“Understanding COVID-19” course launches

Perspectives on COVID-19 are vast and varied at New College, and every professor is viewing the pandemic through a unique intellectual lens.

To bring all of these scholarly insights together, Assistant Professor of Religion Manuel Lopez, Ph.D. and Digital Humanities Librarian Cal Murgu coordinated a fully remote course for the fall entitled “Understanding COVID-19: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Pandemic.”

The three-month-long experience involves 20 New College faculty members teaching 28 lectures, with sessions held from 12:30 to 1:50 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays (starting with a mini class on August 20 and ending on November 23).

“This is not going to be a normal semester at New College, or at any other college and university in the United States for that matter,” Murgu and Lopez said. “As part of a collective effort at New College to understand the current crisis, we have designed a course that will explore the pandemic using an interdisciplinary approach, and with a specific focus on how it has affected our local communities.”

Experts will be brought in from the Sarasota-Manatee area to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on the local region. To that end, the course will also include a separate internship that will allow New College students to work with Dr. Lisa Merritt at Sarasota’s Multicultural Health Institute (MHI) on community-based COVID-19 research.

The course itself will explore the current healthcare crisis from a biological, epidemiological, historical, political, economic and sociological standpoint, incorporating points of view from experts in data science, literature, ethics, religion and the arts.

Faculty members from all three divisions at New College (natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, as well as the graduate data science program) will participate. Some of the sessions will be prerecorded and others will be interactive—all on the Canvas online platform.

“We want as many people as possible to take the class,” Lopez said. “And we want to get the message out there that this is not going to be just a class where you just learn about how terrible COVID-19 is, but that there is something valuable about learning about the pandemic from all angles.”

Murgu agreed.

“We will share things about how we’re affected by the pandemic, how we feel about it, and how to reconcile those things,” Murgu said. “You have to engage with your experience, and that helps build up this level of resilience.”

While the format and content of the course is unique to New College, the idea of incorporating COVID-19 perspectives into a collegiate curriculum is not new. Similar courses have been implemented at other institutions, such as Whitman College, Imperial College of London and Lenoir-Rhyne University.

“The focus on the local aspect is a distinctive thing we’re doing at New College—bringing people in from the community,” Lopez said. “Also, we pride ourselves on small classes here and getting to know the students individually, which is something that can’t be accomplished as well at a larger university.”

The concept for the “Understanding COVID-19” course started out small, shortly after the New College campus was evacuated in mid-March. It soon began to snowball when a faculty-wide conversation began about potentially offering a more comprehensive COVID-19-related program. So Lopez drafted a proposal for a multilayered course.

“To me, it was a no-brainer. If you have a global crisis like the one we’re living in and you’re at a liberal arts institution, you have to talk about it. We are all going to deal with the crisis in one way or another, but as an intellectual community, we can think about in a unique way,” Lopez said. “I think we can really show our community and Florida that what we do here is relevant; it would be a missed opportunity not to do this.”

Not only will the experience be relevant to the New College community, but it will also be accessible to a much broader audience (as a sort of “time capsule”).

“We want to use the course website as a repository—an artifact that gives you a sense of what happened here during the pandemic,” Murgu said. “Perhaps we could build on this model in the future at New College, where we offer a regular interdisciplinary approach to important challenges that we’re facing.”

Each content module of the course will follow a similar structure—and every week will include its own syllabus, suggested readings, recorded lectures and Zoom session links. Some of the assignments include a journal (allowing students to process their own personal experience of the pandemic), an op-ed (an original opinion piece based on facts and data), a series of interviews with someone affected by COVID-19, and an ArcGIS StoryMap (a combination of narratives, maps and data to tell the story of a place affected by the crisis). Preparing this curriculum was no easy feat; Lopez and Murgu hosted three days of workshops over the summer with the faculty to accomplish it.

The introduction to the course will be held on August 24, and lectures will follow on multiple topics, such as the history of epidemiology, microbiology and quarantine; outbreaks and the tools used to track the data; the economic impact of the virus; pandemics in literature; social determinants and of health and community-engaged approaches; environmental changes and pandemics; and “The Wuhan Diaries.”

“We firmly believe that that is one of the strengths of a liberal arts institution like ours—that we can bring all of this expertise together, talk to each other and have conversations about what’s happening,” Lopez said. “This will be unlike anything anywhere else.”

For more information on the course, visit dss.ncf.edu/covid19/index.php/Main_Page

To watch the mini class, go to youtu.be/bTOJYJT0wz8

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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