As the global COVID-19 pandemic dawns in March 2020, Joan Ferrante awakes with a plan: She’ll write a book. She recruits colleagues at Northern Kentucky University, who are scrambling to reinvent their classes for remote teaching, to be her potential co-authors.
The whole world has the feeling of unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety. But none of that seems to faze Ferrante, a 43-year sociology professor. She has a crucial message to share.
Her book will present the pandemic through the lenses of academic disciplines. Experts on topics from anthropology to world languages will share their ideas for responding to a crisis. The book, she thinks, could be popular. It’ll also help people understand what Ferrante believes in her very soul: Education matters.
Today, Ferrante’s book, How to Respond in a Pandemic: 25 Ideas from 25 Disciplines of Study, has been in circulation for more than a year. The world is still waiting and hoping for the sun to set on the pandemic, though, and the value of higher education remains a topic of debate.
Beyond the campus of NKU, where I also teach, I decide to use Ferrante’s techniques to explore how the area’s universities used the pandemic to provide students with life lessons. I interviewed more than 20 educators and students from 14 disciplines at the University of Cincinnati, Mount St. Joseph University, Xavier University, and NKU. A few were contributors to Ferrante’s book; most were not.
I wanted to know how their expert ways of thinking influenced their personal experiences and how each lens on the crisis might be able to help solve larger problems confronting us all. These people who have committed their lives to studying and sharing highly specialized knowledge vary from a veteran philosophy professor pondering the ultimate questions of life to an 18-year-old performing artist dreaming of changing the world.
Things are not as they seem. Joan Ferrante labels this phrase the motto of sociology and makes it the theme of her own essay in How to Respond in a Pandemic. Sociologists, she says, know that people see reality as what they and their closest contacts personally experience.
The delivery driver saw the pandemic as an avalanche of boxes, while the grocery store clerk perceived a rush of hoarders who stripped shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Sociologists demand a wider view. “The world is bigger than you are,” says Ferrante. “There’s always something deeper than what you know.”
For her book project, Ferrante invited more than 75 NKU connections to contribute essays highlighting one idea their academic discipline brings to a crisis. She gave them as little as 10 days to submit a first draft and describes an unconventional editing process that included reviews by students. “I wanted to put students on the same playing field as experts,” she says. To her surprise, 25 colleagues and her co-editor, sociologist Chris Caldeira, agreed to the terms. She assumes their motivations were similar to her own: It’s a moment of crisis. They need their disciplines to matter.
Meanwhile, as March moved into April 2020, Ferrante searched for a publisher. Many expressed interest, but none would commit. “They told me, We like it, but we can’t get to it for a year,” she says, but recalls feeling anxious that the insights of literature, the problem-solving strategies of mathematics, and other academic lessons could make a difference in people’s lives. “We had to say something quickly.” SAGE Publishing, a global academic publisher, eventually agreed to release the book. They wanted to show education can move fast, too, Ferrante says.
As authors submitted essays, Ferrante’s excitement grew. Anthropologist Sharyn Jones linked the importance of food to establishing community. World languages professor Bo-Kyung Kim Kirby explored cultural assumptions in South Korea’s COVID response. This was blockbuster material, Ferrante thought, though sales have not materialized. “It’s like maybe hundreds of copies sold,” she says. “It has not paid for itself.”
From a publisher’s perspective, this seems disappointing. But the sociologist knows that things are not what they seem. Through a grant, Ferrante purchased books for 130 students in six NKU courses last fall. Students wrote essays explaining their pandemic experiences and describing which of the essays, if any, provided useful advice.
Students responded with powerful anecdotes about the stress of enforcing mask mandates at retail jobs and emotional descriptions of lost seasons of cherished sports. Their connections to the 25 educational ideas exceeded Ferrante’s expectations. Students embraced counseling techniques for building resilience, described the cathartic relief of putting their feelings into words, and expressed new clarity about the impact of media habits.
Ferrante grins with delight. “Every essay was great,” she says. “I’m not exaggerating. You can tell when they believe what they’re writing versus throwing crap at you so they can get the grade. I believed them.”
Ferrante ponders the project’s impact. “It’s a record of history in a sense,” she says. “It might come back in other pandemics.” But her message has empowered students. “I wanted them to know that we in education have some answers in a crisis,” she says. “We’re not telling them how to live their lives, but we offer insights into how to live the best versions of themselves. I really felt like we changed lives.”
Carl Fichtenbaum, M.D., had served on the front lines of the HIV pandemic years ago, which provided him a glimpse of what was to come in spring 2020. “I’m going to be very busy,” he warned his wife, who replied that wasn’t anything new for the infectious disease specialist at UC’s College of Medicine. “No, I’m going to be really busy,” he told her.
Fichtenbaum expected he’d be called upon to communicate and to educate, and he knew he’d need a lot of help. He hoped volunteers would emerge, but he was unprepared for the level of response. People from every part of healthcare stepped up. “Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like that in 22 years at this institution,” he says, talking about UC nurses, researchers, people who cleaned hospital rooms, and those who processed lab samples. “They risked themselves by coming out and working every day. It’s so important to understand how much it takes.”
Brett Kissela, M.D., senior associate dean of clinical research at UC, understands. He was also among Cincinnati’s frontline forces in 2020. Eighteen months later, he remembers the fear but also recalls the clarity of purpose. “This is what we signed up for,” he says.
In the beginning, the front line knew little about how to fight the new disease. Kissela marvels at how quickly they learned. “Science did more to defeat this virus in a year than it’s done in decades of research on many other diseases,” he says. “When you’re facing what you think is a life and death situation, you become more efficient because you have to be. It’s hard not to wonder why we can’t do all of the science as fast as we did with COVID.”
Fichtenbaum thinks analogies could help the vaccine-hesitant understand how science produced a safe vaccine in record time. He describes two people building a house. In one scenario, the person has no equipment or money and is doing the project alone. Construction takes forever. In the second, a bank provides unlimited funds, the builders have supplies, and 80 friends volunteer to help. “We could put a house up in a weekend,” he says. “That’s exactly what we did with the vaccines. We put thousands and thousands of people on this project and threw billions of dollars at them.”
The result seems like a medical miracle. Fichtenbaum sees it as a model for solving other big societal problems. “It’s about how we all pull together as a group, set aside our differences, and work together for a common goal.”
When the pandemic hit, Kelly Moffett was in Romania teaching creative writing. She walked a cobbled medieval street, crafting similes to capture the effect of lights dangling overhead (“Like a raindrop frozen above me”). But literary exercises, as well as residence in a foreign country, proved unsustainable as COVID swept the globe. The associate English professor came home to NKU, her brain feeling like a beehive.
She returned to her discipline, poetry, and contributed to Ferrante’s book by highlighting how poetry can help students find peace when the brain bees start swirling. “I can’t be a therapist,” she says. “But I can help them if they’re interested in trying to have a moment of calm.”
Through daily reading of online poetry, Moffett was able to pause and be fully attentive. At first, this was all she could do. But as the pandemic quarantine wore on, safe in an Emily Dickinson-like space, she suddenly craved stimulation—so she forced herself into an uncomfortable place, an online writing workshop. “It made me realize how brave my students must be,” she says.
Moffett sought new mentors, forced herself to write, and invited critique, even when it was painful. She binge-watched online webinars during lunch. “I was getting brilliant ideas, some about teaching, some about poetry, some about identity,” she says. “I found it exhilarating.” She even reinvented her poetic style. “Here we are in isolation, and suddenly I learn how to speak to other people,” she says.
As the current school year approached, Moffett considered how her pandemic experience would affect her classroom style. The poetry teacher is used to questions about relevance. Her art fulfills one of life’s most basic needs, she says: human connection. Consider John Keats and his famous line: Here’s my hand, I hold it out to you. “He’s long dead, but I feel he’s holding out his hand to me,” says Moffett. “Time has collapsed. One human is talking to another human in this tiny bit of language on this page.”
She vows to spend less time evaluating her students’ metaphors and more time honoring the emotions they express. She wants them to know, I feel your pain. I hear you. She can’t be a therapist, but she can be present. And through poetry, they can be heard.
Timothy Quinn found himself deep in ancient texts during the pandemic, not necessarily searching for answers. He’s a philosopher studying the ultimate questions: What’s the meaning of health? What constitutes truth? “Those are particularly salient questions today,” he says.
Philosophy doesn’t teach you how to do things, Quinn acknowledges, “but it does explain why you need to do things and helps give clarity about events.” It distinguishes bad from good. And that can lead to a rational understanding of seemingly irrational events, like a pandemic.
Quinn has been prompting students at Xavier University to consider life’s most profound questions since 1987. In his signature course, “Philosophical Perspective,” he immerses them in the writings of 16th and 17th century philosophers such as Machiavelli, Bacon, and Descartes. Then he urges them to ponder how science and technology shape society’s values.
The texts rarely change, but the lessons fluctuate frequently. “Philosophical Perspectives” is a required course at Xavier, so students come from all majors. In the pandemic year, Quinn noted an influx from the health sciences. Many were working in hospitals, observing the precarious nature of life every day. For them, philosophy’s great books revealed questions about the political responsibility for health care and the distinction between truth and fantasy. “They’re all part and parcel of philosophy,” Quinn says. “COVID just intensified the need for raising these kinds of questions.”
Quinn sees his discipline as a grounding force in a period of emotion and divisiveness. “Philosophy cultivates openness and rationality,” he says. “It’s against extreme passion. It can help people lead rational, thoughtful lives. It’s really embedded in every aspect of my life—my relationship with my kids, my students, my government, the current age. Everything.”
He knows the public might view the philosophical life as aloof from reality. He sees the opposite. “It’s about the world we live in,” he says. “Everybody has a philosopher inside them somewhere.”
The crisis can be managed. That’s the insight Nana Arthur-Mensah shared in her essay on organizational leadership in Ferrante’s book. The strategies she teaches to NKU organizational leadership students sound deceptively simple. Confront a crisis with empathy and vulnerability, flexibility and transparency. Follow your ethical compass; values are important. And always nurture good followers.
Arthur-Mensah acknowledges that few in today’s culture recognize the power of followers, but she’s made them a research focus. “Followers is not a bad word,” she says. “If there’s a leader, there has to be a follower.” She thinks of the organizations emerging from this crisis relatively stable—she won’t say “unscathed,” since everyone was scathed—and theorizes it’s because leaders and followers worked together. If given the tools, the permission, and the power, followers will rise to support leaders and they will be effective, she tells her students. “But you’ve got to empower them.”
Arthur-Mensah teaches courses on ethics and leading change. The pandemic presented a world of case studies; some were positive, others were models of dysfunction. She notes companies that focused on saving money vs. saving their people. In the long run, the cost of such decisions may be high. “We as people have all been changed,” she says. “People are looking at what is important. Employees want flexibility and understanding. They know there are alternatives.”
Arthur-Mensah, an empty nester, says she was ready to return to campus this past summer. But different people require different circumstances, and she says leaders must focus on differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and more. She recalls a recent headline stating throngs of women left the workforce during the pandemic. “Leaders should wonder: Why is that so? What can you do to get them back?”
We have all been changed by the pandemic. Arthur-Mensah prepares the next generation of leaders to manage our journey forward.
The 19 members of the musical theater class of 2024 at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music began freshman year as strangers in a virtual room. The experiences they hope to learn and share, unfortunately, are virus superspreader events—singing, dancing, stages, audiences. COVID protocols, intended to protect their lives, seem to threaten their dreams. If they’d been sociology majors, perhaps they would have known that things are not what they seem.
Despite limitations, the students launched planning for the Spring 2021 Freshman Showcase, a major CCM event, with high goals. Michael Lee Jr. says he and his fellow students wanted to talk about racial injustice, violence against women, political division, and prejudice toward immigrants. “So many things were happening,” Lee recalls. “We all said, Let’s come together and present something that represents our world right now. And how we individually fit into it.”
Students wrote monologues and chose musical numbers reflecting show themes: “Come Together” from the Beatles; “Stand Up,” a film tribute to abolitionist Harriet Tubman; “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a declaration from the ’60s; and the title song, “Wake Up,” their call to action. The heavy topics produced intense discussions, recalls freshman Eliza Levy, whose monologue described her childhood passion for reading about Black history. “This was us at our rawest, truest selves, pouring our hearts and souls out for people to see,” she says. “It was not always sunshine and butterflies. It was crying a lot of the time. I’ll never again be 18 years old, figuring out what I want to say to the world.”
Showcase producer and director Vincent DeGeorge, an associate professor at UC, heard their commitment and dedicated himself to making it happen. Bumps emerged at various points. DeGeorge proposed students record performance videos with their iPhones. “Everyone’s heads exploded,” he says. “I thought I’d lost them all.” Musical director Steve Goers struggled to figure out the audio. To increase sound quality, students recorded in the studio first and lip-synced during showcase performances. The cast decided to wear masks, both as a safety precaution and a statement of the times. The black cloths across mouths also made lip synching more feasible.
Still, the university’s recording restrictions seemed impossible. One student at a time would sing for half an hour. The room was cleaned, then students had to wait four hours before starting the next session. Each student got one shot at the microphone. Recording alone took three months. Then Goers had to edit the tracks to create the effect of group performances. As he recounts the painstaking process with me on a Zoom call, team members shake their heads in disbelief. “You just literally gave me PTSD,” DeGeorge says.
But somehow it worked, and the students now point out surprising opportunities amidst pandemic conditions. “We were brainstorming all the time, which really strengthened us as performers,” Gracie Parker says. And once CCM released the “Wake Up” video in June, they learned of the project’s impact on others outside of their team. Parker’s monologue related stories about high school bullying, and friends reached out. “They were like Gracie, I had no idea that happened to you, and Thank you so much for talking about this. I thought I was the only one that experienced this. It made theater and artistry a relatable experience.”
DeGeorge describes the Freshman Showcase as a microcosm. “If we can work together in this project, as overwhelming as it’s been, we can also work together in other overwhelming situations,” he says. Looking back, what seemed like the greatest obstacles produced an environment for meaningful theater.
For his part, Goers can’t forget the darker side of the pandemic journey at CCM. About that tedious, complicated audio recording process, he says, “We’ll never, ever, ever, ever, ever do that again.”