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New Holy Cross course explores global effects of pandemics

| Wednesday, February 24, 2021

After a year of living through the pandemic, many  aspects of life for college students have changed. Students now sit distant from classmates and eat in the dining hall behind plastic barriers; yet, there are many things about life in a pandemic that we don’t fully understand, Holy Cross professor Justin McDevitt said. To explore these unknowns, McDevitt created his new course, “The World in Pandemic.“

Originally offered this past summer at Holy Cross’s Moreau College Initiative at Westville Correctional Facility, the course is now being taught by McDevitt, a former Stanford Hall rector, on Holy Cross’s main campus.

The class is meant to help students understand the causes of, responses to and lasting effects of a pandemic such as COVID-19, McDevitt said.

Courtesy of Justin McDevitt
As a Holy Cross professor and partner with the Westville Correctional Facility, Justin McDevitt originally taught the course “The World in Pandemic” last summer at Westville. Now, he teaches the course to Holy Cross undergraduates.

McDevitt cited a few main reasons as to why a class like this is necessary right now, the first being dissimilarities in media opinions. He encourages his students to bring in news articles about the effects of the pandemic for discussion in class.

“Our media is so fragmented that it’s even difficult to talk about what we know to be true; we can’t even agree on the facts,” he said. “And so, [this course] is an important way to bring together a lot of information to let students discuss it. Using the classroom as a laboratory to process these things together in a group of people with different experiences is unparalleled.”

Junior Emilee Skidgel, a student in McDevitt’s class, described the experience as eye-opening.

“I think it is important to have a class catering to this topic, especially right now because it can be comforting to those who have trouble seeing any hope for our future,” Skidgel said. “Not only does the class bring about great discussion, but it also puts things into perspective since everyone’s experience with the current pandemic is different.”

In addition, McDevitt has incorporated the use of student journals into the class. These journals serve as a place for students to not only reflect on the course materials, but “to also keep a record of their processing and how they’re experiencing a pandemic,” he said.

Besides being a course about pandemics, the class — as the course title suggests —  focuses on the world as a whole. The class is an interdisciplinary studies course that satisfies the Holy Cross global perspectives core requirement ,and therefore is designed to help students understand how interconnected the world is.

“COVID-19 is a perfect opportunity during normal life to understand how connected we are,” McDevitt said. “The more we can learn about it in the classroom, the more we are able to take that and apply it to things outside of the pandemic.”

McDevitt includes a quote in the class description originally said by George Santayana.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,“ the syllabus says.

By learning about how pandemics fit into our history, we will be better equipped for them in the future, McDevitt said. While we may not want to think about future pandemics, he added, they are actually more common than we think.

“We don’t grow up learning about the Spanish flu,” he said. “So this is our attempt to make sure that we don’t have to start from scratch the next time something like this happens.”

McDevitt said the education in the course is meant to extend beyond academic knowledge, and he has a personal goal to inspire courage in his students.

“I want to give students the tools and the knowledge and the space to be able to process this pandemic in real-time so that they can take what they learn in the class and not live in fear,” he said.

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