Teaching Emerging in a Pandemic: The Politics of Disease

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Emerging by Barclay Barrios - Fourth Edition, 2019 from Macmillan Student StoreLike all of us, we’ve been scrambling here at Florida Atlantic University, first to rapidly transition every course online, then to imagine all of summer online, then to work out and implement a Pass/Fail grading policy, and now to think about adjusting the various fees for summer classes. Change is the new constant, and so we adjust.


In the midst of all the madness, I’ve been thinking about how to use Emerging  to teach issues connected to the current COVID-19 pandemic. I thought I would share these thoughts with you, in case you find them helpful as you think about summer or fall courses.


Emerging doesn’t have any readings on pandemics but it does have one on epidemics: Andrew Cohen’s essay “Race and the Opioid Epidemic.” Cohen’s piece has a simple message: the crack cocaine epidemic, racialized as a black epidemic, resulted in severe sentencing guidelines; the current opioid epidemic, perceived as a white epidemic, is resulting in an emphasis on treatment. Cohen thus connects politics, health, law, epidemiology, and the complex undercurrents of race and class in America.


There are a number of ways one might use this reading to invite students to examine the reaction to COVID-19 in the United States:


  1. First, let’s keep in mind that while the COVID-19 pandemic rages, the opioid epidemic hasn’t gone anywhere. We’re tallying a terrifying number of deaths from the pandemic, both here in the United States and around the world, but COVID-19 and the essential social distancing and isolation we are practicing to fight it has and will lead to even more deaths from other factors, including opioid addiction. So, you might have students look into the current state of that The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a page of statistics on the crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a useful page as well.
  2. Given that 12-step programs represent a proven treatment for addiction and then also given the requirements of social isolation, you might have students explore how addicts in recovery are coping in the pandemic. Virtual meetings are central to that response, and thinking about how connection is facilitated through technology can then set up interesting counterpoints to other readings in Emerging which suggest that instead that technology disconnects us (Sherry Turkle’s essay, for example).
  3. Addressing the pandemic more directly, you might ask students to explore the intersections of epidemiology and politics as they are happening today. You might have student research some of the details of the recent two trillion dollar relief bill. Here in Florida, the pandemic has prompted suspicions that the state’s unemployment benefit website was designed to fail by Republicans.
  4. COVID-19 has also been racialized, leading to increased attacks against Asian-Americans. You could ask students to investigate this racialization in the context of broader racism in the United States or the deployment of race as a fear-based reaction. Students might also consider the intersection of race, health guidelines, and personal safety that has led to some people of color deciding not to wear face masks.
  5. One of the consequences of the harsh sentencing guidelines in response to the crack cocaine epidemic is a burgeoning prison population. Prisons represent the very opposite of social distancing, leading to concerns of outbreaks in these populations. Students could investigate how governments are responding to this threat and how that response relates to broader issues of a culture of incarceration.


Of course, the pandemic may be the last thing you or your students want to talk, think, and write about. But sometimes critical thinking is, well, critical in response to a crisis. Everything has changed with COVID-19 and some of it has changed forever. Engaging reasoned thinking in the midst of these changes may be the very thing we all need.

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.