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Contagion and Creative Reflection: Teaching the Early Modern in the Age of COVID-19

Evan Gurney
University of North Carolina, Asheville

I teach at a small public liberal arts university with a curriculum that requires each undergraduate student to progress through a series of interdisciplinary “Humanities” courses, beginning with a study of the ancient world and culminating with a seminar on contemporary society. Nearly every semester I teach the second of these four courses, “The Medieval and Renaissance World,” which engages a wide range of cultural traditions across the globe and over a vast historical period (300 CE–1650 CE). With an expansive and fixed reading list, with a dizzying array of assigned lectures about disparate topics, and without the benefit of chronology or a coherent narrative, it is often a bewildering experience for students and faculty alike. Students, already frustrated by the curricular requirement, are convinced moreover that premodern history (particularly anything associated with a fuzzy notion of Western tradition) is irrelevant to their personal wellbeing and professional aspirations.

It is a fun but exhausting challenge, with the typical demands of a survey course but on steroids. If a class succeeds, it is usually because of enthusiasm and energy, or because of presence, to use a term that is more accurate, but also vague. By presence I mean our nearness to each other, our proximate humanity, and so our susceptibility to infectious curiosity or even laughter and grief. Distance was death to this class, or so it seemed to me. When our university shifted to remote instruction, I expected a chill to settle on the conversations of our dispersed community, particularly since we were preparing to focus on late-medieval and early modern Europe, which many of my students assume to be a benighted age of racism, sexism, and colonial domination that is best consigned to oblivion rather than studied and reckoned with.

Then a funny thing happened during the latter half of this spring semester. Even though they were scattered and scared, my students were remarkably invested in each reading. This was perhaps the best semester I have experienced in terms of engagement. Students who normally would have sat at the edge of the classroom with a vapid stare were writing long and thoughtful reflections on difficult texts. I have been wondering how I might replicate these successes in the future, particularly in other survey courses with similar challenges. If the pandemic prevented our classroom presence—the lively and sometimes blundering exchanges between fellow learners—certain teaching strategies born of desperation seemed to nudge students to be increasingly present to figures from the past and to adopt a more intimate and sometimes sympathetic posture toward history more generally.

Three specific alterations helped to improve my online classroom: I lessened the course content; I aligned the remaining content within a thematic framework; and I introduced low-stakes creative writing assignments to the course’s routine.1 While part of my course’s heightened student engagement was circumstantial, the product of a unique solidarity forged by crisis, another part was structural. The remote instruction forced me to slow down, remove several assigned readings, and use scaffolding that I sometimes forget to employ in my haste to move forward to new content. This facilitated richer engagement with the material. So too with class discussion. Online forums allowed students time to formulate their thoughts, which resulted in more careful and generous feedback to classmates. Meanwhile, in preparing the switch to remote learning, I altered the curriculum to provide a thematic focus on the concept of contagion. Europe, from the late-fourteenth to early seventeenth centuries, provides an especially resonant landscape for college students concerned about infection—the spread of pathogens, yes, but also the spread of novel, transgressive ideas or even misinformation. Suddenly the concerns of a long-ago era seemed less remote to students. They struggled to make sense of their current crisis, but they found the comparable events in early modern Europe to be reassuring, revealing a shared human history of vulnerability and resilience. Complementing this thematic approach, I incorporated creative assignments to stimulate reflection and discussion. The idea was not to grant students authorial prerogative in rewriting older texts, but rather to give the curriculum an inward turn and provide an opportunity for self-discovery. These engagements did not lead to answers, but they sparked a number of fruitful questions and useful provocations, many of them ethical, offering students a way to participate in and with history.

Here are a few brief examples. We read several sixteenth-century Protestant texts deliberating over the ethical dilemmas that emerge during an outbreak of plague, which made new sense in the context of stay-at-home orders, and we discussed the complications of grieving, consoling, and caring for the sick or dying in the midst of a pandemic.2 As a means of continuing this discussion in a new way, I asked the students to compose a musical adaptation: “Rewrite the great pop-punk song “Should I stay or should I go” in the voice of Martin Luther, composing the lyrics during the 1527 plague in Wittenberg.”3 Students appreciated a fun and playful exercise about recognizably dire choices, but it also helped students to situate themselves more fully in the historical moment. Another week we read Christine de Pizan’s The City of Ladies (1405) through the lens of contagion, as if antifeminism were a kind of pathogen, thinking through its specific mode of transmission. Later I gave students the following prompt: “In 2 pages, build an allegorical city intended to sustain healthy thinking as well as healthy living. Who are your fellow interlocutors? Choose your community from the histories we’ve been studying this semester.” This led to some surprising revelations. Several students, for example, thought it best to bring challenging or even transgressive thinkers into their “city” as a form of inoculation. More generally, the prompt helped students, who know all too well how soundbites or memes can go “viral,” to think critically about the social formation and trajectory of ideas.

These literal and figurative elements of contagion coalesced during the semester’s final week when we turned to Shakespeare’s Othello (1604). We discussed the outbreak of plague that tore through London during 1603, examining how and why playhouses were a central site of contagion. We also considered how the play figured forth contemporary social concerns (e.g., miscegenation and female promiscuity) in the language of pestilence and plague, which often reveals more sharply a person’s marginal status. Finally, I wanted students to translate some of these lessons to their own situation, so I imported an early modern villain into our current landscape of crisis: “Imagine Iago in 2020. Compose a monologue in which the opportunist describes how he’ll use this pandemic to enact his own desirable outcomes.” Many students aimed for economic gain, making so many fools into purses. Others wrestled with the desire to exploit widespread fear so they might enact what they considered to be good legislative policies. All of the students had to navigate difficult moral terrain as they assessed how they might engage with a fractious and uncertain world.

At the end of the semester, I do not know that my students had any more (or less!) accurate knowledge of the cultural histories we studied over the semester. But I do think they were more self-reflective, and they were consoled by listening to the past’s successes and failures. Certainly they were less dismissive of the past—even of their typical bugaboo, early modern Europe. Given their sympathetic posture toward premodern voices, paired with a sensitive consideration of their own fraught circumstances, my students are much more likely to retain any lessons encountered or skills developed within the course. In fact, this semester has encouraged me to reassess several pedagogical convictions. If I am often frustrated when students congratulate their own generation’s progress beyond the various faults of the past, it might be that I have encouraged this distance, so easily measured and achieved, by my own concern to maintain fastidious distinctions between historical periods and contexts. After this semester, I intend to experiment with building courses that encourage (responsibly) a sense of mutuality between historical eras.

Many of these strategies could be strengthened by in-person instruction. Looking forward to the next academic year and beyond, I am unsure of how long the current landscape of contagion will unify my students’ collective attention, but it is worth thinking about the benefit of any thematic or nodal approach to a survey course in binding together its breadth of material. For my fall semester survey of late medieval and early modern literature, I am planning on a hybrid form of instruction that blends in-person and remote learning, and I am thinking of setting up a thematic framework in which students role-play specific humanists in an epistolary network. Meanwhile, I had always supposed the spheres of history and creative writing to be distinct and separate—worrying in particular about evading, obfuscating, or aestheticizing the past—but now I am wondering how each might animate and enrich the other. Indeed, my semester’s creative prompts offered opportunities for students to experiment with narrative voice and perspective, and by extension to cultivate nuance and empathy, which might in fact enhance the analytical and interpretive skills I usually prioritize.4 Lastly, I want to facilitate more opportunities for self-reflection that give students their own ethical stake in the matter of history, bringing the past, present, and future into rich conversation, encouraging students to think with rigor and flexibility about essential questions of shared humanity.

Evan Gurney is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. His recent research and teaching focuses on poverty and crime in early modern history and literature.

1 Several of these strategies are highlighted in Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (2006): 1358–70.

2 Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 43, Devotional Writings II, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38; and Henry Holland, Spirituall Preservatives Against the Pestilence: Or a Treatise Containing Sundrie Questions (London: R. Field and T. Scarlet, 1593), 162–76. I also provided students with the following recommended reading: Theodore Beza, A shorte learned and pithie Treatize of the Plague, trans. John Stockwood (London: Thomas Dawson, 1580), B8r–D4v.

3 The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” Combat Rock (1982), YouTube.

4 There is a growing body of research on the benefit of creative writing in a range of academic disciplines, but see especially Alexandria Peary, “The Pedagogy of Creative Writing across the Curriculum,” in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), 342–89.

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