ways of doing history. “I felt really insecure about myself as a researcher and as a scholar and graduate student because I hadn’t gone into the archive in person,” he said. But after completing his project and discussing his experience with professors and fellow students, he came to realize that the work he did from his kitchen table was no less authentic than the work he would have done at the archive in Bogotá. Similarly, Thuney was occasionally frustrated at her dependence on online resources and the Interlibrary Loan system, wishing that she had the opportunity to examine less commonly used physical sources located in the archives in Senegal. However, this experience demonstrated to her the importance of flexibility and creativity in the research process. “Nothing went the way I wanted it to this year, but I stayed the course best I could, and got something done,” she said. These four students, as well as the other members of their cohort, completed their projects successfully under very difficult circumstances — while also dealing with the other disruptions, disturbances, and stresses of the pandemic.