Voices of the Pandemic
Chris Moss, HCA Student
Chris Moss participated in the Voices of the Pandemic and was interviewed for this profile.
Part of Harpswell Coastal Academy’s (HCA) mission is anchoring students to the people and places that shape them, in hopes that some may remain after graduation. Since 2014, a year-long humanities class has been dedicated to that concept — an oral history course that captures the extraordinary stories of “ordinary” locals. Along the way, HCA has forged partnerships with Harpswell Heritage Land Trust and Bowdoin College, which previously hosted a project exhibition, as well
as donated equipment and mentorship.
This year’s theme, “Voices of the Pandemic,” builds on an ethnographic tradition that has included conservation advocates to seaweed harvesters. During 2020-21, students tackled how the Covid-19 crisis has impacted community members such as a teacher, general store owner, and a nurse.
Due to distancing constraints, the class pivoted to Zoom audio-only recordings rather than in-person videos; the results will be posted to harpswellstories.org and part of a future exhibition of service at the school. The class was schooled in audio editing software — and the archaic art of a handwritten thank you note. “Students learned certain etiquette — what it means to be public facing and ambassadors of HCA,” says Whitney Conway, who co-taught the course with Zachary Gagnon.
The class researched the pandemic’s global scope, studied oral histories from NPR’s StoryCorps, and culled interviewing tips from a New York Public Library curator. She spoke of reading nuanced Zoom body language and how awkward silences can be golden moments when subjects open up.
“Students learned that subtle dance between the interviewer and the interviewee,” says Conway. “They realized oral histories allow us to preserve future history — this is a way to capture everyday stories of regular people, not just big news stories.”
“Generations to come after us can hear these stories — ones that otherwise people might not hear. In 20 years, we will be talking about what happened and teaching kids about this time.”
Because of his lobstering lineage, Moss chose to focus on the seafood industry. He interviewed a commercial tuna fisherman whose livelihood hinged on demand from sushi restaurants and consumers who could afford the pricier fish. But with restaurants shuttered and wallets dented during the pandemic, the fisherman needed a plan B. Chris found the tale has a happy ending — the man nimbly shifted his business to charter fishing excursions.
“I was nervous about doing the interview,” says Chris. “I’m kinda shy with meeting new people, but it was easier than I thought, more of a conversation. It helped me understand that meeting new people really isn’t that hard.” However, transcribing the half-hour interview — that was difficult!
The Voices course exemplifies HCA’s philosophy of authentic, project-based, student-driven learning that is inquiry-based. “It encouraged students to think critically about how traditional ways of learning history have been from the top down — generally a white man describing history in a textbook,” says Conway. “Now they are recording history from the bottom up, from regular people, and they understand why that matters. As one student commented, ‘I wonder how many voices were lost to history before this technology existed?’”