With a quick click of the “Leave Meeting” button, students return to the monotonous rhythm of life in a pandemic. Largely empty libraries are void of the whispers that used to echo off the walls. The silence is deafening.
For many, the COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to productive learning. Zoom fatigue and family distractions make it more difficult for students to perform at their usual standards and causes them to lose interest in their academic work. However, professors at Columbia and Barnard defied the odds by creating classes that are relevant to the pandemic—a subject matter impossible to ignore.
Rather than falling victim to COVID-19 complacency, professors redesigned old courses and introduced curated COVID-19 courses. Rachel Adams, the English and comparative literature professor teaching the course Advanced Topics in Medical Humanities, catered her syllabus to COVID-19 by shining light on the social inequalities related to economic relief.
“I was like, ‘How can we teach a class on medical humanities that’s not about the pandemic?’” Adams said. “I mean, it just is so relevant, it would be weird if we acted like that wasn’t the medical issue that was on all of our minds.”
Students study narrative and visual representations of different media that shine a light on these health disparities. The course is divided into four parts: the AIDS epidemic, race and medical inequity, fictional representations of pandemics, and literary representations of COVID-19.
These Columbia COVID-19 courses were designed to inspire students to engage with the pandemic in different ways. Rishi Goyal, professor of Utopia and the Pandemic, challenges his students to use the course discussions as a way to slow down and think critically about the pandemic rather than rush into action and create more problems for the future.
Other professors will use their final exams to encourage their students to share what they have learned with the world. This is the case for Sayantani DasGupta, professor of the course Abolition Medicine in the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.
“Their final will be either as an individual or a group to write an op-ed or public-facing essay,” DasGupta said. “I’m going to ask them to pick a venue, like Slate, or the New York Times op-ed section, or whatever it is, and ask them to construct a public argument around health and race and put it out there in the world.”
The pandemic poses a new way of thinking about integrating COVID-19 into courses beyond the medical field. Professor Rachel McDermott, a professor in the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures department and the Human Rights department at Barnard, revived her course Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? after a few years because she thought bringing discussion of God into the conversation about blame for the pandemic would decrease scapegoating.
“So many people are scrambling to blame each other or say God is sending this pandemic because of the sin of this or that,” McDermott said. “The sin of homosexuality, the sin of eating meat, the sin of not having the right religion—all of these things are being used against people.”
By focusing on the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, students will explore how each tradition battles with the problem of evil. They will also explore the prospect of a God who might not be completely good or all-powerful through examining texts dealing with racism and the pandemic such as Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology.
Other professors in the medical humanities field also hope to use their courses to encourage students to think critically about racism in the pandemic. DasGupta hopes to talk about medical racism and anti-racism to move health care away from its history of inequality. Viewing her students as co-teachers and co-learners, she strives to work with them to envision a better health care system as they look into the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group who occupied the Lincoln Hospital in 1970, and HIV activists, among others.
“I know that these Columbia and Barnard students are absolutely brilliant and are absolutely doing important work already. They don’t need me,” DasGupta said. “They’re already doing great work in the world. So what I want to do is I want to make room for our classroom discussions to go out into the world and then vice versa. I want the activism, the other work, the advocacy that students are already doing to come into the classroom.”
There is a certain intimacy of bringing personal experiences of pandemic trauma into the classroom that brings professors and students closer together.
“I kind of felt like seeing this screen where everyone’s far away but also you’re actually closer visually to them than you would be in a classroom. In other ways, I felt like we got so close with each other, and we were actually all kind of teary on the last day, and I’ve never had that experience before,” Adams said.
Whether pausing to think in Goyal’s class or publishing op-ed’s in DasGupta’s course, the students will use the pandemic as a new lens to think critically.
“It’s hard to ignore the horizon of the present, and I thought it was important to confront it. I also didn’t want to kind of give in to certain kinds of pandemic tendencies or to overindulge in hot takes about the pandemic,” Goyal said. “I thought it’d be a perfect moment to try to think ourselves out of the pandemic or beyond the pandemic.”