Making Sense of the Coronavirus Crisis Through Reflective Journaling

Taking a lesson from her Jan Term course, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts and Communication Professor Shawny Anderson has invited the community—students, staff, and faculty—to join in a journaling project that will allow each of us to make sense of the Coronavirus crisis through our own stories—both individually and collectively.

“We’re all going to want to understand this whole situation later, and we’re going to forget some of the beginning parts of it unless we write Shawnythem down,” Anderson said, explaining her idea. “So, that’s what we’re doing.”

In her Jan Term travel courses, students keep daily reflective journals throughout their journeys abroad. “At the end, we take all of those entries, strip out the highly personal/confidential parts, and clump them all together,” Anderson said. “From there, a few of us re-read them all and theme them, noticing interesting patterns and exceptions to the patterns.” 

“In doing so, we get a unique view of the entire experience we have shared, and we learn things about what happened for all of us that we don’t learn about through our other methods of observation (our daily blog, our daily videos, our final videos, our dialogues and discussions onsite, etc.),” Anderson continued. She calls this technique “reflective ethnography.” 

Anderson explained her aha moment. “As the announcement [about the Bay Area’s Shelter in Place Order] came out on that Monday afternoon, I was thinking, Wow, this is such an opportunity for that same methodology to play out in real time,” said Anderson. “So, I just put out a note to some of the people who I thought might possibly do it, and 45 people said, OK.”

What does Anderson suggest we do? “Journal. Reflectively. Don’t just keep a diary of what happened (though your reflections will no doubt revolve around ‘what happened’—or what didn’t happen—at least indirectly). Reflect. Talk about how it feels to be in this moment. Talk about your behaviors in this moment. Talk about what you are learning from this moment. Tie your insights to texts that you know or theories that you see unfolding in new ways around you. Write something every day,” Anderson said.

So far, 14 students and another 30+ faculty and staff are participating, though Anderson hopes this number will rise. “I think it is kind of a therapeutic thing for some of us to just sort of get the thoughts that are in our bodies and our minds out into some text in some way.”

Can’t think what to write, or where to start? Anderson will provide daily prompts for those who could use a hint or suggestion. “I am providing these prompts that might help participants think in some different ways than they were already thinking. But everybody is welcome to ignore the prompts!” she added. 

Here’s a sample of Anderson’s Pandemic Prompts:

We are watching/feeling a different level of attention to resources, including consumer products, as we practice social distancing.  We’ve seen frantic runs on toilet paper, flour, yeast, meat, hand sanitizer and much more.  Of what resources have you become newly aware?  What’s something that you have noticed you “need” in your home environment that you hadn’t noticed a need for before?  What did you imagine you would need that turns out not to be necessary?  How are you managing the resources you currently have available to you?  Have you changed your personal practices (what/when/how much you eat, what/when/how many personal products you use, etc.) due to your new context?  If so, how? What benefits do you see in your own and others’ reduced levels of movement and therefore -- most likely -- consumption? It might be too soon to tell, but can you foresee lasting changes in your own consumer practices resulting from this period of constrained consumption?  Of course, there are much larger macro issues related to resources involved here.  What broader resource issues are occupying your mind?  What hopes do you have related to your reflections on these macro resource issues?

And another writing hint from Anderson:

Focus on the mundane.  There are lots of stats (and curves and graphs) out there that tell the big picture. Tell the little picture about your life and your view of this thing from where you are. Talk about what is going on in your everyday life. That’s the point of this exercise. Feel free to address the big brush strokes, but don’t forget to notice and mention the little ones that you are making.

“I've got a kind of fascination with the mundane and the everyday,” Anderson added. “I think people think what they’re writing is really boring and not even worth writing down, but they don’t notice that they’re capturing this unbelievable moment in the history of humanity. The very normal everyday thoughts and experiences and behaviors are amazing historical data, and that’s how they’ll see them later.”

Currently, participants cannot see what others are writing. “I just want them to have authority over what they’re doing and what they’re saying, and how it’s going, and not have this sense that it’s being monitored at this moment.”

If you’d like to join in the journaling, please send a note to Shawny Anderson at: sanderso@stmarys-ca.edu. She’ll add you to the list and make sure you get the daily prompts, then let you know when it’s time to literally collect our thoughts—together.