Teaching and the Pandemic: Finding Meaning in Troubled Times

June 12, 2020
Piazza Mercatello in Naples During the Plague of 1656, Domenico Gargiulo, ca. 1609-1675. Museo Nazionale di San Martino.

Over the 25 years since Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Humanities (HUM 216-219) was established at Princeton, those who have taught and studied in the yearlong sequence have singled out its close-knit community for its transformative power. The cohorts make first-year bonds that grow long after the course is completed, and many students maintain their connections beyond Princeton.

With this sense of community so strongly part of the full-year experience, how would the isolation of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic affect the teaching and the discussions that are the lifeblood of the course?

When faculty were directed to take their teaching online, they initially suggested shortening online discussions and introducing discussion boards as a supplement. This was not well received by students. “Can we at least see how it works? We want to keep talking,” they said.

Kate Lee ’23 was one of them. “When the university announced that we would be going online for the rest of the semester, one of the first things that came to my mind was the HUM Sequence. It had been such a transformative experience throughout the first semester, and I had been really looking forward to it coming full circle with the second. I knew I was going to miss it desperately as not only an intellectual community but a kind of family at Princeton, and I think most of my peers felt the same way,” she said.

The transition to online learning was challenging, as the sequence thrives on face-to-face interaction. On campus, the regular structure of lectures and precepts were often supplemented by conversations in dining halls, dorm rooms, and the time spent chatting outside the seminar room, before and after class. All of these chance encounters were lost with the pivot to remote learning. There were technical challenges of reading texts digitally and initially, the awkwardness of video conversation. Faculty also had to pre-record lectures to accommodate different time zones.

Kate Lee ’23 accessed most of the spring semester books on Kindle. Photo: courtesy of Kate Lee

Being in lockdown gave rise to additional challenges for some students. Anna Allport ‘23 explained, “Zoom learning inevitably comes with challenges: WiFi issues, time-zone complications, and the distractions of home life. Online learning was an adjustment for me, as I balanced keeping up with schoolwork and taking care of the needs of my family during the pandemic. It was a challenge for everyone, in a myriad of ways.”

Despite the difficulties of transitioning online, the six faculty who teach the course found unexpected opportunities and a renewed commitment to the community. Lecturer Natalie Prizel, a postdoctoral Haarlow Fellow in the Humanities Council, English, and the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, had five lectures still remaining when campus closed. She discovered that writing lectures from afar made her think more deeply about what she wanted to teach. “My goal was to help students think about this moment as informed by the historical moments and movements with which we were grappling in the course. The best part of teaching online, and one I didn’t expect, was that it made the students hungrier for intellectual community and contact,” she said. Prizel ended up teaching several extra “precepts” in which students furthered the conversations.

Professor of History Yair Mintzker recognized that crises come with new opportunities, and believed that no course in the humanities was better prepared to embrace them. “Our subject matter is, and has always been, the human condition. In the HUM Sequence, we explore it through reading some of the most profound texts in the Western literary tradition. ‘Know thyself,’ that wonderful inscription at the entrance to Apollo’s temple in Delphi, continues to be the motto of our common teaching philosophy,” he explained. He too was able to add more one-on-one meetings with students online.

Giovanni Boccaccio and Florentines who have fled from the Plague,” Bruges Master of 1482. National Library of the Netherlands

Among the topics explored in the course, the theme of plague became a natural focus. Denis Feeney, Professor of Classics, referred back to plagues in Thucydides, Lucretius and Boccaccio. Students looked at the books with a different kind of urgency. Texts around the Plague of Athens, the Black Death, or even WWI and WWII, that previously seemed fascinating but removed, were asking the same questions that faced the students now: what does it mean to be human; what is worth fighting for and living for. Kate Lee explained, “I feel that the explorations and questions have never been more important. Now when I’m stunned by Lucretius or Racine or Woolf or Fanon, I see them as people, deeply connected and personal to me.”

Allport added, “We read Boccaccio’s The Decameron before the pandemic began. Written in 1353, at the tail end of the Black Death plague in Europe, the book follows a “merry company” of young people who escape the city to social distance together at a countryside estate, telling each other stories to lift their spirits as they wait for the plague to end. The parallels of this book to our own HUM cohort meeting virtually to discuss literature, amid COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, are striking.”

In the last in-person precept, taught by Professor of Music Simon Morrison, students were invited to do a dramatic reading of scenes from Goethe’s Faust and reflected on what the experience of the pandemic might bring. In a lecture the same day, Morrison’s class discussed the influence of Faust’s parable on popular culture and the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which set off a spontaneous sing-a-long by the students. This display of unity inspired Morrison to consider music as a balm for these troubled times, which he further explored in an essay in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Mrs. Dalloway is set in 1923, five years after the flu pandemic. Photo: Virginia Woolf, Culture Club/Getty Images

Inspiration was also found in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Students shared and discussed a recent New Yorker article that offered a reading of the novel in light of the 1918 global influenza pandemic. Harril Saunders ‘23, who initially had reservations about online class meetings, found the enthusiasm of his classmates, particularly in the discussion about Woolf, contagious.

Both faculty and students were concerned about the quality of the online instruction and the impact that the loss of classroom connections would have on learning. Sequence coordinator and Professor of Classics Yelena Baraz, who showed calm leadership and a deep concern for all involved, helped guide her faculty colleagues and students through the remaining weeks.

“I am amazed at how we all managed to recreate the course online,” said Kate Lee. “No other class of mine could go for a full hour-and-twenty-minute precept on Zoom and still feel invigorating.” She continued, “Professors remained open to office-hour discussions. Everything from the online reunion to the gift we received in the mail made me feel like what we’d had wasn’t lost.”

Looking to the future, the Sequence will remain a vital hub for its students, many of whom now feel better equipped to understand humanity and the world in a deeper, more personal way.

Anna Allport ’23 will continue conversations with her fellows students in a series of discussions on gender and sexuality. Photo: Barbara Trilling.

Many students are motivated to continue the discussion beyond the course. “Before the pandemic, it seemed that our HUM discussions were in pursuit of scholarship. Now our discussions are in pursuit, too, of connection, comfort, and a sense of normalcy. In a new world where everything was changing, HUM became a near-sacred space of intellectualism and thoughtful, rigorous, listening. What a fulfilling and necessary practice—listening—in our current times,” said Allport.

She will join a discussion series on gender organized by fellow student Juliette Carbonnier ‘23. A group of students and professors will be meeting online over the summer to read and discuss a series of texts on gender and sexuality that were not on the syllabus this year. “This is one of the ways that we’re continuing the conversations of HUM through virtual learning, connecting intersectional literature to visions of policy changes for academia and society,” she said.

Harril Saunders commented about the rising racial tensions and protests in the U.S. “In recent days, the “anti-racist reading list” has gone viral. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and the protests are a painful reminder that exclusively reading the works of white men is not enough to be an educated member of society. I am glad to say that professors in the HUM Sequence have not neglected this fact.” He added, “This past semester, we were given a foundation in critical race theory and imperialism through the readings of Frederick Douglass, Frantz Fanon, and Mahatma Gandhi. As a result, I think the course has graduated a group of students this year who are better equipped to participate in discussions of Baldwin, Morrison, and Coates in the months ahead.”

Frederick Douglass’s memoir My Bondage and My Freedom was first published in 1855.

Allport summed up how the Sequence proved so valuable during the current turmoil. “I recognize the privilege of being able to take time to read and discuss literature, and our current crisis has made this even more of a privilege. Our discussions were an indication of the power of literature as a tool to learn, inform, connect, unite, and spark social change. I believe in the power of literature as both a lens through which to view the world, and a call to action to change it for the better.”

Finally, Baraz is optimistic for her students in the coming months and says, “The bonds that they built with each other, the intellectual and personal connections, and their shared repertoire of texts and conversations were instrumental in carrying forward the course as it moved into modernity.” When she joined Simon Morrison in that last class in March, she quoted, in closing, the line from Vergil’s Aeneid, with which Aeneas, despairing in his heart, addresses his comrades (since then cited by Pope Francis in an interview): forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, perhaps one day it will bring pleasure to remember even these things.

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