by Rachel Newcomb
There are a lot of wonderful ideas circulating about how to make the COVID-19 pandemic part of our teaching, and I’ve been happily borrowing those suggestions whenever possible. Professors are crowd sourcing syllabi, readings, and assignments, and the resources available have enriched my teaching, particularly in my introductory cultural anthropology class. As a result, I was able to pair news articles with textbook content, and I also created a discussion board where students could connect their own experiences with readings on topics such as inequality, gender, economics, or political systems.
In my cultural anthropology class, one of the more entertaining assignments I originally had on the syllabus was a restaurant ethnography, in which the students would visit a restaurant that serves food from a different culture and write an ethnography about their experiences. Since that had to be scrapped, I replaced it with another assignment, A Day in the Life of a Pandemic, originally created by Natalia Molina, a professor at USC. Instead of visiting a restaurant, students would now conduct research into the cultural, political, and economic issues surrounding one day in the timeline of COVID-19.
However, outside of class, the emails I’ve been receiving indicate that some students are “pandemic-ed out.” Their stress levels are at an all-time high, and many of them are fatigued at having to constantly think about COVID-19 all the time, including in their classes. Many of them have parents who are still working, while others have lost their jobs. Others have health conditions, or family members with health conditions, that put them at risk. Some are taking care of younger siblings while their parents work. I heard from one student who asked if she could be excused from taking part in a planned class wellbeing check-in, because she said she couldn’t take on any more suffering.
Considering all of this, I created an alternative assignment that students could choose instead of the “Day in the Life of a Pandemic.” In this assignment, I asked them to watch a critically acclaimed Bollywood movie, to do some research about the cultural contexts, and to write a paper about how that movie reflects cultural issues we’ve been studying the entire semester: patriarchy, social class and caste, religion, gender inequality, marriage practices, and popular culture.
While an assignment like this might not work for everyone’s courses, the overall inspiration remains the same: to make sure we are giving students a chance to work on something that doesn’t relate to their current realities. In a rush to make education relevant, we should also remember that some students may be overwhelmed with COVID-19 content. When possible, we can offer alternatives that can still accomplish learning goals while also offering the opportunity to escape what is going on everywhere around us.