Looking back on the MI Diaries project

Just under a year ago, my brand new colleague Betsy Sneller and I decided to launch a research project together. At that time, we called it “MI-COVID Diaries”. Betsy had signed her hiring paperwork with Michigan State University literally that morning. It was March, and her contract didn’t start until August. But as we all know, the pandemic doesn’t stop for anybody. If Betsy and I were going to do research on the sociolinguistic effects of the coronavirus outbreak, we had to begin right away.

It wasn’t easy. Betsy didn’t have an MSU email address, or access to any of our systems. She was in Washington, DC; I was in East Lansing, MI. We were both reeling from the sudden imposition of lockdowns, the pivot to remote teaching, and from interacting with struggling students and colleagues. Betsy, who was still a post-doctoral researcher at Georgetown University, couldn’t complete her planned experiments on children’s acquisition of sociolinguistic variation, because she couldn’t meet any children any more. And my children were sitting in my house instead of in their classroom. But thanks to the incredible support of staff at MSU, students in the MSU Sociolinguistics Lab and our very patient families and friends, what is now the MI Diaries project got off the ground.

How it works

The concept is simple. (Executing it has not been so simple). Anyone who is currently living in Michigan aged 3 or above can sign up to be a ‘diarist’. Using our mobile app (Apple, Android), diarists audio-record their thoughts in response to questions that we send them every week via e-mail. They can submit as little or as much as they like, as frequently as they like. The audio recordings are passed through automated speech-to-text, and a team of students scans the transcriptions for interesting excerpts to feature (with the accompanying audio) in anonymized form on our website and social media. Diarists are paid $5 bi-weekly if they record at least 15 minutes’ worth of audio. The resulting longitudinal corpus of speech will be archived at the Library of Michigan, and of course it will also provide our lab with data for many, many research projects.

Social history

Betsy and I are sociolinguists. For us, language has to be understood within its social context. Starting in March 2020, the social context for Michigan speech has been extraordinary. It was important that we prompted diarists to describe tiny everyday details of their newly socially-distanced lives (“What can you see outside your window?”; “Is your mask uncomfortable?”) and to reflect on the changes they were experiencing as they happened. The project team also creates questions that would not be out of place in any good face-to-face sociolinguistic interview, such as “Was there ever a time when you got lost somewhere?”. Collectively, the audio diaries form a historical record of the pandemic from the perspectives of Michiganders from different parts of the state, different ages, and different social backgrounds. In that regard, it’s similar to the ‘Mass-Observation‘ project of 20th century Britain, which captured individuals’ experiences from the 1930s, through the Second World War, and its aftermath.

Public interest

Naturally, our ongoing collection of pandemic experiences has attracted attention from journalists who are also trying to reflect people’s reactions to the upheaval. The MI Diaries project has been featured regularly in media outlets since June 2020. They include local Michigan media, including Lansing areas Fox 47 television news and public radio; regional media outside Michigan, such as BYU Radio in Boston; and national media, such as the New York Times. We have particularly appreciated journalists who have listened sensitively to the featured stories on the website, and focused on the small joys and big challenges of Covid-19 life. Here’s one of my favorite examples, from LitHub:

The voice notes are intimate, as diaries naturally are. One person describes having to celebrate Pride week online rather than at their friend’s drag show, as in previous years. Some people express anxiety in advance of the U.S. election. For others, you can hear heavy-hearted sighs as they speak about racial injustice and protests. The diary entries, as a whole, accomplish a purpose beyond language documentation, tracking historical social changes that have coincided with the pandemic. 

Pia Areneta, “Tracking the Changing Ways We Talk in the COVID-19 Era”. LitHub, March 3, 2021.