Teaching Tuesday: Pandemic Papers

Last week was spring break and this week is my first full fledge foray into pandemic pedagogy. Fortunately, I’ve had about 20+ years of experience teaching online and one of my two classes already used hybrid methods. This is an introductory level Western Civilization class which draws on many of the techniques that I developed teaching in a large Scale-Up style classroom. You can read about the Scale-Up class here and my current class here.

Unfortunately, one of my two classes was designed to use our local archives and to emphasize hands-on directed research. This class will have to pivot. You can read about that class here. I’ll blog on that class sometime later this week.

As for my introductory level Western Civilization class, I’ve stated to think a bit about how to incorporate the pandemic into my pedagogy. There are a good many recent pieces that offer resources useful for thinking about the pandemic from this very recent Atlantic article to this collection of archival material on epidemics in Early America or this Yale class.

My class spends a good bit of time working back and forth between primary and secondary sources. So I’ve concocted a couple of papers that ask students to think about the pandemic. These are optional and, I’ll admit, not particularly good paper prompts, but considering the circumstances they might just work. 

Pandemic Primary Source Papers

In Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, contagious disease was always a matter for concern especially when combined with war, famine, or other social, political, or economic disruptions.

Primary Source Paper 1

Two of the most famous episodes of famine in antiquity occurred in 5th century BC Athens, when the Athenians had huddled within their protective walls and the Spartans were ravaging the countryside, and in the 6th century AD, under the reign of the Emperor Justinian. The historians Thucydides and Procopius describe the plagues here.


Compare these two descriptions and consider how these two texts are similar and differ. What do their similarities and differences tell us about the times in which they were written? Are they more similar or different? How do these texts speak to our current situation?

Primary Source Paper 2

Chaucer and Boccaccio are two of the most original voices of the tumultuous 14th and 15th century. Both writers features the Black Death as the backdrop for more wide-reaching social commentary. Read Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” and the short excerpts from Boccaccio’s Decameron (both available in Chapter 12 of the Western Civilization Reader on the books page of the class!) and consider the changes that took place in the 14th and 15th centuries. Using specific examples from Chaucer and Boccaccio, consider how both authors use the Black Death to criticize and comment on their contemporary society. How do these texts speak to our current situation?


My general feeling is that universities are so conservative that they require massive, society-wide, shocks to their system in order to adapt. I suspect that the current situation which is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, will be exactly what the modern university needs to pivot to align more with our changing world. How we do this will be the focus of the next few years. Pandemic proofing instruction, advising, and research will be central to any preparedness model in higher education. 

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