What does it mean to be a world historian at a time when everyone seems to be making parallels between COVID-19 and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic (aka Spanish Flu) or the Second Bubonic Plague Pandemic (aka the Black Death)? Our comparisons may be better informed; we can point out the dangers hidden in a name; we might describe other instances when disease was a historical actor. We have been doing all this long before February 2020. While we aren’t in the frontlines of public policy and public health as governors, mayors, and school district superintendents try to make immediate decisions about the safety of our communities, we are storytellers who can help frame our current narrative.

As storytellers conversant in the long ebb and flow of the human past, we can say with certainty that humans have faced epidemiological and environmental challenges that they did not understand and could not control with varying combinations of fear, hubris, compassion, and astonishing bravery. We can point out that calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan Flu” reflects racist narratives of other disease outbreaks. We can sift through the fractured media perspectives and point to journalists doing a good job of making historical comparisons and help share information instead of spreading mis-information. 

As world historians we are also teachers, grappling with campus closures and a nearly instantaneous transition from instruction in classrooms in schools, colleges, and universities to remote pedagogy. Distance learning is its own branch of teaching and learning. It involves a set of assumptions and approaches that many current students and teachers aren’t familiar with and will not have time to train in before diving in.

The good news is that there are experts among us, experienced online teachers and students who can share tips about what has worked in the past. We are also lucky that current technology means that we don’t have to struggle with this massive emergency transition alone, even in an era of social distancing and physical isolation. 

Today the WHA launches a new blog, Pandem-mondus, to provide a map and some company for the long, strange, trip that is now our classrooms and communities.

Image of man in long black robe with beak-shaped mask
Paul Fürst, Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (i.e., Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, circa 1656. Image credit: Wikimedia

Transitioning to online teaching, basically overnight, is stressful for instructors. We should remember though, that this is even more anxiety provoking for our students, many of whose material lives, social support networks, and routines were abruptly disrupted. They’ve been working hard at learning one set of skills and adopting mindsets that serve them in on-campus classes. Now they’ve got to do something different, a challenge many of them will have to face on their own with limited resources (and literally limited bandwidth).

As faculty grapple with how to adapt existing classes to online formats, it helps to remember that all of us—students, faculty, and staff-—are going to have to make big adjustments together. As we go through this process, I offer some touchstones to help keep us sane and connected. 

We’re not alone. Although our in-person activities are curtailed, seek out modes of communication that keep us directly connected: individual emails, texts, phone calls, video chats. Connect with your teaching peers and across cohorts—especially with our students. Encourage—even assign—students to be in touch with each other outside of class time.

Practice compassion. Our students are more stressed out—and more vulnerable—than we are. Our first priority in this emergency is to provide a sense of educational continuity. The whole situation is sub-optimal. The educational context is less than desirable. But it is not a disaster, and the learning opportunities are significantly better than zero. So let students know that you see them as people (even if they’re teeny-tiny on a screen). Acknowledge that they might be scared, angry, or confused (aren’t you?).

Build community. Many of our students will have more experience than us interacting in on-line spaces. Encourage them to work collaboratively in the class to solve problems. Ask them for help. They know that most of us haven’t taught classes online before, so you don’t have to pretend to be an expert on the format. You bring teaching and subject matter expertise. What might it look like to create partnerships with your students about modes of interaction and content delivery? 

Abandon perfection. This is your first time teaching online. Spring 2020 might not be your best teaching quarter. That’s okay. Whatever you put together will provide learning opportunities for students and for you. This is not the quarter to be a gatekeeper for your discipline or enforce intellectual boundaries.

Take time for reflection.This dramatic change in teaching and learning along with limited training in new modalities is an opportunity to streamline a course or refine your teaching philosophy. As you abandon perfection in your course, accept that you won’t be able to accomplish everything you might in a face-to-face class. What is one core principle or skill you most want students to take away from this quarter? Clearer writing. Intellectual self-confidence? Academic resilience? A foundational concept in your discipline? Getting clear on your goal for each course will help immeasurably in the transition from in person to online teaching. 

Adjust our perspective on the prospect of teaching online. This intentional move helps with our sanity. But we still need actual support to make the transition. Here’s an article length primer and basic how-to list for planning to teach on-line. This Twitter thread curates a range of resources and how-to tips. 

Watch this space for teaching tips, historical perspectives, and moral support in the days to come. Feel free to share your wisdom in the comments.

In good health and solidarity,
Laura J. Mitchell, WHA President