Annie Thorn is senior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week, Annie writes about her experience as a judge at the 2021 National History Day—JF
When I started studying in the Messiah University Department three years ago, I learned that “the past is a foreign country.” We normally use this phrase to talk about how the passage of time changes how we think, act, and live our lives. Much like those who live in a foreign country, the people who lived in the past often see the world through a different pair of lenses than we do in the present.
I’ve seen this phenomenon play out a lot recently. After a year of social distancing, pictures from 2019 feel like they were taken centuries ago. Movies and TV shows that depict bustling music concerts, packed sports stadiums and crowded hallways seem like they were filmed in some parallel universe. Within five minutes one can usually tell if a piece of media was created in “pre-COVID times,” an era that seems to be descending into distant memory.
Just a little over a year ago, Messiah hosted hundreds of students, parents, and teachers on campus for a regional National History Day competition. “COVID-19” was a hot topic in the news, but there were only a few cases reported in the state of Pennsylvania. On the morning of the competition I read an article one of my friends sent me about the virus. The coordinators advised judges to “elbow bump” students instead of shaking their hands. There were a couple extra hand sanitizer dispensers distributed across campus as well, but that was about the extent of our COVID precautions. All the judges gathered in one room for coffee in the morning and ate a catered lunch together after judging was complete. A couple of my fellow history majors and I waited around to announce results on stage in front of a packed recital hall, no masks in sight.
A lot has changed in one year. Last weekend I served as a National History Day judge for the third year in a row. This year the competition was completely virtual. Students uploaded their projects to the National History Day’s server and judges summited evaluation forms online. In a typical year, teachers would painstakingly and personally guide their learners through the processes of choosing a topic, completing research, and putting together a final product in the form of a paper, website, documentary, exhibit, or performance. Teachers normally attend the competition with their students, giving them a pep talk before their interview with the judges and doling out hugs, high fives, and congratulations when they advance to the next level of the competition. This year, many students submitted their entries after many challenging months of virtual and hybrid learning. Teachers and parents cheered for their students and children virtually, reminding other parents to mute their microphones as results were announced. This year there was no catered lunch, and there certainly wasn’t a crowded room of parents, teachers and hopeful students waiting anxiously for the awards ceremony.
About one year ago, as schools closed, large gatherings were canceled, and stay-at-home orders were put in place, we wondered how quickly things would go “back to normal.” But the more time we spend in a global pandemic and the longer I study history, the more I realize that “normal” is not so easy to define. It’s not something that we can simply go back to. History is a complex series of continuities and changes–for better and for worse. It’s a chain of “new normals,” one after another after another.
Maybe next year, Messiah’s National History Day competition will be a little more “normal.” Maybe there will be free lunch and breakfast for judges, and a packed room of mask-less students rushing up to the stage when their names are announced at the awards ceremony. Maybe we will shake their hands. It’s hard to be sure what National History Day, and our world in general, will look like at this time next year, so I will refrain from making predictions. But I do think we can expect students to come to future NHD competitions with projects about the “new normal” that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to their lives and the lives of their communities.