When she first learned that UC Berkeley would be transitioning to online classes for the rest of the spring semester, Sophia Stewart’s first reaction was concern. As the editor-in-chief of the undergraduate UC Berkeley magazine Caliber, Stewart knew that this change would alter the shape of the publication, particularly since Caliber publishes and distributes a print magazine each semester. “I think people do their best work when they feel supported, when they feel like they’re a part of something,” she described over Zoom. “I felt like these new circumstances were really going to threaten that, so I think that was my primary concern.”
An undergraduate herself — Stewart graduated in May with a degree in Media Studies — she also recognized the monumental nature of this shift. “I know when [the campus closures] started my motivation was just completely sapped,” she tells me. In fact, Stewart informed her team of student writers, photographers, and graphic designers that they would no longer be beholden to their original deadlines. “I told everybody — guys, look, I totally get it if you’re just done and your priorities have changed,” Stewart recalls. Yet, to her surprise, not one student quit the student magazine. In fact, every print writer submitted their final articles on time. “I was totally shocked,” says Stewart. “To me, I think that’s a testament to just how much people want to do this and just the genuine passion that they have.”
Over the past few months, UC Berkeley students have grappled with adjusting to online classes, disruptive moves, and shifting financial situations due to COVID-19. Yet Stewart’s words emphasize that for many students, creative outlets have become more important than ever. UC Berkeley students and alumni have published articles about their experiences during quarantine, begun creative projects, and even designed UC Berkeley’s campus on the video game Minecraft. To learn more about how the new normal of virtual meetings and online projects was affecting student creativity, I spoke to three UC Berkeley students: Stewart; Jose Leon-Martinez, a senior who is the leader of a new undergraduate group, “Creative Circle”; and Linda Kinstler, a PhD student in Rhetoric who is at the helm of a new online anthology, “Pandemic Diaries,” sponsored by Art of Writing, which publishes pieces by UC Berkeley students, alumni, and affiliates about their experiences during COVID-19.*
Before the shelter-in-place order, Jose Leon-Martinez was hoping to begin a creative group for student tutors with UC Berkeley’s Student Learning Center. An English and Film double major, he envisioned a space in which tutors — and eventually UC Berkeley undergraduates as a whole — could meet to share their creative projects, discuss different forms of creativity, and build community around giving one another feedback and mutual support. “I felt like as a fourth year, my creativity had definitely diminished as the years went by because I was focused too much on my academics,” he explained. “So, [the Creative Circle] initially started with just wanting a space to just focus on creativity and talk about what that is.”
However, before Leon-Martinez could hold his first meeting, classes shifted online and he was faced with navigating Zoom. At first, he felt disappointment. Without in-person meetings, Leon-Martinez knew it would be harder to generate enthusiasm and build a community for the group. However, his disappointment was short-lived. “I feel like since I’ve always been into film, a really big aspect of film is working with your limitations. And I saw it as another one of those moments, so I was like, ‘Okay, then it’ll just be on Zoom.’” Leon-Martinez worked to create agendas and recruit tutors over email, and eventually began to host weekly meetings. Participants discussed issues of authenticity and audience in creative work, shared visual art and poetry, and uploaded their work to a collaborative Google Drive folder. Leon-Martinez even discovered some advantages to meeting virtually. For instance, Zoom meetings were more accessible for students who may not have been able to return to campus for in-person evening meetings.
The Creative Circle meetings also provided a way for students to interact with one another despite being dispersed throughout the country. “I think a lot of people are turning to creativity in order to process what’s going on and also just as a wave of healing and reconnecting as well,” Leon-Martinez said. “We’re all communicating virtually now, so it forces us to think more about how we communicate, I think. And creativity plays a huge role in that.” Leon-Martinez hopes that through expressing their creative ideas with one another, students may also discover that creativity is not standardized. “You always hear people saying they’re not creative enough or they’re just not a creative person,” he explains. But in a time in which people are searching for more creative outlets away from screens, creativity can take unique forms. For example, Leon-Martinez mentioned a friend creating his own baking recipes as an example of creativity. “There shouldn’t ever be a standard to what’s creative,” he says, “and I feel like that in itself is very liberating to think about, especially during this time.”
Linda Kinstler was also hoping to highlight individual creative work when she proposed the idea of the Pandemic Diaries to Professor Andrew Shanken, the interim director of Berkeley’s Art of Writing program. In fact, the project originated from Kinstler’s engagement with others’ writing in online publications. “I was reading popular collections of different authors’ experiences during the pandemic,” Kinstler notes. “I felt like all these writerly communities were creating their own homes for dispatches from the writers in their circles, and I thought it would make a lot of sense to do the same thing for the Art of Writing community and Berkeley community more broadly.”
The Pandemic Diaries highlights brief snapshots of individuals’ experiences during shelter-in-place orders and even includes a series of diary entries from historical figures who experienced plagues to emphasize the historical resonance of the current pandemic. “It seems very obvious to me from the response that we have gotten that people have been looking for an outlet,” says Kinstler. “I think we have all been processing this experience separately and alone, and I think that it was a welcome invitation for a lot of people.”
My conversations with these writers and students reminded me that even during shelter-in-place orders, where conversations have become relegated to blurry computer monitors, creative outlets provide possibilities to process our experiences and share them with others. Weekly group meetings can provide both artistic feedback and much-needed social interaction, while publications can transform individual experiences into a shared historical record.
Of course, the virtual world is not without its challenges. As we spoke, Stewart discussed the looming difficulty of another online semester in the fall. Caliber is one of many student publications that may potentially face recruiting new members virtually, creating close social connections over Zoom, and producing physical creative works in restrictive circumstances. Yet, she and others feel up to the challenge. “Whatever happens will have to be very creative,” Stewart says. “And the good news is that I have total faith in the team.”
*The Pandemic Diaries is currently open for submissions from UC Berkeley students, staff, alumni, and community members. Visit the website for more information on how to submit work.