Mason faculty use innovative courses to help students understand coronavirus pandemic


Rosemarie Zagarri, a George Mason University professor, specializes in early American history. Last spring, when it became clear to her that the coronavirus pandemic would be “with us for a while,” she designed an Honors 240 class on pandemics in American history.

pandemic class poster 1
A poster from the 1918 pandemic. Photo provided

“I thought that by studying prior pandemics in this country, students would gain a larger perspective on what’s happening right now and better understand patterns of social response,” said Zagarri, a University Professor and Professor of History who teaches through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Honors College.

Zagarri’s class is one of a handful of courses at Mason focusing on understanding the current pandemic by putting it into an academic context. Faculty teaching pandemic-related classes say that students are particularly engaged in learning because their classes help them better understand the world into which they have been thrust.

“It’s a great way to learn history because what they are studying is immediately relevant,” said Zagarri.

Davis Kuykendall, an assistant philosophy professor, is teaching Honors 131 Misinformation in Science and Honors 360 Scientific Controversies, two classes drawing from the philosophy of science, history of science and cognitive psychology to address misinformation. Both classes will look at the various ways that society has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are examining how science works, how people look at and understand science, and how we communicate information relating to science effectively,” said Kuykendall. “The current pandemic provides a good example of misinformation relating to science, backlash against scientists and understanding why we need to listen to experts and get other people to listen to them.”

Karen Akerlof, an assistant professor in the College of Science’s Environmental Science and Policy Department, is having her EVPP 336 Human Dimensions of the Environment students conduct research on how other Mason students are experiencing the pandemic through questions related to sustainability.

“Students are studying and conducting research on socioecological systems and how social change occurs,” said Akerlof. “Through online surveys of Mason students, they have the opportunity to see how the pandemic is affecting the way their fellow students relate to the environment. Are they spending more or less time in green spaces? Are there changes in the amount of waste that they generate, or the way they think about social and environmental issues?”

The 25 students in Zagarri’s class are learning about past pandemics, including smallpox, cholera, polio and AIDS. Students study the medical, government, religious and community responses to the medical issues and treatments, along with the differential impact of pandemics on particular groups in society.

“We look at the way race, religion and science can be weaponized and affect how people respond to a mass pandemic,” said Zagarri.

Honors College sophomore Richard Szal said that he generally isn’t as invested in history as some of the other subjects he studies, but Zagarri’s class has made history interesting to him.

“It’s interesting to see and analyze the parallels between then and now,” said Szal, a medical laboratory science major. “It’s also helpful to know that there was hopelessness and fear then, much like there has been here. It puts it into perspective to know that this kind of devastation has happened before.”