How do we adapt our historical pedagogy in a pandemic? This guest post from a former Center for Women’s History Andrew W. Mellon Fellow demonstrates how one professor adapted her course in light of COVID-19, and the work her students produced that uses the lessons of LGBTQ history to illuminate our present crisis.
On Wednesday, March 11, my university officially announced the suspension of in-person classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Like professors across the country, I was tasked with adapting my in-person classes for online learning. As a visiting assistant professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Wake Forest University, I teach multiple sections of a lower division course on the history of LGBTQ activism in the United States that draws from much of the same research as the N-YHS exhibition, Stonewall 50.
While figuring out how to adapt this course, I noticed how my existing syllabus potentially prepared students to think about the unfolding crisis. For example, near the beginning of the semester, we read and discussed Kadji Amin and Melissa Stein’s respective work on the historical entanglement of sexology and eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Originally, I selected these readings to introduce the idea that our contemporary concepts of “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” and even “straight” have particular histories. However, as I watched the news, I hoped our discussions of the eugenics movement also equipped my students to listen for the echoes of this history. For example, the repeated mantra that the “cure can’t be worse than the disease” reveals a presumption that some lives are disposable for the greater good of the economy.
Similarly, I hoped the course offered useful context in understanding the disproportionate death rates for Black and Latinx people in the United States after reading, for example, a chapter of Saidiya Hartman’s “serial biography” of Black women in Philadelphia and New York at the turn of the century and Julio Capo Jr’s brief history of race, class, sexuality, and immigration law (31). Looking ahead at the readings for the second half of the semester, I also knew that my students were about to be introduced to a range of activist visions from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that attended to a set of persistent social inequalities that not only still exist, but have been exacerbated by COVID-19. My students would, for example, be reading a chapter of Emily Thuma’s history of anti-carceral feminism alongside increasing concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons. Likewise, while witnessing chaotic clashes in the local and federal responses to COVID-19, my students would learn about how ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) fought back against the genocidal neglect that happened during the AIDS crisis.
In the post-COVID-19 iteration of my course, I decided to give my students the option of writing a final paper or doing a final project that followed one of these paths to the present. In planning this assignment, I anticipated that some students would not feel comfortable producing work on COVID-19 in the middle of a life-altering pandemic, and thus allowed students to choose between completing my original assignment for the course or this new option. When given the choice, the majority of my students opted to do a final paper or project that related a historical context or concept from the course to COVID-19. My students’ work—a selection of which is featured below—demonstrates the urgency of studying the intersecting histories of gender, sexuality, race, class, and disability in order to understand our present moment. To quote one of my students:
We hear time and again that [COVID-19] doesn’t discriminate… but the reality is that years’ worth of policy [has] made it so even a virus values life unequally. I learned that in this class.
My student’s “COVID-19 Does Discriminate” poster questions the idea that COVID-19 is an equal opportunity killer. On the verso, they offer a detailed intersectional analysis of the “disparity in COVID-19 death tolls” based on the partial and uneven data collected thus far. My student, for example, emphasizes the “clear” trend in the disproportionate death rates of Black and Latinx Americans, but notes that the CDC is currently folding indigenous Americans into the category of “Other,” “effectively erasing them…from datasets altogether.”
Kelsey Chapman’s “healthcare is a human right, not an economic plight” poster borrows ACT UP’s “healthcare is a human right” slogan and references the aesthetics of ACT UP posters. Her poster questions the logic of pitting disease prevention and economic recovery against each other. “People think that relaxing the quarantine laws will be able to alleviate that economic pressure,” she writes. “[But] actually it can hurt the economy by killing off half of the consumers and producers in America.”
Lauren Gable created a political cartoon that depicts the interactions of six figures: two essential workers (bottom left), two comically out of touch rich people (top left) receiving a stimulus check (top right), and an AIDS activist (bottom right). Her cartoon points out how social distancing is predicated on the labor of “doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks, maintenance staff, and more”—and looks back at AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s as a model for the present.
Using watercolors, Maisa Della Valle created a booklet that compares the aesthetics of the AIDS crisis to COVID-19. Maisa’s paintings juxtapose administration policies, agitprop from protests, public health data visualizations, and the role of healthcare workers from both pandemics. Taken together, her work counters the idea that coronavirus is a “great equalizer” and instead demonstrates how COVID-19 is “hitting” many of “the same populations” disproportionality impacted by HIV/AIDS.
You there, with your pitchfork
Your sign that says
“Stay at home orders are slavery”
You there, with your pricing gun
Your sign that says
“Hi my name is____.”
You there, with your stethoscope
Your face that says
“I know we shouldn’t tell them we will open.”
It’s equal culpability
The world is a petri dish
Multiplying germs with every step outside
Every breath without a mask
Every time hands aren’t washed
Many of you
You’re the superspreader
In Contagious (2008), Priscilla Wald analyzes the circulation of ideas about communicable disease outbreaks in the media and popular culture. For example, she looks at the figure of the “superspreader.” Inspired by Wald, Madison Kendrick’s poem “superspreader” asks how this trope circulates in the current moment.
Written by Rachel Corbman, Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wake Forest University, and former Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History (2019-2020), Center for Women’s History.
Thank you to Kelsey Chapman, Maisa Della Valle, Lauren Gable, Madison Kendrick, and one student who preferred to remain anonymous for generously allowing their work to be reproduced in this post.