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Course examining epidemics provides students with new perspective on COVID-19 pandemic

| Wednesday, October 28, 2020

We’ve all been living through a pandemic for months, but some students on campus are studying them, too.

Laurel Daen, assistant professor of American Studies, is teaching a course this semester titled “Epidemics in America,” which meets over Zoom. The course covers illnesses from cholera, to smallpox, to HIV/AIDS and how they affected American life — relating the country’s storied past with disease to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Although campus may feel different this semester for many returning members of the Notre Dame community, it’s all Daen knows. This is her first semester teaching at the University.

She first proposed the idea for a class on American epidemics while interviewing for the position over a year ago, she said. At the time, she planned to teach it in the spring.

However, as COVID-19 spread globally and nationally and epidemics quickly became topical, Daen pushed for the class to take place this fall semester. Classes combine history with currents events, she said.

“It’s really about bringing thinking about the history and culture of America both from centuries ago and the present day,” Daen said.

Students do two readings for class. The first is historical, typically a primary source; the second is a contemporary news article that connects with the historical event, she said.

“If we’re thinking about medical discrimination and early America, we’re also going to be talking about medical discrimination with COVID-19 today,” Daen said. “There’s lots of connections through the readings.”

Junior Grace Scheidler and sophomore Martha Gluck are students in Daen’s class this semester. Both said they were struck by how many similarities COVID-19 has with prior epidemics, from leadership reaction to which groups are marginalized.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much that was just left out of history books,” Gluck said. “I understand so much better how coronavirus works, but also how epidemics affect people in pretty much the same way, no matter the disease.”

Daen said this realization is one of the main takeaways she hopes students get from the class.

“If you’re thinking about the media today, or anything you read, so much of it is talking about how unprecedented the pandemic is,” she said. “But there’s actually a lot of precedent for it. And so by analyzing past events, I think it gives students not only better context, but also better skills for understanding the complexity of what’s going on today.”

One aspect of the class that puts the current epidemic into perspective, Daen said, is a journal that students write in twice a week. Ideally, she said, it will be a primary source from this point in history, and at the end of the semester, the anonymized entries will be placed in an archive.

Gluck said it’s interesting to look at her entries from earlier this semester and see what’s changed from then to now.

“We’ve been going back and reflecting on our entries and, even though it’s only been two months, the change is so clear,” she said. “So much has happened, and it’s really cathartic to write it all down.”

In fact, Gluck said her “Epidemics in America” work is the first thing she turns to as she sits down to study because she finds it so interesting.

Amid readings, journals and lectures, Scheidler and Gluck both said the class is an engaging way to get perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s encouraging, Scheidler said, to know this isn’t the world turning upside down because so many things that shock us about life in a pandemic are typical of epidemics across America’s history.

“I think something that we as a class have found is that there’s a lot of comfort in learning about these past epidemics,” Scheidler said. “You would think learning about smallpox and the Black Death would be depressing, but there’s a certain universality to the experience of confronting a disease as a society and not really being equipped to handle it that makes COVID-19 seem not as bad.”

Daen said she was not expecting students to find the class hopeful — her classes, which typically focus on disease and disability, can often be heavy. But, she said, it was a welcome surprise that has made teaching the class all the more enjoyable.

“The class is so relevant and so personal, because we’re all living through a pandemic, and thinking about this history has been a really powerful thing for the students and for me teaching it,” Daen said.

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