I turn here to Part Two of two blog posts on teaching, reading, and writing the apocalypse during a moment of real dystopia. Part One sketched out the initial seven weeks of a class on dystopic fiction and film. Part Two below considers the last seven weeks after the rise of Covid-19 and our move online and centers the writing of four M.A. students, who offer a taste of what it means to journal through a pandemic, to keep, as it were, a plague diary. It was out of those diaries that the cover comic, by Apocalypser Ben Trickey (BA ’20), was created.
In the first weeks of ENGL 745 “Welcome to the Apocalypse,” we read and watched a significant array of twentieth-century U.S. texts that brought us to a series of recurring questions: 1) What does it mean to be human? 2) What does it mean to whitewash the future? and 3) Who gets to craft definitions? In other words, who chooses and publishes these books, produces and casts these films, decides what the future looks like for popular audiences?
As we moved online, we grappled with these questions in light of Afrofuturisms and Indigenous Futurisms, two genres that work against the ways the future has been imagined, until recently, in the vast majority of Sci-Fi/Spec-Fic/Fantasy.
The term “Indigenous Futurisms,” coined by Anishinaabe theorist Grace Dillon, riffs off Afrofuturisms. Yet it has a particular resonance for Native peoples since they’re so often portrayed as “vanishing.” An easy way to illustrate this, which I did in our class zoom meeting, is to ask folks to google “African American” and “Asian American,” and/or “Mexican American,” and take a minute to look at the images that pop up. Next, google “Native Americans.” The differences are stunning.
(If memory serves me right, this exercise came from Alex Red Corn [Osage] and LaVerne Bitsie-Baldwin [Diné], two partners in crime in K-State’s Indigenous Faculty and Staff Alliance.)
Our move to Indigenous Futurisms included fiction by two fantastic queer Indigenous writers: Cherokee Nation author/theorist Daniel Heath Justice and Métis writer Cherie Dimaline. Justice’s fantasy trilogy The Way of Thorn and Thunder: The Kynship Chronicles, an allegorical retelling of Cherokee Removal, and Dimaline’s award-winning dystopic YA novel, The Marrow Thieves, illustrate the radically different and layered ways Indigenous authors imagine differently.
Further, our texts included one full-length film and a number of fantastic Indigenous shorts, which I’ll link here for your viewing pleasure:
- Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes), dir Amanda Strong, writer Leanne Betasamosak Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) (2018, 19 mins)
- The Sixth World, dir. Nanobah Becker (Diné), (2013, 15 min.)
- Tanya Tagaq (Inuk), Retribution (2016, 8 mins.) (Thanks, Naomi Wood!)
- Lisa Jackson (Anishinaabe), Savage (2009, 6:02)
- Thor: Ragnarock, dir. Taika David Waititi (2017, 130 minutes)
For our class, the move online meant a number of changes.
Along with no more groups snacks, we moved our in-class quizzes to a weekly online quiz taken each Thursday by midnight. Our lively in-class conversations became a rich online discussion board. Each week I’d post a class intro with contextual information, videos, and more. Students would answer two questions — I posted ten to twelve to choose from — at a minimum of 200 words each answer and reply to at least one person. (Nearly all my students far exceeded the word limits and replies.) We had optional Thursday afternoon class Zoom chats from 4:00 to 5:00pm.
While there’s a great deal more I could say about our discussions, I’ll make just a few observations before turning to the students’ voices and experiences.
The first is that the questions dystopian texts raise about humanity, race, class, sexuality, and human connection are all, as my smart and observant students regularly pointed out, reflected in the Covid-19 pandemic. Those that had the most were protected, while those that had the least were forced to put themselves on the line. These disparities came up repeatedly in our discussions as we daily saw whose lives were valued and who had the power to define that value. Racial disparities abounded in access to health care, to Covid-19 treatment, and to outcomes for those who contracted the virus. Indigenous nations, for example, have some of the highest infection rates per cap in the country and the lowest number of hospitals. They are counted as “other” in most daily Coronavirus numbers.
Add the reality of these widespread disparity issues to looming job insecurity for nearly everyone in my class and the answer to the question of what does it mean to be human at this particular moment in time turned bleak.
Early in this dystopic reality I heard a news report about the power of journaling to help folks through the realities of loss, fear, and isolation we were facing. That possibility was in my mind as I considered how to adapt our assignments for the current situation. Out of these considerations came the Plague Diaries.
Plague Diaries: “The End is the Beginning”
From the start of “Welcome to the Apocalypse,” I offered an array of possibilities for our final assignment, “The End is the Beginning.” Among these was a traditional research paper, a film, a unit plan for a K-12 class, or a creative response/rewriting of a class text. The post-Covid-19 addition was the Plague Diaries. Every student in the class except one chose that option. (That student’s project, btw, was also fab–they set LeGuin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in post-Covid times.)
The Plague Diaries assignment itself was as follows:
Research suggests journaling during the apocalypse is an effective form of self-care. Because of this, I bring to you final project option 4 — The Plague Diaries — in which you use this class to process WTH we’re dealing with.
Should you choose to write a version of this journal, you will want to begin now and write as you go. This should include 3 or more dated entries per week for five weeks that engage some aspect of the current crisis from a perspective of your choosing. These entries can be academic, or personal and introspective, or a combination of both. As with all other options, they MUST at points engage with secondary material. In this case, that might mean news media, research on responses to crises or epidemics, or alluding to relevant class texts.
The outcomes for this assignment were universally moving, by turns funny and painful. It’s been a privilege to have the opportunity to walk a bit with my students as they processed (& process) this really god-awful dystopic moment. Further, as you’ll see in their responses, this assignment, while creative in kind and conversational in tone, encouraged students to think analytically about class texts, social structures, and the world.
The first Plague Diaries example comes from graduate student Katie Cline (M.A. 20), who won the Graduate Student Service Award from the Department of English and K-State’s Graduate Student Council (GSC) Award for Graduate Student Teaching, and who just earned her M.A. in English and Children’s Literature. When asked to introduce her apocalypse blog, Katie comments:
Writing my Plague Diaries has been one of the (few) unexpected joys of this isolation period. I’m naturally extroverted, so I’ve desperately misses in-person interaction…and there’s only so many hours a day that I can talk to my mom about what the cats did that day. So my blog posts have helped me “communicate,” if mostly with myself. It’s been cathartic and grounding to talk about the books I’m reading or the music I’m listening to. The parallels between our own world and the dystopian lit we’ve been reading hasn’t made me as anxious as I expected, maybe because the protagonists spend a lot of time doing what we’re doing–looking for the good. And that’s something that I try to remind myself of every time I write a post (but, as you’ll see, it doesn’t always work). There’s hope.
May the odds be ever in our favor,
As Katie notes in her latest, post-class blog entry, “Maybe one day 70 years from now, my grandchildren will find this jump drive and plug it into a ‘vintage’ laptop and see all these posts. You know, our equivalent of finding our grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s diaries from World War II and stuff?”
Read more from Katie Cline’s Plague Diaries blog — aka, her Captain’s Log — “Diary of an Extrovert.”
Our second Plague Diaries entry comes from Dustin Vann (B.A ’17, M.A. ’20) who earned his M.A. in English and Creative Writing this month with distinction. Dustin won not only the department’s 2020 Cultural Studies Essay Award, but also the Children’s Literature Association’s M.A. Award for his essay “‘Sissy that walk!’: RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Mainstreaming of Drag Culture in Children’s/Young Adult Literature.” Of his experience writing the Plague Diaries, Dustin writes:
I was initially hesitant to choose The Plague Diaries as my final project for Welcome to the Apocalypse. Would I really want to spend that much time with my own (mostly negative) thoughts about our current pandemic? It turns out, though, that my thoughts weren’t all doom and existential gloom. Through the writing of my Plague Diaries, I was surprised to learn how hopeful I could be during a period of incredible uncertainty about, well, everything. I’m grateful that this assignment became an option for our class’s final project, because despite some of the heavy subject matter of my entries, writing in the diary format allowed me to process all my complicated feelings in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Dustin, who chose a more traditional journal format, considers among many other things, what it means to be queer in the time of Covid-19. Among other questions, Dustin asks, in his journal: “And what does this particular issue — the discriminatory rules surrounding sexually active queer men donating blood/plasma, and the subsequent “relaxing” of these rules — reveal about our society? It tells us that clearly, the world still isn’t ready for queer superheroes.”
Read more from Dustin’s Plague Diaries: ENGL 745 Plague Diaries – Dustin Vann
Our third Plague Diary entry is from Noelle Braaten (M.A. ’20). Noelle was awarded the Expository Writing Most Promising GTA Award and, further, was awarded a distinction for her M.A. project. She says of her work with the Plague Diaries:
When I began working on my plague diaries, I thought it would mostly be a good way of gradually working on a final project while also processing the world’s fight against COVID-19, but I didn’t necessarily expect to put in so much of myself and my own worries during this time period into the project. However, it was putting my personal touches into the diaries through my blog posts that allowed me to enjoy this writing experience and the way it furthered my engagement with our class. I named my blog after the song “Go the Distance” from Disney’s Hercules because of how much we’ve been encouraged to social distance during the past months, but I ended up deciding that I could use more Disney references, song lyrics, and gifs as a way to frame my entries. It’s wild how many Disney connections I tied — with just a little extra effort — to the apocalyptic narratives we read for class and the apocalyptic world we currently live within. As we see how the world continues to face and recover from COVID-19, I do hope to continue writing in this space because it’s turned into a lot more than a school project across these weeks.
Noelle comments in her Plague Diaries blog, “Go the Distance,” “Based on all of the apocalyptic narratives we studied this semester in Welcome to the Apocalypse (the most timely title for a class in history, perhaps!), the end of the world is a lot better when you have people to work with and lean on and survive alongside.”
Read more from Noelle’s Plague Diaries blog.
Our final Plague Diaries blog is that of the smart and thoughtful Lora Kirmer (M.A. ’20), who is both a Presidential Scholar and a Daniel’s Scholarship recipient. Lora completed an M.A. in Communication Studies this month with a Graduate Certificate in Dialogue, Deliberation, and Public Engagement (DDPE) at K-State. Of her experience with the final project, Lora comments:
When I started the semester, I knew we would do some pretty creative projects. I did not know that the most creative project I would engage in would be chronicling my life during a pandemic. The journal project allowed me to engage with the class content in a way that went beyond discussion. Everything we read about in fiction was becoming a little too real. My journal was intended center around relationship building, maintenance, and connection-making, but as the time went on, it morphed into a place where I could write out my feelings and start to make sense of them. The project was extremely cathartic for me because I could write down my thoughts as they wandered, and then tether them to class material. I intend to continue keep this a living project and will write and post as we see the pandemic play out.
Lora’s thoughts on baking has made me long for the lemon cake with buttercream frosting she discusses in an entry on baking. But perhaps most invaluable is her advice for those planning weddings during a pandemic: “Do you have your wedding all planned? Have you spent months agonizing over the smallest of details? Are the deposits made for the venue, food, and photographer? How about every accessory that has The Date stamped, printed, or carved into it, are those done? Did an apocalyptic event come in and make you throw all of that out the window? I can imagine you’re now scrambling, trying to soothe your heartbreak over this special day and re-plan ALL of it for a later date, perhaps not the date you wanted. I’m here to give you some tips about planning a (Western, traditional) wedding during the apocalypse.”
Read more from Lora’s Plague Diaries blog “Connection in Isolation.”
Nearly every student commented that writing the Plague Diaries was a highlight of the semester, and, for many, a concrete coping mechanism that pushed them to record often-difficult thoughts and feelings in these dystopic times.
For my part, reading their Plague Diaries was a privilege that, by turns, made me dance and cry, consider anxiety and think about grief, discover new music and see new connections between our texts and the worlds we inhabit. Ultimately, walking with these writers through Target lines and Taylor Swift riffs encouraged me, despite physical distancing, to find myself connected.
I hope it does the same for you.
I conclude with one last note to my class:
I will miss you. And as Bob Marley (and Robert Neville) would say, thank you for all you do to “light up the darkness.”
— Lisa Tatonetti, Professor