2021 – Spring

Plagues & Panics

Course Number: JOUR-GA 1182.014

Day & Time: Tuesday, 9:30am-12:30pm [Blended]

Location: 60 5th Avenue, Room 110

Instructor: Perri Klass

The world has lived through epidemics and pandemics, but Covid-19 is a pandemic taking place in an era of epidemic information, with news and narratives, images and anecdotes, reactions and rumors all traveling from person to person and place to place in ways that actually parallel the aerosolized transmission of a virus.  Even before Covid-19 stopped the world, one of the recurrent humbling lessons of the past couple of decades has involved the power, resilience, and persistence of infectious microbes, and their ability to take advantage of the ways that we live, that we travel, that we eat, that we interact with one another.


In this course, we’ll take a look at ways of writing about infectious diseases and epidemics and the stories that they generate, from science to social change, from epidemiologic analysis to memoir and history.  We’ll look at a number of epidemic diseases in their historical contexts, at how those diseases were chronicled and described and understood as they happened – and at the effect that that narration had on public understanding and public behavior.  


We’ll think about how they are remembered, reevaluated, politicized, mythologized, used as touchstones and comparisons – or not – as we think about what is happening today.  We’ll discuss the responsibility that journalists have in a time of anxiety over epidemic disease, and the different kinds of stories which are generated by a prospective epidemic, an unfolding crisis – or an endemic terrible disease which seems less of an immediate threat.  And we’ll look at the ways that reporting on, analyzing, telling the stories that go with epidemic infectious diseases give us all kinds of perspectives on society, on cities, on human behavior, on science and medicine, on travel and immigration, on food and food safety, on life and death and even love.


In this class we will read stories from epidemics past, from influenza and polio to Ebola and HIV, considering the questions of how these stories are told, and how they reflect science, society, narrative choice, and authorial voice.  We’ll also look particularly closely at how each of those stories was told when it was actually happening and immediately after, in journalism, but also in fiction, poetry, literary essay, drama, and film.  These readings will alternate with readings which examine ideas of contagion, panic, and true and false information, specifically with reference to stories of infectious and epidemic disease.  In addition, we will look for patterns and practices in the ways that the story of our own time is being told and has been told, dividing this up among the class according to interests and preferences.


The current pandemic has been described by Ed Yong as an “omnistory,” touching every aspect of reporting, and we will look at how that has – or has not – been true of infections in the past, and think about the ways that time of the novel coronavirus may be changing journalism, from the realities of reporting to the ways that we shape our narratives.   What do people living through a pandemic want to know and need to know, and how can we think professionally, responsibly, and creatively about the narratives of this time that we are all living through?