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History and My Pandemic Journal – Steve Rubenfeld

Posted by on Tuesday, October 27, 2020 in Robert Penn Waren Center.


Steve Rubenfeld participated in this summer’s “Rethinking Pandemics: A Cultural History from Antiquity to Now” course offered through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Vanderbilt. OLLI helps adults over 50 rediscover the joy of learning and build community through diverse social interaction. Steve provided a video flip-through of his journal below, followed by his thoughts on the class.


Many equate the study of history to rote memorization of countless names and dates. But the reality is that a mastery of this type of information is just the tip of the historical iceberg. A more inclusive view of history leads us to investigate not only who did what when, but also to search for information that may shed light on the causes of, reactions to, and implications of past events.

For this reason, any comprehensive study of an historical incident, in addition to the dreaded chronology of names and dates, must explore human behaviors, societal characteristics and norms, scientific and medical knowledge of the day, governments and politics, economic forces, along with many other influences. Granted that even when examined through a rigorous and complex set of lenses, history cannot predict the future. However, an analytic study of past events can help us understand how societies coped and evolved, and at the same time better prepare us to understand and react to current or future events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was this expansive view of historical inquiry that shaped my approach to the journaling assignment for Holly Tucker’s “History of Pandemics” course I took this summer. Rather than sequentially entering my observations, I opted to organize the journal topically. I kept asking myself what someone who picked up this journal a year from now or even decades from now might be interested in reading about the Covid-19 pandemic.

I made regular — almost daily — entries under appropriate topical headings about what was happening around me.  Ultimately, the table of contents included a diverse set of sections, such as:  Grocery Shopping; The Passage of Time; Masks; The Work and Learn from Home Revolution; Love, Sex, and Pandemics; Will College Ever be The Same?; Covid Humor; My Neighborhood;  and a dozen or so additional  topics. I also included “Random Thoughts” sections to document spontaneous thoughts that didn’t fit elsewhere.

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly creative person, and never before had regularly documented my thoughts. Was it because “real men” (?) don’t keep diaries? No, even substituting a more manly term such as journal, I never felt I had much worthy of recording or a reason to do so.

But this class project was different. The pandemic provided a conceptual framework and rationale, and the fear of incurring the professor’s wrath was the instrumental motivator. The truth is that unlike most class assignments, working on my journal came to be a true labor of love. Much to my surprise, I totally enjoyed it and never was tempted to use typical student coping behaviors such a big print and wide margins! I found both the journaling experience and product to be so satisfying that I made a photocopy so I could reread it years from now. I want to see what I was thinking so I can tell my granddaughter all about the horrific pandemic of 2020.


Steve Rubenfeld is a retired Business School faculty member. Since moving from Minnesota to Tennessee eight years ago, he has regularly enrolled in OLLI classes at Vanderbilt and has relished both the opportunities to keep learning and being on the “other side of the podium.” He also is a big fan of the hallmarks of life in Middle Tennessee – especially biscuits and country music concerts.