A screenshot from Tom Armstrong's lecture for the COVID-19 course.

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When prospective students visit Whitman College, they often get the chance to meet with faculty, sit-in on classes, and get an up-close view of the academic excellence for which the college is known.

But this spring, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered in-person classes, and forced the Admission Office to suspend its Spring Visitors Day and Admitted Students Day on-campus events.

Shampa BiswasPaul Garrett Professor of Political Science Shampa Biswas didn’t want future students to miss out on experiencing Whitman’s academics for themselves.

That’s when she had the idea to create a free, one-credit course themed around the very thing keeping students apart: COVID-19. The pandemic virus proved to be the perfect liberal arts topic.

“It’s timely, and it’s an interdisciplinary issue,” she said. Plus, faculty across the college were already integrating the pandemic into their spring courses.

Biswas spearheaded recruiting faculty, and worked with the offices of Communications, Admission and Technology Services to create video lectures, a website, a CANVAS course and recruit student course assistants.

“It was really about creating an opportunity for students to experience the academic program, and make a decision to enroll on that basis,” Biswas said. 

The college, and Biswas, had no idea what to expect.

“I sent out a general query to the faculty list-serve asking people who was integrating COVID-19 into their current courses, because I wanted to invite people who had already done some of that work,” Biswas said. “I was surprised at how many were already doing that. I asked those people if they’d be interested in contributing a lecture. I thought most would not have the bandwidth — but almost nobody turned me down. I had to turn people away.”

A Collective and Captivating Success

The result was 20-plus video lectures by faculty from every division. Professors covered a wide-range of twists on the main topic, including environmental lessons from pandemics; mental health symptoms in response to COVID-19; local tribal history and infectious disease; Buddhist perspectives on pandemics; the mathematics and physics of curve flattening; and molecular testing for the virus.

Alex madsenAlex Madsen, an incoming first-year student from Baltimore, Maryland, was eager to sign-up for the COVID-19 course. Not only did he earn a free college credit, the course helped him meet a final requirement for high school graduation. 

“It just seemed super interesting. I wanted to learn more about COVID,” he said.

Madsen was attracted to Whitman because of its strong environmental sciences program. He gravitated to the lectures that looked at that angle, including physics Professor Fred Moore’s lecture, “Air Travel in the Pandemic,” as well as the lecture “Our History is Repeating Itself”: Pandemics, Indigenous Peoples, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation,” co-taught by CTUIR communications director Chuck Sams and Visiting Assistant Professor of environmental studies and politics Stan Thayne.

Each student had to watch at least seven of the lectures, and then participate on discussion boards for each course. They were also asked to keep a journal on what they were learning, and then write a three-page essay reflecting on COVID-19 in a cross-disciplinary way. 

Biswas had hoped to have at least 50 admitted students sign-up for the course. Over a matter of weeks, 170 enrolled, and more than 120 completed the requirements.

It was such a large turnout that in addition to the faculty lecturers, Biswas recruited other leaders on campus to help grade final essays, including President Kathy Murray.

Inspiring Deep Thought and Community

A half-dozen current students or recent graduates also helped with the course, serving as teaching assistants and moderating the discussion boards.

Cameron ConnerCameron Conner ’20 was happy to jump in as a course moderator. Even as a newly graduating senior, Conner enjoyed listening to the lectures and being able to engage the new students in discussion.

“It was really fun, coming at it from a perspective as a rhetoric and politics major, to look at the language being used,” he said. “It was fun to go in and engage them with these conversations, and see how many people would come in for the sheer joy of engaging in these analytical discussions.”

Conner was able to pull in additional resources from his Whitman classes, pointing students to other articles and videos, and connecting comments together. The effect was the creation of a digital community, formed without stepping a foot on campus. 

“Another student would comment on one of my posts, and then I would comment back, and then also the mediator would chime in as well — that was really cool,” Madsen said. “We just dug deeper and deeper into some of the topics. The current Whitman students really challenged me to think critically about some of these topics.” 

For his part, Conner was impressed with the level of engagement and insightful responses in Whitman’s incoming Class of 2024.

“I was impressed with the insights, and just the willingness to engage in such a chaotic and challenging time,” Conner said.  “It was clear people were really hungry for this kind of education. It makes me excited to see what they’ll do when they get to campus in the fall.”

The COVID-19 course, including the lectures and syllabus, are available for public use on the Whitman College website.

Read more about the course in Inside Higher Ed.