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Faculty Across Rutgers Join Initiative to Explore Impact of Pandemic

“How can we think through this moment?” ----- Omar Al-Dewachi

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More than two dozen faculty and staff from the School of Arts and Sciences and other schools across Rutgers University have joined forces to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teaching and research and collaborate on projects that address the global health crisis.

Johanna Schoen squareThe Society and Pandemic Working Group is one of the largest interdisciplinary collaborations recently at Rutgers, spanning humanities, social and behavioral sciences, and University Libraries, while drawing faculty from Rutgers University units in Newark and Camden, including Rutgers School of Law.

“The size and the scope of the people involved really stand out,” says Johanna Schoen, a professor of history, who partnered with Omar Al-Dewachi, a professor of anthropology, to start the initiative. 

The group coalesced last spring as faculty members discussed and tried to come to terms with the crisis that had closed Rutgers campus, sent students back to their homes, and upended the world.

“It started in a very organic way, with people having conversations,” Al-Dewachi says. “We then began organizing ourselves into regular meetings to looking at the broader implications and bigger questions, most notably: ‘how can we think through this moment?’’’

Dewachi 4Members have already formed subgroups and launched research missions, with two projects among the 35 selected universitywide to receive internal support for COVID-19 research through the university’s chancellor offices.

One project seeks to explore the risk of virus transmission in four northern New Jersey facilities that house immigrant detainees: the Elizabeth Detention Center and county jails in Bergen, Essex, and Hudson counties. 

“We are interested at looking at how spaces of confinement are working as a vector for COVID-19 transmission,” says Ulla Berg, a professor of anthropology and Latino and Caribbean studies, who is working on the project with K. Sebastian León, a professor of criminal justice and Latino and Caribbean Studies, and Sarah Tosh a professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Rutgers University–Camden. 

Ulla BergThe second project, led by Louisa Schein, a professor of anthropology and women's, gender, and sexuality studies, involves 11 faculty from Rutgers’ three campuses who are exploring the stories of individuals and communities from disproportionately affected groups.

“By circulating our stories and findings through both public and professional channels, we aim to generate community action, undergird advocacy, and broadly impact policy and public opinion,” Schein wrote in a project summary.

Both projects emerged from conversations between members who shared common interests.

“Ours just came out of discussions and then took off as its own empirical research project,” said Berg, who is a member of the organizing committee of the larger group.

Al-Dewachi says he expects other work will develop in the same way, with some likely tackling racial and economic justice issues that emerged during the pandemic, such as the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the wave of protests in support of Black Lives Matter.

Louisa Schein“Pandemics throughout history have transformed society,” said Al-Dewachi, who is trained as a physician and specializes in medical anthropology. “There are major social, political, and economic transformations that are happening in the United States and other places in the world and I think our group has its fingers on the changing pulse of what’s happening across communities.”

Schoen agreed.

“What’s fascinating about this group is that there are a lot of people who work on different parts of the world including the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America,” she said. “This is a nice globally-oriented group that thinks not only in our local context but can also bring a lot of insights into what is going on in other places.”

The organizing committee also includes Cati Coe, Chair, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, Rutgers University–Camden, and Alona Bach, Director of Research and Sponsored Programs, Office of Research and Graduate Education in SAS.

Bach said her office under Vice Dean Jean Baum is providing institutional support, including a dedicated website and expertise on grant development. She noted that the group’s focus on teaching and learning challenges posed by remote instruction is an issue that’s relevant universitywide. Helene Bach

“This group is committed to supporting faculty and students and developing best practices for teaching in the current challenging environment,” Bach said. “And our office is excited to support that effort.”

During a group meeting over the summer, Berg and León spoke about the necessity of continuous communication with students to make sure they are not falling through the cracks, using Canvass, Sakai, and email to make repeated announcements and check-ins. Common issues emerging for students are the availability of reliable workspaces, wi-fi, and adequate computer equipment. 

Sometimes just being at home can be distracting and disruptive. One student taking León’s “Research Methods in Latino and Caribbean Studies” told León that “Being a first generation-college student, my parents do not understand the dedication and hours I have to put in on an assignment.”

Despite those concerns, professors also said that remote instruction produced some surprising and powerful results.

For her “Latinx Ethnography” class, Berg gave students several alternatives to doing in-person ethnographies, including doing an autoethnography, in which they could make their families or immediate communities the subject of their observation and analysis. The students learned how to look deeply at the dynamics unfolding in their own living rooms.Leon standard headshot

“Most of them came out of the class with the sense that there is no such thing as dead social space,” she said. “There is always a lot to observe.”

Schoen, meanwhile, retooled her new Medical Ethics history class to integrate the coronavirus, taking students back to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the HIV-AIDS crisis of the 1980s for historical context, while bringing them into the present for explorations of issues such as the use and allocation of ventilators.

“It was a watershed in my teaching,” she said. “It gave me an opportunity to provide my students with the tools they really need, both intellectually and emotionally, in order to cope with what was going on.”


For more information on the Society and Pandemic Working, visit the website.