CLIO IN ACTION: COVID-19 and Communication Across the Curriculum
Given the essential role of mediated communication during times of international crisis, Clio’s curriculum offers faculty an analytical framework to engage students in discussing the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that are relevant to their specific discipline. Drawing from the six key themes below of the Clio program, what follows are some examples of the kinds of questions faculty might explore with their students at this unique historical moment.
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About Clio Curriculum
Clio was created to bring communication and media studies into secondary education, provide students with the 21st century skills they need to thrive in today’s digital culture, and prepare them to become leaders in the Information Age.
Communication Across the Curriculum: Communication is central to all aspects of human experience. Therefore, Clio’s interdisciplinary program is designed to be integrated into each of the subjects offered in grades 6-12. Communication Across the Curriculum:
Rests on a foundation of media history to help prepare students for the media future.
Is informed by research and theory in neuroscience and moral psychology.
Focuses on free speech and communication ethics.
Provides training for students and faculty in media mindfulness.
Narrative and Society
Human beings have been called ‘Homo Narrans’, the story telling apes. Stories are key to the way we make sense of the world around us. Recent advances in neuroscience confirm that we are ‘wired’ to pay attention to stories. Stories help us find patterns and order in the chaos of events around us. In times of crisis, we tell stories to alert one another of danger, to provide guidance on how to stay safe, and to seek meaning in our circumstances. Stories are also told by those in charge, to help create and maintain order, to shape public opinion. As Plato observed, “those who tell the stories rule society,” and during a crisis there is much to learn from studying competing narratives put forth about unfolding events.
• Examine accounts of plaques throughout history (e.g. smallpox, 1918 flu, AIDS) and how they shape our understanding of contemporary contagious diseases.
• Discuss the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in times of crisis, who spreads them,
who is most likely to believe them, and their role during pandemics.
• What stories do we tell about the impact of illness on different communities, and who is most vulnerable?
• How does news coverage shape and reflect our perspective on the behavior of various groups during this global emergency?
• Discuss the role that scapegoating plays in national discourse regarding contagion and compliance with public health recommendations.
• Consider science communication as a kind of storytelling, one that operates within a narrative framework established by the scientific method, providing explanations about causality and contagion during epidemics.
• Explore the ways that this narrative competes with other explanatory narratives circulated through a society during times of illness.
English, Theatre and Art:
Examine the roles of literature and theatre in times of crisis and plague. Creative expression during epidemics humanizes those living through disease, inspiring activism and generating compassion; e.g.: The Plague, Love in the Age of Cholera, Angels in America, RENT.
Freedom of Expression
Under normal conditions, in the United States and other democracies, speech is relatively unregulated. However, during war or other periods of crisis, the principles of freedom of expression are often curtailed or suspended. At such times, certain forms of communication may be explicitly prohibited and violators harshly sanctioned.
• Explain the role of the press as the fourth estate: to serve as a watchdog over the three branches of government.
• Discuss efforts to suppress news coverage during previous epidemics or natural disasters, creating roadblocks to transparency and accountability, e.g. 1918 flu, Hurricane Katrina, HIV/AIDs.
• Consider the silencing of journalists and whistleblowers, globally, past and present.
Social Studies/World History:
• Compare and contrast differences between authoritarian and democratic systems around the world, at different times in history, and various ways in which the flow of information is limited by governments during times of crisis, such as epidemics, natural disasters and war.
• Under what conditions, if ever, might censorship of the truth be in the best interest of a nation? Explore explanations offered by authoritarian systems for limiting the free flow of information during an emergency.
• Discuss government intervention with health communication, such as: historic and contemporary silencing of scientists, medical researchers, doctors and hospital staff who attempt to raise alarms about the extent of danger, anticipated trajectory of virus, supply shortages, and the recommended course of action.
• Explore suppression or distortion of data regarding numbers of cases, deaths and recoveries.
English, Theatre and Art:
Forms of creative expression that explicitly depict a health crisis or plague are often considered taboo and met with censorship. Examples abound from the AIDS era, including the controversies over the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and performances of Angels in America. Also relevant is the “Silence = Death” campaign.
Representation and Reality
What is true about reality, and how do we know? Age-old epistemological debates take on grave urgency in the midst of a deadly pandemic. In an ever-changing and life-threatening situation, which sources are to be trusted and who is to be believed? How do we resolve competing claims about the virus and the proper measures needed to combat its spread? In a crisis we are especially dependent upon mediated communication as we try to assess the degree of danger and how to stay safe. When the survival of the group rests upon a shared understanding of the basic facts of our physical reality, the distribution of inaccurate information, gossip, rumor and propaganda can have deadly consequences.
• Discuss the challenges facing scientists and physicians in their efforts to mitigate the spread of illness when the data they present and the recommendations they report are politically, economically or culturally inconvenient.
• Examine the phenomenon of science denial throughout history and the age-old clash between faith and reason during public health emergencies.
• Consider the role of echo chambers, filter bubbles and partisan media in shaping public opinion during times of national crisis past and present.
• Discuss the power of social media to spread misinformation and the dangers we face as a divided nation consuming two parallel versions of news reporting.
• Discuss the challenges facing data journalists, who need to convey statistical information to the general public in an accessible manner.
• Examine the use of data visualization showing the spread of disease to evaluate the power of presenting statistics in graphic form.
• Explore the relative merits of different approaches to depicting exponential growth and contact tracing.
• Consider the ways in which maps and timelines used in news stories depicting rates of infection may serve to reinforce or obscure particular interpretations of the data, such as the degree of danger, and the public policy implications thereof.
The ‘war’ against an illness is one that is partly waged through language, since the way we speak about a situation helps frame our understanding of what is taking place. When the stakes are high, with group survival at stake, the use of certain words or images can have ethical implications.
• Discuss the ethical significance of debates about the naming of diseases throughout history (e.g. the 1918 “Spanish flu”) and today (efforts to label COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus”) and related concerns about bias attacks and scapegoating.
• Explore the moral claims made, throughout history, about disease as divine punishment for behavioral transgressions
This sudden, collective experiment in ‘distance learning’ offers all educators a unique opportunity to consider the central role of communication in pedagogy. The nationwide shift from classroom teaching to online instruction during this period of quarantine would not be possible without digital media. However, since it’s not possible to truly replicate the classroom experience online, this new set of conditions invites us to consider the relative merits of the two teaching environments. The key question is: what difference does the difference make? The answer may lie in the links between the words communication, community, and communion, which are all derived from the same Latin root: ‘communicare’ meaning ‘to share or make common’. While it is clearly possible to share information digitally, our challenge as educators at this time is maintaining the sense of a common learning community when we can no longer gather in the same room with our students.
To discuss with students: The current quarantine highlights the role of mediated communication in contemporary life, and in times of crisis. Create space for students to talk to about what it’s like to suddenly have their schooling move online. Encourage them to consider what changes when communication is technologically mediated.
• When we talk about the feeling of “missing” being on campus or in the classroom, what is it, exactly that we miss?
• What is it that mediated communication simply can’t replace? Conversely, how are tools like social media, podcasts and apps helping us stay connected during this time?
• Invite students to consider what it might have been like for teens under quarantine during a pandemic 100 years ago, without the communication tools we now take for granted.
Mind and Media
Thinking about mediated communication requires us to consider the mind and the way we process sensory input.
• While face coverings protect our health, they present various communication challenges, making it harder to read more subtle facial expressions, and shifting emphasis to eye contact. Masks make it harder for us to hear each other, by muffling speaking, and they also make it much more difficult for people with hearing loss, who rely on lip reading.
• Our brains are ‘hardwired’ to seek out and respond to warnings of danger to keep us safe. However, in an environment of non-stop digital connectivity, this may not always serve us well. Consuming an ongoing stream of frightening or upsetting information raises adrenaline and cortisol, which can increase anxiety and weaken the immune system.
• It is important for us all to practice media mindfulness during this period of quarantine, finding a balance between staying informed about protecting our physical health and caring for our mental health. Mindful media use means being intentional about the focus of our attention. It means making conscious choices about the media stimuli we consume.
The adolescent brain differs from the adult brain in certain key ways. One of these differences is that their prefrontal-cortex, responsible for self-regulation, self-control and risk assessment, is not yet fully developed. This means that teens are more vulnerable to digital addiction, as they are less able to self-regulate their media use.
• During this period of quarantine when they have more time to spend online, whether for distance learning, gaming or social media, students should be encouraged to take digital ‘timeouts’ throughout the day to give their nervous systems and brains a rest from the ongoing input. Setting timers to promote breaks from social media platforms can be helpful.
Remind students to set aside a period each day when they intentionally unplug and experience life ‘unmediated’. Explore with them possible alternative activities in which they can engage.