May 22, 2023 | Projects
The transition to in-person instruction has hardly been complete or uncontested. Take for instance, the end of my very first semester of graduate school, which was unsettled by a notice that Cornell University’s COVID-19 testing lab had found evidence of the Omicron variant in the student body (Pollack 2021). Noticing similar changes to the flows of academic life and an increasing number of claims made about the actors deemed responsible, Professor Juno Salazar Parreñas proposed that a teaching tool suitable for the times could be designed with students for students. The publication titled Pandemics Past and Pending is a product of this pedagogical experiment. Reflecting here in more detail on the process of transforming five student-authored essays into an open-access eBook, I invite further discussion about the troubles and promises of university-based collaboration in pandemic times.
Our first meeting as a full editorial team was a hybrid one. Due to a sudden bout of illness, I had been self-quarantined at home, while the other contributors, all wearing masks, interfaced from Parreñas’ office at the Cornell Department of Science & Technology Studies. Our main agenda was to divide tasks for the semester ahead. Mari Kramer, an undergraduate majoring in Environment & Sustainability, and Rodrigo Guzman-Serrano, a PhD student in Art History agreed to collaborate on a template for formatting the text. Meanwhile, Alena Zhang, a PhD student in Science & Technology Studies, planned to pare down the longer chapters and identify a throughline for the publication. I took up the responsibilities of additional copy-editing and writing up the process, which in this case meant collecting my observations from the safe distance afforded by Zoom
While I was a relatively new addition to the team, Kramer, Guzman-Serrano and Zhang began their work together in Parreñas’ seminar titled, “Pandemics Past and Pending” convened at the Society for the Humanities. Supported by an award from the Center for Teaching Innovation, the course explored the social life of widespread illnesses, thinking beyond individual pathogenic agents to consider how attempts to manage contagion, articulated at this scale, transform possibilities for social life. As a final assignment, students were asked to write in pairs empirically grounded papers about the scientific, discursive and political dimensions of pandemics. Rather than building up to a single powerful argument, however, each essay was to culminate in a line of open-ended questions.
This rubric followed a commitment to finding ways to share situated knowledges (Haraway 1988) about the uneven experiences of living and dying in a time when there hardly seems to be a stable forum for conversation. Viral claims about the nature of COVID-19 have become the object of urgent calls to intervene in the spread of false information. In the context of broader debates about what has been called a “post-truth era,” some science studies scholars have debated whether the kind of skepticism initiated by the Strong Programme is to blame for allowing “bullshit” to flourish in contemporary politics (Fuller 2016; Sismondo 2017; Lynch 2017). To this, Amit Prasad (2022) has defended the principle of methodological symmetry for making possible an analysis of how actors deemed anti-scientific make appeals to scientific credibility. For our group, at stake was not deciding whether or not the partial, heterogeneous field of science studies is responsible for this condition. Rather, Pandemics Past and Pending imagined if it could be possible to inspire the kind of peer-to-peer resource sharing modeled by reproductive justice activists (Retta 2022).
For a project premised on some degree of resistance to declaring what ought to be, decisions about adding, subtracting or altering text made for productive tension. The editorial team found a particular challenge in preserving the various, conflicting ideas about scientific knowledge present in classroom discussions. While some students described advancements in what we know about health and medicine, others routinely questioned linearity, universalism and ontological claims. The editorial team, being largely sympathetic to the latter, did not always agree on whether it would be appropriate to leave scientism unproblematized. While we ultimately retained the voices of each author within their respective chapters, the introduction (2022, i) frames their contributions with questions raised when "...so many conflicting ideas of cause, protection, risk and illness proliferate and mutate."
On the point of virality, the eBook does ironically rely on some of the aesthetic strategies that make images move (Spyer and Steedly 2013). Zhang pointed out in our editorial conversations that this follows a course theme of grounding classroom discussions with maps, posters and photographs. As compelling visuals tend to feature in much high exposure content, exercising ways of seeing together provided students with techniques for assessing how far reaching narratives about pandemics have been framed and interpreted. However, this critical engagement did not leave the visual beyond repair, as students wrote with graphics to make claims of their own.
Amidst these contradictions and ambiguities, Pandemics Past and Pending goes on as a pedagogical process afforded by a complicated “return” to in-person learning. At one angle, the eBook represents a semester’s worth of classroom discussion about the social life of widespread infectious disease. If read among a community of peers, the questions raised could ideally generate robust conversations about the themes that inspired it. From my own vantage, the editorial process itself modeled a way of collaborating across individual strengths in managing the flow of textual and visual information. However, this did not result in definitive solutions for deciding the most comfortable degree of intervention in works being prepared for publication when the project ultimately aspires to encourage strategies beyond monitoring for deletion or resorting to absolutism. As blog posts and other bundles of signs proliferate beyond the grasp of individual instructors, how can present collegiate forms open and foreclose opportunities for imagining ways of responding when the stakes of doing so are revealed by teaching in a pandemic?
Bloor, David. 1976. Knowledge and Social Imagery. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Haraway, Donna J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599 https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066
Lynch, Michael. 2020. “We Have Never Been Anti-science: Reflections on Science Wars and Post-truth.” Engaging Science, Technology and Society 6: 49-57. https://doi.org/10.17351/ests2020.309
Pollack, Martha E. 2021. “COVID-19 Update: Moving to Alert Level Red, Changes to Exams.” Cornell University Statements. https://statements.cornell.edu/2021/20211214-LTBmB1-ithaca-alert.cfm
Prasad, Amit. 2022. “Anti-science Misinformation and Conspiracies: COVID-19, Post-truth, and Science & Technology Studies (STS).” Science, Technology and Society 27 (1): 88-112 https://doi.org/10.1177/09717218211003413
Retta, Mary. 2022. “Peer to Peer: News you can use, via Google Doc.” Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/abortion/peer-to-peer-google-doc-abortion-access/
Sismondo, Sergio. 2017. “Post-truth?” Social Studies of Science 47(1): 3–6. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312717692076
Spyer, Patricia and Mary Margaret Steedly (eds). Images That Move. 2013. Santa Fe: SAR Press.