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Message From the Chair

Chair’s Welcome Spring 2020—Covid 19 edition

Normally I write my “Chair’s Welcome” for the department website toward the close of the summer, as the new academic year looms. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the current moment, however, the start of Spring Quarter 2020 seems propitious for checking with the larger UCLA history community and all the users of this website.

As I write, the history department and indeed all of Bunche Hall are dark and the doors are locked.  The campus, along with the City of Los Angeles and the state of California, adopted physical distancing practices toward the end of winter quarter, as the Covid-19 virus began to spread rapidly among people in the United States. The contagion went from being a distant horror to an immediate crisis, and over a series of days the university put into place policies that virtually closed the campus. Students travelled home when they could or holed up in apartments when they could not, faculty were told not to come into their offices, and staff scrambled to prepare the department for working remotely. Every day new directives came out, and the reality of global pandemic became impossible to ignore. As of this writing, to the best of my knowledge, UCLA’s history community is safe and well.

We have turned—hastily but energetically—to remote teaching. We are not calling what we are doing “online teaching” because that phrase usually refers to a fairly sophisticated delivery system for educational content, one that takes time, resources, and expertise to put into place. Ironically, perhaps, the department’s undergraduate studies committee had scheduled the second in a series of discussions of our relationship to online teaching. The committee meeting to continue the debate over the value and future of this platform had to be postponed indefinitely, so that we could all scurry home to set up our own distance learning courses. Ten days’ time was all most faculty had, and those who were trying to wrap up Winter in a suddenly remote format had even less time.

Yet, the department rose to the occasion with amazingly good cheer.  Graduate students staged their own informational session on how to pivot to remote instruction. Faculty learned to use “Zoom” so they could join remote training sessions on all aspects of the available technology. Syllabi were revised. Readings, long since ordered at the bookstore or the library, were scanned or exchanged for other options. The volume of my emails—never low—went through the roof, but everyone was understanding and supportive (even when they were panicking). I have never been prouder of this department: its hard-working and conscientious staff, its dedicated faculty, and its brilliant students.

This has not been easy: far from it.  What do you do about a graduate readings course, for instance, when the Young Research Library closes its doors?  How can a graduate teaching assistant run a discussion section if she does not have internet at home? How can anyone work when their children’s schools and daycares are cancelled and their children need their around-the-clock attention even as parents try to focus on translating one or two courses into a different format, or participate in online meetings with toddlers underfoot?  Some problems have proven intractable, like the lack of internet; others appear likely to grow worse, as colleagues or their family members fall ill.

Yet, in this department, we persevere. We teach our students, we support our colleagues, and we consider our current crisis from perspectives that are enriched by our historical knowledge. Watch this site for information about our contribution to the conversations that are going on—if remotely—around this crisis. Assuming we can get our regular business of teaching our students underway, we will be posting about how the pandemic has changed teaching, learning, and research here at UCLA.

In the meantime, if you would like to donate to the UCLA community in time of crisis, I suggest:

All of us at the UCLA Department of History hope that you are safe and well, and that you and yours weather this crisis.

Carla Pestana
Department Chair
Professor
Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World