Last week I was chatting with my Bethel colleague Amy Poppinga. As we compared notes on how classes are going now that we’ve moved online, we both realized the wide variety of ways we’re using history to help students think about COVID-19. In fact, this pandemic has left both of us feeling even more confident in the significance of our discipline, and the larger work of the liberal arts.
As happens often among our circle of friends at Bethel, that spontaneous conversation soon grew into a different kind of conversation: a new podcast series that we’re calling, simply enough, Pandemics and the Liberal Arts. With the help of our colleague Sam Mulberry, we recorded our pilot episode this afternoon, with Amy and me elaborating on what we’re doing as historians in a time such as this.
I was happy to sit back and listen for most of the half-hour, since Amy is the perfect person to kick off a series like this. Not only does she teach the history of epidemics as part of her Bethel class on History and Human Environment, but she specializes in Islamic history and could reflect on the role of religion amid the uncertainty, suffering, and tragedy of a pandemic.
Of course, our conversation soon turned to historical analogies to previous epidemics, including the 1918 influenza pandemic, the bubonic plague, and diseases that ravaged ancient Greece and Rome. (Alas, I forgot to mention my recent study of polio, but you can read about that here.) But we also emphasized the importance of historical empathy in a season of forced social distancing, and we asked if looking to the past might make it easier to ask questions that otherwise feel too “politicized” in the polarized present.
It was a fascinating conversation, the first of five or six we hope to record before this most unusual academic year wraps up. As we continue, we’ll talk to other Bethel colleagues in the humanities, the arts, and math and sciences. After taking next week off, we’ll plan to have episode 2 drop on Wednesday, April 29th.