Topical Teaching

April 29, 2020

By Elsa Wenzel

Eight faculty have teamed up to create a course, Understanding COVID-19, in which students are learning in real time about the pandemic across multiple disciplines.

What do the medieval plague and the early years of HIV teach us about the COVID-19 pandemic? What is unique about the coronavirus biologically? How can the economy climb out of this crisis?

These are just a few of the questions that students are tackling in this one-of-a-kind course that references history alongside evolving headlines and science along with business and economics.

Understanding COVID-19 has already set a record as the course with the largest number of teachers and students at the College. It all began when business lecturer AJ Althuis proposed an interdisciplinary course to tackle the uniquely 21st-century problem of the coronavirus just as the campus was moving to virtual learning in early March.

Seven professors swiftly joined him in assembling a four-week, two-credit course that embraces business, English, biology, anthropology, and global health. Less than a month later, the first session commenced online with more than 165 students representing nearly every major and in time zones across Brazil, Denmark, the U.S., and beyond.

“They say never to waste a crisis,” says business professor Sheryll Namingit. “This class is one way we don’t waste a crisis. We look at it in the eye and ask what we can learn from it.”


  • AJ Althuis, lecturer of business
  • Shan-Estelle Brown, assistant professor of anthropology
  • Nolan Kline, assistant professor of anthropology and global health director
  • Jana Mathews, associate professor of English
  • Sheryll Namingit, assistant professor of business
  • Jay Pieczynski, assistant professor of biology
  • Emily Russell, associate professor of English
  • Brendaliz Santiago-Narvaez, assistant professor of biology
Understanding COVID-19

The Scoop

The course is broken into four weekly units covering one field at a time. The first session meets on Canvas, the hub for most of Rollins’ distance learning. For intimate, discussion-based conversations, students gather in small Microsoft Teams several times each week, and faculty drop in to nudge the conversations virtually, as they normally might over the shoulder in person.

The first week focuses on examining the virus through English literature, starting with a 1986 New Yorker article about AIDS, “The Way We Live Now,” which students model for a short story assignment. They also pit Edgar Allen Poe’s famed short story, The Masque of the Red Death, against contemporary images of students partying on Florida beaches.

Week two focuses on the biology of COVID-19, including how the coronavirus hijacks cells and how vaccines work.

Understanding COVID-19

“These are the things we usually talk to our students about in a theoretical way, that we study in a textbook,” says biology professor Brendaliz Santiago-Narvaez. “Now we’re actually living it. It’s such a great opportunity so our students can see what they’re learning is clearly meaningful and can be applied to their life.”

The business module for week three picks apart leadership styles from press conferences by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump. Students also look at the outcomes from the Great Depression and Great Recession in light of the current economic calamity.

The final unit, on anthropology and global health, explores social complexities, including the impacts on underserved populations and why minorities are getting hit so hard by the virus. Students touched on those themes by creating a meme for social media.


While YouTube lectures enable anytime access to students, the more relaxed setting of the “Corona Hour” on Friday afternoons invites all professors and students to converse. Forty-eight students joined the virtual get-together at the end of week three, engaging in wide-ranging discussions that connected the dots among various disciplines and reading between the lines of recent headlines.

Understanding COVID-19

Anthropology professor Shan-Estelle Brown noted how recent U.S. street protests of social distancing, even when they prevented nurses from getting to work, didn’t result in crackdowns by police. How does that look against other historical moments of civil disobedience?

“Recognizing the privilege one has in this situation makes you ponder what’s happening and how we’ve set up a culture to be this way,” says biology professor Jay Pieczynski.

Student Perspective

Biology major Claire Lambert ’21 immediately signed up for the course when she spotted some of her favorite professors. She says it’s helping bring students together and soothe some of their anxieties about the medical and economic risks brought on by COVID-19.

“It’s not the end of the world,” she says. “It’s rough right now, but it’s not as bad as some are portraying it.”

Lambert and other classmates say they find themselves suddenly serving as ambassadors of science and reason within their communities, debunking rumors about the virus on social media.

Julia Taylor ’23, an environmental studies major, sums up the course as the epitome of Rollins’ mission of global citizenship.

Psychology major Gavin Clark ’21 hopes his newfound knowledge will lead to making more informed decisions when voting and campaigning for public policy, as well as to harness the implications for leadership in crises to be a better leader himself.

Understanding COVID-19

Continuing the COVID Conversation

As faculty seize the opportunity to learn from this uncertain historical moment, COVID-19 is being integrated into coursework in nearly every discipline at Rollins.

In her Intro to American Politics class, political science professor Chelsea Ebin asks students to think about how American social institutions, including the presidential election, may be affected by the disruption of the pandemic, while psychology professor Paul Harris is focusing on understanding the role of Facebook on stress levels related to the virus. It’s part of his ongoing research on social media and coping with disasters, including hurricanes. He’s analyzing the results with his Environmental Psychology class.

Sociology professor Amy McClure has been collecting internet memes about COVID-19 for her classes that focus on identity and community. For example, what does it mean when Star Wars warrior Kylo Ren offers coronavirus advice? Sociology professor Matt Nichter is focusing on community as well, specifically the impact of COVID-19 on essential workers. He brought in Jeannie Economos, the pesticide safety expert at the Farmworkers Association of Florida, for a live WebEx discussion in his Social Problems course.

Understanding COVID-19

In Ethics and Global Justice, students are applying ethical concepts—such as human rights, structural inequality, and moral responsibility—to aspects of COVID-19 including public policy, medical ethics, and social distancing.

“Having students apply what they are learning to COVID-19 allows them to see the relevance of philosophy and ethics to real-life situations,” says philosophy professor Margaret McLaren.

Psychology professor Sharon Carnahan is also looking at how the virus is playing out in real life, incorporating a new unit into her Senior Seminar in Developmental Psychology that considers COVID-19 as an additional source of trauma for at-risk children sheltering in place in New York City. For an assignment called “Look for the Helpers,” students researched the various nonprofits springing up to educate children at home.

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