Course blog (20%): This seminar functions on a classroom roles model. For each of our major readings, each of you will be assigned a specific part to play in that unit’s classroom and online discussion. The class will divide into four groups with specific roles, which will rotate from reading to reading. The first group will consist of conveners, whose job it is to prepare us for our initial class discussion by collaborating on an initial post for our course blog. The second group will be responsible to comment on those initial blog posts either before or after our discussions. The third group will post, as individuals, by our second meeting on a given text, a series of online resources or pointers to current events (probably related to Covid-19) that will augment our discussion or help us expand its horizons. The fourth group will have the week off in terms of the course blog, though they will still be responsible for regular writing assignments that week and may, of course, comment if they so wish. [This assignment is derived from one designed by Professor Mark Sample of George Mason University; I’ve also been influenced by descriptions of blogging assignments by Professor Ryan Cordell of Northeastern University.]

As you write for the course blog, remember that your audience includes not just your classmates and the professor, but also anyone who happens across this website now or in the future. This means you should craft your blog posts with a general audience in mind, taking care to explain the context of our discussion of course materials. Blog posts can take a less formal, more colloquial tone than academic essays; they can be tentative—i.e., thinking in progress as you work through your reading of a text. They should seek to provoke conversation, both in the form of comments and in subsequent seminar meetings. Appropriate grammar, tone, and sensitivity are expected. (One reason to write for the web instead of for a closed classroom site is that by remaining public we invite the world beyond our classroom walls into conversation with us about the material we’re studying.) Conveners’ posts should run from 300-500 words and include at least one substantive illustration or video. They should also reach back and quote, link to, or otherwise engage at least one previous conveners’ post from previous years in the course site archive. These initial posts will frame our discussion, though the approach remains open to the conveners. You may want to situate the text historically or culturally by providing extratextual information; you may want to direct our attention to relevant discussions of the text online or elsewhere; or you may want to bring a text into conversation with something else we’ve read. Whichever way you choose to proceed, you should include a few key questions for thought that should help us open our discussion. Conveners’ posts are due by 8pm the day before we meet for the first discussion of a text; everyone should read the conveners’ post before coming to class. Conveners who engage as individuals with comments on their original posts will contribute toward their participation grade. Commentators for the week should contribute at least one comment of 75-100 words at some point before we leave the reading behind: the comment can respond to the conveners’ post, subsequent posts, or comments from class. Anyone else can comment as well, and you can comment more than once. Conversation, and not just commentary, is encouraged. Again, additional discussion will count toward your general participation grade. Augmenters should post any time after our initial discussion of a text but before we move on to the next reading. Their posts will consist mostly of links, video, or other media that make connections between our primary text and current events, in a way that helps us better understand either or both. (For an example of the kind of post I’m talking about, see this and this, though note that these examples are from pre-Covid iterations of the course.)

Those of us who use Twitter may wish to tag course-related content using #contagion21; tweeting is optional but will count toward your participation grade.

NB: Any time you leave class discussion feeling like you weren’t able to ask a question or share a perspective, you may either share it later in comments on the course blog or send it to me via email, which will allow me to make room for your contribution when we next meet.

General participation (10%): Regardless of your role for the week, please come to class on time with several possible topics to discuss, pertinent questions you would like to raise, or specific passages from the reading that you find illuminating or perplexing. Read the online contributions of your classmates carefully and consider how you would like to respond to them in that day’s discussion. Each class member is expected to contribute to the discussion every time we meet; you may be asked without prior warning to begin or help redirect a discussion. I make notes each week on who has participated and how substantively, taking into consideration your opportunities to participate in outside the physical classroom. Participation will be assessed on the following rubric (adapted from one by Professor Mark Swislocki):

A: Regular contribution to discussions that demonstrates preparation and helps move the discussion forward in a productive way; a willingness to ask questions when material is confusing or meaning unclear.

B: Occasional contribution to discussions or even frequent contributions that demonstrate a lack of meaningful preparation or doesn’t necessarily move the discussion forward in a productive way.

C: Infrequent or nonexistent contribution to discussions or regular contributions that do not demonstrate meaningful preparation.

Short writing assignments (summary/paraphrase/capture/explication) (40%): Details for each of the 12 shorter assignments will be provided in class.

Longer Essays (30%): The first longer essay (5 pages, 10% of final grade), due on 15 Oct., will incorporate revisions of material from the earlier short assignments. It can incorporate personal narrative, if you wish, in dialogue with a critical analysis of the reading. I will distribute sample “pandemoirs” in class. The final essay, proposed by 28 Nov. and due on 16 Dec. (8-10 pages; 20% of final grade) will also build on shorter writing assignments you’ve already completed. As an alternative to the final paper, you may work collaboratively in groups of two or three on a 30-40 minute podcast episode addressing major questions across a set of texts. Additional details and a grading rubric will be provided in class.


Some hints for succeeding in a reading- and writing-intensive course such as this one:

  • Assume a sense of responsibility for your own education; if you are confused, please ask questions. If you are swamped, please ask for help.
  • Please read the assigned material before class, which will allow our discussion to make more sense to you. If our reading is spread over multiple days we’ll try to agree in advance on how much to read for each meeting.
  • Try to read and write (in a notebook or reading journal or on a computer or a dining services napkin) every day of the semester. Certainly don’t save all your reading for the moments right before class. If you don’t take notes after you’ve finished reading something, you may as well have not read it at all. Read with a pen (not a highlighter) in hand; annotate like mad and make connections to other works—including material from other classes—as you go. When you’re done reading, take a few minutes to assemble a set of notes that help you sum up and organize your annotations.
  • Flag interesting or problematic passages for discussion in class; formulate questions about your reading before you come to class, and bring that day’s texts with you.
  • Especially when dealing with difficult prose from earlier periods, try reading aloud.
  • Communicate with classmates outside of class.
  • Check the course blog regularly.
  • Take advantage of office hours.
  • Relish particularly fine sentences for their own sake and be willing and eager to share them with others.

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