Say and Seal: Lives at Yale during COVID-19

Across the world, university students’ lives were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with the essential community structures enabled by face-to-face interaction no longer possible. Yale senior Henry Jacob and his co-producers launched a podcast to help keep the community connected, with a built in archival structure that preserves the podcast as a primary source, documenting Yale students’ lives during this tumultuous time.

By Henry Jacob

On March 6, 2020, I left my dorm unaware that I would not return for months. Because I needed to leave at 4 AM to catch a flight that morning, I gave an inadequate goodbye to J12A, my former room. But COVID-19 separated me not only from the courtyards, but also from the community of Saybrook, my residential college. I, like countless other students, soon discovered the difficulties of maintaining relationships on Zoom. 

Just as I could not return to Yale, I never traveled to the libraries I planned to visit this past summer. Unable to access undigitized archives from across the U.S. and in Canada, I needed to reengineer my history senior thesis around a different topic and sources. Upon recognizing the obstacles of conducting remote research, I also recognized the importance of using the spoken word, rather than the written word, to record this unique moment.

For this reason, my former suite mate Micah Young, Graduate Fellow Adam Haliburton, and I created a podcast that will unite Yalies today and serve future historians. This monthly show, titled Say and Seal, includes news reports, interviews, and other content on and for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This podcast also serves as a form of oral history because it collects and preserves the experiences of members from the community today in a single source for posterity. Indeed, every episode will be housed in the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives. We hope that in 50 years historians can utilize these audio recordings to understand and analyze this unique age.  

The title Say and Seal captures our two primary goals:  we encapsulate our objective to speak with and listen to the stories of Yalies today and preserve them for posterity. In equal measure, this name acknowledges our parallel desire to connect members from Saybrook. The title also serves as a pun and reference the Right Honorable Viscount Saye and Sele, a step-founder of the college. 

I conceived of Say and Seal while revising the transcript of my interview with Adam Haliburton, Graduate Fellow of Saybrook. In June 2020, I spoke to Adam as part of an interview series for The Yale Historical Review, an undergraduate journal. While reading through our conversation, I realized that Adam and I went completely off-script from our original plan to discuss race relations at Yale in history and today. Instead, our two-hour chat primarily revolved around Saybrook. Even though Adam and I first met a few years ago, our shared love for Saybrook made us fast friends. After a few more days of discussions, we decided to start the venture that has become Say and Seal. But before moving ahead, we added two more members to our team. My former suite mate and close friend of Adam, Micah Young, joined as a co-host. In addition, University Archivist and Saybrook Fellow Michael Lotstein joined as a mentor to this project. As a group, we united under a common mission to use oral history as a tool for socially distanced community building and structuring the archive directly into a podcast.

Say and Seal Episode 0

Over the past months, we have refined the scope and content of Say and Seal. First and foremost, we seek to reconstruct the collegiate atmosphere that our listeners would enjoy in a regular semester. We even include soundscapes to connect students to spaces of New Haven they cannot explore this year. In addition to providing news on the global, national, and local developments of COVID-19, we interview members from the Yale community. Through these conversations, we provide a space for a diverse array of students, faculty, staff, and administrators to express themselves. While we seek to reach listeners today, these interviews double as oral history, creating a record of this unprecedented university experience.

This fall, we have started to release our first episodes. In our introductory, 10-minute pilot, we outlined these objectives and established the framework for our project. In Episode 1: The Gap Year, we speak with three students who decided to take a leave of absence, as well as the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. In Episode 2, we will combine pre and post-election reactions from a variety of students and faculty.

Say and Seal Episode 1

Over the academic year, we will continue to expand the podcast to include as many perspectives as possible. For example, we lament how this emergency limits participation in many academic and extracurricular opportunities that enliven campus. For this reason, we will also invite organizations—such as an a cappella group—to showcase their work in future installments.

Say and Seal will also benefit coming generations of Yalies. Inspired by Yale Library’s Help Us Make History project, we will archive these recordings for future historians through Aviary, a platform connected to the Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives Audiovisual Collections. By storing these audio recordings, we will document the contours of this exceptional period in Yale’s history. Aviary, a cloud-based audiovisual platform, will keep the individual episodes as well as stand-alone, unedited, full interviews to provide a balanced array of accounts of this time. Our Aviary site exists under the aegis of the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives and will remain there, accessible online for coming decades.

The pandemic has created a crisis for academic exploration and personal relationships. But physical distance need not inhibit intellectual conversation nor separate Saybrugians from each other. Indeed, even though I am living at home instead of at J12A this year, I feel even more enmeshed within Saybrook than I did in March. Through Say and Seal, we hope to respond to this period of isolation by providing a platform for human connection in the present and future.

Henry Jacob is a senior at Yale majoring in History and pursuing a Certificate in Spanish. His scholarly interest lies in Panama. When not in the archives or the classroom, Henry spends his time with undergraduate journals, serving as Editor in Chief of The Yale Historical Review. After graduating this coming May, Henry hopes to continue his research on Panama’s role as a cynosure of imperial designs and desires across centuries and empires.