My 2020 Synthesis: Empathy and Survival through the Lens of Pandemic Research

by Ashton Reynolds

Summer 2020 Combined Planning Meeting for Class of Covid and Voices of SMU Oral History Projects


This past summer, I served as a Project Manager for the Class of COVID Oral History Project.  This project was initially conceived to record and document the feelings, thoughts, and actions of students graduating from SMU in the COVID disrupted 2020 spring semester.  Additionally, we were interested in how the faculty and staff who assisted those students navigated the unexpected trials and hurdles brought on by COVID.  However, not long into June, it became clear that this project represented more than our participants’ reflections of the spring semester.  Our project found itself in the midst of a pandemic that would extend past the spring and be met with the largest civil unrest since the Civil Rights Movement.  The Class of COVID project was indelibly shaped by the history it sought to record.

Naturally, the necessary resource for an oral history project is people to interview.  Our team took a multifaceted approach to identifying possible interviewees.  We contacted the appropriate university office for a list of graduating students.  In addition to that, we contacted individual departments within the various colleges of the university for assistance in identifying graduating students they felt might be interested in participating in our project.  Finally, and with perhaps the most success, we reached out to people within our own academic and social circles at SMU to interview. These people not only provided us with fruitful interviews about their own lives and experiences; they also made beneficial suggestions for other interviewees.

Because of the pandemic, all of our interviews were conducted via Zoom.  Once the interviews were recorded into Zoom, we uploaded them into a transcription software program called Otter.  Once Otter returned the transcripts to us, we then proofread the transcript for accuracy. After our initial edit of the transcripts, we sent them to another team member to review.  When the transcript was fully vetted, it was then added into Box along with its pertinent information and metadata to be archived in the SMU archives.  In order to facilitate the most truthful answers to our questions, our team agreed to embargo each interview for 16 years, with confidential access limited to SMU students and faculty conducting applicable research.

Approach to Ethics

I approached Class of COVID from both ethical and historical perspectives.  My grant from the Maguire Center not only necessitated an ethical approach but gave me license to pursue an investigation of present events and people’s responses to them as a trained historian.  While historians work in the past, the impetus of our investigations is very much based in the present.  Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes in Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History that the past itself is only the past because of its relation to the present.

The past exists “over there” only because we are “here.”  Pastness, events that we conceive of as before our time, are less a reality and more a position of our conception.  We remember and consider events of the past from the values and concerns of the current moment. As a historian and a person who has grown increasingly concerned with our present ethical considerations in light of the pandemic, our work caused me to wonder about the vitality of our project overtime. I wondered if future societies would revisit our research as an ethical framework for evaluating what they perceived as the past.

Line of Questioning

We wanted our line of questioning to be as objective as possible in order to gain clear and honest answers from interview participants.  We did not want our interviewees to answer our questions in ways that suited our preferences.  Instead, we wanted honest and unvarnished information.  In this vein, we chose a tone of inquiry that avoided confrontation. However, we did ask one question that was more direct – and possibly jarring – than the others. We wondered,

“What do you think your responsibilities are as a human during the pandemic?”

We ended the interview with this question. And although it was asked with no motives for emotional disruption, the very nature of the question makes presumptions about the validity of personal responsibility during a crisis, which could possibly prompt internal/and or external conflict. The answer to this question goes beyond a simple reaction. Interviewees must delve into introspection about what humanity means to them and their place within the community of humanity. Arguably, it is impossible for one to express individual humanity apart from community.

                                                                                 Historical PerspectiveAs a history PhD student, I spent the summer conducting research for my dissertation as I simultaneously worked on Class of Covid.  As I considered the answer to our question about human responsibility, I considered the way this question is considered within the academic discipline of history.  For example, as I read Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, I was struck by the way Christopher Columbus evaluated the indigenous peoples he encountered as not fully human until they adopted Christianity and paid some type of penance. The idea of penance was used to justify Columbus’ decision to enslave them.

Simultaneously, I read Benjamin Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier which describes the struggles of the Mormons to be seen as human both in light of the Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the Mormon Extermination Order, and their struggle to thrive as a marginalized group in a democratic system that privileged the majority.  Previous research for my MA thesis examined the ways in which African American Baptists and Methodists during Reconstruction in Texas refused to accept less-than-human offerings of fellowship from white church members and chose instead to form their own church bodies where they could express the full dignity of their humanity.

These examples of ways in which people have used power to objectify and degrade others have caused me to believe that times of trial do not bring out the best in societies.  I used to be more optimistic, but I am less sure as I study history and live through our current times.  Conversely, my research with Class of COVID has led me to conclude that many, if not most people, are very concerned with personal ethics.  Certainly, our interviewees do not want to get the virus.

But through our interviews, I noticed that the overwhelming pattern was that the safety of others dominated our participants’ concern. This leads me to ponder whether the personal ethics that guide the individual will guide society as a whole. Will individual responsibility translate into public virtue? I believe there is a disconnect between the personal ethics of individuals and the communal ethics instituted by institutions, organizations, and governments.  Granted, our Covid project presents only a small sample of people. But it is clear that the personal ethics of people who prioritize the welfare of others often isn’t visible in the goals of the larger bodies these individuals comprise.

This does not mean that institutions, organizations, and governments are completely devoid of an ethical framework to care for the wellbeing of the people who are affected by their decisions.  I do think, however, that fully considering the humanity of the individuals that comprise these larger groups complicate how institutions attain their goals and needs.  This is a well-worn historical pattern and not new to the COVID-19 era.  For example, although the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom, there was once fear that Mormon’s threatened to upset the balance of political power in the expanding United States because of their reputation for operating in political solidarity.

Another example is the refusal of white churches in Texas and across the South to grant African Americans full membership within their congregations, despite the progress of the 13th, 14th, and 15 amendments. African-Americans were functionally abandoned by white congregants and the Republican party in the name of “healing the nation.”  This leaves me pondering, why do institutions, organizations, and governments eschew the creativity and courage to accomplish their goals and needs in an ethical manner that considers the full humanity of the individuals without whom they could not exist?

“Greater Good”

The answer must be that institutions, in contrast to many of the individuals we interviewed for Class of COVID, make their ethical decisions based on institutional survival which allows great latitude in sacrificing the individuals who comprise them under the banner of ensuring the “greater good.”  What is insidious about the “greater good” is how easily it becomes a neat default for institutions and their leaders to avoid the hard work of creativity and compassion.  The “greater good” is a salve to the conscience of institutions and their leaders that is unavailable to rank and file individuals that comprise the institutions.

Individuals must confront their humanity, one way or the other.  They can choose to eschew empathy and the action that derives from it, but they run the risk of rightly being judged inhumane for it.  Institutions and their leaders on the other hand can look at the faceless, story-less individual and jettison their wellbeing or association.  Here we recognize that the “greater good” does not equate to “greater majority.”  The “greater good” is the idea of the institution, paradoxically, not the individuals who comprise it.

Too often we look to the past for motivation for our ethical structures of the present.  If we take Trouillot at his word and view the past not as something of substance, but a position dependent on the present, then we can reorient the source of our ethics where it belongs, in the present.  Historical justifications, after all, are really simply dressed-up present desires.  If institutions do one thing well, it is the positive creation of their own history.  Their histories tend to emphasize the accomplishments and trials of the institution, drawing in the histories of individuals that serve the institution’s interests, as needed.  While this is a good historical approach for institutional survival and promotion, it is a poor approach for confronting ethical challenges brought on by events like pandemics.  It develops institutional glory, which is at best useless when confronting ethical challenges, and sometimes it is much worse.

Institutions must eschew institutional glory for institutional empathy.  To accomplish this, institutions – be they government, university, religious body, or corporation — must accept the notion of the past as a concept relative to our present reality.  With this mentality, the histories of the individual are not subsumed, or even redacted, to the history of the institution, but become pertinent and visible as a crucial part of the institution.  Once his/her history is accepted, the individual’s present realities and worth become undeniable.  Thus, the institution truly acts in its own benefit, as it becomes fully aware that it only exists through the individuals who comprise it.  Empathy is then the derivative of institutional history and not the illusion of glory.





Crosspost: Some Thoughts on the First Ever Mexican American Civil Rights Tour

SMU PhD Alum Ruben A. Arellano wrote a post about this exciting Spring Break trip, in which he collaborated with fellow SMU history PhD Carla Mendiola:

Carla contacted me only a few weeks ago to help her find Dallas activists who could speak to the students surrounding issues relating to the Chicano movement.  Due to the suddenness of the request, I found it difficult finding speakers, but with the help of Evelio Flores (long time Chicano activist and jefe de danza azteca), we were able to track down Luis Sepulveda to speak to the students.  Sepulveda grew up in West Dallas, a neighborhood that he cares about deeply, and he’s been fighting against lead contamination and radiation pollution in that part of the city since the 1980s.  In addition to all of his accomplishments, he served as Dallas County Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, for many years.  There was no doubt in our minds that he was the perfect candidate for the job.  Moreover, when Carla discovered that I was part of a danza group, she asked if the group could do a brief presentation for the kids—we did and they loved it!

The resonated with Arellano’s own background as an SMU student, when he participated in the school’s famous Civil Rights pilgrimage, led by Dennis Simon.  Read the full post here:

Some Thoughts on the First Ever “Mexican American Civil Rights Tour”

New Book Announcement from SMU History Alum David Rex Galindo!

By David Rex Galindo, SMU PhD 2010, Professor in the Facultad de Artes Liberales at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Santiago, Chile

I am very pleased to announce in our history department’s blog that my book To Sin No More: Franciscans and Conversion in the Hispanic World, 1683-1830 will be published by Stanford University Press and the Academy of American Franciscan History in a few weeks.

I started this project as a graduate student in the William P. Clements Department of History at SMU in 2004 under the guidance of Peter Bakewell and the late David Weber. The bulk of my research and a first draft as a doctoral dissertation was conducted thanks to the support I received from my two advisors, two readers (Ed Countryman and Martin Nesvig), the history department, the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, and the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. I cannot think of a better place to fulfill my dream of becoming a professional historian and an academic. My two advisors guided and nurtured my intellectual development with generosity, kindness, humanity, and professionalism.

The history department is a hub of intellectual brainstorming that excels in many historical fields, but particularly what interests me the most: borderlands history. I was impressed by the dedication that SMU history faculty gives to graduate students and how we were encouraged to play a pivotal role in the scholarly discussions within the department and beyond. Throughout my six years as a graduate student at SMU, I created a community of friends that will last forever. I have to say that those were some of the best years of my life at both the personal and professional levels. I therefore want to use this venue to express my gratitude to SMU’s history graduate program, the history department and its members and to all the graduate students who have made and are making our graduate program a global reference and a fantastic place to study and work.

Even before my arrival to Texas, I have always been interested in the history of the Spanish frontiers in North America, particularly the institution of the frontier mission. But studying the missions implied learning about the Franciscan missionaries as well as the missionized. While I encountered a good amount of works that focus on the latter when I started my project, I also found that we knew little on the missionaries, particularly their lives before they reached the frontiers of the Spanish empire. Where did Franciscans come from? What did they learn and how? How were their daily lives? Did they have other evangelical experiences? What type of Catholicism(s) did they practice and taught?

To Sin No More is the result of over a decade of research to find answers to these questions in Franciscan archives, national archives, and libraries on both sides of the Atlantic. The book introduces the reader into the recruiting processes, the Franciscan missionary colleges’ daily operations, the missionary classroom, the dining-hall, the spirituality, and the evangelical ministry to Catholics as well as non-Christians. Overall, I show that what happened in frontier areas like Texas was part of a global enterprise of conversion that sought to introduce Catholicism anew to independent native peoples as much as to revitalize the faith among Catholics in places like New Spain, Peru, and Spain. This book is my particular approach to mission history and frontier studies, the Franciscan program in the Americas, and Atlantic history. I am thrilled to say that after a decade, the book that I started as a graduate student at SMU’s Ph.D. program in History has finally seen the press. The path has been long but also pleasant.