Rewriting the Syllabus

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This fall, I am scheduled to teach a course, The Media and American Democracy (provided, of course, I don’t fall to the virus). But in the five months between now and September, when class is to begin, there lies the unknown, its shadow already transforming both the media and American democracy — not to mention the lives of my Williams College students and my own. With so much profound change, the only thing about my course sure to survive the current maelstrom is its title.

Some people have suggested that American education is on a kind of hiatus, a “gap” or “break,” as if the day will come when we shall all just pick up where we left off. Most of my colleagues know better. The intervening trauma will leave its mark on us all, both as individuals and institutions. There will be no seamless continuity, and it will be considerable time, if ever, before we go back to where we were — even presuming that is a place to which we wish to return. (I, for one, have no desire to ignore the hard-won lessons conferred by the crisis itself.)

Already, we can see signs that, emerging from this, colleges and universities will be changed. Distance learning will be even more on the ascent, financially precarious colleges may perish, foreign students will be fewer, academic foci and resources will be redirected, entirely new courses and fields of study may emerge, and medicine and sciences may be supercharged (as they were following the plague of 1666).

Nor will the news media be the same. Epidemiologists and biostatisticians have replaced pollsters and pundits, re-establishing, at least for now, the supremacy of fact over opinion. A number of local papers, starved for advertising, will cease publication. Shifts in viewership and audience patterns may be permanent. Social media will have gained an even stronger foothold on our communal lives.

And democracy itself will have undergone profound changes. Individual liberty seems to have been tempered by wider public interests — isolation has become a form of public service, and the sin of hoarding, be it toilet paper, hand sanitizers or masks, reflects a new morality and appreciation of our interconnectedness that transcends raw self-interests and narrow partisanship. Our vulnerabilities as a nation have been exposed, our confidence rattled. Going forward, we may not be so smug, self-absorbed — or credulous.

Even in the midst of a grievous tragedy, we are experiencing a personal and national awakening that will inevitably find expression in the classroom and the curriculum. Yes, it is too early to predict precisely what form it will take, but it will require flexibility, fluidity and responsiveness. The students that left will not be the same students who return. Some will have families newly crippled by financial stress. Some may well have lost loved ones. Some will return with deep anxiety. Some will come back with a renewed sense of purpose, career interests and clarity of vision. They will be changed, as will we.

For faculty members, it represents a challenge, but also a rare opportunity to collaboratively explore and examine the underlying nature of those changes and what they portend for the future of individuals, the nation and the world.

Mentally, my syllabus is being revised almost daily, reflecting the turbulence and uncertainty around me. At the macro level, I ask myself, “What is my goal as an educator?” In part, the answer may be what the late Mark May, an educational psychologist at Yale University, declared in 1941, as the world faced the imminent prospect of war: “The task of education is to teach people how to manage their anxieties and hold them proportional to the realities of the danger.” His lecture turned book was entitled Education in a World of Fear, a fitting primer for today.

But at the more granular level, I will be expected to make some sense of what is going on around us, frame it in a way that is manageable and intelligible, and grounded in my respective discipline. Slavishly adhering to the existing syllabus would feel like a total abdication of my responsibilities both to them and to myself. While I need not totally abandon the planned curriculum, I will have to continually refocus it and incorporate a wealth of new readings, data, case studies and, ultimately, a new reality. No less was asked of those in the classroom following the Great Depression, the post-World War II era or the aftermath of Sept. 11.

The challenge will be to identify that which is fundamental and defining, to look beyond the headlines — in my case, to examine media and democracy in a mid- and post-viral landscape. It will be humbling and hedged with caveats. The proximate is always harder to assess and absorb, especially one so fraught with emotion. I suspect that is the same challenge awaiting many of my peers whose disciplines, like journalism, political science, health policy, government and urban planning, intersect with contemporary events. (Nor will colleagues who teach ethics, philosophy, literature or history find themselves immune to the demands of this new world.)

Originally, my course was somewhat fueled by interest in the upcoming elections; the role of the press, social media and changing technologies in the dissemination of information; the shaping of opinions; and the vitality of American democracy. But the impact of the coronavirus on each of those elements looms far too large to disregard.

I come to the course knowing that we shall get through this. Now as always, context is the cure for much of what ails us. Perhaps in that first class, I will share with students my framed copy of the London Gazette, dated September 1693. It is an ancient, yellowing artifact but still bears some currency. Back in 1665, as the plague ravaged London, and the king and court withdrew to Oxford, citizens of London were afraid to even touch the newspapers, fearing contagion. The London Gazette began its life as the Oxford Gazette, but when the plague passed (taking with it as many as 100,000 Londoners), the king and court returned, as did the newspaper, now rechristened the London Gazette, heralding a new beginning. That is what awaits us all.

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