Podcast documents Yale in the time of COVID-19

Students writing postcards in Sterling Memorial Library.
Students writing postcards in Sterling Memorial Library for the Help Us Make History project. (Photo credit: Sydney Holmes)

Yale undergraduate Henry Jacob had planned to spend last summer sifting through archives in the United States and Canada researching a proposed senior thesis on the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secretive militant group that sought to form a slave empire in the Americas during the U.S. Civil War.

The pandemic upended his plans. The archival repositories were closed. His thesis idea was shelved. The inability to access physical records made the rising senior and Saybrook College resident consider the importance of oral histories in capturing events for posterity.

Then Jacob had a conversation with Adam Haliburton ’10 B.A., a resident graduate affiliate at Saybrook who studies East Asian languages and literature. Meant to be an interview for The Yale Historical Review, a campus journal that Jacob edits, it became a two-hour tête-à-tête about Saybrook — a topic of mutual affection. Jacob hadn’t been to the college since the pandemic struck in March. Haliburton had hardly left.

Their discussion sparked an idea that has blossomed into “Say and Seal: Lives at Yale During COVID-19,” a new podcast that documents this difficult period on campus through the voices and experiences of those living through it.

We hope to provide a singular record of this time on campus,” said Jacob, who is majoring in history and pursuing a Certificate in Spanish. “We’re recording the experiences of Yale students, faculty, and staff so that 50 years from now, researchers can get a sense of how the coronavirus shaped life on and off campus. There is no shortage of interesting stories happening now and we want to preserve some of them for the future.”

Before launching the project, the pair enlisted the help of Micah Young ’21, Jacob’s former suitemate. The three then contacted University Archivist Michael Lotstein, who is leading the Help Us Make History project, which encourages Yale students to share their academic and personal experiences during the pandemic with an eye toward helping future scholars understand this extraordinary time. Lotstein, a Saybrook College fellow, was excited to collaborate with them; he said the podcast nicely complements his own efforts to record this era for Yale’s archives.

You can't get a more firsthand account of the experiences of students during the pandemic in their own words than this podcast,” Lotstein said. “It’s just a terrific student-guided project. I think it'll become a very rich and important historical resource.”

Lotstein arranged for a web platform for the podcast and put the three creators in touch with Ryan McEvoy, a producer at the Yale Broadcast Studio, who has provided them key technical support. (None had any prior experience producing a podcast.)

The three recorded a brief introductory episode in which they share their own pandemic stories. Jacob, who is from New Haven, has been living with his parents since campus was closed last spring, occupying the third floor of their home. Young, who is from San Francisco, is living in off-campus housing. Haliburton spent the summer in the college with the head, dean, resident fellows, and their families, likening it to living aboard a vessel at sea.

Students on Cross Campus.
Students on Cross Campus. (Photo credit: Andrew Hurley)

It was something between a ghost ship and something manned with a skeleton crew,” Haliburton said of his experience.

The three producers’ fondness for Saybrook is reflected in the podcast’s title, which references the college’s arms and badge.

The first full episode, which is now available, focuses on undergraduates who opted to take a gap year. It features interviews with three students: Liam Elkind, a rising senior and co-founder of Invisible Hands, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that delivers groceries, medicine, and other essentials to at-risk individuals; Kari Hustad, a rising senior and film studies major, who took the semester off because COVID-related restrictions made it difficult to produce a high-quality senior film project; and Isabella Smeets, a first-year student who is volunteering with Sweet Readers, a non-profit that pairs middle school students with adults living with Alzheimer’s Disease, and is also studying ancient Greek online and volunteering with The Yale Review.

The interviews have a conversational tone. Jacob, Young, and Haliburton take turns asking questions, drawing out information about their subjects’ projects, motivations, and lifestyles amid the pandemic. They elicit small details, such as what shows the students are watching. (Elkind enthusiastically endorses the sitcom “Jane the Virgin.”)

The little details are important to creating a robust record, Jacob said.

The historical record is riddled with all kinds of discrepancies, pauses, and silences due to natural disasters like fires and earthquakes, or people’s inability to write, or sources being lost over time,” he said. “As someone who had planned to work in archives this summer, I just believe these small details can be really productive and become increasingly valuable with time.”

The next episode will focus on people’s reactions to the recent national elections. The producers plan 9 or 10 episodes altogether and welcome ideas about potential subjects for future installments.

Young, who composed the podcast’s theme music, said the project is about more than simply creating a record: It’s also a way to stay in touch while so many people are dispersed and isolated due to the virus.

A podcast is a COVID-safe form of communication,” said Young, who is majoring in economics and African studies. “It can be an effective way to build and maintain community during this difficult situation.”

The podcast is available on the Yale Library’s Department of Manuscript’s and Archives website. It is also available on SpotifySoundcloud, and Apple iTunes. Anyone interested in submitting ideas or getting involved should contact Henry Jacob.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19