The HPG Advisory Board: On the Meaning of Humanities and the Work of Higher Education Amidst COVID-19

Contributors: Ashley Cheyemi McNeil and members of the 2019-20 HPG Advisory Board

In the final week of March 2020, as the University of Iowa geared up to commence classes and work from home in response to the novel coronavirus, members of the Humanities for the Public Good advisory board offered some informal, of-the-moment reflections about their work as humanists during this globally anxious time. Our board members bravely shared both professional and personal thoughts to the prompts (highlighted below in bold). To protect their honesty and vulnerability in thinking through the current tensions and opportunities in the humanities, their specific responses are anonymous; instead, we employ the page break line to indicate a transition to a different member’s response.

(Why) Do we need the humanities during a pandemic?

The humanities gives us ways to understand our current situation and connect. This is the first time many of us have experienced anything like this during our lives, but we are not the first to live through a pandemic. History, literature, philosophy, and art can help us make sense of it while thinking beyond our immediate experiences. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, they remind us that we are not alone. The behaviors required to curb the spread of the virus can isolate us and enhance anxiety and loneliness. The humanities connect us through space and time to people, some of whom have experienced and imagined similar conditions. The humanities help us remember our humanity, beauty, and hope.

Human beings encounter difficulty and discomfort in changing their most central beliefs and commitments, perhaps because any change in a central belief is accompanied by feelings of failure, or inadequacy. And Humanists of course are no exception….  One way in which the Humanities is valuable is that it provides us with vivid stories and narratives by which to imagine different beliefs and outlooks, without the unpleasant threat of changing those beliefs and outlooks in the short term. In a pandemic, people all over the world are responding differently to the same set of facts, or they acknowledge different sets of facts, and the Humanities can help us to imagine a picture of why they would do that, and why we would see things differently instead.  If the narratives and stories are effective, slight changes in outlook might occur. But producing an effective story involves a huge amount of skill and labor, which is a reason why training in the Humanities is so important.

I agree with my colleague both in terms of learning to shape narratives carefully and effectively, as well as understanding the limits of our individual autonomy. This crisis has really put the spotlight on how much Americans (individually and collectively) care about the public good: are we willing to make individual sacrifices to protect those who are more vulnerable? Why have we been so resistant to establishing the social safety nets that could be saving lives right now?

I have also been thinking about why we need the humanities during a pandemic in a more personal way (there’s my individualism!). The arts and humanities are (always, but especially) now a matter literally of survival. They are preserving our mental health in this most trying time. In a society that pushes work as the highest life purpose, that tends to disregard those who do not “pull their weight” economically, the inability to work effectively or even at all can be absolutely crippling. As folks are searching for new meaning and purpose, the arts are reminding us what life is really all about. It reminds me of Dead Poets Society: “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

The humanities often pride themselves on their emphasis on context and critical thinking. These are essential at all levels as we deal with unprecedented levels of misinformation and confusion. Similarly, we work to make meaning and to ensure that humanity is not obscured by statistics. What does it mean when 80,000 people are infected? What do our decisions to embrace or reject medical advice mean in human terms? We need the epidemiologists to guide our actions but an ethicist is also important in helping us to make sense of what the cascading implications of those options are for people (to be blunt, the obvious stupidity of electing to sacrifice untold masses of people simply to restart the economy seems to be ideal territory for philosophers).

In my own thinking, I’ve found it necessary to make some distinctions in the kinds of help the humanities have to offer. On the one hand, when we’re looking at reports from various parts of the country of critical medical supply shortages, overrun hospitals, exhausted doctors and nurses, and the grim realities of what’s happening right now, the humanities seem to offer little of substantive value. I’ll be honest and say I’ve really been struggling with this in the past few weeks, especially as I’ve been oddly positioned between the headlong rush to the finish line with my own dissertation, while all of this has been unfolding around me. It’s created a difficult, sometimes painful tension.  

But there’s another level, perhaps not relevant to on-the-ground crisis intervention and life-saving, but vital and life-saving in different ways nevertheless. Here’s my best explanation: I wrote my dissertation on First World War women writers and their uses of the language of disability to communicate loss. I’ve been reminded of and found comfort over and over again in the last few weeks, as I’ve read and re-read their writing. I’ve been reminded that these remarkable, enduring women survived 4 years of a terrible, bloody war followed by one of the worst pandemics in human history. What did they do to survive, to sustain themselves, to help themselves process their grief and trauma? They turned to literature and they wrote, and they wrote, and they wrote. In so doing, they left an incredible legacy that, in many ways, is as relevant now as it was then. 

So, to sum up, my short answer is: yes, we need the humanities in a pandemic, even though I still feel conflicted about this. But they give us the tools to process and contextualize what’s going on around us, to read and respond critically and carefully, to maintain a humane and human-centered focus in the midst of forces that would have us privilege monetary value and economic concerns over human lives.

How can we approach the xenophobic reactions to the fear COVID-19 incites as a case study to build inclusive discussion and pedagogy into the HPG program?

It’s a useful reminder of how insidious language is. When people in power use hurtful language, it further marginalizes a group publicly, and it propagates stereotype and bigotry. It also emphasizes the need to have multiple voices – not just one dominant personality – shaping pedagogy.

A particular belief at which the Humanities can help to chip away is that individuals are autonomous agents who can set their own course independently of the beliefs and behavior of others.  A pandemic shows us that the air and molecules that surround us are tightly interconnected and that we depend entirely on variables that are not visible to the naked eye. In the case of the label “Chinese Virus,” we can see very easily how an individual depends entirely on forces that surround them – a person’s safety from physical or emotional threat if others see them as responsible for the virus, a person’s lack of authority in a classroom or business or military or other contexts if their audience sees them as illegitimate, a person’s access to protection from medical or law enforcement professionals, etc.  And then the same interdependency applies in the case of those who are not associated with the label “Chinese virus,” because the reason why they have more authority and protection is that they are surrounded by an audience army that sees them in a better light. Some might parade the mantra that it doesn’t matter what others think of us, but what others think of us is highly determinant of our personal, professional, financial, and community well-being. So HPG could build into DEI a vivid recognition of the ways in which it matters what we think of others and what they think of us.

[The] last couple emails [amongst the advisory board subcommittee] have demonstrated what the humanities and this HPG degree can offer.  Most importantly, they give us space to have these discussions.  We can challenge the narrative we are getting from the White House (e.g. the “Chinese virus.” I can hardly even write that out).

We can question the latest message we’re getting from the President about the value of the economy over human lives.

We can immediately redirect our focus to ensure we’re addressing the most urgent issues.

The racist violence against Chinese Americans, and Asian Americans in general, has brought up extended conversations about Ebola (named after a river region in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Zika (named after a Ugandan forest) as well as the more commonly discussed “GRID -Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease” of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This to say that it is directly plugged into conversations, in my opinion, of knowledge organization and how conventions of “place” and “space” implicit in knowledge formation carry out ideological projects. We’re getting it, in the context of the 2016 and 2020 elections as conversations of “rural heartland” and “breadbasket” vs. urban cities and voters – place as a means/mode of political disenfranchisement.

Again, I’m thinking about this not to de prioritize the contextually specific, ongoing and pressing violence against Chinese and Asian-American communities in this COVID19 pandemic, but to consider how these spatial frames are defining our own conception of humanities at Iowa. How does Iowa and the University’s active recruitment of international students, specifically Chinese international students, shape our engagement with the humanities? How does the university’s efforts to engage Chinese culture “divide” international students from non-university affiliated immigrants and refugees that reside in Iowa City? Further, would our considerations of the pandemic and the humanities change if we explored them in relation to the global migration and labor in the Iowa agricultural industry?

As one trained in the discipline that helped cement the rather damaging West/East dichotomy in Western thought, I have to cringe at some of the posts floating around on social media that respond to this virus in that way. But one more thoughtful meditation on virus responses that popped up on my Instagram framed it in terms of Western individualism run amok: whereas people in China and South Korea locked down, wore masks, and more to minimize the chances that they would spread the virus to others, folks here have been so reluctant to submit to a quarantine or any kind of reasonable social distancing because they think they personally won’t get sick — never stopping to question whether they could be inadvertently spreading the virus to others — and when we do wear masks it’s to protect ourselves. What does this say about our values as a society? Add to that the potential (and in some places, real) power grabs and civil/human rights curtailments that are being done in the guise of emergency measures, and there are plenty of openings for some healing humanities work to be done. 

There are also, in this particular case, the need for thoughtful, contextualized, and adamant responses to the xenophobia and racism that have cropped up in response to this pandemic. There is an obvious role for humanists in responding to this and helping people to understand why they are both 1) nonsensical and 2) dangerous. [ . . . ] It’s easy to forget the human and cultural elements in a pandemic. The virus is obviously biological but it has human impacts and human choices (rooted in culture, tradition, etc.). As with so many other large-scale human catastrophes (climate change comes to mind), the science is essential, but not, in itself, sufficient to address the problem. The humanities and the social sciences are also necessary to understand the problem and work toward solutions.

What it means to teach the humanities during a pandemic, and by extension, what it builds to build an interdisciplinary humanities PhD program amidst a global crisis:

I believe that we can think about this on a couple of levels. Most immediately, we have students to help through this. The classes that we continue to teach, when well, flexibly, and empathetically run, can offer our students some much-needed continuity and stability in addition to helping them make meaning of the work. Humanities classrooms are oriented to cultivating community and that matters in the current moment for obvious reasons. [ . . . ] In addition to working to cultivate critical thinking, community, empathy, and morality in our classrooms, many humanists also work to inspire joy within their students. Teaching is, to echo Kevin Gannon, about radical hope, and we need a little bit of that in our lives right now.

I think the recent piece from The Chronicle, “Now Is Not the Time to Assess Online Learning,” provides some important distinctions between putting a course online and thinking through and planning for an online instruction program in higher ed. We have discussed whether and how to offer the HPG PhD online, for example.

But I am most intrigued by the questions the article poses; these (see bulleted list below) are taken directly from the article. They seem relevant, not just during “emergencies,” (where they certainly are necessary), but also in preparation for the unexpected and, perhaps, also in envisioning new ways to support faculty, staff, students, and the community as we plan to build a new kind of humanities PhD. Take a question like the third bullet point, and imagine asking not just how students learn under emergency conditions, but after them, or in a program that aims to plan for them, or a program that intends to be more diverse, more accessible, more flexible and adaptable (one that takes into account the variety of possible experiences and needs of degree candidates), etc. How do students see/learn to see/serve humanity (singular) through the humanities now and in the future? At the same time, I think humanists are well-positioned to provide practical answers to these questions before, during, and after such emergencies, too–that is in crises and in a “new normal”–or perhaps in a better future, might be a good way of putting it.

  • What staffing levels in various areas of the institution are needed in order to respond to emergencies?
  • What new structures, teams, and skill sets are most important to establish in order to prepare campus constituents for emergency readiness, and then for continued alternate-format operations?
  • How do students under emergency conditions seek support, together create “new normal” ways of learning, and take active parts in their studies?
  • Where did we lose students, either temporarily or permanently, and can we correlate factors that seem to accompany such disconnections?

This article, “For Many Graduate Students, Covid-19 Pandemic Highlights Inequities,” on the current issues facing graduate students is worth a read too.

One that I have been thinking about a lot (and would probably assign if I were going back to teach in a Women’s Studies classroom next week) is this recent article in The Atlantic, “The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism.” There are shortcomings with the piece, but there’s a strong case here that we need more than medical and economics experts to think about the impact of COVID19. Another example is a pretty sobering recent article in the NYT about shelter-in-place and domestic violence: there’s a situation that really problematizes the meanings of safety and danger in the time of COVID19. Whoops, I think I just started building a syllabus for the HPG program.   

I find it easier to start with concrete specifics.  What am I doing right now during a pandemic? First, I’m teaching a graduate course in Romanticism and Ecocritical Book Studies.  I have it easy because I have 10 students enrolled in this course, all of whom are advanced and independent students. We’re at a disadvantage as the whole point of the course was to spend our time in Special Collections, looking at varied books and pamphlets from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and considering them in relation to Romantic book culture and environmental history.  Now we can’t look at those books anymore. However, just before spring break, seeing what was coming, we spent about half an hour photographing materials that the students had identified as of interest for their final projects, so we do have those digital images to work with. And, as the final projects were to be collaborative, students can use digital communications and other tools to build some (hopefully) interesting installations.  So all is not lost.

But why is this course even relevant during a time of global pandemic?  I think its subject matter is still highly relevant. We have been considering books in relation to environmental history, but that history has, by necessity, been as much concerned with global networks of trade, energy transfer, and biotic exchange as with local ecosystems, patterns of land use, urban structures, and cultural values, to say nothing of rhetorical strategies and literary genres.  Our current crisis has underscored the interconnections of earth systems and world systems as mediated by different, well, media, but writers in the eighteenth century were already well aware of such interconnections, though they used different terminologies, and so considering how “environmental awareness” emerges within different media systems, and how discrete items (books, pamphlets, newspapers, etc.) can be understood as products and articulations of different world systems provides, I think, a useful hermeneutic for reflecting on our modern condition.  I stressed from the beginning of the term that the aims of the course were deeply historicist, which is to say that we were always to understand these materials of the past in dialogue with our present condition, so our present crisis only underscores the stakes of what we were after. And, of course, the present crisis is a direct result of the same forces of globalization and hyperconnectivity that have produced our larger environmental crisis. The timescale is (a bit) faster, but the primary dynamics are largely the same. 

My own scholarship is a bit more arcane than the topic of this course (if that were possible), and I haven’t been as focused on it over the past two weeks as I have my class.  But I do need to get back to it and would make the case for its relevance as follows. The main focus of my work these days is a collaborative project in “historical geospatial semantics” as applied to print culture and environmental change in Scotland over the long nineteenth century (roughly 1790-1930).  I won’t get into the weeds here, but, in broadest terms, we are using a variety of computational approaches to language and geography to describe how a range of print publications registered and even enabled ecological change during a period of rapid industrialization. Similar to the lessons of my graduate course, we are demonstrating how localized descriptions participate in larger semantic patterns that reveal interconnected ecosystems and infrastructures, and how those patterns change in response to accelerating industrial reorganizations of labor, energy, and resources.  The “point” of this project is both methodological and historical, but, in the end, I find its real value (and wonder) in describing these patterns, partly for their inherent interest, but partly as aids to orientation.

And that word, orientation, with all of its cultural baggage, but also its geographical grounding, continues to strike me as one of the most valuable purposes of the humanities at this time.  I mentioned to you all that my class and I just read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).  Here is its opening passage:

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true; till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane.

There’s so much going on in this passage, but I’ll restrain my professorial enthusiasm and simply observe that to read a passage like this in March, 2020, is to gain a very valuable historical orientation, not only in terms of the consciousness that plague is and has always been a part of the human condition (see Rene Girard’s “The Plague in Literature and Myth” (1974)), but that while our knowledge and responses to plague change over time, the arc of those changes is longer than most in the collective amnesia of contemporary America tend to recognize.  Defoe’s Journal is filled with statistics and legal edicts and scriptural quotations, all collated to try to provide a portrait of a self-consciously “modern” society experiencing an epidemic. But it is also a very human perspective, and one whose pathos lies not in any affective rhetoric (Defoe is constitutionally averse to affect), but in the simple act of witnessing.  

So when I think about “Humanities for the Public Good” I think about both large-scale systems analysis and small-scale expressions of the human condition and how each provide critical orientation as we try to grapple with economic inequities, social fragmentation, environmental degradation, and, now, global pandemic, and attempt to make some kind of difference.