With colleges and universities moving their classrooms online in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, professors face a number of immediate obstacles. Teachers and students alike are coping with new technology. Differences in access and opportunity can make it hard to be equitable about teaching virtually. Some classes, from lab science to dance, are particularly hard to teach online.
And some academics are asking another kind of question: not just how to teach amid this pandemic, but how to teach about this pandemic.
One person leaning into that idea is Brown University professor emerita of biology Anne Fausto-Sterling, who on March 11 tweeted that professors should “teach the moment,” no matter their fields:
By the next day, Alondra Nelson, a mentee of Fausto-Sterling’s and President of The Social Science Research Council, was sharing recommendations using the hashtag #coronavirussyllabus and collecting other scholars’ ideas in a Google Doc, which continues to be updated. It has amassed more than 200 recommendations crowdsourced by scholars of book and journal articles, literature, music, visual art and podcasts that experts believe help put this pandemic in context. (Similar roundups, like #coronavirussyllabusK12, are being curated for the K-12 grade levels.)
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The list is not aimed at any one academic field, but history is an obvious area for teaching the context behind this moment. So what does the #coronavirussyllabus reveal about the history that experts think can help all of us — even outside the classroom — understand the COVID-19 pandemic?
Nelson, author of a book on how the Black Panther Party filled gaps in community health care in the late 1960s, hopes the syllabus provides resources for understanding the coronavirus pandemic as part of the long history of inequality, especially in terms of health-care access.
The #coronavirussyllabus is formatted as a reading list. In addition to analyses of recent outbreaks of Ebola (circa 2014) and H1N1 (circa 2009), it recommends books on infectious disease outbreaks as far back as the medieval era. Several of the readings, such as When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America and the Fears They Have Unleashed by Howard Markel, show the pattern of how xenophobia that can rear its head amid public-health emergencies.
There are also readings about public-health crises that are likely less well-known than others. Dóra Vargha’s book Polio Across the Iron Curtain: Hungary’s Cold War with an Epidemic is about how Hungary became one of the first countries to use the revolutionary Sabin vaccine to vaccinate against polio nationwide and how an East-West partnership to combat this public health crisis was forged despite the Cold War. Charles L. Briggs and Clara Mantini-Briggs’ book Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge, and Communicative Justice is about the 2007-2008 bat-transmitted rabies outbreak in the indigenous community living in the Venezuelan rain forest. How a yellow fever epidemic shuttered the U.S. South and shaped U.S.-Cuban relations is the subject of Mariola Espinosa’s Epidemic Invasions: Yellow Fever and the Limits of Cuban Independence, 1878-1930. Context on the mysteriousness of the origins of some outbreaks is seen in Mark Honigsbaum’s The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris, which explains how it took decades to find the correct cause of the 1930 parrot fever outbreak. And one of the history books recommended, Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, even goes into the origins of self-care, tracing it back to the cleanliness “revolution” in public health in the mid-19th century.
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While a long list of books about infectious disease outbreaks might seem grim, scholars see it as a toolkit.
“I think it’s easy for us to think nothing like this has never happened in the history of the world, but the syllabus is a reminder there have been other moments when people said the same thing about their society and lives,” says Nelson. “I think there is a deep wellspring of knowledge. Scholars learn things over time. Our work over many years and disciplines has prepared us as much as one can to understand what is happening and some of these issues that we might need to think about. The work of scholars and scholarship has been to help us understand — take a fast moving thing and help us orient it in our minds and in our lives.”
Art is also represented on the list. Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “St. James Infirmary” (circa 1928) has been seen as a comment on the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. Those looking for films to watch other than Contagion can find recommendations that reach all the way back to Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, about a knight who plays a chess game with Death personified in plague-ridden medieval Sweden. In the Visual Arts section, David Gere’s book How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS shows how gay men channeled their feelings into art during the public health crisis of the 1980s and 1990s — a moment Nelson says we may see paralleled amid today’s pandemic, as “one of these things we might see out of these moments is a renaissance of creative arts and culture.”
After all, history shows that many great inventions have come out of desperate times. As Nelson puts it, the current crisis is one of those “moments of reckoning for us as a society to think about how we want to live and live better together.”
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