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Blog Post

Pandemic Teaching Initiative

By Lori Lefkovitz
November 30, 2021
Pandemic Teaching Initiative

Image courtesy of Northeastern University.

Pirouettes. In the Northeastern University Humanities Center, what we witnessed with the onset of the pandemic was less a pivot (a verb that was suddenly everywhere) than a series of pirouettes. In my role as director of the Center, I suggested in our most recent annual report that after being stopped in our tracks almost without warning and quickly swiveling to remote teaching and events on virtual platforms, there followed more and more turns, graceful accommodations, and improvisations from my colleagues. In their multiple configurations in the Humanities Center, faculty continue to model innovation to sustain urgent conversations, open new dialogues, and respond flexibly to new exigencies. Not only did most of us have to alter our teaching modalities, and therefore pedagogy, with the shift to remote and later hybrid courses, but the COVID-19 pandemic challenged us to rethink the content of our courses. If trauma leads to a loss of confidence in one’s ability to interpret the world, I suspect that many of us in the business of peddling knowledge and interpretation found ourselves wrestling with self-doubt. The pandemic brought unexpected questions. How would we respond?

Radical disruption also invites creativity. Professor Ronald Sandler, Director of the Northeastern Ethics Center and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, and I mused about what our Centers might have to offer under these circumstances. Within days of our conversation, he let me know that several of our colleagues were already rethinking details of their syllabi: Professor Serena Parekh—who studies refugees and had recently completed a book about refugee crises—was looking at the added impact of pandemic-related border closings on asylum seekers, a highly vulnerable population. In the School of Public Policy, Professor Christopher Bosso was asking how the pandemic was affecting the global food system; and in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Professors Megan Denver and Natasha Frost wanted to know what impact this pandemic would leave on the prison system.

In May 2020, we issued a call to faculty for online modules that would contain a week’s content for an academic course and that explored a topic in the faculty member’s area of expertise related to the pandemic. We were joined by Professors Jennie Stephens (School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs) and Julia Flanders (NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks) and received material support from the Dean of the College of Social Sciences and the Humanities, Uta Poiger, and our own Centers. We asked that each module include a broad introduction to the topic, learning goals, lessons on video, resources and bibliography, and suggested assignments. Individual faculty whose modules were accepted would receive $1,500 and faculty pairs would divide $2,000.

"We hoped that some faculty would use this resource to create programs or courses about the pandemic, approached from a thoroughly interdisciplinary perspective—perhaps even a course that would use all the modules."

Our goal was to create an open-access library of modules for learners and educators at all levels. People could borrow a module (or two or three or more) to include in their courses or simply access the modules to satisfy their desire to understand what the modules offered, such as Professor James Dana’s (especially popular) module on the economics of COVID-19 or Professors Laurie Edwards and Mya Poe’s tools to compose personal healing narratives in their module, “Writing and Responding to Trauma in a Time of Pandemic.” We hoped that some faculty would use this resource to create programs or courses about the pandemic, approached from a thoroughly interdisciplinary perspective—perhaps even a course that would use all the modules. We imagined that some modules would support goals only tangentially related to the pandemic. Professor Sari Altschuler, a co-director of the NU minor in Health, Humanities, and Society, used this opportunity to develop a module on “The Stories We Tell about Epidemics and Why They Matter.” Because the example of the pandemic demonstrates a wider set of theoretical and practical claims about the relationship between storytelling and health outcomes, this module exemplifies how humanistic competencies can inform science and medical practices. Professor Carolin Fuchs, Director of Online Learning, worked with Professor Laurie Nardone, Director of the Writing Program, to create a module that offers instruction on how to create online learning communities, emphasizing the importance of digital literacies that were made even more evident by the pandemic.

We hope that the Pandemic Teaching Initiative will be a living organism, that faculty from elsewhere will donate their contributions, and that if this project was born in a moment of desperation, with time, it will accommodate new knowledge and the fruits of sober reflection. In their module on “Disease, Diplomacy, and Science in the Cold War,” Professors Gretchen Heefner and Philip Thai garnered lessons for “future pandemics” from the Smallpox, the “Asian flu” of 1957-58, and the “Hong Kong Flu” of 1968-69 epidemics. As time passes, what might scholars and researchers have to offer about international relations and global policies based on lessons from the diplomatic crises of our present moment?

We are eager to find ways to let people who may be interested know about this resource and hope that this blog post will boost attention to the project. Beth McMurtrie of the Chronicle for Higher Education described the initiative in the newsletter on September 16, 2021, indicating that we were hopeful that it would lead to collaborations across institutions. The website has attracted approximately 6,000 views, with a spike of 1,900 visitors on the day that the Chronicle article appeared.

All modules are freely available on the website and in the Canvas Commons.

You can access all modules via the module library.

Lori Lefkovitz, Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies, is a Professor of English and Director of the Humanities Center at Northeastern University in Boston, MA.


Check out all the module topics in the list below:

Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Closed Borders: How the Covid-19 Pandemic is Impacting Displaced People
Serena Parekh, Associate Professor of Philosophy

The Stories We Tell about Epidemics and Why They Matter
Sari Altschuler, Associate Professor of English

The Tiger King, the GOAT, and the Celebrity Next Door: Viral Viewing as Panic Mediation
Kelly Garneau, Teaching Professor of English
Laurie Nardone, Teaching Professor of English

'Disrupting' School - COVID-19 and K-12 Public Education - Opportunity or Obstacle?
John Portz, Professor of Political Science

The Pandemic and the Food System
Christopher Bosso, Professor of Public Policy

Online Learning is Dead; Long Live Online Learning
Carolin Fuchs, Teaching Professor of German and English; Coordinator of Online Teaching and Learning
Laurie Nardone, Teaching Professor in English

The Social Epistemology of Coronavirus
Don Fallis, Professor of Philosophy and Computer Science

The Global Cooperation to Defeat the Pandemic
Denise Garcia, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs

COVID-19 Pandemic in Prisons and Jails
Megan Denver, Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Natasha Frost, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice; PhD Program Director

Statistics & Pandemics
Katy Shorey, Assistant Teaching Professor of Philosophy

Building Service-Learning and Community-Engagement Projects in Online Environments
Sarah Finn, Associate Teaching Professor in English
Emily Avery-Miller, Assistant Teaching Professor of English

Writing and Responding to Trauma in a Time of Pandemic
Laurie Edwards, Teaching Professor and Online Pedagogy Coordinator in English
Mya Poe, Associate Professor of English; Director of the Writing Program

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Domestic Violence
Bilge Erten, Assistant Professor of Economics and International Affairs

Disease, Diplomacy, and Science in the Cold War: Lessons for Future Pandemics
Gretchen Heefner, Associate Professor of History
Philip Thai, Associate Professor of History

Balancing Liberty and Public Health: Civil Liberties in a Time of Pandemic
Michael Tolley, Associate Professor of Political Science
Claudia Haupt, Associate Professor of Law and Political Science

Why Markets Fail: The Economics of Covid-19
James Dana, Professor of Economics and Strategy

Religion in a Time of Corona
Liz Bucar, Professor of Religion

COVID-19, Historical Pandemics, and the Challenges of Medical History
Christopher M. Parsons, Associate Professor of History

Present Plagues of the Past: Lessons from Medieval & Early Modern Literature and Visual Art
Erika Boeckeler, Associate Professor of English
Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Professor of English; Undergraduate Program Director

A New Security for the Common Good: The Post-Pandemic World Order
Denise Garcia, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs

Covid-19, Corruption and Serious Misconduct
Nikos Passas, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Co-Director, Institute for Security and Public Policy

COVID-19: A Catalyst for Sustainability
Madhavi Venkatesan, Assistant Teaching Professor of Economics

From Trauma toward Resilience: Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast and the AIDS Pandemic in America
Bret Keeling, Teaching Professor in English

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