Vaccination efforts have begun to curb COVID-19 outbreaks across the United States. But even after the public health threat recedes, how do we reckon with the trauma of the pandemic, finding hope after a tragedy? And how will we tell the story of this moment to those who come after us?
During Spring Quarter, a UChicago undergraduate class spent weeks filling a time capsule with objects representing their experience of the pandemic—including photo reels and masks—for students 100 years in the future.
Sealed with instructions, the time capsule has been deposited at an undisclosed location on campus. Instructions on how to find the capsule and unlock it are under seal at the University Archives at Regenstein Library until 2121, to be part of UChicago’s annual Scav Hunt. To help ensure the objects survive a century in storage, they have each been sealed inside artifact bags and placed inside a sturdy lock box.
The capsule came together as part of the “Anthropology of the Future” course taught by Prof. Shannon Lee Dawdy. A leading anthropologist and archaeologist who focuses on landscapes and material objects, Dawdy wanted to encourage students to think critically about anthropological contexts, and to push back against the idea that the future is inherently negative.
“Hope—or pessimism—affects your experience in the present as an orientation toward the future,” she said.
Dawdy hopes to provide a counterweight to what she sees as a “pervasive cultural pessimism” in academic circles, especially on issues like democracy and climate change. “When you think you already know everything that’s wrong with the world—and that nothing will work to fix it—then big solutions are framed as naïve and utopian,” she said. That pessimism, Dawdy added, can become psychologically harmful and intellectually limiting.
When she taught this course before the pandemic, Dawdy discussed cultural taboos against optimism, and asked students to think more expansively about possible futures. This time, amid a real dystopian experience, her class explored how to process disaster while still conceiving of a post-pandemic world.
The class was taught in-person with proper safety protocols, which gave the students the opportunity to make non-virtual connections with one another—creating a unique “energy” around a common project that brought them together, according to some.