Dec. 10, 2020Print | PDF
One of the challenges of COVID-19 is understanding the various ways that different people and populations experience and understand the pandemic.
As Wilfrid Laurier University transitioned to remote learning last spring due to the pandemic, a group of professors began developing an interdisciplinary undergraduate course to help students explore the pandemic’s complexities and myriad challenges.
“We’re using COVID-19 as a lens for students to see how complex issues are never experienced in silos. [Students] could come away at the end of the course with a real understanding of what this pandemic means to those in fields outside of their own.”
The new course, COVID 19: From Cell to Society, offered through Laurier’s Department of Health Sciences in the Faculty of Science, will welcome its first cohort of more than 200 students in January 2021. Felix Munger, from Laurier’s Department of Psychology, is leading a collaborative course development process, working alongside 14 faculty members whose areas of research and expertise include virology, immunology, epidemiology, public health, history, geography, communication studies and psychology.
The online undergraduate course is open to students from all faculties. During 12 weeks of online instruction, students will explore the complexity of the effects of COVID-19 through an interdisciplinary lens, allowing them to view and understand the pandemic through diverse academic perspectives.
“We’re using COVID-19 as a lens for students to see how complex issues are never experienced in silos,” says Munger. “I’m excited that a communications, music or biology student could come away at the end of the course with a real understanding of what this pandemic means to those in fields outside of their own.”
In one lesson, Health Sciences and Biology Associate Professor Stephanie DeWitte-Orr will provide information about the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, how it infects, and how it transmits. In another, she will explain how the human body responds to SARS-CoV-2, how our body protects itself from the virus, and introduces the concept of herd immunity.
“This information is important because it helps us understand why we get the symptoms we get when infected with this virus,” says DeWitte-Orr. “It was important to me that both lessons also contain ‘good news’ pieces which highlight positive aspects about what we’ve learned and how we can protect ourselves against SARS-CoV-2.”
Carolyn FitzGerald’s background in clinical psychology guided her approach to lesson design. FitzGerald says her lesson highlighting the impact of the virus on individuals and families is an “invitation to students to be part of a very important conversation.
"Stories can be powerful motivators, but also powerful sources of distortion that lead to misinformation and enable the spread of disinformation.”
“Thinking about the pandemic from a psychological perspective allows us to understand our common struggles, but also to understand what helps us cope and what challenges our ability to cope here in Canada and around the world,” says FitzGerald, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education. “The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to talk honestly and openly about our mental health.”
Ken Paradis, associate professor and coordinator of the English program in Laurier’s Faculty of Liberal Arts, acknowledges that English may seem an odd discipline to help in understanding a pandemic. But he notes that controlling a pandemic isn't just about understanding the disease – it's also about understanding how to get people to think about the disease in a way that leads them to act effectively to curb its spread.
In his parts of the course, Paradis will use a piece of classic literature – The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe – to show how disease has historically been a source of horror and irrational dread. Later he will illustrate the way people use stories to understand their lives, and links that sense of pandemic dread to the narratives that underlie some of the popular conspiracies around COVID-19 and resistance to public health directives.
“I talk about the way stories can be powerful motivators, but also powerful sources of distortion that lead to misinformation and enable the spread of disinformation,” says Paradis. “Anyone involved in managing a pandemic should understand irrational fear and know how it is structured narratively if they want to engage and counteract it.”
Robb Travers, professor and chair of Health Sciences, will note in his lessons that while we are all affected by COVID-19, in reality, many communities fall victim to the virus in greater numbers compared to others.
“Laurier has a focus on preparing students for real-world problems as future practitioners in any of the fields we’ve addressed in this course.”
“Infections mirror lines of inequality in society,” says Travers, a public health scientist who teaches about the social determinants of health. “For example, in Toronto, racialized people make up 52% of the population, but 83% of all COVID infections.”
By drawing upon interdisciplinary academic perspectives, students will learn to respond to complex issues in collaborative ways, with consideration given to qualitative, quantitative and creative approaches to problem solving.
“COVID-19 has put a spotlight on not just the science of a virus, but also social stratification and how this is impacting individuals and groups quite differently,” says Munger. “Laurier has a focus on preparing students for real-world problems as future practitioners in any of the fields we’ve addressed in this course. We are teaching them how to engage with diverse communities of thought in their personal and professional lives.”