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Fall 2020
May 18, 2021
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IDST 135 - Pandemics: Texts and Contexts
On December 31, 2019, the government in Wuhan, China confirmed that it was treating numerous people suffering from a severe respiratory illness. Since then, the culprit pathogen, novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV), the disease called COVID-19, has emerged as a global pandemic profoundly affecting our lives, grinding daily activities to a halt and threatening social, economic, and cultural disruptions on an epic scale. But for all its novelty, COVID-19 is part of a long tradition of pandemics in human history. From bubonic plague and cholera to syphilis, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Ebola, infectious diseases and the responses, anxieties and dreads that they trigger have been a central facet of human health and society. Pandemics have been a particularly significant cultural touchstone, shaping numerous fictional narratives: from The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Albert Camus’ The Plague, José Saramago’s Blindness, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Furthermore, pandemics expose latent social and cultural factors, fractures, and inequalities – who we are, what we value, and what we fear. As historian of medicine David Jones argues, they “provide a sampling device for social analysis. They reveal what really matters to a population and whom they truly value.” This course will explore pandemics through their texts and contexts. Via the emerging field of medical humanities, it will take a deeply interdisciplinary approach by drawing on primary medical sources (case narratives, epidemiological registers, illness diaries), narrative fiction and non-fiction, history of medicine, medical anthropology and sociology. We will focus on specific outbreaks – from the Renaissance “Black Death” to 19th century cholera in Europe and the Global South, the infamous 1918-1919 influenza (“Spanish Flu”) which decimated a global population already reeling from World War I, global HIV, and the current COVID-19 pandemic. We will also turn to imagined pandemics in genres such as science fiction, speculative fiction, and futurism (for example, Michael Crichton, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin). Students will be introduced to multiple disciplinary methods relevant to the medical humanities, and to the complexities of interdisciplinarity. We will engage both the universal – what are recurrent structures, shapes, genres, and responses in “pandemic texts” – as well as the specific – how do local geographies, histories, and contexts inflect these responses? Together we will investigate how pandemics arise, are represented, addressed, constructed, and re-imagined. What do pandemics tell us about ourselves, our world, and our futures?
3.000 Credit hours
3.000 Lecture hours

Levels: MN or MC Graduate, Undergraduate
Schedule Types: Lecture

Interdisciplinary Studies Department

Course Attributes:
Core:HALC - Hum, Art, Lit, Cul, X-List: CPLT, X-List: ENGL


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Release: 8.7.2.4