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New courses use lessons from pandemic to address problems facing community

Three ASU Humanities Lab courses address COVID-19 implications and how to solve future crises

foote covid classroom

"What we are really hoping is that we can craft cultural interventions that have impacts on communities that have suffered during this period." Illustration published on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021.

ASU's Humanities Lab is offering courses in response to COVID-19 both this semester and in Fall 2021, utilizing interdisciplinary studies to get to the root of the world's current and future crises. 

Lab instructors hope not only to explore solutions and outcomes related to the pandemic but also to examine the broader implications of other problems facing the community, such as food insecurity and racial injustice. 

ArtScience: COVID Response, a Humanities Lab being taught this semester, views "ArtScience" as "how art helps us see the world in a new way and might prompt different questions and insights and creative approaches to scientific practice," said Diana Ayton-Shenker, professor of practice, executive director of the ASU Leonardo Initiative and co-teacher of the course. 

Ayton-Shenker said the course centers around five key elements: content generation, communication and connectivity, collaboration, contemplation and critique.  

The course looks to answer how art and science can help people build resiliency to "help us navigate not only this crisis but the cascading crises surrounding the pandemic," she said. The five creative practices will help students begin thinking through what resiliency looks like, she said. 

Because the pandemic has altered how society functions, people must not let this opportunity to develop their sense of humanity pass them by, Ayton-Shenker said. 

"I hope the outcome is that the experience for people through this lab is a humanizing one, that it elevates and deepens and expands our sense of humanity in our engagement with each other through arts and science," Ayton-Shenker said. 

An upcoming Humanities Lab scheduled for the fall semester, Epidemic Emergences, will also use a transdisciplinary approach — looking at history and literature and applying it to a lab setting. 

Epidemic Emergences will begin by examining literature that addresses previous pandemics — from the bubonic plague to the more recent HIV/AIDS crisis, according to Cora Fox, an associate professor in the Department of English who will be co-teaching the lab. 

Once students develop an understanding of pandemic history, they will have an opportunity to explore their own questions through student-designed projects. Depending on the timing, students may be able to begin their project before the conclusion of the semester or for a future project, the instructors teaching the course said. 

"What we are really hoping is that we can craft cultural interventions that have impacts on communities that have suffered during this period," Fox said. "We would like to see real attention paid to the ways in which health depends upon community narratives and stories, and also community values, and how those that are more just can be supported."

Fox and Jenny Brian, honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College, affiliate faculty at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and co-teacher of the course, were initially concerned that focusing on the pandemic while still living through it would be traumatic, but they realized students' experiences could be valuable catalysts for change in such a tumultuous time. 

"Rather than just coming through historical narratives, which tell us so much, we have an opportunity to say to students, as we do every semester, that they come to a class with lots of lived experience and knowledge," Brian said. "That's only amplified because their lives were upended for the previous year and a half."

Co-teachers of Humanities Lab Food, Health & Climate Change, Rimjhim Aggarwal, an associate professor with a background in social science and economics, and Joni Adamson, president's professor of environmental humanities in the Department of English, have a similar perspective on how crucial it is to examine pandemic outcomes as society lives through them. 

"On the one hand, you feel like the world is coming to an end. But on the other, this is also an opportunity to bring about change," Aggarwal said. 

Food, Health & Climate Change will combine storytelling and economics, and after studying various aspects of food systems, students will have the chance to engage with real stakeholders and tell their own stories. 

Adamson said she wants to challenge students taking the course to ask themselves what trajectory the world should take moving past the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Do we want to stay here? Do we want to go back? Do we want to go forward? You know, what do we want to do with this moment in time? And how can we use it as a kind of catalyst for proving the sustainability and the justice of our future food system?" Adamson said. 

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