Graphic by Michelle Jia; image by Chirua Obata.
At the time of Pearl Harbor, during December 1941, around 700 Japanese Americans were enrolled at the University of California, and at least thirty were at Stanford University. Within weeks, Japanese American faculty and students at the University of California, Berkeley, and nearby Stanford received shocking news: they had mere days to “evacuate,” from campus to concentration camps for their protection, as Roosevelt’s administration euphemistically put it. The federal government did not immediately provide a school system in these camps. Faculty and detainees struggled to develop a bottom-up distance-learning program. Students realized that they would have to continue working toward their diplomas for an indefinite period in the absence of supplies or infrastructure.
In 1943, 350 incarcerated students, faculty, and alumni from UC Berkeley and their rival school, Stanford University, built a bonfire in a remote Utah desert. They sang, cheered, and joked behind barbed wire. In Topaz, a World War II Japanese American concentration camp, they gathered to celebrate the collegiate Big Game. "When I heard them blare out the strains of 'Hail to California," Toyo Suyemoto Kawakami, a Topaz prisoner, wrote, "the song of my alma mater, I was suddenly homesick for Berkeley." The students from Stanford, some of whom were in the robust Japanese Student Association on campus before the War, sent a telegram back to campus saying, "President Wilbur: On this eve of Big Game we are with you in spirit if not in body." The “Japanese Alumni and Stanfordites of Topaz, Utah” signed it. One of the more poignant pieces of ephemera tenderly kept safe in Manzanar by Shinjo Nagatomi, the camp’s lead Buddhist minister, was his torn oversized admissions ticket to California Memorial Stadium to see who would win the Stanford Axe on November 19, 1938. For $4.40, he sat in Section D, Row 72, Seat 28 to watch the Cal victory.
Despite wildly different circumstances and contexts, the events of 2020-2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic evoke something of the chaos and uncertainty that followed the swift evacuations eighty years ago. This horrific World War II experience is one of many stories that two hundred undergraduates and four Graduate Student Instructors at UC Berkeley uncovered. Drawing on digital archives at Bancroft Library and the National Archives, they reconstructed history of Japanese American concentration (otherwise known as internment) camps for a digital humanities project called, “Suddenly and Deliberately: The UC Berkeley- Japanese American Concentration Camp Project,” that I co-designed with UC Berkeley historian David M. Henkin.
A few hours after students finished pulling together the thousands of digitized shards that make up this scattered archive into a collective bibliography, we learned that our own instruction, along with most institutions of higher learning, would move online to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We saw the disruption of our online project as we lost on-site access to Bancroft Library; our class experience highlighted—showcased even—the sudden displacement of higher education. As the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, college students were given little time to move off campuses for their safety.
The details from 1942 should remind us of what is at stake for college students for years to come. Yoshiko Uchida, a UC Berkeley senior, walked from her Stuart Street stucco bungalow to Doe Memorial Library to study for final exams the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack. Nisei students (first-generation American-born citizens of Japanese descent) whispered about the attack as Uchida studied. She did not know FBI agents were ransacking her home or that her father had been taken into custody. Feeling powerless, Uchida took her exams. She could not concentrate. She was terrified. The campus looked the same, but everything was different. Her entire world was upended. Madoka Shibuya, a Stanford Medical Student who lived in Mountain View, where her family grew chrysanthemums for the flower industry, would soon be in a camp. Yoshimaro Shibuya finished his freshman year finals for Stanford while imprisoned with his family at the Santa Anita racetrack, where they slept in filthy horse stalls.
Despite the parallels between 1942 and 2020—the swift exodus, the sudden transition to new modes of remote instruction for which there is little preparation, and the uncertainty that opens the door for many kinds of exploitation—the traumas are incredibly different. In poignant ways that echo our own recent experience, Japanese American students and faculty during WWII asked endless questions of their university. They struggled to understand whether effective distant learning could occur for students dispersed to remote areas lacking physical classrooms, libraries, or living conditions with basic sanitation. Could students access university library resources? Faculty at UC Berkeley and Stanford tried to piece together what graduate student mentorship or research would look like when conducted via censored, recorded, and monitored wartime mail to students without books or immediate access to typewriters. After all, they famously only took what they could carry. Students lived in cramped barracks without partitions or walls with their parents, children, and siblings, so how could they find study space?
Things moved quickly for Japanese American students after Executive Order 9066 in late February 1942. Outraged by the federal government’s prohibitive military zone, Berkeley’s President Robert Gordon Sproul tried desperately to transfer students to inland Land Grant schools so they could continue learning while back channeling with Presidents at UCLA and Occidental. Provost Monroe E. Deutsch sent a telegram to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, protesting the “unprecedented blow.” Provost Deutsch warned of possible mass suicide among despondent students. White faculty mobilized. Dorothea Lange, the famed documentary photographer, employed by the Farm Security Administration (and wife of Berkeley Economics Professor Paul Schuster Taylor), armed herself with a camera and documented the mass evacuation throughout the Bay Area. The Berkeley student newspaper, Daily Cal, ran ads as students sold cars, radios, and clothes to raise emergency relocation funds to get out. Others tried to use the alumni network to find storage. College sweethearts George and Michi Uchida wed so they could evacuate together; because firearms and cameras were confiscated, they would not see their wedding photograph until after the Korean War ended. Uchida placed an ad to find a loving home for her Scotch Collie.
At Stanford University, President Ray Lyman Wilbur wrote to Congressman John H. Tolan in disbelief over what was happening. "It has been impossible for me to answer the many questions put to me by these students as to why," he sympathized.
In May 1942, white students graduated in the Greek Theater as Japanese American students boarded military buses along with 1,300 city residents. On one of the buses was twenty-one-year-old Harvey Itano, UC Berkeley’s 1942 Valedictorian. Instead of his University Medal, his government-issued enemy alien I.D. number dangled from his clothing.
By 1943, Topaz had set up an interlibrary loan system between the University of Utah and the University of California at Berkeley. Hundreds of imprisoned Americans used it each day. Not unlike the teams of thousands of librarians and curators who are digitally scanning books and e-mailing them to faculty and students to keep university education chugging along in 2020-2021, camp librarians volunteered for twelve-hour days. Students, faculty, and alumni at UC Berkeley set up a correspondence education program that they sent using the United States Post Office. Cal students could receive college credit if they similarly taught K-12. Educators at Stanford University worked with the War Relocation Authority to create a “community school” system that integrated community service into traditional forms of curriculum aimed at "Americanization," even though almost all children were American-born citizens.
The glaring difference with our present situation, of course, is that the contagion that illegally displaced Japanese American students and faculty and justified the mass-theft of their property in 1942 was American racism, white supremacy, and the accompanying social distancing was a cruel and unnecessary form of exile that violated their constitutional rights. Despite the Trump Administration’s exploitation of white nationalist undertones to color COVID-19 as a “foreign virus,” or what he cruelly called the “Kung Fu Flu,” COVID-19 proved immediately that the disease would not discriminate among us.
Starting in March 2020, faculty scrambled to set up the largest impromptu experiment ever conducted in distance learning through virtual classrooms. The crisis lends urgency to long-simmering dilemmas about digital access and pedagogy. These questions will not disappear after mismanaged environmental catastrophes like wildfires, mudslides, and hurricanes disrupt “normal school” alongside our pandemic. Ethical debates abound about data mining, professors’ intellectual property, copyrighted material, facial recognition software, mass surveillance, monetization, racist algorithms, paywalls, and mass recording students' learning on third-party corporate systems. In a moment when students struggle to afford expensive textbooks, the learning desert now expands to a three-pronged challenge. How do we responsibly educate disabled students online? How do we educate impoverished and affluent students without reliable high-speed internet in rural or remote corners of the world in different time zones? How do we educate housing-insecure or first-generation students pursuing the American Dream with borrowed, outdated devices, cracked screens, or nonexistent cameras populating hundreds of Hollywood Squares?
Coming mid-semester or mid-quarter in Spring 2020, this unexpected shift from in-class to online teaching obliterated the kind of course development or scaffolding that takes professors years to perfect. There was no time for the detailed skill-based planning digital education experts correctly argue is paramount to classes intentionally designed for online instruction. University administrators’ phrase “online course delivery” casts faculty as one-way UberEats drivers dropping off Modern American History to satisfy the “customers” of a mythical Spicoli Nation. This attitude neglects to account for the labor, artfulness, and empathy at the center of digital teaching and the kind of community building that makes inquiry thrive. It does not consider how discussion sections require expertise in listening skills. Teaching is dynamic; it is fluid; it is creative; it is empowering; it is evolving; and it is challenging in every sense of the word.
Most egregiously and erroneously, a one-way data dump approach to online teaching discredits the most irreplaceable and unique dynamic in the classroom: the magical moment when students trust their peers and share how they hear a song, what they imagine in a poem, or what they see in a photograph, transforming all of our worldviews so we can never look at it the same way again. Over time, dedicated educators and students have worked together to learn how to continue active learning on platforms like Zoom—how to annotate a text collaboratively, how to screen share to analyze visual culture, and how to use break out rooms to facilitate more intimate conversations before reconvening in virtual lecture halls.
In February 2020, a student came to my office hours. She laughed at the gold placard I have on my desk. “’What would Beyoncé do?!’ I love that!” she screamed. She told me campus is her refuge. Having grown up in a sparsely populated area, she found conspicuous wealth on campus alienating. Traffic sounds startled her. It was hard to compete with students from elite boarding schools with private online tutors. She now wondered how online instruction and digital humanities research would work for her, and it’s my job to make sure that it does.
History provides models in courage, innovation, and the astonishing human capacity to persevere in moments of crisis. In the digital version of my class, I will “post up flawless” channeling Beyoncé’s showwomanship, but I will also ask myself, “What would UC Berkeley Art Professor Chiura Obata do?” Obata was imprisoned in desolate Topaz, not too far from where my own student will telecommute. Obata’s beautiful watercolors, sketches, and prints were gone by the time he entered the camp. His art store on Telegraph Avenue was gone. His classroom was gone. Still, he decided to make a way out of no way and sought meaningful human connections any way that he could. He used his imagination to realize the beauty in an ugly place. He shared what he loved: making art and teaching it. It was healing. It was soothing. It provided regularity and structure. Appealing to sympathetic donors and the U.S. government, Obata ordered art supplies from a Sears Roebuck catalog. By the time he left Utah, the Topaz Art School he had founded while imprisoned there served over six hundred students studying art. Obata engaged in the kind of adaptive teaching in a crisis the best of digital history classes do: democratizing access to information and skills, recentering marginalized voices, creating a bottom-up archive to document alternative historical perspectives, and fighting social isolation.
Today, at this very moment, the artwork Professor Chiura Obata made with the students he taught without infrastructure or resources in a remote camp in one of the darkest, unexpected, and unprecedented moments in American history is hanging in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Now recognized as integral to the American experience, these paintings capture the tragedy and exhilaration of being human. This is the U.S. history that I want to share with my students in our digital world, how Americans come together in desperate times. How they can take horrifying realities and unjust obstacles to innovate and put something good into the world that might endure long after we find a cure, long after the vaccination for COVID-19 has spared our lives, long after national memorials are erected to remember our over 600,000 countrymen and women who have perished, and long after my students return to campus happy and healthy to celebrate their own golden reunion.
 Thank you to Leah Price, David Palumbo-Liu, Stephanie Ann Frampton, and Yael Rice, who read an early iteration. Thank you to Chancellor Carol T. Christ, who supported this project from the start and my brilliant collaborator David M. Henkin who is the most dedicated educator I know. Somehow he only ever encourages my wild ideas and then makes them even better. UC Berkeley History invited me to be a Scholar in Residence to co-lead this project but it was disrupted due to COVID-19 campus closures. Judy Sakaki (Vice President of Student Affairs) and Daniel Simmons (Professor of UC Davis School of Law), “Honoring Students Prevented from Completing their Degrees due to Executive Order 9066,” Conferring of Honorary Degrees and Suspension of Bylaw 29.1, Committee on Educational Policy #E4 Board of Regents, July 16, 2009; Larry Gordon, "U.C. to Award Honorary Degrees to Interned Japanese American Students," Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2009; https://news.stanford.edu/pr/93/931006Arc3121.html.
 “Alien Order Hits U.C. Staff: 30 Faculty Members Face Evacuation,” San Francisco News, March 5, 1942, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist8/uc1.html.
 Daniels, Roger, Sandra C. Taylor, Harry H. L. Kitano, and Leonard J. Arrington. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. 1991, 27.
 Ticket to Stanford v. California Football Game, Shinjo Nagatomi Collection, Manzanar National Historic Site.
 Uchida, Yoshiko. Desert Exile The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015, 46.
 Fox, Stephen C. "General John DeWitt and the Proposed Internment of German and Italian Aliens during World War II." Pacific Historical Review 57, no. 4 (1988): 407-38, p. 20.
 Wollenberg, Charles. "Dear Earl" The Fair Play Committee, Earl Warren, and Japanese Internment." California History 89, no. 4 (2012): 24-60.