WRI 101 | Model Course B

WRI 101: Pandemics in the Public Mind

Brief Course Description

To adjust for remote teaching during the pandemic, this course was designed for a thirteen-week semester, the typical four-project model pared down to three projects, each taking four weeks to complete. In addition, rather than holding primarily whole-class seminars, small groups of students cycled through weekly meetings, some devoted to discussing readings and planning approach to arguments, others devoted to commenting upon drafts and revising.  Entitled “Pandemics in the Public Mind,” the course invited students to describe, explain, and evaluate how pandemics have been publicly represented.

Drawing upon George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s classic work on public metaphor, Metaphors We Live By, students examined the systematicity of commonly-used metaphors that infuse our normative conceptions and gain, over time, a measure of epistemic authority (“argument as war,” or love understood as a force field,” for example).  With this theory under their belts, students turned to metaphors typically used to describe medical interventions, especially bellicose metaphors circulated in terms of war, or more recently, Covid-19. This was also a way to open the conversation to focus on the effects of representations of illness, more generally and to envision alternative representations. The second project asked students to examine an approach to the 1914 influenza pandemic in the United States–namely the barricading of a small town in Washington state fictionally represented in Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, an historical novel that traces the decline of a small logging community during the pandemic. Finally, students focused on the 1854 cholera epidemic in London, chronicled in Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, an account of the work of John Snow, generally considered a pioneer in epidemiological research. Johnson frames Snow’s work by drawing on the conventions of detective fiction, which tends to frame those who are ill as “victims,” and Snow as salvific. Students argued about the ethics of that framing.

Course Guidelines Fall 2020

Project 1 | Publicly Representing the 'Battle' against Covid-19 | Weeks 2-5
In this project, students apply a classic theory about the dominance of commonly-used foundational metaphors that with constant use, have lost their metaphoricity and are now generally accepted as “literal” in nature (for instance, the many entailments of the “argument as war” metaphor, or the notion of “love as a container” as in “falling in love”). It is commonplace to refer to a person who is ill as “battling” a disease, or of a pandemic as a “war against a virus,” with political and medical actors fashioned as warriors of one sort of another.  Students explored the costs and consequences of configuring approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic in bellicose terms.

Week 2 | Tuesday

Project 1 | Assignment 1

Week 2 | Thursday

Project 1 Assignment 2

Week 3 | Tuesday

Project 1 Assignment 3

Week 3 | Thursday

Project 1 Assignment 4

Week 4 | Tuesday

Project 1 Assignment 5

Project 1 Structure of the Argument

Project 1 Rubric


Project 2 | Communal Ethics in a Pandemic Site | Weeks 6-9
This project turns to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 as that episode in United States history has been represented by historians (who often lament the way in which the public memory of the event has evaporated, with memorials yet to be constructed and a contemporary national consciousness yet to be awakened to commemorate those who lost their lives).  In order to “correct” this inattention, particularly the dearth of first-person accounts of the pandemic available, we turn to an historical novel, Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, which draws upon historical sources in order to tell the story of a small lumber milling town in Washington state that barricaded itself from the outside world as a defense strategy against the town’s imminent infection.  Students inquire into the moral standing of this action, the costs and consequences of which are revealed in the actions of characters in the novel.

Week 6 | Tuesday

Project 2 Assignment 1

Week 6 | Thursday

Project 2 Assignment 2

Week 7 | Tuesday

Project 2 Assignment 3

Week 7 | Thursday

Project 2 Assignment 4

Week 8 | Tuesday

Project 2 Assignment 5

Week 8 | Thursday

Project 2 Assignment 6

Project 2 Structure of the Argument

Project 2 Rubric


Project 3 |Precarity of the Pandemic Subject | Weeks 10-13
Turning to an example of popular historical analysis in the shape of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, an account of early epidemiologist John Snow’s tracing of the origins of London’s 1845 cholera epidemic to a communal well in Soho, students weighed the value of “good storytelling” against the scholarly demands of a less sensationalistic historiography. In tension were the expectations of a certain “objectivity” in accounts of scientific discovery and the wish to dramatize that discovery as an elaborate detective story.

Week 10 | Tuesday

Project 3 Assignment 1

Week 10 | Thursday

Project 3 Assignment 2

Week 11 | Tuesday

Project 3 Assignment 3

Week 11 | Thursday

Project 3 Assignment 4

Week 12 | Tuesday

Project 3 Assignment 5

Project 3 Structure of the Argument

Project 3 Rubric