INSTHIS 101: Becoming the Source, it takes one to know one! Instant History on Instagram

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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Historians are focused on historical documentation, but who is documenting the historians? In this unprecedented time, PhD candidates like myself are writing their dissertations and are not only facing the horror of an already dismal job market, but now fearing a virus that has brought our world to a halt. Graduate students normally live the lives of hermits and now share that experience with their families, and the country at large. As a stressed and over caffeinated PhD student, who thinks she is on a worthy journey to perfect academia and win the hearts of her future undergraduate students, I want to share my sub-par photography skills with other burgeoning historians in the form of a class held in the only way we can—on zoom. The beauty of this class is not to perfect your photography skills, but to unlearn everything you know about the art form. Filter? Not needed. Cropping? No, show everything! Witty caption? Bring on the raw emotions! Embrace the vulnerability, unflattering, and honest look into the life of a historian working from home during a pandemic. The goal is to widen the lens and to appreciate your ability to carve normalcy and productivity in abnormal and unproductive environments. Take pictures of spilled coffees, pets crumpling up documents, screaming kids, and dead laptops because the chargers are nowhere to be found. At this moment we are reminded that the experience of history is not reserved only for the non-historians. We are active participants and can share our own experiences through imagery on Instagram. Here are subjects that the class will be encouraged to photograph:


Get out the mugs purchased at tourist attractions long ago, the thermoses with alma maters on them, and glittery tumblers from the cupboard. The pursuit of a doctorate degree and life in academia writ large is a mental marathon and not a sprint. Motivation is only part of the equation as it is usually accompanied by a fuel source. No matter how many experts remind me about the importance of water and healthy food for the human body to operate, I am always drawn to my love for coffee, especially iced coffee. There is something psychologically beneficial about sipping a beverage while working. It is like having a personal cheerleader perched on my desk encouraging me to accomplish my objectives for the day. This high feeling, however, waxes and wanes, especially when we are pulled in a million directions. The coffee is left to get cold (or melt) a bug meets its demise in it, or—worse yet—it spills (the worst betrayal). To capture my daily intake is to photograph a large, plastic, Dunkin’ Donuts’ cup with condensation sweat running down the sides and the puddle that accumulated underneath it. I savor every sip through a cracked orange and pink straw that makes sipping rather challenging. The coffee is an almond color because it was adulterated with just enough cream and flavor to mask the bitterness of the bean juice, but not too much to remind me that I am not drinking a milkshake.

The Non-Historians in your Life

Photographing the people who are part of your work from home routine is key, because we are making history more accessible through them. Instead of waiting to formerly thank these individuals in the acknowledgement page of a future book, why not feature them now? Take photos of your spouse reading drafts and making extra pots of coffee. Where are your family members spatially in relation to you? Are they working with you, babbling in a play pen near you, or are they playing outside while you watch their smiling faces through the window and hear their muffled laughs indicating how much fun they are having without you? For those who are twenty-eight year-olds currently living with their parents and younger sister like myself, the dynamic is a bit different. For me, my sister, Raychelle, has helped me to decode nineteenth century cursive and now shares a feeling of accomplishment when we untangle the writer’s words. The ideal photos to capture these moments would be Raychelle leaning over my laptop and squinting her eyes and then both of us laughing because we thought the document said something that a nineteenth century writer would definitely not say. She is, however, not my only helper.

People assume all “non-historians” are human, but that is not the case. There is an important colleague of mine who recently entered the arena and met my fellow graduate students, my advisor, along with the entire University of Kentucky history department during a virtual happy hour. This colleague has four paws and will swat you faster than a peer reviewer looking at your proposed article for the first time. Her name is Shnelly Werking, a calico cat, that loves papers. I know what you are thinking—She sounds like a great secretary! Not so much. While I would love her to collate papers and organize filing cabinets, her specialty is being a personal shredder. Shnelly bites pieces of paper and then sleeps on them. She is by far my harshest critic. Even my amazing advisor, Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor, who always provides constructive comments and challenges me to think critically, is too caring and supportive to ever bite pieces of my drafts! I think the best visual I can give my audience is a picture of Shnelly curled up on my papers for dear life as if they are the only materials she has to sleep on, when in reality she has at least five beds.

Stop Curating the Environment

Historians do not work in a vacuum and are shaped by their environments and experiences. I never thought the UK history department would see the inside of my house in East Greenbush, New York, but it’s a new day and the world is our oyster. Although I have lived in Lexington, Kentucky, for the past few years, I am currently living with my parents and younger sister and back in my childhood bedroom—adorned with posters from my Popstar magazines circa 2005. I leave these relics on the wall and expose the contents of this living time capsule to the world, rather than manufacture a more academic setting. Zoom opened a window into the parts of our lives that would not normally be seen when meeting with faculty, fellow graduate students, and undergraduate students. It is sobering, because we are reminded that we are humans, and like the retelling of history, we are also complicated and textured. Zoom is symbolic of new found accessibility and engagement with each other. We took meaningless chatter with colleagues in department hallways for granted. We were like ships passing in the night serving as reminders of civilization beyond cloistered offices and cubicles. Today we peer into a camera for human interaction. Trips to libraries and cafés have been replaced with the attractive options of living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and basements.

The pandemic has broadened the definition of a “desk,” and perhaps, for the better. One impediment to starting my own work is often a cluttered desk with sentimental items because it was repurposed as a shelf and I resist organizing it. Now, I realize that perfect desks, or perfect times to start writing or researching, do not exist. The random “stuff” peaking out of the corner of our zoom backgrounds serves a purpose. It reminds us of the labor put into life, memories, and family. It also reminds us that we are capable of working on the scholarly task at hand because we value the past whether it be in remembering times in our own lives, or thinking critically about the past for our scholarly work. Documenting new work environments is showing it all. Is your laptop actually on a desk or is it strategically propped up on an item that you did not know you needed for success until this year? One professor told me that her Trivial Pursuit box doubles as a computer stand. How stretched is the charger from the outlet to the side of your laptop? You do not need to measure the distance, but rather display the length of the stretched wire using the panorama lens if needed.

In a sense, the pandemic has embedded historians deeper in their element—buried in books, stacked papers, and hundreds of archival photos not looked at since 2017. Showing less than perfect lives makes historians more relatable to undergraduates trying to find their place in the world and non-historians who are making sense of it. In this moment, we are having a shared historical experience—working from home with loved ones. While the classrooms are empty and the archives are closed, our teaching, writing, and passion are not canceled. History is the story of the human experience, and we do not stop being “humans” ourselves when we research, and write, history.

[Cassy Jane Werking is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Kentucky.]

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