How do we “teach the virus”? Challenges and Resources for teaching COVID-19

Kate Darling Photo
Katherine Darling

By Katherine Darling, University of Maine at Augusta

In the chaos of a pandemic, how do we teach the virus? Ann Fausto-Sterling laid down this challenge on Twitter as we were all flung into “emergency remote teaching” in March 2020. The pedagogical and logistical challenges of closing our universities and going online were compounded by much deeper societal, ethical and existential quandaries about how to best support our students as they struggled to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We know that SKAT scholars are uniquely positioned to rise-up to reach the pandemic’s challenges: the conceptual and theoretical tools we’ve applied to public health, digital spaces, data and misinformation, expertise, infrastructure and inequities all seem custom-fit to this moment. And we’re attempting to do our best work at a time when our students, families and communities are stretched too thin. While students are struggling, professors are also attempting to carry out our professional responsibilities in the midst of new challenges: from caregiving, childcare, homeschooling, and grieving to mutual aid and community organizing. And that’s if we didn’t get sick ourselves. In all, we’re facing enormous challenges with extremely limited bandwidth and constantly triaging.

For this COVID-19 edition of SKAT’s series on teaching, we rounded up just a few of the curated teaching resources for helping students and faculty make sense of the inequities, uncertainties, anxieties and disinformation surrounding the pandemic. I also had the chance to ask leaders of two COVID-19 syllabus projects a few questions via Zoom and e-mail. The Q and A’s are linked below.

These syllabi projects highlight lessons learned from past epidemics, SKAT classics and core sociological insights on medical information and health inequities. In the deluge of commentaries and critiques that seem to have a doubling rate that rivals the virus, these collaborative projects are helping us grapple with COVID-19 with a careful and critical SKAT lens.

Here are a few of the many crowd-sourced and curated resources for teaching the virus:


#CoronavirussyllabusQ&A with Alondra Nelson

Alondra Nelson Photo
Alondra Nelson

Alondra Nelson of the Institute for Advanced Study and the Social Science Research Council was kind enough to Zoom with me to discuss the #Coronavirussyllabus. Rajat Singh (SSCR) edited the transcript for clarity and brevity.

KD: What sparked the idea for the Coronavirus Syllabus? How and why did it start, and what did you hope would come out of it?

AN: It began with a tweet from Anne Fausto-Sterling, who has been a friend and mentor since I was an assistant professor, when I met her at the Cambridge (MA) race and science group meetings. When I was on the faculty at Yale, there was a group of historians and sociologists of race and science, convened regularly by Evelynn Hammonds, who came from as far south as New York and as far north as Boston. So I have known Anne for nearly two decades.

In early March, we were coming to the realization that literally everything was going to stop or change dramatically, including teaching and research. There was dialogue online about how to proceed. Some were asking: “What are we going to do? I had this plan for my class and this now seems impossible or irrelevant given the current situation.” Anne tweeted, “Teach the moment, teach the virus.” The epigram for the coronavirus syllabus is “teach the virus,” which was Anne’s suggestion to us, and I think the right suggestion.

For me, this initiative was also a way to say to myself and to others: We actually have tools for thinking about this. Nothing on this scale and scope has happened since the 1918 flu, over a century ago. But even in this unprecedented moment, we soon saw that scapegoating, and stereotyping, anti-immigrant foment, critiques of science, and support for science —things that we had seen happen in other moments of infectious disease concern and pandemics, were happening again. Comforting is not exactly the right word, but there was a sense that yes, this thing that’s never happened before is happening, but we also have tools for thinking about what’s quickly happening around us.

I would add that the other inspiration was of course the intellectual contribution of Black women scholars like Marica Chatelain who started the Ferguson syllabus and Keisha Blain who started the Charleston syllabus. These were efforts to help not just us as scholars, but others who are feeling kind of unmoored by current events and who are seeking ballast and illumination. I think a modicum of this can be provided by demonstrating that people have been dealing with events like this, thinking about social shocks like this, living through things like this, for a long time. So as best I can, I’ve been prioritizing curating and collecting scholarship, literature and music—that are either open-source resources or things that are widely available. And thankfully, many of the scholarly presses have opened up access to some or all of their catalog pertaining to issues of science and society, medical discrimination and pandemic. The syllabus is crowd-sourced and literally emerges out of the community of scholars, but I hope that it’s a contribution to a larger conversation, another form of pedagogy.

KD: That leads straight into the second question. So, I’ve been personally navigating this tension between teaching the moment and managing the crisis in my classes.  How do I do damage control and crisis management, and make space for the struggle and trauma that my students are experiencing, and teach? And then, on top of that, how do I unpack this moment, and “teach the virus effectively at the same time? I think there’s a huge tension here.

AN: Many of us who are professors are in positions of profound privilege, and teaching is a job that for some of us — though definitely not all of us! — provides benefits and economic security. But I think in this moment it is critically important to remember that teaching [and] being a scholar is also a kind of vocation. That drive, that aspiration, that instinct, for me is the true north of our work and it has always had a pastoral element that is being intensely called upon now. There are important questions about the value of higher education spinning around us, “Will this shift change higher education forever? Are teachers working hard enough? Are students working hard enough and getting, in a consumerist framework, what they paid for?” I think that as teachers, what we can do in this moment is be alive to our vocation and recognize that it extends well beyond the brick and mortar classroom. The liberal arts tradition is about equipping students with critical thinking skills for living in the world. In a time that not just feels but is uncertain and hard, helping people have ways to apprehend and transform their current reality is what we should be doing. That’s what we’re called to do as teachers, much more than credit hours. The #coronavirussyllabus is very much a gesture of arts and letters, of the liberal arts. It includes music, novels, cinema and academic scholarship. It includes empirical social science but also works about the sentiment of living and being, about the meaning of life and about the common good.

KD: We know COVID-19 is clarifying the existing social crises and systemic inequalities – the digital divide being one. Reflecting on these inequalities within and beyond the university, I’m wondering what you and the contributors hope that we’ll learn and take forward from this moment.

AN: I think the hard question in response to your question is: “What haven’t we learned?” Some of us were surprised by this wide chasm of racial health disparities in the context of a moment of already dramatic inequality. From Charles Rosenberg’s Cholera Years and Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave to more recent work on Hurricane Katrina, we know that social shocks exacerbate existing inequalities. We have had study after study, monograph after monograph, one award-winning journalistic essay after another. There is a gesture towards forgetting, an agnotology of vulnerability. There’s now been a kind of awakening amongst a large group of us, globally, and all at once. I hope that we’ll be hard-pressed to forget again so easily.

I hope the questions about inequality, racism and vulnerability that many of us have been trying to place in the middle of STS, for example, will become more central to the work. One lesson of this time is that these matters are not merely theoretical or abstract. And also, that core questions about credibility and truth and scientific knowledge are always questions about equality, inequality and power.

KD: Are there two or three top recommendations that you would recommend from the syllabus?

AN: There are too many great choices and hard to have favorites. But for the sake of this conversation, I’d certainly choose Stephen Epstein’s book on HIV/AIDS, Impure Science, an important book full stop and a particularly important one for this moment. The book accomplishes so much. But I’d like to highlight that he’s writing about the HIV/AIDS crisis in its formative moments, and it’s a reminder of the uncertainty inherent to the science of a new disease. It’s also a reminder that, as much as I think many of us are appalled to see the kind of politicization of science taking place around COVID-19, we should expect to see politicians, scientists and the public engaged in claims-making and gatekeeping around science. It’s critical to be reminded of the politics of science, even as we’re appalled by aspects of how this is playing out in this moment. And, of course, a younger Dr. Anthony Fauci features in the Epstein book.

Vanessa Northington Gamble, a great historian who helped us to know so much about the relationship between inequality and medical science, has a fantastic article from 2010 in Public Health Reports: “There Wasn’t a Lot of Comforts in Those Days: African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.” In this piece, she he helps us to see how residential segregation that was overlayered by racial segregation, impacted how the flu epidemic moved in space or didn’t move in space. One of the more interesting findings that remains a bit of a puzzle at the end of that article is that the 1918 flu wasn’t as remarked upon in the Black community, in the Black press, as one might have suspected. One hypothesis she offers to explain this is that African Americans actually might have been quite impacted by the flu in an earlier wave a year prior, when the mainstream press and public health authorities did not notice or care, because it was affecting a marginalized segment of the community. For me, this suggests that we need to bring temporality to bear on how we conceptualize racial health disparities and it is instructive as we are coming to think about the future waves of this particular coronavirus. We are learning that some evidence might suggest that COVID-19 was present in France as early as December 2019. Were there earlier cases in the US as well that weren’t apparent because who it impacted?

KD: Anything else you think we should highlight for the SKAT community?

AN: I would just say that I hope the SKAT community feels some sense of pride or accomplishment about the intellectual tradition in which we work which has provided quite valuable resources for helping all of us understand the current situation. But there’s so much more work to be done!


Teaching COVID-19 Graphic Q&A with Teaching and Learning Anthropology Editors

Nina Brown, Angela Jenks, Katie Nelson and Laura Tilghman were kind enough to answer my questions about Teaching COVID-19: An Anthropology Syllabus Project.

KD:  How did the syllabus project come about? What sparked the collaboration and how did you launch it? What do you hope will come out of it?

Editors:  The editors of the Teaching and Learning Anthropology journal meet every month and during the March meeting the COVID-19 pandemic was a top concern. Our colleges were moving abruptly to online teaching and we perceived that there was an urgent need to gather materials that could be used to address the pandemic in our anthropology courses. Angela Jenks (Editor-in-Chief of the journal) was in the midst of teaching a Medical Anthropology class and was already collecting relevant resources.  The mission of the Teaching and Learning Anthropology journal is to create a gathering place, both through our website and in the journal itself, where people can exchange resources and ideas. As we discussed the materials Angela was finding, it became clear that there was a need for a centralized resource that could collect and curate resources. We decided to crowdsource the COVID-19 syllabus using a Google Doc so that we could gather ideas from as many contributors as possible.

KD:  What teaching struggles and successes have you heard from contributors?

Editors:  In the early phase of the pandemic response, many instructors perceived that COVID-19 was going to be the dominant topic of concern for the foreseeable future and there was a lot of interest in how to make it a central focus of their courses. More recently, as we have all been living this pandemic 24-7, we are hearing from instructors who are backing away from that approach a bit. Because we are all feeling disrupted and anxious, there is a growing awareness that a lot of people want to be talking about something else.

Teaching and Learning Anthro Graphic

All of us have also seen the negative impact of this crisis on our students. Unfortunately, in many cases students are falling apart at the seams as they struggle with anxiety, lack of income, insecure housing, and the weight of family obligations. It’s not reasonable to expect them to have perfect focus or attention on academic matters. Even getting stable Internet access to join a Zoom meeting can be an impossible obstacle for some. The most consistent message we hear from instructors, which also resonates with our own teaching experience, is that it’s essential to give students options in the way they engage with COVID-19 related topics. Some students might find it therapeutic to think through these issues academically, but others will not.

KD:  In this public health crisis, faculty are torn between stretching to meet this deeply “teachable moment” and engaging in “crisis management” or “damage control” in remote teaching. How are you all navigating that tension? Can we effectively “teach the virus” when our students are in crisis?

Editors:  As cultural anthropologists, one of the tensions we have experienced in our own classes is the difficulty of teaching something that we are all embedded in, particularly since this is still an emerging and rapidly changing situation. In our classrooms, we are accustomed to teaching about other cultures: societies and populations from which we and our students tend to have some emotional distance. With COVID-19, we are all completely immersed together, which makes it more difficult to think in the abstract or to use our experiences as a basis for theorizing.

While the pandemic is definitely presenting us with a “teachable moment,” it’s also important to recognize that this is a really “bad” moment, meaning all the news around us all the time is terrible. In such a grim environment, it is not a good idea to keep focusing students only on all the bad news happening around them. We have to try and get them to think more along the lines of “what can we do about it.” Anthropology has many insights that can be useful for exploring how we go forward in addressing the cultural and structural dynamics that led us to this moment.

KD:  We know the pandemic is laying bare social crises and systemic inequities – in our classrooms and far beyond. What do you hope faculty and universities take forward from this semester? What do scholars of Science, Technology and Medicine Studies (STMS), need to carry forward post-COVID-19?

Editors:  None of these systemic inequalities or social crises are new to scholars of STMS so the challenge is really an educational one: how to communicate to students the way that diseases and health are connected to other areas of life such as food, education, and work. We are living in a time when we can see this interdependence more clearly, but it is still a challenge to bring students to an understanding that the vulnerabilities that COVID-19 has exposed are structural. Angela Jenks, who is currently teaching a Health Inequalities course, described the situation this way: “The history of colonialism, history, slavery, and redlining are in people’s bodies. When we talk about disease, we cannot fall back on explanations that emphasize diet, exercise, or ‘lifestyle choices.’ What needs to be brought forward is an understanding that these inequalities are systemic.” Another area where we need to use research from STMS to challenge student thinking is around the rhetoric we hear every day such as “the virus does not discriminate” or “we’re all in this together.” The reality is that we are not “all in this together” in the sense that all of us have the same level of vulnerability.

KD: What are your top two or three recommendations from the syllabus?

Editors:  All the material in the syllabus is fantastic and we have enjoyed watching the syllabus itself develop over time. The syllabus has changed quite a bit since the early days and it has been interesting to see the content develop as the resources have gone from being predominantly news items to material that is more ethnographic, comparative, and with more academic theory. We have also enjoyed reading the collaborative syllabi created by others and seeing the way other disciplines are looking at this issue. Our version is what anthropologists are finding interesting, but there are many other disciplinary perspectives.

Angela Jenks has used the “Write a Letter to a Public Official” assignment. She asked students in her “Disease, Health, and Inequality” class to identify a specific public official and write a letter describing 1) how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting their life or the lives of others they care about and 2) what they want the official to do in response. Students wrote to their state governor, representatives, and mayors. Some described their own and their loved one’s experiences as essential workers in grocery stores and hospitals, where they lack masks and other protective equipment. Others pointed to the needs of undocumented individuals, asking state officials to include them in financial assistance programs and support a moratorium on ICE raids. Several students wrote to the university president and the heads of campus-affiliated housing associations, describing how the sudden closure of campus had affected them and asking for exemptions from early lease termination fees. In their letters, students connected their own pandemic experiences to the structural vulnerabilities we had been discussing in class. A main goal of the assignment, though, was to confront the sense of helplessness that many of us feel right now, giving students a chance to advocate for themselves and their communities.

Angela will be teaching “Medical Anthropology” this summer and plans to include either the “Keep a Pandemic Journal” assignment developed by Lance Gravlee or the “Day in the Life of a Pandemic” assignment developed by Natalia Molina as an option for students. (Visit the syllabus for details.)

Katie Nelson has used an ethnographic interviewing assignment for her American Culture course, called “What’s Your COVID-19 Economy?”. Students interviewed someone they live with about how the COVID-19 crisis has affected them economically. In their write up, students were asked to reflect on the rapid cultural and economic shift caused by the crisis. The assignment gave students the opportunity to use an anthropological lens to examine a phenomenon affecting them intimately, but in a way that allowed some space for reflection by focusing on another person. Some students explored how certain low status jobs were suddenly viewed as essential and highly valued culturally, even while monetarily they continue to be underpaid. Other students made connections with David Graeber’s insights on the phenomenon of “bullshit” jobs and questioned if the existence of these jobs would continue after the crisis. One student wrote about the death of her grandfather and how the loss would impact the family economy and cultural traditions. Another student discussed strategies her mother was taking to shore up the family restaurant business by collaborating with a neighboring restaurant, something she would never have considered before. On the whole, the assignment resulted in some surprisingly insightful papers.



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