In classrooms that span disciplines, faculty members are helping students explore the pandemic as an academic subject.
“Omicron,” mused a student in Assistant Professor of political science Mauro Caraccioli’s fall 2021 Plagues, Pandemics, and Politics class. “Doesn’t that sound like a Transformer?”
A few months later, the COVID-19 variant with the Hollywood-villain name would be wreaking global havoc. But on that late November day, Omicron was merely the spark for a wide-ranging class discussion that hopped from vaccine inequity to supply chain issues to pandemic mental health. Like the rest of us, the 11 students in the small McBryde Hall classroom were experts on the course’s principal subject matter: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2020, Virginia Tech professors have been designing and teaching classes that turn COVID-19 into an object of study. Students want to understand the current moment. So do faculty members.
For the fall 2021 Pathways course he co-taught, called The Science of COVID-19, Ignacio Moore, professor from the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, invited faculty from around campus to guest-lecture on various topics related to the virus. “Almost everything has been super interesting to me,” he said.
For one class, Lauren Childs, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, passed out a deck of cards to show the math behind herd immunity. Black cards indicated immunity. Red cards meant susceptibility. “I think [students] all of a sudden got it,” Moore said. “It became sort of real as opposed to more abstract.”
To teach a course about a situation that’s still rapidly unfolding requires a high level of engagement from faculty members. It’s more challenging, yes, but also a perfect model of ongoing learning. “It shows that to be an engaged, educated citizen, we have to really see our current environment as an opportunity to continue to learn, and to apply what we learn at a university,” said Kim Filer, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
In COVID-focused courses, faculty members from disciplines as diverse as political science, public administration and policy, geography, and English are teaching students to apply different scholarly lenses to the pandemic—and to their own experiences. These four classes are among the ones equipping students to understand the current era in entirely new ways.
Geography 4984, The Emergence of COVID-19
In a twist on her usual medical geography class, Korine Kolivras launched Geography 4984, “The Emergence of COVID-19,” in the 2021 spring semester. “We talked about how the disease spread around the world and the connections between people that led to that global spread,” said Kolivras of the synchronous online course. “Geographic scale was kind of the big overarching theme.”
With the pandemic ongoing, Kolivras constantly monitored and introduced the latest research, hoping it might battle rampant misinformation. In a Zoom discussion, she shared a new South Korean study that mapped how a ventilation system within a restaurant facilitated COVID transmission between tables 20 feet apart.
Immediately students popped into the chat: “Wait, so six feet isn't enough?” Some students shared personal stories about their work in restaurants—and maybe some thought twice about going to an indoor party that weekend.
“I think they were a lot more engaged, because they were living it at the same time,” said Kolivras, who works in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “I think they were probably learning things that they applied outside of class.”
The course went so well that Kolivras got approval to teach it in future semesters as a Pathways course, Geography 2074. Its fitting name? “COVID-19: Global Pandemic, Local Impacts.”
Political Science 3154, Plagues, Pandemics, and Politics
Caraccioli, from the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, has had students explore such issues as lockdowns and bailouts in the context of historical, political, even fictional responses to disease. In Plagues, Pandemics, and Politics, one assigned course reading was Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower.
He also let students use class sessions to process their own pandemic experiences. “I wanted it to be a space for students to express both questions and concerns as well as frustrations and hopes,” said Caraccioli.
In her first paper for the course, Reganne Milano, a senior majoring in international public policy, described the pandemic as “the world’s worst group project,” since one person who doesn’t do the work (i.e., wear a mask or get vaccinated) ruins everybody’s grade. The situation enraged her. During the semester, class discussions and readings helped open her up to other viewpoints. Just being listened to by her professor turned out to be healing. “He actually valued our opinions and was willing to let us speak and bring our own perspectives,” said Milano.
Caraccioli hopes to publish some of his students’ personal response essays as part of a “college COVID archive.” Political scientists, he said, will be studying the pandemic for years to come.
Public Administration and Policy 5354, Homeland Security, Response, and Recovery
Where does the word disaster come from? From the English dis-, or "ill,” and the Latin astrum, or "stars." “I think this is just a wonderful word,” said Dennis McBride, a research professor with the Hume Center for National Security and Technology and a professor of practice in the Center for Public Administration and Policy, to the graduate students in his Homeland Security, Response, and Recovery course. “It literally means ‘ill stars’—like the stars are not aligned for us.”
When catastrophic star-misalignments cause disasters like hurricanes, terrorism, electromagnetic pulses, and, yes, pandemics, national and state governments kick into action. How that works is what McBride addressed for his class’s graduate students at the Innovation Campus in Alexandria. COVID-19 offered a real-time case study in the limits, and responsibilities, of government action. “That's going to be a very important future part of disaster management,” McBride said.
English 4674, Studies in Contemporary Culture
For his course about Asians in popular culture, Silas Cassinelli, an assistant professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, chose the subtitle “From Virus to Going Viral” as a nod to the changing narratives around Asians because of the pandemic.
“For this fall, it wouldn't have been possible to think about what it means to be Asian American in the United States without also thinking about the pandemic and how Asian Americans and people of Asian descent have been represented in discussions about the pandemic from the beginning,” Cassinelli said.
Cassinelli is a scholar of Asian American literature, and he taught a similar class in spring 2019, when the film Crazy Rich Asians became a box office hit with the first all-Asian movie cast in 25 years. But “representation is incredibly dynamic,” Cassinelli said. From that high, the pandemic provoked “significant issues and topics of public debate that have effects on the Asian and Asian American experience in the U.S.,” from the tightening of national borders to mask wearing as a regular practice.
To digest the changes COVID-19 instigated, Cassinelli asked class members to discuss anti-Asian attacks in the context of the virus’s origination in China. “It gave us the opportunity to think about, if we acknowledge that we live in a global world, what are the circumstances in which we are excited and inspired by flows of people and ideas and products? And when we do put up restrictions and limitations? Who's deemed safe, and who's deemed potentially suspect?”
By teaching them to think critically about portrayals of race in media and to become more aware of the history of the Asian American experience in the United States, Cassinelli hopes students feel more culturally competent to engage with an onslaught of information. They’ll know the story within the story of the pandemic.