Spring semester courses adjust to and reflect on realities of the COVID-19 crisis

Michigan News

As University of Michigan faculty and students adapt to online teaching due to COVID-19, a number of courses lend themselves to incorporating lessons from the pandemic.

Additionally, courses for the five-week Spring term have the ability to have a considerable impact on student experiences as they navigate the next few weeks of this crisis. From implementing discussions and assignments on COVID to making extra efforts to develop community remotely, instructors have a wide breadth of opportunity to create dynamic experiences for students, despite the virtual classroom.

Here is a look into how some courses are adapting and reacting to the current crisis:

Healing Dance and Drum Circle

Instructor: Imani Ma’at AnkhmenRa Amen, MFA candidate in Dance & Choreography

This introductory studio dance course is dedicated to getting students up and moving at home. Students will sing, dance, and make their own music reutilizing ordinary household items. This aim of the course is to cultivate “healing movement that can be comforting during troubling times,” as outlined in the course description.

“When creating Healing Dance Sessions, I immediately thought about my ancestors and how they survived through what seemed to be unbearable and uncomfortable,” Amen said. “It was the dances and music traditions of my ancestors that offered individual healing needed to help them embrace the unknown.”

The course strives to provide students the tools to create safe dance spaces at home while they navigate these unpredictable times. 

“What I am offering my students this semester is a chance to create and cultivate their own healing movement and rituals during this pandemic,” Amen said. “We’re channeling our energies to make room for the positive and from what we create we are offering this to our family, friends, and communities.”

Fake News & the Anthropology of Ignorance

Instructor: Sam Shuman, doctoral candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology, graduate certificate student in Judaic Studies

Fake news has been one of the largest issues surrounding today’s crisis, and ANTHRCUL 298 aims to offer students the tools to combat it by analyzing agnotology, the study of ignorance. 

One tool the students will learn is conducting an autoethnography, a form of research that relies on self-reflection and participant observation to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect it to a wider cultural, social and political context. 

“Students will write about their experiences of quarantine but within the context of the class: the ways in which ignorance and fake news are shaping their everyday realities,” Shuman said. “Part of the question is how are they adjudicating what is true and what is false, how do they know and who the ‘experts’ are, and for them to be able to really reflect on […] the ways they are being exposed to all these different types of media and information.”

Another area the class will focus on the COVID-19 crisis is by analyzing the media narrative of Chinese wet markets as the origin of the pandemic. The class will explore this topic through a special guest lecture on infectious diseases transmitted from humans to animals by biological anthropology doctoral candidate Rachna Reddy.

“We will think about who profits from this narrative [on wet markets],” said Shuman, “why and how this fits into a larger history — a racist history — of Yellow peril, and how this actually obscures in many ways the ways in which deforestation driven by human action is leading to greater zoonotic spillover, which is basically the spreading of infectious diseases from animals to humans.” 

Shuman hopes this course will help them better analyze this crisis but also remember these lessons on blatant misinformation and the effect of ignorance on society after this crisis is over. 

“I want the students to have the ability to think a bit more abstractly about how ignorance shapes our everyday lives and how we encounter the world, beyond this crisis and emergency,” Shuman said. “Ignorance is perhaps more exaggerated or more visible at this moment, but is not wholly particular to this crisis. So in some ways, I want this course to  de-exceptionalize the way that COVID-19 is presented, which I think is very important at this moment.”

Sex Differences in Brain, Behavior, and Disease

Instructor: Jennifer Cummings, lecturer in the Department of Psychology

PSYCH 430 will discuss the history of sex differences in a variety of species, including humans, rodents, birds and frogs. Topics will include sex differences in brain structure and function, and consequences of sex differences in susceptibility to and progression of various diseases, including autoimmune function and virology, according to the course description.

Cummings hopes to use her course to combat the disconnection and disengagement students have felt in the last few months after leaving campus.

“One of my goals this term has been to promote a sense of community within my course,” Cummings said. “My first assignment was for students to post a photo of themselves, or of something that represents them, and discuss it. As students reviewed and commented on their classmates’ pictures, they quickly identified their shared interests – and struggles – within their community of learners.”

Cummings will develop this sense of community through breakout groups during discussion periods, which will allow students to discuss course topics as well as other issues. 

“I am hopeful that these things will help my students remember they are students at the University of Michigan,” Cummings said, “that while this phase of their education is different from previous semesters, it is just a phase. And, one that they will navigate successfully.”

Health, Medicine, and Society

Instructor: Mercedez Dunn, doctoral candidate in sociology

This course works to understand the influence of social and cultural factors on health, illness, and medical care, per the course description. The course will engage with COVID by developing skillsets to analyze current issues such as the inequalities in death rates to the decisions on prioritization of resources such as masks and ventilators; however, Dunn decided to design the course to avoid over-exhausting the topic.

“We are all dealing with this pandemic in different capacities,” Dunn said. “I expressed to students that I want them to feel some control in their exposure with COVID-19 content. I encouraged them to engage with the course materials via COVID-19 in doses. For example, they may choose to explore COVID-19 in their assignments or team discussion boards, but I am limiting my discussion of COVID-19 during class meetings, when not prompted by students themselves.”

Topics the class will discuss include the social nature of disease, medical ethics/bioethics, and the ecology of health care. Students will also consider how society influences our thinking about illness by exploring how illness is depicted in literature, the news, and everyday discourse.

“I hope that this classroom, full of future healthcare practitioners and policy makers, come to realize the utility of sociological approaches for their future professions and even in their daily lives,” Dunn said. “As these students dedicate their lives to health and medicine post COVID-19, they must recognize that our society as it is does not facilitate health for all and ignite a desire for a more equitable and healthy nation.”

Foreign News Coverage

Instructor: Anthony Collings, lecturer in Communication & Media

COMM 432 will investigate the coverage of foreign media by reflecting on the function of media systems, the factors that influence media decisions, and the criteria media use in deciding what to report. The course will also discuss special issues that foreign correspondents face. 

“My seminar in Foreign News Coverage makes use of a lot of student activity including role-playing games,” Collings said. “So I had to adjust my lesson plans to make use of Zoom. For example, students will be divided into two teams, via Zoom Breakout Rooms, to prepare competing plans for news coverage of the coronavirus story.”

Students will spend a large portion of the course discussing the current crisis, and will be critiquing the news coverage of it.

“I hope students will gain an appreciation of how difficult it is for journalists to uncover the truth of the crisis and for journalists to present it in a meaningful way to the public,” Collings said.

The History of Disaster

Instructor: Douglas Northrop, professor of history and middle east studies

The History of Disaster will engage students with a spectrum of natural disasters, including fire, floods, famines, hurricanes, volcanoes, blizzards, and epidemics and pandemics. The course spans from the ancient world to the present day.

“We are looking at a number of historical epidemics and pandemics ranging back centuries, even millennia, to try to consider how these kinds of events have affected human societies in the past,” Northrop said. “When we get up towards the present day, students will reflect on how, if at all, do those historical experiences correspond with or work alongside the experiences we are going through right now.”

For their final culminating project, students will be asked to put a modern disaster into historical context. Northrop anticipates that many projects will focus on the current crisis, although they are not required to do so.

“I hope students [through this course] gain a sense of traction on some of the demands that are being placed on them by developing knowledge that humanity has experienced many analogous challenges in past moments,” Northrop said. “Coming to learn about the human condition through the complexities of the historical past I think is the best way to give them ammunition to face the future.”

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