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The Pandemic Teaching Initiative: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Crisis

“It was [the] idea that we should be sharing resources with each other that was the germ of the initiative,” said Lori Lefkovitz, director of the Humanities Center and co-founder of CSSH’s Pandemic Teaching Initiative.

In 2020, COVID-19 forced our society to face new challenges. Academic institutions and faculty had to pivot, and learn to thrive, under the numerous pressures of the pandemic. As academics worked to build lesson plans and incorporate distance-based teaching methods to meet the new virtual classroom environment, Lefkovitz and Ronald Sandler, director of the Ethics Institute, were propelled to do more by asking themselves a single question: “Do we have anything to offer on the ethical questions being raised by the choices that the pandemic is forcing?”

As a result, the Pandemic Teaching Initiative–an online database of freely accessible modules created by Northeastern professors on a multitude of social science and humanities topics – was launched in December 2020. From “Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Closed Borders: How the Covid-19 Pandemic is Impacting Displaced People,” to “The Global Cooperation to Defeat the Pandemic,” the initiative provides a holistic perspective on the pandemic’s lasting impact.

The modules, created by CSSH faculty members across 12 majors, were envisioned as teaching tools for professors looking to incorporate COVID-era material into their syllabi. Through concise, informational packages, the modules integrate their creator’s own learning experiences during the pandemic into each module.

Modules for Every Aspect of the Pandemic

Carolin Fuchs, coordinator of online teaching and learning for CSSH, co-authored the module “Online Learning is Dead; Long Live Online Learning” with Laurie Nardone, director of the Writing Program, to explore the complexities of online learning. The module, meant for both facilitators and participants of online learning, is an example of the many technical topics the initiative helps demystify.

“For me, it was a given,” said Fuchs. “My role in the college is to coordinate online teaching and learning, and so with the push to go online during the pandemic, it was kind of natural.”

Modules like “Statistics & Pandemics” make sense of the accumulation of national data related to the spread of COVID, while modules like “Why Markets Fail: The Economics of COVID-19” explore the economic response to the pandemic.

The Pandemic Teaching Initiative also explores interpersonal topics such as “Religion in a Time of Corona” and “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Domestic Violence.” Laurie Edwards, teaching professor and online pedagogy coordinator in English, and Mya Poe, associate professor of English, co-created the module “Writing and Responding to Trauma in a Time of Pandemic” to discuss the importance of self-expression during tumultuous times.

“The research on writing says that it really does help us process our ideas, where we are,” said Poe. “We need to reflect, and we can reflect in a variety of different ways, but private writing is certainly a weirdly valuable way of reflecting.”

The Impact of Data and Personal Stories

While the initiative was created almost a year ago, it will continue to be a resource, particularly as new virus variants and low rates of vaccination all but guarantee COVID’s continued presence in our lives. Looking to a future when COVID is no longer a major threat, Edwards still sees the value in using the modules to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic.

“For many people, in the midst of trauma is not the time to write about it,” said Edwards. “Sometimes you need that processing time, you need that time for reflection.”

The same can be said about all the modules in the Pandemic Teaching Initiative. They are stories of a moment in time that can help the future understanding of a unique, shared global experience.

“The stories that people tell about data are the way that people understand it,” said Sari Altschuler, associate director of the Humanities Center and creator of the module “The Stories We Tell about Epidemics and Why They Matter. “The data that you collect and how you read it are embedded in narratives, they’re embedded in ways of understanding.”

The Road Ahead

Similarly, other module creators agree that the Pandemic Teaching Initiative can and should be a tool for similar crises in the future. “I think it’s really important to preserve information from when we didn’t know the end of the story, to preserve the way people were thinking at that moment,” said Altschuler.

The Pandemic Teaching Initiative is a product of innovative collaboration from the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and serves as a reminder of the resourcefulness and resilience of its faculty, who came together for the greater good.

“I think this initiative is groundbreaking, and I’m so proud of my colleagues,” said Lefkovitz. “I’m proud of the ways in which they rose to the occasion, figured out how to speak to a dilemma that was new, and their willingness to turn it into something they can share. I think it’s a showcase of the generosity of the academy.”

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