Outbreak inquiry

Faculty have developed two undergraduate classes that are focusing on the effects and experiences of the coronavirus pandemic, even while the pandemic is under way

Professor of Sociology Jenny Reardon. Photo by Lila Talcott Travis.
Professor of Sociology Jenny Reardon. Photo by Lila Talcott Travis.
Assistant Professor of Sociology Rebecca London. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.
Assistant Professor of Sociology Rebecca London. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.

Students have learned about quarantine law and heard from the doctor who helped write guidelines for how to allocate ventilators in New York, the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve begun research on how people in different cultures might perceive social distancing and how online learning is affecting people with disabilities. 

It’s all part of two UC Santa Cruz undergraduate classes that are focusing on the effects and experiences of this pandemic, even while the pandemic is under way. Titled Coronavirus and Community and Living and Learning in a Pandemicene, the courses are being taught, respectively, by Assistant Professor of Sociology Rebecca London and Professor of Sociology Jenny Reardon. There are 46 students in the two classes, all of them upper division. 

“I just felt like now was not the time to sit out and not engage with students who were actually sheltering in place all over California and who could teach us a lot about what this pandemic is like,” said Reardon, who is founding director of the Science and Justice Research Center on campus. “Both for me and my students, it was about trying to make sense of what was going on.”

Studying the pandemic, creating community

She invited 12 interested students, most of them from her previous Sociology of Health and Medicine class, to take part in the weekly seminar course, which was designed not only to bring speakers from around the country to discuss the pandemic but also allow students to do their own research on topics that range from examining who is considered an “essential worker” in a pandemic to what it means to give humanitarian assistance to other countries. Reardon also saw the seminar as a way to create a community of support and help students navigate through the daily barrage of bad, and sometimes contradictory, news.  

Little did Reardon know when she began the seminar how the pandemic would affect her own life.

“One topic we talk about is this idea of ‘reworlding,’” said Lucia Vitale, a Ph.D. student in politics who is a TA for the seminar. “We look at what will the world look like when everything is ‘over.’ Are we going to go back to how things were, or are we going to use this juncture to demand better treatment for people? Students have had insightful perspective on what that would look like.” 

Vitale noted that students have published some of their research in blog posts and will produce a zine at the end of the quarter.

Speakers have included or will include Rebecca Herzig, professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College; Joseph Fins, a professor of medical ethics at Weill Medical College at Cornell University, who worked on New York’s ventilator guidelines; and Rebecca Gutman, vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

Students are also expected to present a weekly source of inspiration or support to the class, an assignment that has led to direct action, according to Reardon. For instance, one student began creating artwork to sell in support of hard-hit nonprofits.

Reardon said that at the beginning of the seminar, she was most excited by the prospect of leading a course about the pandemic, “but now I think it’s just as important for the community it provides. It’s motivation to constructively engage instead of being overwhelmed by the bad news we get every day. The focus is on: How do we live and not just learn? How do you orient yourself in this moment?”

That question came to the forefront when Reardon’s mother died unexpectedly—although not from COVID-19—and, because of shelter-in-place regulations, Reardon would have had to self-quarantine for 14 days if she attended the funeral. Instead she watched online. 

“Who knew I was going to be the person most dramatically affected by COVID-19?” Reardon said.

Research in real time

London decided to focus her community research practicum on COVID-19. About the same time, she read a call for papers on the pandemic from the journal Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association. 

“I adapted that call for the class,” she said.

Her 34 students, now scattered around the state, are conducting research on topics that range from exploring the question of how the shift to online learning affects disabled students to the way moving back home changes how college students feel about themselves. 

The students are analyzing data, sending out surveys, doing Zoom interviews, and preparing ethnographies, according to London. They are writing papers and preparing videos. 

“Essentially what I’m doing is guiding students through a real-life research project and helping them figure out how to ask good research questions, how to collect and analyze data, and report back findings,” said London, who also has scheduled a series of Zoom interviews with those in the forefront of the pandemic.

Studying a society in flux

For Isabelle Ansari (Kresge ’20, sociology), her research for the Living and Learning in a Pandemicene course revealed the distinction between ways of helping in a crisis like this pandemic. Examining the work of two young women who are providing food, water, and help to 300 hard-hit families on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, Ansari said she learned the difference between mutual aid and charity.

“… [T]he former being long-term oriented and aware of the structures that reproduce vulnerability for some and uplift others, and the latter just temporary resource reallocation,” she said. “I also have been thinking a lot about the importance of attending to the deep, qualitative aspects of this moment as we simultaneously juggle the mass of statistics getting thrown at us from everywhere.”

“What’s interesting is that this (pandemic) is affecting all of us at the same time, and it feels like we have no control over what happens,” London said. “This class makes me feel like I have a little control, and I think it makes students feel the same way, too. One of the major outcomes of the course is to allow our students to apply sociological critical thinking and knowledge to a society that is experiencing rapid changes. What better way to study what is going on than in the middle of it?”