Teaching a Pandemic in Real Time: The Art and Archaeology of Plague

July 02, 2021
Lecturer Janet Kay and a student in her course

Pictured: Janet Kay, lecturer in art and archaeology (left) and Phoebe Warren, a member of the Class of 2021 and a student in Kay’s course “The Art and Archaeology of Plague,” take a socially distant walk through the courtyard of East Pyne Hall.

Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

The pandemic changed not only how Princeton University students were learning after the transition to remote teaching in March 2020, but also what they were learning — especially as the impact of COVID-19 opened new lines of humanistic and scientific inquiry across fields of study.

Janet E. Kay, lecturer in art and archaeology, talks about how she incorporated the coronavirus and the pandemic's effects into her course material for ART 361 / HIS 355 / MED 361 / HUM 361 during the spring 2021 semester.

The Art & Archaeology of Plague, taught by Janet Kay

Is this a new course or an existing course?

This is a new course based upon themes and methodologies I’ve encountered in my own research. But I designed it in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I continued to redesign it in small ways every week (even in week 12!) to adapt to changing questions and issues. We had a unique opportunity to compare our experience of COVID-19 to those of communities experiencing disease catastrophes in other times and places. This helped us better understand the situation in which we find ourselves, and at the same time helped us think more critically about how societies have responded to disease events in the past — and the strengths and weaknesses of the sources we use to study it.

How did you incorporate the COVID-19 pandemic into your curriculum?

In small ways throughout the course, I connected the “plagues” that we studied (smallpox, the Black Death, the 1918 Influenza, malaria, etc.) to our experiences of COVID-19. We also focused on COVID-19 in our last week of the course, especially in the context of the ways in which fear of a disease and the misunderstood or perceived “origins” of a disease can lead to xenophobia and racism. This is an issue with which we are all too familiar in 2020-21, but which is unfortunately not a new phenomenon in human history.

Read more at News at Princeton.