Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Questions I asked my students during coronavirus (Kondrlik)

This spring, before coronavirus arrived at my suburban Philadelphia university, I was teaching my favorite course: “Life, Death, and Disease.” In it, undergraduate students analyze writing about medicine, disease, and mortality. It is that rare literature course that enrolls more pre-meds than English majors. Each student is an expert on a different aspect of the topic: pre-meds share knowledge of epidemiology; psychology students of human behavior; English majors of textual analysis; and arts students of the visual arts, music, and theater. 

I am, as a professor, a meticulous planner; I agonize for hours over the texts we read and the questions I ask. To this end, we opened with Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which Sontag published in 1978, following a cancer diagnosis. She begins:

Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

Here, Sontag outlines a theme that lays the groundwork for the class and lingers long after we part – no matter how we try, everyone will eventually get sick. 

In the first weeks of the course, we read and discussed how we navigate the lines between sickness and wellness, covering Susanna Cahalan’s representation of encephalitis in Brain on Fire; Matt Haig’s discussions of masculinity and depression in Reasons to Stay Alive; long-form essays about
wellness culture; and fictional critiques of medicine such as The Yellow Wallpaper and Gattaca.

Here are some of the questions I asked my students about these texts:

What makes an “illness” an “illness?”
Who determines what constitutes “health” or “wellness?”
What obligations do doctors have to patients?
What can be done to address the strains that America’s medical system puts on healthcare professionals and patients?
What is the role of social status – gender, class, race – in determining “illnesses” and cures?

The class had a beautiful sort of alchemy. We engaged in rich debates, and students were open, vulnerable, and honest in their responses. 

I confronted the line between sickness and wellness myself at midterms. Sick with what I thought was a nasty cold (but may have been an early case of coronavirus), I missed a week of classes. I sent an email, outlining an online assignment and joking, “I am sick with whatever is going around (not the coronavirus!).” I assured them we would regroup in person after spring break. 

Unfortunately, we never returned.

The course, like our lives, was severed in half: before and after lockdown. Our physical campus closed in March, and we were confronted with the duality that Sontag outlined – the borders of the kingdom of the sick had closed around us.

As I re-worked our class for online instruction, I struggled with how to do justice to our new reality. My students would now be living out the theories that we had been discussing – pain, dislocation, healthcare inequalities. How could we possibly address them across the digital space separating us?
We faced what Virginia Woolf termed the “poverty of language.” In On Being Ill, originally published in 1926, Woolf argued that writers struggle to represent illness: there is a gap between how we physically, mentally, and emotionally experience illness and how we express those experiences in words. Woolf, who suffered precarious health her whole life, notes, 

The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. 

Epidemics and quarantines do have literary precursors: stories such as Katherine Anne Porter’s "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Masque of the Red Death"; and novels such as Albert Camus’s The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

However, no one novel or poem, no one question could cut to the heart of our experiences of coronavirus in the current moment. 

Therefore, I restarted the semester with a simple prompt: “Discuss your experiences of epidemic disease over the past few weeks in whatever form you choose.” Everyone seemed pleased to have a space to speak frankly about our struggles – job losses, falling ill, caring for sick family, balancing schoolwork and childcare, fear of mortality, or grief at losing their final semester. 

Our remaining discussions were colored by the events surrounding us. Distilled, they amounted to “This is weird. I feel anxious, uncertain, and unhappy. Do you feel the same way?”

For all my agonizing about crafting the perfect set of questions or finding the perfect text to illuminate coronavirus, these simple statements connected us most across the digital space between us.

And the most reassuring thing was receiving back a clear answer: “Yes.”

Kristin E. Kondrlik is an Assistant Professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and is co-director of its Business and Technical Writing minor. Her scholarship on medicine, writing, and disease has appeared in Victorian Periodicals Review, English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920, and Poroi: Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry

1 comment: