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Teaching the Early Modern World in the Era of COVID-19

SCJ Editors

Jennifer Mara DeSilva, Ball State University

Whitney A. M. Leeson, Roanoke College

Barbara Pitkin, Stanford University

With the novel coronavirus nipping at our collective heels, many professors around the globe accomplished a Herculean task in the spring of 2020. On short notice and in short order, we transformed entire courses built on face-to-face instruction into digitally based, remote-learning experiences for our students. In so doing, we transformed ourselves and pedagogical best practices for the foreseeable future. The COVID-19 pandemic propelled most of us forward into a curricular universe where face-to-face instruction and online learning no longer constituted diametrically opposed modes of content delivery, but endpoints of an educational continuum with various hybrid and blended options existing in between to unite them. With a support network ranging widely from colleagues and family members to librarians and tech-savvy students, we became far more familiar with our institutional learning management systems, swamped Zoom with new accounts, learned the ins and outs of basic video production, and discovered that students will show up for virtual office hours. We also spent our time in quarantine reflecting on the particular advantages of synchronous and asynchronous approaches for communicating course essentials and meeting specific learning objectives.

As global efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases appeared to take effect even as world economies continued in freefall, another threat appeared. A series of high-profile instances of police violence targeting African-Americans resulted in senseless deaths in Minneapolis, Louisville, and elsewhere. The killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 captured on bystander video, proved a turning point. Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the world, calling for greater awareness of violence against all minority groups and immediate police reform. What began as a series of American acts has become an opportunity for communities, corporations, and institutions worldwide to evaluate their progress towards equality. Those instructors teaching in late May and June as well as those who had earlier concluded their unprecedented academic terms found themselves called to speak up in this historic moment and to support students, colleagues, and their broader communities in this time of pain, sorrow, grief, and outrage. As the world collectively considers how to root out the long-held prejudices and discriminatory practices so manifestly on view in the recent violence and in the vastly disproportionate effects of the coronavirus on communities and people of color, the classroom is and remains on the frontline for building a better and more just world. Since racism is a learned perspective, professors are responsible not only for cultivating classrooms based on equal opportunity, but also for portraying the past’s true diversity.

In keeping with this spirit of self-reflection, The Sixteenth Century Journal Book Review Office decided to publish a special Early Modern Classroom supplement to volume 51 (2020) devoted to teaching in the era of COVID-19. We asked contributors to address any of the following questions:

  • ● What have you learned from shifting teaching to fully online platforms? How will any lessons learned inform your teaching once face-to-face instruction resumes?
  • ● How does the early modern world specifically lend itself to online teaching? What specific case studies work well in an online environment, or highlight issues that connect with the global pandemic?
  • ● What role does digital, shareable content play in your classes, either for analysis/discussion or as student-created projects?

The response to our call for papers was robust. Early modern educators are a resilient bunch and we are sponsoring a pedagogy panel at the SCSC in October to discuss the long-term impact of the methods and mechanisms faculty devised to meet the teaching challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Contributors offered suggestions for creating a rich, immersive learning environment for students whether we meet in-person, fully online, or somewhere in the hybrid middle. The papers published as part of the SCJ supplement reflect the lessons learned about prizing adaptability and flexibility, making good use of existing online content, doing more with less, fostering student community through group projects, encouraging emotional connectivity, and showcasing students’ creativity online. They also offer insights into how to draw students into the study of the early modern past by highlighting connections that suddenly feel more existentially relevant to students struggling to make sense of their own experience of pandemic, social isolation, and social and racial injustice. As the world works to remove and replace unjust systemic structures, the Early Modern Classroom asks professors to share their knowledge, experiences, and suggestions in a spirit of pedagogical cooperation, greater understanding, and shared hope for the future.

Ingenuity coupled with a commitment to diversity and excellence in education undergirds the following contributions to teaching the early modern world. The insights offered are especially welcome as we contemplate course redesigns for next year. As of 18 June 2020, most US colleges and universities (65 percent) tracked by The Chronicle of Higher Education plan on returning to in-person education in the fall, albeit with a bonanza of pandemic protocols for social distancing in classrooms, dorms, and dining halls. Another 14 percent of colleges and universities have committed to a hybrid model of education, 8 percent have opted to go fully online, and another 13 percent are still weighing their options.1 It is safe to say that demand for dynamic online-teaching strategies and digital-centered assignments continues unabated given social-distancing dictates for reduced student density in classrooms, a desire to accommodate students unable to attend class for COVID-19-related reasons, and a reasonable fear of a mid-semester resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Over the next several weeks we will upload additional posts featuring a wide array of teaching strategies and assignments for the early modern classroom that our colleagues have found effective in building vibrant online learning communities. Keep returning, continue planning, and stay safe.

1Here’s a List of Colleges’ Plans for Reopening in the Fall,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, last modified 16 June 2020. 

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