Skip to Main Content

History of the present

Yale School of Medicine students and professors pioneer a class that teaches thinking historically about current events.

Kirsten Scharer, a first-year nursing student, is studying how family practitioners are adapting to telehealth technology during the coronavirus pandemic. Medical student Isaiah Thomas is looking for parallels to our times in post-apocalyptic episodes of the Cold War-era television show The Twilight Zone. Prerak Juthani, also a medical student, makes 60-second Tik Tok videos that decode the science of coronavirus for a general audience. Jessica He, who’s pursuing dual degrees in nursing and public health, is collecting Cantonese recipes for dishes that give her comfort.

All have undertaken these projects for “COVID-19 Pandemic: ‘History of the Present,’” a six-week pass/fail elective for students whose clinical clerkships have been disrupted by the coronavirus. While three other new electives offer a more didactic approach to the pandemic and its epidemiology, this course asks its medical, nursing, public health, and undergraduate students to reflect on their experiences of the pandemic. Part graduate seminar and part therapy session, the course will also leave a historical record—the students’ projects and reflections—that will be made available to later scholars and historians.

“This elective recognizes that we’re all living this together in our own ways,” said Joanna Radin, PhD, associate professor in the history of medicine, one of five course facilitators.

With their clerkships suspended, students are trying to advance their studies and also serve their communities. Some are studying for the boards, while others do research or take other electives. They have volunteered to provide child care for clinicians, do contact tracing, and check in with patients whose appointments have been cancelled. Those experiences are the backbone of the course for many.

“We wanted people to interpret their experiences, share their experiences, and provide mutual aid in the space of medical education,” Radin said. “That is something that we all believe should be not an exceptional feature of medical education but something that physicians need in order to do their jobs in the best way possible.”

Their guides through the course include Anna Reisman, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine; Maya Sandler, a doctoral candidate in the history of medicine; Marco Ramos, MD, PhD ’16, a resident in psychiatry; and Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako, a medical student taking a fifth year for research.

The idea came to Tiako during a medical school town hall in March. “Why don’t we make a course about how everything that we’re doing in this moment relates to social sciences and medical humanities?” he asked. He broached the idea to Radin, and they recruited the other facilitators. They also sought advice from John Harley Warner, PhD, chair and the Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine.

“At a time when everyone, to one extent or another, feels a little helpless, the elective was fully in line with the history of medicine mission at the School of Medicine,” said Warner, who came up with the title. “There is a widespread misconception that history is about the past. History is never just about the past—it is a dialogue between the past and the present.”

More than 60 students signed up for the course. “We’ve been thrilled by the level of involvement, considering all the different things students are juggling,” said Sandler.

From early April through the first week of May, students met in small groups on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and in one-on-one sessions with instructors every other week. The course leaders tried to steer them away from traditional research projects. “We encouraged them to use their own personal experiences of what it was like to live during the pandemic as a starting point,” said Ramos.

Melissa Grafe, PhD, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, is working with archivists at the medical school, Yale New Haven Hospital, and Yale University to create an accessible repository for documents pertaining to the pandemic, as well as the student projects and reflections. “What I’m seeing is a very active focus on archiving the present in a way that I don’t think has been done at this level before,” she said.

“For those of us who can’t be on the front line with patients every day, this is a way that we can contribute to the history of what is going on,” said Scharer, the nursing student.

“It will be an incredible resource for future historians,” said Warner. “From earlier epidemics like yellow fever or cholera, historians have tended to rely on diaries or letters. Those are wonderful sources, but they are very hard to get your hands on.”

Students’ weekly reflections may be a few paragraphs, a few pages, or, in some cases, said Reisman, a single sentence: “I couldn’t write anything this week—I was overwhelmed.” He, the nursing and public health student, didn’t start out collecting recipes. Her initial project stemmed from slurs hurled her way. “I’d be just walking, and I’d be called a Chinese bitch,” she said. Documenting anti-Asian posts on social media became more than she could bear, and she changed her project. “I was more than halfway through the course and I couldn’t do it,” she said. “The instructors were really supportive. They understood where I was coming from.”

For his studies of The Twilight Zone, Thomas is looking at how the show portrays the behavior of authorities in a crisis. “I’ve been thinking about how we decide which authorities we listen to. One of the big questions is, how do we know who is the right authority?”

Juthani began posting videos, some of which have logged more than 500,000 visitors, because he loves teaching science. “This is the first time in my life that science is the number one thing that everyone is tracking in the news every day,” he said. “I wanted to be taking part in the way that people perceive headlines. Some of these headlines can be misinterpreted. Sometimes they can be difficult to understand.”

“We had a very simple goal,” said Radin, “which wasn’t to reinvent the wheel, but to harness the resources that we had to support students in just taking stock of the circumstances they were in, and creating a space for conversation about what they want and need out of their experience.”