While numbers and statistics are essential components in navigating the coronavirus pandemic, they often distance us from the realities experienced by individual people. Researchers in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences hope to tell a different story by addressing the pandemic from a humanistic perspective.
Funded by the WVU Humanities Center through an endowment from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, these projects offer a voice to those living in smaller towns and rural areas while addressing potential gaps in understanding life in Appalachia during this crisis.
“Because the humanities help us make sense of our lives and times by studying how people process and document the human experience, they are a powerful way of examining life during this pandemic,” said Rhonda Reymond, associate director of the Humanities Center. “The Humanities Center is pleased we can contribute to the greater understanding of how COVID-19 is affecting individuals and communities in our region by supporting these creative and critical research projects.”
A view from a flood-ravaged community
Assistant Professor of Geography Jamie Shinn is documenting the social impacts of life during the pandemic in collaboration with residents of Rainelle, West Virginia. Participants are taking photographs of their experiences of hope and hardship during the pandemic through a process called photovoice.
“Photovoice is a great tool for capturing stories because it allows research participants to capture their own particular lived experience, through their own lens – literally! It is especially useful right now because I am unable to travel to do fieldwork in person,” Shinn said. “Photovoice is allowing me to gather rich data without compromising the safety of participants. Eventually, when it is safe, I plan to conduct in-person interviews and focus groups with participants. I can’t wait to meet the folks that are working on this project with me.”
While we often hear stories on the news from cities and other hot spots around the U.S., Shinn hopes to present a different view of life from rural West Virginia.
“Hearing the perspective of Rainelle residents will broaden our understanding of what life is like right now in the country,” she said. “Even though our overall case count in West Virginia is fairly low, the pandemic is impacting the lives of people here as well as the economies of the small towns in which they live. I hope this project will help to illuminate that perspective.”
Shinn has been interested in returning to Rainelle to do more research since she first studied the effects of the 2016 floods.
“I have stayed in touch with some people down there since that time, and when COVID-19 happened, I wondered what life was like for them,” she said. “In initial conversations with my contacts there, I was struck by how they connected ongoing flood recovery efforts to the new hardships imposed by the pandemic.”
Now, she hopes to understand how the pandemic is intersecting with flood recovery and relief efforts along with other issues in the town.
“During my original research in Rainelle, I was also struck by how the community worked together to respond to the floods, with people often putting aside their own needs to help neighbors that were hit harder by the floods,” Shinn said. “I am curious to learn if that same sense of community spirit and neighborliness is also part of the response to this very different crisis.”
Experiencing the pandemic in a closed religious group
Using newspaper narratives written by members of Amish communities, Associate Professor of Sociology Rachel Stein and her team are examining community members’ lived experiences of social isolation and how the pandemic has affected their cultural and social practices.
When the pandemic began, the team made up of Stein, Associate Professor of Sociology Katie Corcoran, Associate Professor of Sociology Corey Colyer and doctoral student Sara Guthrie were working on a project about how the Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio, responded to a 2014 measles outbreak. They noted a similar response to COVID-19 and switched their focus to the ongoing pandemic.
“Our goal is to identify how the Centers for Disease Control’s social distancing guidelines have been implemented in the Amish community – a community in which the primary means of communication and interaction is face to face,” Stein said. “We expect the Amish will experience increased social isolation, as they cannot rely on technology like telephones and the internet to maintain communication with friends and family.”
Amish leaders have published guidelines in the community’s newspaper, The Budget, that parallel the national CDC guidelines about social distancing and other preventive measures related to COVID-19. The Holmes County General Health District has also distributed literature on COVID-19 protection directly to the Amish population.
“We note that while some Amish communities are following such guidelines, other communities have a more liberal interpretation of the guidelines or are not following guidelines at all,” Stein said. “Our hope is to provide this information to the community leaders who can work with the Amish population to help manage the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.”
Measuring the cultural costs of a global crisis
The pandemic has also had a profound impact on museums and historic sites in West Virginia. Teaching Assistant Professor of History Jennifer Thornton and her team are conducting a statewide study to help identify the needs and challenges encountered during times of crisis by these predominantly small, rural, public-facing humanities and cultural institutions.
“During the early days of the pandemic, I read news stories discussing how large, urban museums were struggling to adapt to the pandemic. If these relatively well-funded and supported organizations were struggling, how were museums and historical sites in West Virginia faring?” Thornton said. “So often, rural cultural institutions are overlooked by both the media and funding institutions. The WVU Humanities Center grant provided the perfect opportunity to learn from museum professionals across the state struggling to navigate these extraordinary and challenging times.”
Like cultural institutions across the nation, museums in the Mountain State have shuttered their doors, canceled events, transitioned to remote work, furloughed staff and suffered significant financial losses. When compared to cultural sites in other states, West Virginia museums are more likely to be small institutions located in rural and sometimes remote areas.
“Because of their size and locations, West Virginia museums may be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that are not well understood by professional and funding organizations more familiar with urban institutions,” Thornton said. “These cultural institutions are crucial centers of community, heritage and learning. To provide effective support for these organizations, we need to understand what is happening on the ground in our region to understand what they need to weather the COVID-19 crisis.”
In collaboration with the West Virginia Association of Museums, the team of Thornton, history doctoral student and WVAM board member Danielle Petrak, and public administration student Miranda Heitz is investigating the challenges West Virginia museums and historic sites are facing.
“Through our research, we hope to develop robust tools that effectively support cultural institutions and deal with the conditions unique to our region. Our initial research suggests that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for the complex issues facing museum professionals during this crisis,” Thornton said. “It is unrealistic to assume that strategies that work for large, urban museums will address the needs of the smaller, more rural museums and historic sites serving communities in Appalachia.”
They are conducting interviews with frontline museum professionals across the state to understand how the pandemic is affecting their work.
“We hope to use the data collected from this project to tailor our workshops, conference sessions and other programs to meet the needs of West Virginia museums in this stressful time and under these unforeseen circumstances,” Petrak said. “A collaborative opportunity like this one has provided us with some momentum to keep moving forward and working to help the museums in our state in new ways. It is an excellent learning and outreach opportunity for our organization and our members.”
For Heitz, a student in the Master of Public Administration and the Cultural Resource Management certificate programs, this experience has affirmed the necessity of cultural institutions in building strong communities.
“Despite the circumstances created by the pandemic, I have had the opportunity to interact with professionals from cultural institutions across the state. It has been rewarding both as a means of networking and as a way to learn about what it takes for an institution — and the individuals that staff it — to thrive in the face of an unexpected crisis,” she said. “I am fortunate to learn firsthand about what works, what doesn’t work and what might work better if it were done differently next time. Learning from these institutions has provided me with greater clarity in my own professional goals.”