Teaching a pandemic in real time

Monday, Mar 22, 2021
by Denise Valenti, Office of Communications

Current events often find their way into academic studies, but rarely with such urgency and immediacy as with COVID-19.

The pandemic has impacted Princeton University students and faculty both personally and academically, as they have adapted to distance and hybrid learning. At the same time, the broad impact of the coronavirus pandemic on society has opened new lines of inquiry in every field of study.

This semester more than a dozen Princeton courses focus on the effects or implications of COVID-19. Five Princeton professors shared how they are teaching about the pandemic — and its long-term scholarly implications — as they live through this extraordinary time in history.

Freshman Seminar: Fighting for Health

Leslie Gerwin, associate director, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs; lecturer in American studies

Is this a new course or an existing course?

When the pandemic unfolded at the beginning of the spring 2020 semester, I was teaching a new course in public health. Pandemic issues were on the syllabus for weeks six to eight, but they moved up to week two and beyond. In short order, students were finding that almost every class in every discipline was becoming “all COVID all the time.” Given that their lives were dominated by the unfolding developments and the uncertainty associated with their future, academic saturation was problematic for many. I changed the syllabus to accommodate the Zoom format, but in many classes allowed COVID to be an influence and echo rather than the dominant discussion. I developed the freshman seminar for this spring semester in part to allow students to process their experience with COVID and to translate the lessons their experience is offering, as well as those offered by the study of other health challenges, into actions that improve people’s lives.

How are you incorporating the COVID-19 pandemic into your curriculum this semester?

Given the interest of those choosing the seminar in activism and public service, it is easier to engage them in examining the intersection between the scholarly and scientific literature and what is happening in real time. The concepts of systemic racism, social determinants of health, the tension between government mandates and individual autonomy are not merely academic inquiries. As the seminar explores the efforts to fight the health risks associated with major challenges, I expect that students will hear echoes and see parallels in their COVID experience. I expect they will bring new insights to the discussions examining AIDS, tobacco, environmental justice and opioids among other topics.

What are the advantages and/or the challenges of teaching a subject that is unfolding in real time?

The virtual learning necessitated by the pandemic demands a lot of work from the instructor of a three-hour seminar, plus lots of office hours. Yet there is always more to talk about than time to talk. Few ever appear bored. One pandemic effect is that I have also Zoomed with many students from previous years’ public health seminars (an upper division listing from which the freshman seminar was adapted), most of whom graduated, but want to talk about how they are experiencing what we explored in class.

The pandemic has transformed everyone’s life and expectations. It has provided valuable lessons, learned both in courses and in lived experience. That said, there are no real advantages associated with a contagion that has killed millions of people worldwide.

How does the COVID-19 pandemic speak to larger issues in your field?

The “irony” associated with my teaching over the past 20 years (at Princeton and elsewhere) is that I taught courses in public health, a discipline that students usually initially confused with health care. By contrast, public health focuses on the government’s responsibility for protecting the population’s collective health. The legitimacy of government interventions that order individuals to sacrifice for the common good originates in the necessity for having an authority that can respond to dangers such as contagious disease. My own scholarship during the past decade has focused on issues associated with, what many believed was the remote possibility of, an existential pandemic.

How are students reacting to the material? How is it reflecting their lived experiences?

The pandemic has transformed public health from a shadow subject and loosely understood professional field to a front line discipline, both academically and professionally. Students exposed to the discipline recognize that public health offers many avenues to those seeking ways they may become change agents and engage in efforts to improve the world. As a teacher, those discussions with students are very satisfying.

Performance in Extraordinary Times

Judith Hamera, professor of dance, Lewis Center for the Arts and American studies

Is this a new course or an existing course?

This is a new course, developed with the support of the 250th Fund Summer 2020 cycle and first offered in fall 2020.

How are you incorporating the COVID-19 pandemic into your curriculum this semester?

The conjuncture of the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-racist imperatives raised by Black Lives Matter, and their impact on the U.S. performing arts, are the subject of the course. It asks students to investigate and document the ways this conjuncture is affecting student performing arts groups on campus, with the option of conducting an oral history interview for inclusion in Princeton’s archives of student life.

What are the advantages and/or the challenges of teaching a subject that is unfolding in real time?

The urgency and significance of the subject matter has resulted in considerable student investment; they are very serious about this work because, in all cases, it deals with organizations they deeply care about. They are living the challenges they are researching. The challenge is that the professional dance and theater worlds have generated such robust responses that it can be difficult to manage all of the material coming in without overwhelming the students.

What resources have been especially useful to you or key to your teaching?

The professional dance and theater worlds have mobilized to address this extraordinary moment in collaborative documents like “Creating New Futures, Phase One,” and sets of demands and accountability initiatives like “We See You, White American Theater,” to name only two examples. These materials serve as valuable course texts: enabling students to set the work on-campus student organizations are doing into larger contexts. Jessica Bailey, arts program coordinator in the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Students, has been an invaluable collaborator, as has Valencia Johnson, project archivist for student life. Indeed Valencia’s COVID-19 and Me Oral History Project was an inspiration for this course. In addition, we have benefited from Zoom visits by guests: artists, arts administrators and educators across the U.S. who are actively involved in addressing COVID exigencies and anti-racist imperatives, including Ogemdi Ude, Class of 2016.

How does the COVID-19 pandemic speak to larger issues in your field?

The performing arts sector has been devasted due to COVID-19 closures. Contracts have been canceled, often without any compensation. Studio facilities are no longer accessible, meaning that dancers are training without access to barres and dance floors. Ensemble work is only now resuming, though not uniformly. It is difficult to overstate how dramatically and thoroughly the pandemic has impacted the performing arts on campus and off. Many small organizations are facing overwhelming financial and facilities challenges and may never reopen.

How are students reacting to the material? How is it reflecting their lived experiences?

Students in the course are members of performing arts organizations on campus, as well as taking courses and doing thesis work in the arts. This course directly addresses their lived experiences as artists in a time of profound challenge. They are embracing the course materials with rigor and thoughtfulness: questioning guests to gather best practices, probing points where logistical adjustments meet anti-racist commitments and safety, and reflecting on existential questions about what it means to be an artist now.