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Opinion: COVID-19 in the Curriculum

Since the beginning of the pandemic shutdown, the education system—especially higher education—has been grappling with how to address coronavirus in the classroom.

The idea of incorporating COVID-19 into the curriculum is promising. It is crucial to reflect on the crisis, especially given the pandemic’s disastrous effects on the most vulnerable. There’s no need to wait until this is history to learn about it; we are living through the pandemic and deserve to have a conversation about it. Colleges should be able to adapt their curricula accordingly.

Furthermore, studying the pandemic can provide students with immediately useful knowledge during a time in which many students are understandably questioning whether college is worth the costs. During my last semester of high school this spring, I found that spending class time discussing concepts like “flattening the curve” in calculus or the ethics of contact tracing apps in moral philosophy allowed me to better understand the real-world applications of my schoolwork. I imagine college courses on COVID-19 would provide similar academic benefits. Moreover, COVID-19 courses could create a group of informed and proactive students who, after studying the virus in depth, are more inclined to take preventative measures for the sake of the community.

Courses on the pandemic began cropping up as soon as schools shut down. In April, Yale shared how courses across disciplines incorporated the pandemic into discussions and projects: a French seminar compared 17th century texts on the plague to current media coverage of coronavirus; an economics class analyzed clips from President Trump’s COVID-19 Task Force briefings; and a writing seminar posted narratives about families during the pandemic. A few days later, a Harvard Gazette article described the History Department’s coronavirus diaries project, among other initiatives. Oberlin developed more than a dozen courses in the spring that creatively tackled COVID-19, from “Disability and Queer Community Health in Times of Pandemic” to “Choreographing Catastrophe”. Oberlin also created a free, for-credit course for admitted students entitled “Uncovering COVID-19: Critical Liberal Arts Perspectives”. Over the summer, the University of Alabama offered three courses on the pandemic.

Now, schools are thinking about COVID-19 courses once again as they plan for the fall, desperate to present inventive curricula to convince students that next year’s education will be worth the tuition. Some courses on COVID-19 encourage learning through community engagement. In Stony Brook Renaissance School of Medicine’s COVID-19 Service Learning course, medical and graduate students volunteer at the university hospital and in labs, involved in everything from COVID-19 testing to telehealth to conducting their own projects. The course also provides ample opportunity for discussion, striking a balance between direct action and personal reflection.

Other courses feature a valuable interdisciplinary approach. Central College, a private liberal arts school in Iowa, offered a free, for-credit summer course for both new and current students examining how COVID-19 relates to disciplines like public health, environmental science, history, communication, economics and more. Since the pandemic has multifaceted effects, it makes sense to analyze it from diverse perspectives.

Central College COVID summer course description, updated for 2021.

While adding COVID-19 to the curriculum can provide real value to undergraduate education, it may be useful to consider whether the programs they are rolling out are truly flexible and student-centered. This brings me to some of my concerns, because how and why colleges teach about the pandemic matters.

First, I think that meaningful additions to the curriculum should give both students and faculty freedom in exploring the issues. Universities are putting great stress on faculty to be creative in order to attract back uncertain students, and I suspect the marketing of interdisciplinary, innovative coronavirus courses may add to the pressure. With regard to students, we should have the choice of how we engage with the pandemic in college coursework. Barnard, for instance, created a mandatory course for first-years—“Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020”—but it may be counterproductive to require this of everyone. For students who don’t want to study the pandemic while living through it, taking the class might be demoralizing instead of informative.

Second, as I listen to universities applaud the originality of their own plans, I wonder whether COVID-19 courses were designed with the education of students as the primary goal. Take Columbia’s new summer initiative, the Global Columbia Collaboratory (“Reflect. Ideate. Collaborate.”). If the name sounds vague, just read the description:

"This academic experience is designed to give students—indeed, all of us—the skills, understanding, and ways of thinking that will be needed to lead a world so desperately in search of knowledgeable responses to endlessly complex issues."

This is not a course but an “academic experience” involving “global learning competencies” and “collaboration and ideation on projects and ideas that impact today’s society” during the pandemic. It is academic buzzword soup.

A description like this simply doesn’t feel genuine and student-focused, regardless of the university’s true intentions. Rather, colleges appear to be more concerned about their image as forward-looking and responsive to community concerns, when they would benefit from carefully building quality coursework.

Creating new COVID-19 curricula is surely a daunting task requiring significant time and effort on the part of the faculty. But it also appears that COVID-19 courses are a popular way of maintaining enrollment and showcasing institutional “innovation.” If colleges focus more on their community than their tuition revenue, students will benefit. Ideally, courses on the pandemic would give students the chance to apply their college education in service of a cause by combining interdisciplinary study and community engagement. This is the kind of coronavirus curricula that I would love to see in a college course this fall.

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