From COVID19: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Pandemic

As part of the New College Fall 2020 course focused on the current COVID-19 pandemic, we (that's Cal and I, the coordinators of this course) thought that it would be a good idea to keep some sort of journal explaining the ideas and discussions we are having as we prepare the syllabus for this class. This is, without a doubt, the most complex class we have ever been part of. To begin with, neither of us is an expert on the topic. Cal is an instructor and digital humanities librarian, and I am a religious studies professor. Our role in this course is not to offer our particular expertise, but to coordinate what will be the most complex and interdisciplinary course ever offered at New College. The class will involve 25 different faculty members and 10 invited speakers (possibly more); it will be offered on campus as well as online (following a hybrid model). As part of the class, we are developing a website that is designed to be a public portal to all of the information developed during the semester (including recordings of all of the lectures and round tables), and it is conceived as a “time-capsule” that will include interviews with experts and leaders regarding the pandemic. The class will comprehensively represent our three divisions (Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities), and will represent our best effort as an intellectual community to understand the causes and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many issues involved in coordinating a class like this. To begin with, we are still considering the logistics behind it. Are we going to have some sort of on-campus/classroom presence? And, if so, how are we going to do it? Are we going to offer a hybrid model and, if so, should we offer it in a synchronous or asynchronous mode? If we offer a hybrid model, how do we ensure equity (in the quality of the learning, as well as on participation in the class) by those who are in the classroom vs. those who take the course online? We are still wrestling with all of these questions.

There is also the matter of content. We will have 28 different sessions as part of this course. What are the absolutely essential topics the students should know about the pandemic? We want to encourage critical thinking and discussion, so we are currently inclined to offer a balance between lectures and conversations and round tables.

We have also been thinking a lot about learning outcomes. What is it that we want students to get out of the class? There are, obviously, some basic information students need to know (the biology and chemistry of a virus, the history of pandemics, etc.), but we also want our students to develop critical thinking skills that allow them to navigate the incredible amount of information (and misinformation) that they receive on a daily basis. We want them to be able to assess evidence and to reach sound and logical conclusions, but we also want them to develop social and leadership skills that will allow them to use what they have learned in the class and be active contributors and participants: within their families, in their communities, and in the larger national conversation, as the pandemic continues in the United States and the rest of the world.

Ultimately, we want to use this blog as a way to open up the conversation beyond the boundaries of our college. Most academics are often presented as living in ivory towers, disconnected from the “real world.” We have many problems with that description, but I think it is important that we engage in public conversations regarding the complex issues we will discuss in this course. This blog and this course is our modest attempt at engaging in that public conversation.