Is it too early to teach Covid in the university classroom?

In many academic subjects, Covid is hard to ignore - but it's hard to teach too. Carli Rowell on what it takes to introduce the pandemic into the classroom.

Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex

As a university teacher of sociology, it is my job to equip students with the tools that enable them to rethink their daily experiences.

I encourage them to consider how (to echo the famous Sociologist C. W. Mills) personal troubles are larger public issues, and to assist them in making the familiar strange.

In doing so, it therefore becomes impossible to ignore, deny and downplay the current context of Covid-19 given its ramifications on daily life for the past year, and it’s impossible to omit Covid-19 and the social-change(s) that have occurred as a result from my teaching.

Is it too early to introduce the pandemic into teaching? I have tried to do so this year and have reflections.

Teaching Covid

“The Sociology of Globalisation”is a second-year optional module at the University of Sussex that I teach where the student cohort consists overwhelmingly of 19-22 year-old, “White British”, home students.

This year began the module by reiterating to students that sociology is often concerned with all of the inequalities and injustices that exist in the world. On a module like the sociology of globalisation, students are invited to consider the inequalities that exist throughout the globe.

But they also consider how those inequalities are interconnected and the way in which we, as persons situated in the global north, are implicated in the maintenance of such inequalities and benefit from unequal relations.

That’s why both myself and my students have occasionally found the sociology of globalisation to be a “heavy” subject.

I outlined that a key objective of the module was to consider the way(s) in which as a globe we are all connected in ordinary and extortionary ways, in ways that are both macro and minutia. I argued to students that there was no starker example of the way(s) in which we are interconnected as a globe than that of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s a stark example of the way in which time and space are decompressed, and how inequalities play out among much else.

Introducing Covid

I acknowledged that the contemporary example of Covid-19 is live, contested, deeply emotive and fast evolving and that, at times our conversation potentially will draw upon the current pandemic.

However, I made it clear to students that should they wish to consider Covid-19 in relation to the weekly topics that they are welcome to. That they were welcome to treat the module as an escapism from covid-19 and that there would be no praise nor penalty for doing/not doing so in either case.

I didn’t embed the topic of Covid into my module content or teaching until week 5. This was intentional, though I had taught many of the students before I wanted the cohort to familiarise themselves with the module and to build a sense of community among them.

Deeply theoretical in the first few weeks, the topics grappled with were already intellectually challenging, it was not the time for the module to be emotionally challenging too. Halfway through the module, I administered a questionnaire asking students if they would like to explore Covid in connection to the weekly module topics, they did.

And so, I progressed with the module re/design in a way that drew upon covid when exploring topics such as: Globalisation and Poverty; Feminist Perspectives on Globalisation and Gender Inequalities; and Globalisation and the Environment.

Reflections on practice

From my experience, students wanted to have the option to engage with Covid-19. But rather than it be a mandatory discussion in depth and detail, students wanted to consider Covid-19 and its ramifications in ways that were fleeting. Whilst students were compelled to sociologies Covid-19 there was not the desire for deep thought and reflection, it was not quite the time for their thinking to be saturated by Covid-19.

I also found that:

  • It was useful to note in the module outline/descriptions that the topic of Covid-19 would be handled sensitively.
  • Ensuring that the topic of Covid-19 was not a compulsory part of the assessment for the module, and ensuing that students knew that they would not be rewarded or penalised for discussing or not discussing Covid related issues respectively also helped.
  • During teaching, in lectures and seminars reminding the cohort that everyone has personal experience with Covid-19 to some degree – but that others may have been more adversely affected – helped emphasize the need to engage sensitively.
  • Letting students bring up the topic of Covid, allowing them to steer discussion and letting students guide the extent to which they wished to discuss the case of Covid in relation to the module’s topic was an important process.
  • Framing seminar questions in a way where students could draw upon / discuss the example of Covid rather than framing them in a way where students had to explicitly discuss the topic of Covid also took the pressure off.

After lectures and seminars, I sought feedback from students about their learning experience. I was keen to know how useful (or not) students found discussion and whether they wanted to continue to explore the modules’ themes. I also followed up with individual students who I felt exhibited signs of upset or discomfort with said topic. In doing so, I offered them the opportunity to meet with me, offering information on wider support services available at the university.

The above may appear as a uniform and universal set of “dos” and “don’ts” when thinking about bringing Covid into the classroom. In reality it is merely teaching with sensitivity, care and compassion. We may not know what is “right” in terms of Covid, but we do all know how to be “kind” in our teaching and right now that is the right thing to do.

One response to “Is it too early to teach Covid in the university classroom?

  1. Enabling existing curriculum and class discussion to touch Covid has likely been common-place this year, and Carli offers a sensitive approach. Given the extent of impact on our student communities – including on their direct health and wellbeing – we do need care and compassion in our teaching of this subject. Some students also expect universities to be more directly responsive and deploy their research expertise immediately in the classroom. At the University of Exeter Business School we ran a final year undergraduate elective this term on the Economics of Pandemics specifically to address this interest. 84 students have taken up the opportunity.

    Curiosity and questioning at a time of crisis is a good sign, and whether in bespoke classes or within existing curriculum there will be relevance and opportunities across all university departments. Our students need us to engage with serious issues, and show that universities are central to the wider public debate and understanding of health, wellbeing, inequality, and our collective future.

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