New College’s COVID-19 Course is an Interdisciplinary Look at the Pandemic

Guest Correspondence

BY DONAL O'SHEA SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY SEP 12, 2020

An excellent liberal arts education requires both depth and breadth. Students should master one discipline and acquire a working knowledge of a range of other disciplines. This affords each student a set of disciplinary tools, and a set of different ways of viewing a situation or problem. 

One could hardly imagine a better subject for such an approach than the pandemic. It has touched virtually every aspect of our lives and society.

At New College, religion professor Manuel Lopez and digital humanities librarian Cal Murgu have brought together 20 faculty members from various disciplines to teach a fully remote course this fall entitled “COVID-19: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Pandemic.”

Among the instructors are biologists, an epidemiologist, a medieval historian, an ecologist, a biochemist, a data scientist, a computer scientist, a medical anthropologist, sinologists, political scientists, a constitutional historian, an economist, a sociologist, a physician, literary historians, a dramaturg and a creative writer.

“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 say. “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.”

To the latter end, we are bringing in experts from the Sarasota-Manatee area to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on the local region. And the course includes a separate internship that allows our students to work with Dr. Lisa Merritt at Sarasota’s Multicultural Health Institute on community-based COVID-19 research.

While the format and content of the course is unique to New College, the idea of bringing the topic of COVID-19 into a collegiate curriculum is not. Similar courses have been implemented at other institutions like Whitman College and the Imperial College of London.

“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 says. “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.”

The introduction to the three-month-long course was held on August 24. 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 of health and community-engaged approaches; environmental changes and pandemics; and “The Wuhan Diaries.”

This will be a course unlike anywhere else, as we bring in expertise from all disciplines and share what we have learned over the past several months. 

The experience be will be accessible to a much broader audience than the New College community 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 says. “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.”

Donald O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

For more information on the “COVID-19” course, click here.

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