COVID Conversations: Studying the Pandemic Through Cartoons


PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] – Thanks to the work of a doctoral student. A student at Brown University, high school students across the country are studying political cartoons to better understand the American zeitgeist at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Developed by Michael Dorney, doctoral student in history, “Dealing with the pandemic: remembering a year of COVID-19 through political cartoonsIs a lesson plan that helps high school students explore, remember and process the first year of a life-changing public health crisis through political cartoons released in 2020 and 2021.

For centuries, said Dorney, cartoonists have harnessed the expressive power of illustration to explain complex ideas when words aren’t enough.

Michael Dorney holds a doctorate. studying history at Brown.

“The cartoon seems to be a very useful medium in conveying difficult ideas that we cannot quite put into words,” he said. “Cartoons have been around for a long time, and they can serve as a societal barometer: they allow you to immerse yourself in a specific place and time.

The lesson is available for free download via Brown’s website Program of choice – a program affiliated with Brown’s Department of History in which academics collaborate to create high-quality history programs for K-12 schools, many of which are available free to teachers and school districts.

With Dorney’s lesson plan, teachers can use cartoons to help students understand what Americans thought and felt as the new coronavirus began to spread across the country, providing a window into the many ways in which the pandemic has disrupted society, politics, economy and environment in the USA

The plan encourages teachers to lead small groups of students in exercises that help them recognize common cartoonist techniques, such as symbolism, analogy, irony, and exaggeration, while studying real cartoons. published during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students meet later to share their ideas and discuss how political cartoonists shape social and political opinions. Optional challenges include cartoon annotation exercises and the opportunity for students to draw their own political cartoons using techniques they have learned.

“I think it’s a powerful way to study the pandemic,” Dorney said. “Of course, teachers could just give students readings on parental anxiety levels during the pandemic. But that might not bring the idea home the same way a cartoon shows parents sending their kids to school in hazmat suits. Students reflect on their personal experiences, such as “yeah, some days I feel like I’m wearing a hazmat suit” or “my parents look really scared when I go to school. . “

The history student developed an interest in cartoons quite by accident. As part of a larger doctorate. project that aims to shed light on the realities of the unjust imprisonment of more than 127,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II, Dorney reads and analyzes newspapers written and printed by prisoners of Japanese origin from internment camps across the country.

Dorney, who is a Japanese quarterback, was intrigued to see that several of these newspapers – including the Topaz Times, printed by prisoners at the Central Utah Relocation Center – featured caricatures.

“What became obvious to me was that cartoons were an ideal method of communication in this setting,” he said. “Cartoons can convey many messages, some of which may have escaped the attention of government censors responsible for regulating newspapers.

Cartoon of a boy skipping a fish dinner in a cafeteria
Cartoon series like “Jankee” – which appeared in a newspaper produced by inmates of Japanese descent during World War II – described the daily struggles of internment camp life. Photo: Library of Congress.

Some cartoonists, for example, have managed to dodge censorship by simply concluding on a positive note. The comics often fearlessly approached the daily struggles of incarcerated life, such as enduring long days of manual labor or eating mediocre meals in the cafeteria – but they covered up feelings of resistance with messages about the importance of resilience and bravery.

“That high mark at the end, that general sense of optimism, gave cartoonists the opportunity to grasp the challenges of everyday life in a way that didn’t seem to criticize the US government,” Dorney said. “A camp administrator might think, ‘Oh, they’re having fun, they don’t care about their situation.’ But for the inmates, it was an opportunity to represent their experiences, to tell their lives, so that their stories were not lost in time or silenced in the file.

Dorney, who aspires to teach and conduct research in an academic setting, noted that creating a lesson plan for the Choices program has given her valuable experience in designing out-of-the-box courses. .

“My work with the Choices program has been great in exposing myself to different types of teaching styles and strategies,” Dorney said. “It’s very helpful for me, as someone pursuing a career in academia, to find creative ways to simplify complex ideas. “

The work also allowed Dorney to make connections between her dissertation research and current events in the United States. Namely, he said, he conveyed a timeless truth: that cartoons can provide much needed emotional release in difficult times.

“Humor can kind of be both an expression of pain and a mechanism for dealing with pain,” Dorney said. “It allows us to deal with difficult subjects and to start moving forward. The pandemic is an event that, like September 11 for my generation, like the fall of the Berlin Wall for Generation X, will remain in the memory of current high school students for a long time. They could therefore find a certain catharsis in studying these cartoons and in retracing the progressive national passage from despair to hope. “


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