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Teaching Diversity in the Eras of Plague and Pandemic

Gabrielle Bychowski is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University, teaching courses on transgender and intersex history, disability culture, racism, and medieval literature.

This spring, I had to convince my students that I didn’t have magical future-sight.

As the pandemic hit and our classes moved to remote instruction, the overwhelming hope among my pupils was that everyone would band together and that there would be a solution in a matter of weeks. While I tried not to squelch their youthful optimism (which they would need as much as they could muster moving through 2020), I did offer some discordant notes.

What did I predict would happen? Here are a few things I mentioned back in March 2020:

  • Paranoia. Conspiracy theories directed at marginalized populations.
  • Stratification. Some of the rich will get richer. Some will fall. Many poor will die.
  • Conspiracy. Plague deniers and death cults opening their arms to the disease.
  • Riots and uprisings. Masses taking to the street demanding redress.
  • Violence. Militarized responses to civil unrest.
  • Political upheaval. Kings teetering on their thrones, lashing out to maintain power.

By May 2020, students did think I must have clairvoyance or soothsayer powers. In reality, I just knew history.

What I was describing are events that have played out in 1300’s England during bouts of plague. These events played out again in late 1900’s New York during the HIV/AIDs epidemic. The details look different but patterns of human behavior repeat themselves across history, or (to paraphrase Mark Twain) even if history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes.

These are a few of the insights I brought into my summer seminar, taught entirely remotely through Case Western Reserve University, entitled “Diversity in the Eras of Medieval Plague and Modern Pandemic.”

Three times a week for two months, seventeen students and myself met to read texts that would give us historical context, social motivations, and emotional outlets to better understand our world as well as ourselves during the 2020 outbreak of Covid-19.

The seminar was divided into three sections: disease, quarantine, and cure. Starting with the documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” the class considered how marginalized identities become conflated in the public consciousness with disease. Medieval anti-Semitism blamed the Jewish community for the bubonic plague and modern homophobia blamed the LGBTQ community for HIV/AIDs. Our textbook for this section was the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner, Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. (See a sample lesson plan for this book here.) Together, we explored social movements seeking to re-categorize transgender traits, deafness, autism, and dwarfism from illnesses to identities.

The next section, on quarantine, included the film, “Five Feet Apart.” Students kept Quarantine Journals, recording their experiences during the current pandemic and responding to prompts concerning the cultural conflicts that emerge amidst such plagues. While students maintained their own journals, we read selections from The Masque of the Red Deaththe Canterbury Tales, and the Decameron to see how past generations engaged with disease outbreaks through writing. In particular, we followed the history of “the Dance of Dead” and Death as a personified figure. Comparing themselves to Edgar Allen Poe and Geoffrey Chaucer, students reflected how their own emotions and imaginations have been marked by the traumatic events of the pandemic.

Finally, our seminar turned towards the politics of “cure” rhetoric. Building on our conversations from the previous sections, students considered the ways in which marginalized populations are excluded from care or targeted for elimination during crises. As explained by the documentary, “the Eugenic Crusade,” when public health crises emerge, society frequently turns upon “the usual suspects” (i.e. marginalized populations) with intensified prejudice. The documentary and class focused on the Eugenic Movement of the early 1900’s which saw BIPoC, people with disabilities, Jewish communities, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people subject to sterilization, mass arrest and institutionalization, deportation, and even extermination as the craze spread across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Nazi Germany.

By the conclusion of the seminar, students became conscious of how rhetoric that promises a “cure” not only to medical diseases but also cultural change functions as dog-whistles, signaling a rise in cultures of prejudice. Diversity in the eras of medieval plague and modern pandemic illuminates the hot-zones of intersecting epidemics of racism, classism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia that compound problems brought on by biological diseases.

Indeed, as the class met throughout the months of June and July, the #BlackLivesMatter protests continued to march through the streets of Cleveland and around the world. The class examined the systems of classism and racism that lead to the higher rates of inequity and death for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC). Invested in pedagogies of anti-racism and liberation, students tackled the histories of racist, sexist, ableist, and homophobic/transphobic institutions that create and support the ongoing exploitation and destruction of marginalized communities.

Personally, as a member of multiple historically targeted communities, I see seminars such as this as not only educational but life-saving. Marginalized populations have survived through periods of turmoil, offering insights on how to uplift the most vulnerable and revolutionize our infrastructures to better care for a wider diversity of people during periods of crisis. Without a doubt, I will remember the students who opened their minds and their hearts during this 2020 summer seminar with the hope that together we might create a more livable world for us all.