Two events coincided on March 23, 2020: my university moved instruction online due to COVID-19 and I started a segment on global health governance in a course on International Law and Organization. The readings and case studies had been selected months earlier, yet I couldn’t ignore the pandemic case study we were suddenly living. Like all politics professors, I frequently teach rapidly changing current events, but this felt different. I started realizing that teaching about pandemics was very different from living through one. I was anxious and distracted, just over one full week into staying at home, and teaching online for the first time. As I planned my online modules, I struggled more than I expected to place COVID-19 into context for my students, to select new readings, and to find ways to prompt them to analyze pandemic developments for themselves. I eventually found my way past the surreality of crisis and back to three basic principles: focus on course concepts, provide balance, and enable the students to co-produce knowledge.
Focus on Course Concepts
Information overload was a difficulty in getting a grasp on the whirlwind of COVID-19 developments late March into April. After wasting hours linking from article to article until I had dozens of potential readings, I was so adrift myself that I couldn’t determine what was truly relevant – so how could I expect my students to do so? I finally grounded myself in what should have been obvious: course goals and concepts. I include global health governance in the International Law and Organization course to highlight the mix of formal and informal actors and activities we find in the international system. I selected readings to highlight that mix, including COVID-19 responses by nation-states, WHO, NGOs, and private actors. I found analyses of challenges to (and violations of) the International Health Regulations. And I asked the same discussion questions as always, just in light of COVID-19: Is it useful to securitize health? Is global health governance effective and how could we make it more so, etc. Students rose to the challenge (perhaps better than I initially had), applying the textbook concepts to pandemic developments with enthusiasm and skill.
I always seek to ensure political balance in current events’ readings, ensuring conservative and liberal perspectives are available and that students can formulate their own opinions. For COVID-19 readings, I also sought balance of a different kind: optimism and pessimism. If I was disoriented by and anxious because of the situation, students likely were to. As we moved forward online, I learned that students had lost their jobs, had parents or partners who were medical professionals, and had ill relatives. There are so many unknowns about the virus and its impact, as well as rapidly changing analyses. I didn’t want students to lose perspective or become overwhelmed. For every worst case scenario I had them read, I found a corresponding (realistic) best case. This effort paid off: in an end-of-the-semester reflective essay, several students noted that studying the pandemic in class made them feel less scared, more curious, and better prepared for ongoing developments.
I always adhere to the philosophy that students and teachers should learn together. Doing this online was a challenge for me, especially with little time for planning and execution. Luckily for me, my students also adhere to that philosophy and took the initiative. They took the basic discussions I started and developed them into clearinghouses of additional resources, helping each other – and me – deal with information overload and adding a wider range of perspectives into our balanced materials. Week after week, we achieved more sophisticated online discussions, engaging in real-time application of course concepts and analysis of the pandemic. It was especially exciting to see them add to our analyses during weeks when developments were fast paced (such as April 15 when Trump announced withholding funds from WHO).
I’ve now completed five weeks of teaching a pandemic while we were all living it. I’ve re-learned that despite two decades of teaching experience – and a few significant life crises along the way – moving forward amid a new crisis requires adaptability, thought and planning, and patience with myself. I temporarily got lost in the emotions, day-to-day personal and professional practicalities, and significant changes brought about by COVID-19. I found my way by going back to the basics of what I can offer my students – and what they offer in return. I have thus far survived teaching a pandemic while living it by focusing on concepts, providing balance, and learning along with my students.