Pandemic politics: Course explores the implications of our moment

- September 17, 2020

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death” (1562-63).
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death” (1562-63).

As the global pandemic continues to be front and centre daily in the news and in interactions and decision-making, the need for further understanding and study of how it impacts us politically and socially, for the foreseeable future, continues to grow.

The Department of Political Science in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is responding to the need to discuss these topics academically by introducing a new and topical course this term, entitled “The Politics of Pandemics” (POLI 3510), taught by Instructor Larissa Atkison. This course considers the relationship between plague and politics, both theoretically and in practice and will consider some of the most pressing questions that contagion has posed and revealed about the political communities they infect and affect.

Dr. Atkison (pictured) notes that she came up the idea for this new course during the winter term while wrapping up POLI 3505: Human Rights Foundations. When the pandemic hit in March, and faculty members were asked to quickly move online and adapt some of their assignments to ease the burden of the transition on students, Dr. Atkison explains that she decided to change her final exam format. She asked students to write a take-home exam about whether and how the experience of the pandemic had modified the understanding of human rights they had developed throughout the term, and especially of rights such as mobility, freedom of assembly, privacy and so on.

“Responses to this prompt were exceptional,” says Dr. Atkison. “Across the board students submitted their best work all term.

“From that exercise, I saw that there was a real appetite in our student body to work through and align the disorienting experience of the pandemic with the intellectual frameworks they have been cultivating in their classes. From that point, it was a matter of approaching the department chair, David Black, who was very receptive, and working quickly to put together a proposal for approval that could be added to the course calendar.” 

Engaging in different media

Dr. Atkison adds that as she’s a contingent faculty member, there was no guarantee that she would be teaching this course after pitching it. She is grateful to have been awarded the contract after it had been posted through the normal CUPE channels and is very pleased that the class has reached capacity and has added a wait list.

In this course, students will spend their time in collaborative discussion groups and will have an opportunity to submit reflective blogs at the end of each unit. These blogs will give students an opportunity to bring assigned course readings into conversation with material they are accessing online (such as news stories, YouTube videos, and academic blogs) in a more relaxed medium.

“Many of our students are steeped in these alternative modes of information gathering and sharing. I think it is therefore valuable to adapt curricular design so that students learn how to approach these sources with the same discerning and critical lens we apply to traditional academic material.”

Ethical and political issues

Dr. Atkison hopes that this course will allow students better perspective on how to interpret ethical and political responses to the pandemic that are all around us. Some of these variations in political responses include the public’s responses to issued guidelines around physical distancing and also the rise in xenophobia. Additionally, course work in the class will discuss how the pandemic has catalyzed tolerance for change.

“For example,” explains Dr. Atkison, “universal basic income — a fringe idea a year ago — is now being discussed as a practical policy option in most of the major news outlets and policy think tanks in this country. Globally, we’ve seen invigorated nationalism throughout Europe, widespread surveillance accepted in Israel and South Korea, and a breakdown of international norms around migration and refugee acceptance. And these are just a few ways that this issue is shaping contemporary politics.”

Dr. Atkison hopes that this class will offer students the opportunity to work collaboratively and to contextualize this experience in a broader history of epidemiological disaster and political chance and renewal and that an understanding of that history will allow them to see the possibilities available to us as we emerge out of this defining moment.

“I hope that the novelty of this event — that it is happening now — will empower students to see a tangible connection between the critical thinking we do in classrooms, political realities, and their capacity to shape such realities through their critical thinking and acting.”


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