Changing course: Yale classes adapt to the pandemic

For many professors, teaching during the pandemic has meant rethinking how a course can serve as a shared intellectual pursuit and a chance to build community.
Professor Nicholas Christakis teaches his undergraduate sociology course “Health of the Public” via Zoom.

Professor Nicholas Christakis teaches his undergraduate sociology course “Health of the Public” via Zoom.

What does it mean to teach during a global pandemic? Even beyond the shift to Zoom classrooms and virtual lectures, it has for many Yale professors meant rethinking how a course can serve as a shared intellectual pursuit and also a chance for finding much-needed community.

I’ve missed my students a great deal,” said Anne Fadiman, the Francis Writer in Residence. “At the beginning of every class, I ask each student to tell us how they're doing. That's probably more to reassure me than for them.”

Faculty across disciplines have reexamined their course materials and found new opportunities to engage students in reflection on the current historical moment through the lenses of literature, history, languages, sociology, art, economics, and the law. Professors and instructors are encouraging students to document their responses to the global pandemic, compare it to plagues of the past, and consider how it affects communities differently based on demographic factors such as race and socioeconomic status.

Students understand themselves as being part of a historical time,” said David Engerman, the Leitner International Interdisciplinary Professor of History.

Here’s a look at how some Yale faculty have adapted their spring courses in light of the pandemic.


When we were forced to move our classes online, we talked as a group about how best to address the current health crisis, and it was decided that the pandemic itself would become the focus of the students' weekly journal prompts,” said graphic design critic Pamela Hovland ’93 M.F.A., who teaches the course “On Activism: The Visual Representation of Protest and Disruption.”

Typically, students in the class engage with primary source material from Yale’s archives and collections pertaining to social issues, choosing one as the basis for creating a personal visual journal. Now, they are using the pandemic as an opportunity to enter a graphic tradition of recorded activism, adding their own reactions to the pandemic to the archives, Hovland said.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Yale's students, staff, faculty, and administration must be included in the university's archives as part of Yale’s own history and for future research,” Hovland said. “My hope is that my students’ visual responses to the impact on their personal lives as well as their now virtual collaborative efforts will be part of that still-unfolding story.”


Robert J. Shiller, Nobel laureate and Sterling Professor of Economics, began a recent lecture by breaking from his syllabus to show a video from one of President’ Trump’s COVID-19 Task Force briefings, and engage students in a discussion.

I would call these two epidemics what epidemiologists call ‘co-epidemics,’” he told his students via Zoom. “You have an epidemic of disease, and an epidemic of economic anxiety, which is inhibiting spending.” Shiller also held a previously unscheduled open discussion session, during which students explored how finance and insurance could lessen the impact of the coronavirus.

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, Ahyan Panjwani, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in the course, said he’s noticed “students being a lot more interested in the inner working of financial markets” as a result of the crisis. Panjwani has fielded questions on a range of subjects, including actions by the Federal Reserve, food rationing, commodities futures, and market volatility. “On net, the enthusiasm among students has increased,” Panjwani said.

Ethnicity, Race & Migration

Professor Daniel HoSang shifted the focus of both of his graduate and undergraduate courses to anti-Asian violence and the racialization of disease as the pandemic took hold, hosting weekly Zoom webinars with prominent scholars, writers, artists, and critics.

Professor Daniel HoSang
Professor Daniel HoSang

In a recent graduate seminar, HoSang, associate professor of American studies and ethnicity, race, and migration, hosted Natalia Molina, a historian who focuses on the intersection of race and public health, who discussed how historical notions of immigrants as disease-bearing have shaped responses to COVID-19. In his undergraduate seminar, HoSang said, they are discussing “histories of anti-Asian violence and collective responses to it.”

Undergraduate students are also changing their capstone projects to reflect the current crisis, he said, including “a comparative examination of the racial responses to outbreaks of Ebola and the coronavirus.”


Students are researching 17th-century texts on epidemics and are analyzing these in light of the current pandemic,” said Christophe Schuwey, who teaches an advanced undergraduate seminar called “Fake News and True Stories,” centered on early modern France.

The rhetoric is strangely similar to today’s,” said Schuwey, assistant professor of French. “The plague, for instance, is compared to a military enemy not unlike many heads of state and media institutions do today.” Students are gathering information and comparing these early sources to current news stories in ongoing research projects. In particular, he asks students to look for the way untrue statements may be packaged in with one or two established facts to keep the news circulating.

It is important to understand what happened 400 years ago because this gives us a better perspective on what we are going through today,” Schuwey said. “By the end, I am hoping we will have a research dossier with pamphlets from the 17th century compared to today’s epidemic media.”  


In “Origins of Global Power,” historian David Engerman added an assignment about the coronavirus and the American response to the pandemic. In that assignment, students locate and look at current news stories as though they were historical artifacts — which in due time, said Engerman, they will be. Students relate current media coverage of coronavirus to broader themes around “American power and how that power is exercised overseas,” he said.

David Engerman’s “Origins of Global Power,” online and in progress.
David Engerman’s “Origins of Global Power,” online and in progress.

The course begins with the birth of the nation and ends with President Donald Trump’s inauguration, with a final reading, suggested by a student, on the coronavirus. In their reflections so far, students have written about the United Nations and international cooperation, and compared the American response to COVID-19 to 1930’s isolationism. Engerman recorded a lecture segment about the impact of disease on international relations, foreign policy, and the creation of the World Health Organization.

Students were moved beyond what I had to say to reflect on what the coronavirus response says about American power and this administration,” Engerman said. “I’ve found it really rewarding.”


Nina Kohn, visiting professor of law at Yale Law School, said the pandemic immediately raised questions pertinent to her spring seminar “Aging and the Law.”

The pandemic has made tangible many of the ethical and legal questions we ask students to grapple with, and thus had a profound effect in shaping the conversations we have with students,” she said.

One of the course’s key themes is the requirements for intergenerational justice. In other words, said Kohn: “What do generations owe one another?” And “When can and should the law differentiate on the basis of chronological age?”

Nina Kohn teaches “Aging the Law” from home.
Nina Kohn teaches “Aging the Law” from home.

With COVID-19 patients overwhelming hospital intensive care units and forcing medical professionals to make difficult decisions, Kohn said that the lessons of her course have never been more relevant.

We ask students to focus on the tough and uncomfortable questions,” she said.  “Should ventilators be rationed based on age?  Should it be lawful to refuse to resuscitate older COVID-19 patients?  These are hard questions but necessary ones, and they have certainly affected the tenor of the class.”


It would be odd if I didn’t talk about COVID-19,” said Nicholas Christakis, the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science and professor of internal medicine, who is teaching the undergraduate sociology course “Health of the Public.” In addition to designing a lecture devoted to COVID-19, delivered just before students left for spring break, he began prompting students to think about the historical significance of the moment.

We are experiencing the sort of event that happens rarely in a lifetime — like 9/11 … or like an economic depression or the Vietnam War,” Christakis wrote to students on March 20. “I am 57 and I have never seen this myself, despite teaching about such matters for nearly 30 years.”

In lieu of a second midterm, students are keeping “Plague Journals.” “These are diary entries that can be personal or impersonal, and touch on the themes from our class, such as networks, social support, inequality,” Christakis said.  Not only could the journals serve as useful historical archives, but the act of writing them, he said, “creates a sense of shared community, even though we are physically apart.”


For her writing seminar “(Re)Defining Family,” lecturer in English Alison Coleman had students tour the digital interactive exhibit “Your Story, Our Story” at the Tenement Museum in New York City.

Photo of a warthog tusk An online “(Re)Defining Family” class tours the digital interactive exhibit “Your Story, Our Story”
An online “(Re)Defining Family” class tours the digital interactive exhibit “Your Story, Our Story” at the Tenement Museum.

My students are really thinking about what constitutes family and how a family’s traditions and sense of identity form who you are as a person and your place in the world. That's become a very direct concern,” Coleman said.

Students have been posting narrative stories related to how families are connecting, reconnecting, or dealing with separation during the pandemic. For their final project, her students will create a written portrait of a family member.

I’m asking them to include a photograph or other piece of visual imagery to accompany their writings,” she said. “The final assignment has always been a conscious shift away from a scholarly view and instead a look at the personal view of family — this is especially relevant now.”

Interested in more? Learn how professors at Yale School of Public Health have incorporated COVID-19 into their courses here and how one mechanical engineering class shifted gears from robots to ventilator designs in response to the pandemic.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

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