COVID-19 curriculum makes an impact at NAU

Illustration by Aleah Green

As the fall 2020 semester continues at NAU, the effects of switching to hybrid learning are becoming clear to students, faculty and staff. This semester, classes switched from having desks and whiteboards to including beds and screens. 

In March 2020, colleges all over the country shut down for the remainder of the academic year as COVID-19 cases in the United States rose. This caused a pause in classes while educators looked for the best methods to continue to teach students nationwide. 

With millions of students forced to learn from home, Zoom gained popularity throughout quarantine. According to CBS, Zoom’s daily users in the U.S. spiked 10 million from Dec. 2019 to March 2020. The spike was due to educators beginning to look at Zoom as an alternative to traditional learning. Therefore, Zoom became the standard learning platform for the fall 2020 semester. 

English professor Nicole Walker explained that Zoom offered exactly what educators needed in an unusual time, providing professors with the resources necessary to continue classes online.

“I’m actually really glad we have Zoom, let’s put it that way,” Walker said. “Without Zoom, I don’t know what we’d be doing.” 

Walker said Zoom has been great in her classroom, but also mentioned the challenges and learning curves of applying the platform to her regular classes. A constant theme with Zoom learning has been the inability to make connections right away. 

“I hate it when my students don’t turn on their cameras,” Walker said.  “I think that’s the worst part is that you can’t really make people do that.”

Walker is not the only faculty member facing this struggle. Gioia Woods, humanities professor and NAU Faculty Senate President, said  she and many of her fellow faculty members have seen the difficulty of making connections with students this semester. Connections have become harder to make, but not impossible. It simply has taken more time to get a relationship with their students, she said. 

With COVID-19 changing the learning environment, it has also impacted the lessons taught in the classroom. 

Along with philosophy professor Julie Piering, Woods created three classes that revolve around Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” Published in 1947, “The Plague” is a fictional account that takes place in the early ’40s in Oran, Algeria, according to Goodreads. The novel follows the citizens of the city as it is closed off to the world due to an epidemic.

NAU professors like Woods are not the only ones who have found “The Plague” inspiring during these times. According to the British political and cultural magazine,  New Statesman, “The Plague” has become a sensation in that sales have gone up globally throughout 2020. Copies of the novel have seen a spike in popularity since January and many countries are even issuing reprints of the novel. 

Woods said she picked “The Plague” as the central novel for these courses because of what she felt while reading the novel. She said she thought her students would feel the same way. 

“It was a visceral feeling I had when I was rereading it in April, when I was in lockdown,” Woods said. “I mean, I had a gut reaction. I felt like Camus was writing about my situation in 2020 in Flagstaff, and he was writing about the 1940s in the North African Mediterranean.” 

With the ongoing pandemic, Walker said faculty and herself have been striving to make sure that peoples’ stories are told. In her class entitled Writing the Pandemic, ENG 399, her students are writing stories about how this pandemic has influenced or impacted their years. 

Stories are what keep the community together, Walker explained. She said she hopes to add her students’ stories to her website. She explained that the purpose of the site is to allow people to share their COVID-19 experiences and learn from one another. 

Walker said her course allows students to be a part of history by having them write their own stories about what they are and have been experiencing over the last few months. The course also allows students to learn about others’ stories, as Walker explained they will also have to interview someone else and merge their stories together. From there, students will either be published on the website or contribute to Cline Library’s historical archives, Walker said.  

Similarly, Woods said while her students have already made many connections between “The Plague” and the real world, the discussions go even further because this course has also brought light to the metaphorical plagues in society. She said the students have begun to find connections between the novel and topics such as the murder of Geroge Floyd, wearing masks and race and gender politics. Woods explained the topics have also been met with controversy, as  teaching a course that revolves around “The Plague” during such harsh times can be a lot for students to handle. 

Woods said she understands courses that focus on pandemic issues may bring up controversies in the classroom that can make anyone uncomfortable, but said she thinks it is time for conversations to be had. 

“The university needs opportunities for civil discourse,” Wood said. “Now more than ever, me and my fellow professors work really hard to make sure that all views are engaged.”

While COVID-19 continues to impact the lives of millions in the country, educators like Woods and Walker are taking advantage and making sure their students feel engaged and understood.  Courses focused on studying the pandemic from a historical and literary lens can allow one to not feel so alone in a time where loneliness may seem inescapable.