By the time Summer Session I started on May 13, Duke’s educators had already been at work for weeks. Before a class can be taught, it must be planned. There are readings to select, assignments to create, questions to prepare, schedules to set. And this year, there was an additional challenge: the professors, instructors and Ph.D. students tasked with teaching undergraduates had to adapt their classes for a completely remote term, thanks to the impacts of COVID-19.
There was also more demand than ever. With stay-at-home orders proliferating around the globe, many Duke students were forced to alter their summer plans. Instead of study abroad trips, in-person internships and other activities impossible during the pandemic, many students opted to take a class. Enrollment for Summer Session I nearly tripled from 2019, and Summer Session II had almost doubled with two weeks left in the registration period. As of June 11, there were nearly 4,000 course enrollments over the two sessions.
An unprecedented global crisis cries out for the context and insight that Duke’s faculty and graduate students can offer. Plus, the event itself creates new research for fields that grapple with social changes, policy questions and health science in real time. These three examples show how Duke’s educators navigated those struggles, creating engaging intellectual experiences in the process.
Many COVID-19 news reports cited historical examples to explain the disease's impact. They pointed to the 1918 influenza pandemic, or perhaps to the Bubonic plague. But what really happened in those cases, and how similar are they to what is happening now?
Those are the questions Anderson Hagler, a History Ph.D. student who is about begin his fifth year, asked with History 190S, Special Topics in History: Disease through the Ages. Surveying a variety of diseases that have shaped the Western world, Hagler’s class examined the spread and impact of each case study. Students gained a better understanding of the present, as well as a unique lens into the past. “So many topics are so far removed from a lot of undergraduates,” Hagler explained. “How do you get in the mindset of these people [from previous eras]?” The shared experience of a pandemic opens the way to more subtle analyses.
But Hagler’s research isn’t in disease in particular, so he didn’t have a ready-made syllabus. He had to create it from scratch. Because his research is on colonial Latin America, the Columbian exchange—when European colonists brought smallpox and other diseases to the Americas—offered an obvious starting point. Then he started looking for other notable pandemics.
The Bible mentions lepers, so he added leprosy to the list, especially given the role of religion in colonization. The Bubonic plague was an obvious choice. More interested in the social and cultural impacts of disease than their biological function, Hagler thought back to his childhood in the 1980s and added the AIDS epidemic so he could raise ethical questions about policy responses and connections to “perceived diseases” that are just a guise for discrimination.
With the topic list set, Hagler began the process of selecting and organizing readings. “I think to myself, Well, I’m not an expert and I doubt my students are either,” Hagler said. “So I want something that’s accessible.” He scoured YouTube videos and academic articles, looking for parallels and connections. Some cases were fortuitous, like an article about leprosy in the Cook Islands that discussed a fear of the disease coming from China—an obvious connection to public debates about COVID-19.
The planning process wasn’t quick. “It took several weeks of this being my primary task,” Hagler said. And once the syllabus was set, he began the necessary work to make it accessible to students: building a Sakai site, writing course content and discussion questions, embedding videos, linking readings, setting up forums, and more. “I was trying to make it foolproof for students,” Hagler said, so they could check a single page a day and find everything they needed.
COVID-19 has affected every part of the globe, but it hasn’t affected them all in the same way—not just due to biological factors and government policies, but also deep social, cultural and economic differences between countries.
Spanish 303, Introduction to Cultural Studies—often one of the first major-specific courses that Spanish majors take—helps students understand those differences and develop the theoretical and methodological skills to examine them. So what better way to teach the subject this summer than by looking at the news event we can’t help but focus on anyway? You can understand class by examining the difficulty of social distancing in a country where 40 percent of workers are engaged in the informal economy, or explore gender relations by reading responses to a policy that assigns the public specific shopping days based on their sex, as Peru did.
Rebecca Ewing, Lecturing Fellow of Romance Studies, will do just that when she offers the class during Summer Session II. “Each professor chooses the texts and the theoretical frameworks that they think is best applied to the content, then throughout the course students are putting those theories into practice by analyzing different texts,” she explained.
Given the quickly developing nature of COVID-19 and the digital nature of the course, Ewing opted to focus on a nontraditional media: memes. “They’re a great cultural text that are produced quickly and that carry a lot of cultural information in a very small amount of space,” Ewing said. “I think they’ll be very accessible to students.”
To create a syllabus with those materials, Ewing had to stay constantly up to date with rapid developments across the Spanish-speaking world, in additional to the typical work of preparing to teach the relevant theories. “I’m listening to about three podcasts a day, looking for stories in English and Spanish, constantly surfing for memes and relevant hashtags,” she said. “I might read 20 or 30 texts just to find one I can use.”
There was an additional hurdle in designing a class for Spanish majors: not only did the class aim to teach specific content, it was also designed to improve students’ language skills. With an in-person class, Ewing said she would have relied heavily on class discussions—but that isn’t possible with remote delivery. Zoom meetings can already be awkward, and holding them in a second language adds a formidable barrier. “Students can either focus on what they’re trying to say or on how they’re trying to say it, but they can’t do both at the same time,” Ewing said.
She plans to use Zoom breakout rooms instead, but that will mean she can’t be part of every discussion at the same time to offer assistance. “As an instructor, I just have to decide what my priority is,” Ewing said.
When Duke’s campus closed, rising fifth-year Economics Ph.D. student Michael Boutros was pining for his regular reading groups. “I really missed reading papers that come out in a working series or in journals and talking to my cohort about them,” he said. “We have a macroeconomics lab in the basement of the Econ building, and after class or a seminar we’d go down there and talk about what we just heard.”
So when the Office of the Provost sent out a call for summer course proposals, Boutros had an idea: he would create an upper-level undergraduate class that would fill the reading-group gap. Not only would it provide the intellectual community he was craving, but it would also invite Duke undergraduates into the cutting-edge of economics research.
The resulting Summer Session I course—Economics 490, Selected Topics in Economics: Macroeconomic Impact of COVID-19—is unique in that there isn’t a single published paper or textbook on the syllabus. Instead, Boutros pulled together a list of 55 in-progress papers, mostly culled from the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working paper series, all of which investigated the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on the economy.
“It’s a class that brings together higher-level undergrads who have invested in learning the textbook stuff and want to apply it to the real world,” Boutros explained.
He spent the spring collecting papers that looked compelling across three topics within macroeconomics: the economic consequences of the pandemic, incorporating epidemiologic models into macroeconomic models, and how firms and households responded to government programs like the CARES Act and Payment Protection Plan.
Instead of preparing lectures on the research, though, Boutros opted to lean into the uncertainty of the moment in order to show his students what they’re capable of. Students picked the papers that were most interesting to them, then wrote “referee reports” as if they were the editor of a journal deciding whether to publish the research or not. Two students presented during each class period, then the group discussed.
“I had TAed for a 400-level class during my second year, and I remember being impressed at how smart the upper-year undergrads were,” Boutros said. “My goal in making these readings part of the curriculum was to help the students realize that they could read and understand frontier academic research using the tools they’d learned in their previous courses. They did a great job of analyzing the papers and weren’t afraid to add their own color commentary.”
By embracing the uncertainty of the unfolding crisis, Boutros was able to create the space for scholarship and debate in real-time. Students were able to prepare for future careers, and he was able to stay focused on the largest macroeconomic event of his lifetime.