Zombies to Genomics: Faculty find creative ways to teach the pandemic

By PORTER BOWMAN

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, many Middlebury professors are revising their syllabi to address themes arising from the pandemic in creative ways. Professors have adapted classes, from the sciences to the humanities — to even foreign language classes, to show how the evolving crisis touches nearly every subject across the curriculum in both expected and unexpected ways.

Genomics

“This isn’t the last pandemic we will have, and we need to be better prepared,” said Professor of Biology Jeremy Ward, who teaches a 300 level class in Genomics. “Genomics is actually the perfect class for seamless integration of material related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” Ward said.  

Ward has developed at-home labs and assignments to dedicate the remaining of the semester to the Covid-19 outbreak. Students were tasked with using early genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19, to compare with the genomes of SARS and MERS, two viruses that caused their own epidemics.  The class then used that genomic data to design their own tests for SARS-CoV-2 while adapting the lab skills they had learned on campus.

“It’s crazy to think that college students can essentially design a test,” said Meghan Keating ’21, a student in Ward’s class, “but the breadth of testing in the U.S. is still nowhere near the volume it should be.”

The class covers not only genomic technology but also that technology’s applications to human society from the eugenics movement to present-day issues. Those discussions have become even more important as the class tackles the intricacies of the pandemic response in the United States and in countries around the world.

“The idea is that you don’t really understand the science of the pandemic unless you understand the economic, political, and many other factors that influence the science,” Ward said.

Health Economics and Policy

These economic factors have been front and center for Professor of Economics Jessica Holmes, who has completely revamped her “Health Economics and Policy” class to cover the pandemic.

“For the past two weeks, we have been focusing exclusively on issues related to Covid-19, such the ability of our health care system to deal with this pandemic, its economic impact, and the policy response of state and national governments,” Holmes said.  

Holmes’ students are reading articles and journals addressing the economic impacts of the pandemic on the healthcare industry and writing weekly discussion posts with policy recommendations. Holmes even encouraged students to write op-eds for their local papers to assess the government’s response to the pandemic.

“Our first op-ed topic had us evaluate our nation’s response to the pandemic as a means to decrease the epidemic curve, raise the healthcare capacity line and flatten the recession curve while giving consideration to various approaches around the world,” said Ryan Cahill ’21, a student in Holmes’s class.

Holmes is currently serving a six-year term on the Green Mountain Care Board, a group of five Vermonters nominated by the Governor to advise on and regulate much of the health policy in the state. As the crisis continues, she is playing a crucial role in Vermont’s state-level response.

“Her role creates a special environment for us as students, whose diligent efforts have the potential to make tangible differences in real healthcare policy,” Cahill said. “Professor Holmes offers unbelievable praise and encouragement for our efforts, sharing our responses with fellow board members and healthcare colleagues as legitimate ideas for real policy discussion.”

Said Holmes about the adaptation of her course: “Just trying to keep it real and relevant!”

Decolonizing Zombies

At first glance, an upper-level Spanish class on zombies may not seem as natural a fit as Ward’s or Holmes’s classes in tying into the pandemic. However, Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Patricia Saldarriaga’s class on “Decolonizing Zombies” presents fascinating parallels between fictional zombie narratives and the real-life pandemic.  

“Zombies can be seen as metaphors for marginalized people (e.g. race, gender, class, disabilities, immigration status) in a globalized world,” Saldarriaga said. “When you see that zombies propagate as fast as the coronavirus, and that people from marginalized groups are disproportionately dying, you say, ‘wait a second, this is not fiction, this is a gore reality.’”

Students have been watching zombie movies from countries all over the world, and as the class moved online, the discussions of these films have naturally crossed over with those of the pandemic.

“Honestly, if you were to listen to our class discussions, you might not be able to notice that we’re talking about fictional situations,” said Sean Rhee ’21. “It is eerie how the ‘zombie virus’ is interchangeable with the Covid-19.”

Saldarriaga painted a chilling picture of how some of those films show eerie similarities to today’s reality, especially as communities of color have been impacted at proportionally larger rates by Covid-19.

“During the pandemics, people die because of lack of protection and the dissemination of wrong information, and this is exactly what happens in movies such as ‘Pontypool’ or ‘Seoul Station,’ Saldarriaga said. “They (blacks, latinxs, gays, trans, the poor, the undocumented, the old and the disabled) are the vast majority of infected ones whose bodies are thrown into mass graves in the name of security.”

For students, the added dimension of complexity brought on by the zombie theme remains ever-present as the class continues to straddle the line between fiction and reality.

“During the last (physical) meeting in Le Chateau, Professor Saldarriaga reminded our class that zombies are fiction (‘los zombis son ficción’),” Rhee said. “I didn’t notice this at the moment, but I wonder if she made that comment in order to help us separate the two entities — the zombie pandemic and the recent Covid-19 pandemic — that were converging at a concerning pace in our minds.”

Genocides Throughout History

Professor of History Rebecca Bennette is encouraging her students who are living history to become a part of it. In both her “Genocides Throughout History” class and her 600-level junior writing seminar, she encouraged her students to add to the historical record with an unique assignment: writing their own primary source.

“Usually we’re analyzing the primary documents of others, but creating our own of this particular time is also a way of learning,” Bennette said.

Bennette is working with the college’s Special Collections to put these student reflections, stories and accounts of their experiences during the pandemic into the college record for future generations of students and historians.

“Because as historians we usually know how the ‘story’ ends,” Bennette said, “but what we’re living through now — with all its uncertainty — has made me better appreciate the anxieties, fears and uncertainties of past people writing out a story they did not know the end to yet either.”

While still an optional assignment, numerous students have already taken on the challenge. Bennette is encouraged by the response and excited as to how their additions to the historical record could be used one day.

“Usually we’re analyzing the primary documents of others, but creating our own of this particular time is also a way of learning,” Bennette said. “And, naturally, I like the idea that in several decades maybe another history class taught by another professor after I’m long retired might stumble across these Covid-19 accounts and take a look at them!”

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