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A Signature Course Seeks a Deeper Understanding of our Shared COVID Experience

“We’re going to feel the effects the rest of our lives”

A silhouette of a cityscape with images of COVID cells superimposed on top

Until 2020, the word “pandemic” was not one typically heard around the dinner table. The last 16 months, of course, have shown us that pandemic disease is very much a part of our common vocabulary and life experience.

Nathaniel GabrielAnd this fall, Nathaniel Gabriel, an assistant teaching professor of geography, will be teaching an SAS Signature Course dedicated to understanding the Covid19 crisis and exploring, “what we all just went through and are still going through.”

School of Arts and Sciences Signature Courses are foundational courses for undergraduates that explore timeless themes, perennial questions of humankind, and critical contemporary issues. Gabriel’s course, “Understanding COVID-19: Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” will employ science, ecology, politics, economics, and culture, among other disciplines to explore the crisis that upended the world in 2020 and 2021. In the interview below, he discusses the course in greater detail and talks about how understanding the pandemic helps us understand the world, and to change it for the better.



Q: Why did you decide to make the Covid-19 pandemic the subject of a Signature Course?

A: Pandemic disease has been on our cultural radar for a long time, thanks to film and literature, but the past 16 months have made it real. We have all had to learn to manage our lives with respect to the disease, navigating issues such as vaccines, masks, schools, workplaces and all the rest. But thinking about it in a broader context isn’t always easy. This course came out of my desire to understand more deeply what we all just went through and are still going through. We’re going to feel the effects of this pandemic for the rest of our lives. A Signature Course seemed like a great way to sit down with experts in a range of fields and start bringing the pieces together.


Q: In your description, you say that the course explores the coronavirus pandemic as a “socioecological phenomenon.” Can you unpack that a bit?

A: The central question in this course is: what conditions led this pandemic to develop in the ways that it did? It is tempting to think of the severity of a disease as a function of biology. The bubonic plague, for example, is a terrible disease because the microbe that causes it is especially aggressive in attacking the human body. Well, this is true, to an extent, but there is much more to consider. Disease is better understood as the coming-together of a range of forces and conditions—the biology of a microbe and its interactions with human and animal bodies of course, but also the trade routes that facilitate its travel, the social conditions that render some members of society more vulnerable to its effects, and the ways our understanding of disease and disease carriers influence treatment, and on and on.

Q: Tell me about your background and the expertise you bring to this multi-faceted topic.

A: My training as a geographer focused on the ways politics, culture, and economy mediate our relationship to the environment. In other words, I’m interested in how the environment is shaped by us, and how we are shaped by the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those shared experiences through which anyone can instantly understand how complicated that relationship can be. The pandemic would not have developed as it did without, for instance, the rapid urbanization of the global economy, deep social inequality, and (in the US) a political sphere that plays fast and loose with science and facts. As a discipline that draws on a wide range of other fields, geography is uniquely poised to investigate the complex questions raised by the pandemic.


Q: What texts and other resources will you use for the course, given that the pandemic is such a recent event?

A: I like to use materials that are fun and accessible for students but push them to think more carefully than maybe they did before. There has been an unending stream of podcasts, film, and more traditional newspaper and magazine articles (not to mention academic articles) that address key facets of the pandemic. But I also plan to draw on the vast literature on the social history of disease, from the bubonic plague to cholera and yellow fever, to the Influenza pandemic of 1918 to explore the various ways in which pandemic has played out.


Q: We have now all experienced a pandemic. What can undergraduates learn that can deepen or broaden their perspective?

A: Students will come out of this course with a deeper understanding of how we have all experienced the pandemic differently. For example, income inequality and racial disparity have played such a significant role in the way this pandemic has influenced people’s lives. One of the things I hope to communicate in this course is that the pandemic isn’t just something that happens to us, but a phenomenon that emerges as this disease interacts with social conditions that are already in place. While we've all experienced its effects, those preexisting social conditions ensure that we don't all feel the same effects with the same severity for the same duration. Paying attention to those differences means not only better understanding the pandemic, but also the world we inhabit more generally and, most important, how to change it.