As academics, University of Redlands Professors Heather King and Youna Kwak have always known the value of reading, writing, and examining stories. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, added a sense of urgency to their interest. King, who teaches English, and Kwak, who teaches French as the Ronald D. and Cheryl N. Lossett Endowed Visiting Professor, applied for and received a California Humanities grant to create Plague Stories, an event series to facilitate conversations about how the public health crisis has impacted our lives. Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with King and Kwak about the project’s goals and the importance of using the humanities as a framework for understanding.
Bulldog Blog: What is Plague Stories and what is it aiming to accomplish?
Heather King: Plague Stories is a cheeky title for us to use, but we’re trying to get at what we’ve all been calling “unprecedented” in the last 18 months. Pandemics like this are, in fact, precedented—in history, literature, and other cultural records. We have a lot of experience as a species: about the questions, fears, problems, solutions, comforts, and glimmers of hope that come with this territory. We’re hoping that, by highlighting some key stories within our shared cultural archives and using those as frameworks to process our current situation, we can show how the humanities help us make sense of our lives and how they are the study of what makes us human and what it means to be human.
BB: You received a $5,000 California Humanities grant for this project. How did you come up with the idea for it?
King: I was talking to [U of R Professor of History] Pat Wing in the summer of 2020, and he had just read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I had read it in 2019. As we were talking, I realized that we should host some public conversations and talk to people about how we're reading these novels as humanists. Shortly after this, I ran into Youna when we had both walked to Smiley Library, and in talking with her it quickly became apparent she was the perfect person to partner with. For a California Humanities for All project to be considered for a grant, you have to know what you’re going to do with the money you’re asking for, what audience you’re targeting, and how you plan to reach out to them. Thanks in part to [Director of the Center for Spatial Studies] Steve Moore, who helped us put the grant proposal together, and [Associate Controller] Katie Millsom, who assisted with budgetary concerns, we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do when we shared it with California Humanities, which graciously decided to back the project.
Youna Kwak: Heather has been extremely enterprising in trying to get the work of the University beyond the boundaries of campus. It seemed like a very appropriate grant for this purpose. When she reached out to me, I had been teaching a Johnston seminar called Viral, during which we read novels, short stories, and plays—Station Eleven was one of them—about pandemic situations, some of them very contemporary and a couple of them written eerily close to the time that the COVID-19 pandemic started. It was a great test situation for having these academic and critical conversations about novels that seemed to help us flesh out the stories of our lives that weren't being told through statistics and data. It’s really interesting that, in these fictional worlds, we were able to flesh out that story a lot more.
BB: What do you have planned for programming?
Kwak: Three kinds of events make up Plague Stories. One is a series of roundtable discussions in which we invite humanities faculty, students, and alumni to talk about the texts and from the perspectives of their disciplines and the ways that the humanities helped them make sense of the moment we're going through. Our first event in the series is next week and will feature Professor of French Frank Bright, Professor of Philosophy James Kreuger, Professor of History Pat Wing, and Redlands East Valley High School English Chair Sean Malloy ’09. In April, there's going to be a One City One Book discussion in April at A.K. Smiley Public Library. During that event, we will provide guidelines and discussion questions and have a public conversation about Station Eleven. That weekend, there will also be an event at The Frugal Frigate for younger readers of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Fever 1793. And lastly, we’ve created a Flipgrid account so that community members can all record their own “plague stories.” We hope to create an archive of those videos for the benefit of generations to come.
BB: Why is it important to use the lens of humanities for these stories?
Kwak: The sense of hope and excitement that Heather and I have experienced organizing this project is reflective of what you can get from immersing yourself in the continuity of stories that the humanities tell. It has been a very difficult time for all of us, and there have been many times when it has felt a little hopeless. So, it's not about giving a sense of easy optimism or false hope, but looking at stories to see that we’ve been through this before. There's a continuity here. You can look back and see the experiences of those that have come before us and what they did with those experiences, how they processed them, how they worked through them. You can take a step back and see the way humanity keeps going. It provides a sense of relief and belonging. We're all part of it. Our stories are individual, but they're also part of this arc, and it's important to preserve them.
King: Also, there have been so many op-eds written about the crisis of the humanities, whether anyone's still studying them, and how they are supposed to be funded. So, humanists end up in this position of apology saying, “Well, yes, it's a humanities field. But employers really do value those skills, we have the soft skills that you'll need.” Plague Stories is an opportunity to show that these skills really are central to the human experience, and that, whatever career you pursue, the humanities can help you pursue a life and make sense of it.
BB: What is your big hope for the series? What do you want people to learn?
Kwak: We tried to structure these roundtables in as open a way as possible. It's a public discussion that we frame and open up to anyone who wants to participate. For people who do this as a profession, the humanities are integrated into our thinking in a way that is actually true for many people, they just don't call it that. The first thing I did when we went into lockdown was pick up The Plague by Albert Camus. It's not because I'm a professor of French; it's because reading books is a way that I process things. I think that's true for a lot of people. Stories, in whatever form, are very important for people in their everyday lives. So, I would love it if people got more in touch with the way that the humanities are naturally integrated into the fabric of our lives, the way we think, and the way we process. You don't have to be a professor of literature to be somebody for whom the humanities are important. I would love to come together around that idea and theme.
King: I'm looking forward to some great conversations with colleagues. We have such brilliant, interesting, funny, compassionate, insightful colleagues, and to have a chance to sit down with them and talk about this whole experience and how we're making sense of it—I'm really excited for that. Additionally, I’m excited to be able to make a conversation open to the larger Redlands community and am eager to hear the stories of our neighbors, as well as revitalize the University's role as a conversational partner with the community, specifically around the humanities. We have a strong track record of participating in the community. There's a lot of really great stuff going on, but I want to add more to that conversation and find more ways to talk to, work with, and serve as a resource for the community.