For the last 10-15 years, many campuses have welcomed first year students with a one book program. The concept was to assign a common read to the entering class to help bind them together in a shared conversation. Often part of first year programs, this ritual also allowed for a preview of college level reading and analysis expectations. It had varied levels of success in terms of community building, but it was a go-to approach for schools interested in improving retention rates (among other goals).
We did this for a few years at WCSU, but ultimately found there was not enough buy-in to have the desired impact. As we moved to a more eclectic version of a First Year program, this common read concept went by the wayside. I am not really interested in bringing it back. I am, however, very interested in seizing this moment in history to foster dialogue about the aftermath of COVID-19.
Here are ten topics that we should all be talking about in the fall (whatever fall looks like).
- Tracing a Virus: The origins and future of the study of epidemiology. This is an opportunity to bring the non-science major into a rich understanding of how science research works, why math matters and, how to decode information about illnesses.
- Healthcare: From corporate benefit to a national security issue. COVID-19 laid bare the dangers of unequal access to healthcare when trying to quell a fast moving virus. This is an opportunity to discuss the realities of a “gig” economy, massive unemployment, and systematically marginalized groups in relation to our national healthcare strategy.
- From Smallpox to COVID-19: Public investment in science and the development of vaccines. As we rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it is useful to consider both the protocols necessary for developing a reliable preventative effort and how market-based vs. coordinated international efforts can impact the results.
- Economic Crises and Social Change: Homelessness, economic insecurity, and plans for a more equal society. Large scale social changes like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, social security, Medicare, and civil rights, nearly always occur as a result of a deeply felt national crisis. What changes can and should we expect from the COVID-19 crisis?
- Illness as Metaphor Reconsidered: How language drives our actions and our search for cures. Susan Sontag’s classic work on how language shaped our understandings of tuberculosis and cancer provides a perfect context for considering the ways in which (mis-) characterizations of COVID-19 have shaped our responses.
- The Nation vs. the State: Closed states, nationalized production, and other constitutional questions in a time of crisis. When to close, when to open, ensuring access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing, bail outs of businesses large and small, and so on – what are the constitutional realities of these questions?
- Globalism Revisited: From supply chain disruptions to closed borders in the COVID-19 crisis. For over thirty years, the world has been moving toward an integrated supply chain system that is mostly controlled by private corporations and bottom line considerations. Given the shortages that occurred with COVID-19, is it time to develop a more balanced system of profits vs. public safety? What might that balanced system look like?
- Unintended Consequences and Opportunities: The Environmental Benefits of the COVID-19 Shut Down. The reduction in travel at every level has been having a positive impact on air quality. What other hidden benefits to the environment can we uncover and how might we extend those benefits into the future? We cannot stay locked down forever, but this is a real opportunity to reconsider the structure of our work lives, school lives, and the shape of our communities for a healthier planet.
- Internet as Public Utility: The digital divide and access to everything in an online world. As everyone scrambled to move operations online, the digital divide emerged in full force. From regions of the country with little to no connectivity, to entire school districts with families who cannot afford laptops, the reality of the barriers to social stability and social mobility have come into focus. What would it take to level the playing field? Can access to the internet be re-cast as a public utility?
- What are Schools For? How large scale disruptions can help us re-imagine the structure and delivery of, and access to education. Online learning is not all it is cracked up to be and anyone working in education could have told you that. As we moved pre-K to post-secondary education online, the holes in this approach became very clear. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from this impromptu experiment that could have long term benefits for education. What might school look like if we must always be prepared to go online? What goals will we shed? What will become essential?
If every student (not just First Year) was engaged in one of these topics in the fall, think of the conversations we could have! Perhaps some good policy ideas would emerge. Certainly, we would all have a broader understanding of how a health crisis can shape policy. For those who are wondering where we will find the time for all of this, I ask, how can we not? What on earth could be more important than learning from this crisis.
Be well everyone.