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Pandemics and Plagues Spring 2021 Syllabus (reference copy)
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UA-ENG 995.01 Contemporary Literature Lab: Pandemics and Plagues (2pts)

JOUR-UA 25 Journalism Ideas & Practice: Pandemics and Plagues (2pts)

Monday, 11.00am-12.15pm EST: Online


Prof. Patrick Deer (English)                       

Office Hours: Wednesday 1.30 - 3.30 p.m. and by appointment

Prof. Trace Jordan (Core Curriculum)              

Office Hours: Monday 4:00 - 5:00 p.m. and by appointment

Prof. Perri Klass (Journalism and Pediatrics)       

Office Hours:  Monday 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. and by appointment

Dr. Kim Adams (English and Core Curriculum)      

Office Hours: Thursday 12:00 - 2:00 pm and by appointment


Images of 18th and 19th Century French Plague Doctors, from Antoine Barthélemy Clot-Bey, De la peste observée en Egypte; recherches et considérations sur cette maladie (1840)

Course Description: Pandemics and Plagues


How have writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, performers and playwrights, and citizens responded to the outbreak of disease across the centuries and around the world?  What kinds of stories, narratives and archives have shaped artistic, medical and governmental responses and popular memory? This course will provide students with the opportunity to engage with humanistic inquiry into health, disease, and medicine at a time when they are personally experiencing a global pandemic. This course will also bring together researchers from various fields to present and discuss their work, including the diverse perspectives of medical practitioners, frontline healthcare workers, philosophers and ethicists, journalists, writers, artists and performers, and scholars engaging with the field of Medical Humanities. Our case studies will include: the bubonic plague and the Renaissance; forgotten diseases and childhood mortality; the 1918 “Spanish” Flu, war and modern culture; HIV/AIDS, performance and protest in New York City; SARS, Ebola and globalization; and healthcare workers and the global COVID pandemic. This course will engage a rich array of materials and approaches by focusing on themes like plagues in literature, racialized and gendered responses to pandemics, war and pandemics, trauma and recovery, the media reporting of pandemics, historical plagues, film and visual representations, philosophy and ethics, front line stories, archives and memory.


All of the required books are available at the NYU Bookstore.  All other readings on the syllabus will be included on NYU Classes.


Content and Discussion:

In this course we will be reading and talking about challenging issues across the intersections of gender, race, class, ability, nationality, sexuality, and ethnicity.  In addition, this course will include representations of disease, death, and human suffering.  In the classroom we will approach these issues and each other with intellectual and emotional care and generosity.


Course Requirements:

1. Three short reflection papers (2 pages) and one final synthesis paper (4 pages)

2. Four Discussion Questions posted on the NYU Classes Forum.

3. Regular and informed in-class participation.

4. At least one informal Zoom meeting with Profs Deer, Jordan, Klass or Dr Adams during

Office Hours.




Class Schedule


Week 1              Introduction: What is The Medical Humanities?        

M 2/1                 Jill Lepore, “What Our Contagion Fables are Really About” (New Yorker,

March 23, 2020)



UNIT 1: Bubonic Plague

Week 2              Historical Plagues

M 2/8                 Presentations: Prof. Bruce Edelstein and Prof. Rebecca Falkoff


Reading: Video presentation by Prof. Ernie Gilman, “The Bubonic Plague” (watch on NYU Classes)

Boccaccio, “Prologue” and Introduction to “First Day” from The Decameron (1353)

Alessandro Manzoni, Ch. 32 from The Betrothed (1840-42) (Trans.

Michael Moore)

                            Buonamico Buffalmacco, Trionfo della morte, fresco, (1341)


Week 3              The Plague and the Polis  

Th 2/18              Albert Camus, Parts 1 & 3 from The Plague (trans. Stuart Gilbert, 1947)

print pp 3-63 & 167-185; ebook pp 7-58 & 143-157

(Note: Classes meet Thursday Feb 18 on Monday schedule due to President’s Day Holiday)

DUE: Wed 2/17 by 5.00pm: Reflection Paper #1


UNIT 2: Tuberculosis, Smallpox, and Childhood Mortality

Week 4                Living to Grow Up: The Conquest of Infant Mortality

M 2/22               Presentation: Prof. Perri Klass  

Readings: from Perri Klass, A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future (2020), chapters 5 and 6

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Resignation” (1850)


Week 5              Tuberculosis and the Poetic Imagination

M 3/1                 Video and Readings:

Eugene O’Neill, Acts 1 and 2 from Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956) [watch up to 1 hour 12 mins, on Amazon Prime; also on YouTube; text on NYU Classes, pp 22-128]

Watch party for Long Day’s Journey Into Night Thursday 2/25 7pm EST

John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819)

                DUE 2/28: Discussion Questions or Reflection Paper #2


SPECIAL TOPIC: Syphilis and Public Health

Week 6              Presentations on Public Health, Activism, and Art in the 19th Century:      

M 3/8                 Guest Presentations: Prof. Dara Regaignon and Prof. Michael Beckerman


Readings and Video: Historical Background by Prof. Dara Regaignon

“The Ladies’ Appeal and Protest” Shield (14 March 1870) and “The Ladies’ Appeal and and its Critics”

Elizabeth Garrett, “An Enquiry into the Character of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1866-1869” (1870)

Video by Prof. Michael Beckerman, “Czech Music and Infectious Disease”

DUE Sun 3/7 by 5.00pm: Discussion Questions



UNIT 3: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Week 7              Presentation: World War I, “The Spanish ‘Flu,’” and War Metaphors

M 3/15               Presentations: Prof. Patrick Deer and Prof. Trace Jordan

Readings: “Background to literary readings for Week 7” - Prof Deer

Choose two poems that speak to you from selected WWI poems by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Cicely Hamilton,  Pauline Barrington, Helen Dircks, Teresa Hooley.

WWI Writing by Mary Borden, Vera Brittain, and Ernest Hemingway 

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Deadliest Virus Ever Known(New Yorker, 9/1997)

Michael Wilson, What New York Looked Like During the 1918 Flu Pandemic,” The New York Times, April 2, 2020.


Week 8              The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Memory and Silence

M 3/22               

Readings: Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)

DUE 3/21: Discussion questions or Reflection Paper #2


UNIT 4: Post-War Anxieties:  Contagion, Experimentation, Vaccination, and Race

Week 9              History: Polio, Experimentation, and Vaccination

M 3/29               Presentation: Prof. Perri Klass and Prof. David Oshinsky

Reading: David Oshinsky, Ch 5,6,7 & 11, 12, 13 from Polio: An American Story

Film: The American Experience: The Polio Crusade (watch on NYU Classes Media Gallery)


Week 10            Imagination: Race, Technology, Apocalypse, and Science Fiction

M 4/5                 Presentation: Prof. Rebecca Falkoff

Readings: Dino Buzzati, “Motor Plague” (1958)

Primo Levi, “Cladonia Rapida” (1966)

Octavia Butler, "Speech Sounds" (1983)

Carmen Maria Machado, “Inventory” (2017)

Video: Trailer for Twelve Monkeys (directed by Terry Gilliam, 1995)


        DUE Sun 4/4  by 5.00pm: Discussion question or Reflection Paper # 3



UNIT 5:  HIV/AIDS: Pandemics and Protest

Week 11            Medical, Media, and Activist Responses to HIV/AIDS

M 4/12               Presentations: Prof. Fidelindo Lim on the HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Readings: Rafael Campo, “The Ghost of Epidemiology”; “Elegy for the AIDS Virus”; and "The Failure of Empathy on Center Street,” from Diva (1999).

Week 12                  

M 4/19               Spring Break Day – No Classes                    

Week 13            The HIV/ AIDS Epidemic, Protest, and Activism:

M 4/26               Readings: Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (1985)

Film: Tony Kushner, clips from Angels in America (1991; HBO 2003)


DUE Sun 4/25 by 5.00 pm: Discussion question or Reflection Paper #3



SPECIAL TOPIC: Reporting on Pandemics Past and Present

Week 14            Presentation: Reporting on Pandemics

M 5/3                 Panel: Prof. Ivan Oransky on Media Reporting of Pandemics

Guest: Prof. Art Caplan and Helen Branswell          


Sheri Fink, Emily Rhyne and Erin Schaff, “Inside the Fight to Save Houston’s Most Vulnerable” (New York Times, Aug. 10, 2020)

Interview with Helen Branswell, “Tracking COVID-19 from a Journalist's Perspective with STAT's Helen Branswell” (Open Forum Infectious Diseases 7.4, April 2020)

Ed Yong, “How the Pandemic Defeated America” (Sept. 2020, The Atlantic)

Randy Shilts, chapters from And the Band Played On (1987)

DUE: Sun 5/2 Discussion Questions by 5.00pm


Week 15            Conclusion

M 5/10          

                Suggested Film: Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion

Final synthesis paper #4 due today.



Reflection Papers          45%  (3 × 15%)

Synthesis Paper             25%

Discussion Questions   20 %

Class Participation        10 %

Essay Format:

All papers must be typed, double-spaced, left-justified only, and page-numbered, with 1 inch margins and a standard 12 point font. Please include your name, the course title, and due date on the front page of each paper. Make sure to save your paper as a Word document or PDF (no Pages files!). Each essay should have a title. Please proofread your work carefully, and include appropriate citations. You can find an excellent guide to MLA citation on Purdue University’s OWL website:


Reflection Papers:

You can write your reflection papers on topics of your choice during the semester, choosing four out of the seven course themes.  They will be due by 5pm the day before the second, discussion class of each course theme.


Discussion Questions on NYU Classes Forum:

You should post each of your Discussion Questions in the weeks you’re not submitting a reflection paper.  Your scheduled informal discussion reflections should be posted on NYU Classes Forum by 5.00 pm EST the day before class.  For each of your two DQs, you should pick out a textual detail that strikes you as significant and accompany it with your questions and brief informal reflections.  They can be on any two questions that interest you about the weekly readings, and which you would like to see addressed in seminar.  At least one should address the secondary readings.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          


Chat Discussion Questions:

Students are encouraged to post informal questions in the Chat on Presentation days.




Attendance in this course is mandatory. Courses in the English Department depend heavily on in-class activities, discussion, collaborative work and participation, and students who miss a significant amount of class will have difficulty meeting the goals of the course. We therefore expect that students will make it their intention to attend every single class session synchronously, unless they have made another arrangement with the instructor. For this reason, we expect consistent and on-time attendance.


If you are absent without excuse for more than one week, the instructor will reach out to

your CAS advisor. If you are absent without excuse for more than 20% of class meetings,

your grade is at risk of being lowered a full letter grade (e.g., from a B+ to a C+).


Religious observance and documented illness or family emergency are grounds for

absences to be excused. However, if you miss an excessive amount of class meetings you

are at risk of failing the course. In case of all absences, you should communicate with the

instructor as soon as possible. Ask a classmate for notes of missed classes, to supplement the Zoom recordings, and then meet with the instructor in their office hours to discuss any questions.


Late Papers:

It is essential that you hand in essays on time. Please be sure to communicate in advance with the instructor if you have questions about the paper or difficulties with the deadline.  Papers will be marked down a “step” for each day late.  Communication is the key!



Academic accommodations and support are available to any student who needs them.

Students with disabilities should register with the Moses Center for Student Accessibility;; 726 Broadway, 3rd Floor; tel. 212.998.4980), which can arrange for things like extra time for exams. The instructor must also be notified at the beginning of semester for special accommodations regarding assessment and assignments.


Although we’re meeting online, this class is an opportunity for you to be “unplugged” from other media, allowing you the space to do careful and focused reading and thinking. Due to increasing evidence of our limited ability to “multitask”, please turn off all non class-related devices during our class times.  Bring copies of all readings to class.


Video Screens in Zoom:

You are encouraged to have your Video Screen turned on during Zoom class time or during Office Hours, so that you can get the most out of the experience.  But we understand that during this challenging time, you may not always feel comfortable turning on your Video Screen or may have difficulties with your WiFi connection.  Please feel free to let your instructor know of any circumstances that make using Zoom more challenging, and we will do our best to support and accommodate you.


Religious Observance:

As a nonsectarian, inclusive institution, NYU policy permits members of any religious group to absent themselves from classes without penalty when required for compliance with their religious obligations. The policy and principles to be followed by students and faculty may be found here: The University Calendar Policy on Religious Holidays




The Writing Center

You are encouraged to use the resources of NYU’s Writing Center, where faculty and peer

tutors can give you one-on-one help with your written assignments. Help for international

and multilingual students is also available through the Writing Partners Program.

411 Lafayette, 4th floor; (212) 998-8866.


The University Learning Center

The University Learning Center (ULC) also offers resources like peer tutoring and academic

skills workshops. Locations: ARC (18 Washington Pl) and UHall (110 East 14th Street)

(212) 998-8085;



Plagiarism or academic dishonesty of any kind will not be tolerated. Plagiarism is an extremely serious academic offense: it will result in failure of the course and will be reported to your dean. You should familiarize yourself with the section on plagiarism in the MLA Handbook and see NYU’s full statement on academic integrity:  Please remember that plagiarism is a matter of fact, not intention.