The first couple of times I taught a seminar on the history of medicine in the Sinophone realm, I began in the present with Marta Hanson’s article “Conceptual Blind Spots, Media Blindfolds: The Case of SARS and Traditional Chinese Medicine.” Only then did I go back to the earliest divination records in oracle bones and begin a conventional chronological narrative.
Hanson’s article surveys coverage of the 2003 epidemic in the New York Times, arguing that American journalists missed one of the most significant stories about the medical response in the People’s Republic of China: the widescale employment in hospitals of pharmaceuticals drawn from Chinese materia medica to treat patients of the novel coronavirus (currently designated SARS-CoV-1). This phenomenon was not, Hanson insisted, due to a lack of access to more expensive methods (as with barefoot doctors in the 1960s) or ignorance of biomedicine: the physicians chose herbal therapies because they were efficacious.
As an opener to the course, Hanson’s article served notice to students that the perennially-vague concept “Chinese medicine” was always a moving target, embedded in a particular time and place and contested by identifiable human actors. Our collective exploration of practices and physical objects covered by the term would require attention to actual human beings, living and dead, who share the world we occupy. Until relatively recently, if the History of Chinese Medicine was taught at all in United States classrooms, the course employed an oil-on-water conceptualization, in which theoretical rubrics floated and shimmered atop a society composed of actual humans. Demonstrating that Chinese medicine is a contested concept now, as Hanson’s article does, primed students to be attentive to ways in which medical practices also changed and were contested in earlier, less familiar periods.
A Pre-existing Condition: American Journalism in Intensive Care
For my spring 2020 seminar “Medicine in East Asia,” taught in the History Department at Northern Arizona University, I completely reworked the syllabus I had employed previously at the City University of New York (2014) and Brown University (2016). I dropped the device of using Hanson’s article as a hook, in part because the events of 2003 no longer qualified as current when addressing teenagers in 2020. Perhaps more importantly, not only did the students have no memory of the SARS outbreak to draw upon, the very practice of following current events in a newspaper is foreign to them.
As the Wuhan pandemic emerged in mid-January as a daily concern for colleagues and loved ones in the People’s Republic of China, I felt that it demanded classroom discussion time. January 23, the day of the Wuhan lockdown and only our third course meeting of the semester, I printed out several stories from The Guardian in order to provide class members with concrete information to discuss. I directed students to The Guardian because I respected the quality of their rolling coverage and, as a British daily working to fill the decades-long decline of American public interest journalism, hoped it could draw students out of a US-centered bubble into a more global perspective. Concretely, I also recommended The Guardian because of its commitment to provide online content free of charge (paywalls blocking quality coverage of the emerging pandemic had not yet come down at other prominent periodicals).
The first thing that became clear in our initial classroom discussion of what came to be called COVID-19 (then SARS-CoV-2), was that not one of the twenty-plus students actually reads physical newspapers; none of those who contributed to classroom discussion described following a particular daily periodical online either. They inhabit a Facebook newsfeed information ecology, complimented by Google searches of phenomena that interest them. With a couple of notable and articulate exceptions, in regards to current events they struck me as passive receivers of others’ posts.
Several students also readily acknowledged clicking on stories for infotainment purposes; colloquially, “laughing at what idiots people are.” But ironic distance can’t imbue a potato chip with the nutritional value of spinach: recognizing that there might be a problem with a source is different from pursuing reliable information. As the discussion continued, one white male student admitted that he scanned blatantly racist (anti-Chinese, Asian, Chinese-American, and Asian-American) explanations in his feed; another volunteered that he periodically listened to the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whom he found amusing. I wanted students to feel comfortable speaking truthfully about their information consumption practices, but I was wary of inadvertently creating a safe space for white supremacy and conspiracy theories.
This was a world away from critiquing New York Times coverage. I was the only one in the room even old enough to remember the functional—if already dangerously centralized and ideologically-regimented—mediasphere that collapsed along with the dot.com boom in the late ‘90s and has pathetically failed to find a replacement for print advertising revenues ever since. Flagstaff, the small tourism-dependent city in which NAU is located, is itself something of a media desert. Physically and conceptually distant from the state capitol of Phoenix, there is a limited market for local concerns. The six-day a week paper Arizona Daily Sun continues to appear in print. Drafting this post May 1, 2020, I passed by a newspaper rack downtown to see when the last available printed issue was. The date on the banner was May 12, almost two weeks in the future. I was confused. Then I saw the year: 2019. The collapse of the dailies did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with so many other glaring elements of daily disfunction in the contemporary United States, the pandemic has opportunistically pounced on pre-existing conditions. When I did locate a print copy of the Arizona Daily Sun, I found it to be primarily a compendium of reprints from larger papers, wire services, and other nationally syndicated content. A handful of staff reporters provide local garnish; international coverage was almost non-existent. It is clearly an insufficient tool for residents—both students and the townies with whom they interact as biological organisms—to understand the global forces impacting them, such as the frequency of Chinese shipping containers barrelling through town on the tracks paralleling historical Route 66. It is precisely the connection between global economic integration and the transmission routes of pathogenic microorganisms that COVID-19 brings into stark relief.
Insisting on a Baseline of Factuality and Evidence in Classroom Discussions
University classrooms remain a relatively unique institution in contemporary American society in their ability to insist on standards in setting the parameters of discussion. In casual discussions outside the classroom, attempts to correct inaccurate statistics and rumors are often fended off with disinterest. Classroom discussion can model the evidence-based rubrics of persuasion that have been largely abandoned in domestic politics. One way addressing the pandemic over the course of the semester modified the content of the “Medicine in East Asia” seminar was by opening the door to increased scientific literacy for myself and my students. The Guardian coverage that I asked students to follow provided updates of accelerated pre-publication and peer-reviewed studies on the particular biological qualities of the novel coronavirus, its origins, and its impact on human populations. These articles modeled clear standards of evidence by providing links to the studies cited, studies which—in marked contrast to practices still reigning in Medical Humanities peer-reviewed journal—were without exception Open Access.
I made sure to read the original studies summarized in the news coverage before classroom discussions, and encouraged students to do the same. I did not, however, require any new reading of students in relation to the pandemic that were not in the original syllabus, beyond that which I could pass out briefly in class. Students have a right to predictability and consistency: the form of sticking to a syllabus can be as reassuring in a crisis as content aiming to understand it.
Optimistically, I hope that indicating reliable sources of coverage for students and confronting misinformation in the classroom had a multiplier effect outside the classroom by encouraging them to cover events and repost substantive coverage in their own personal networks. In mid-March, when COVID-19 finally pierced the American bubble of willful ignorance regarding the rest of the planet, I also provided links to students in all three of my courses (roughly 150 people) of English-language coverage of the unfolding pandemic in East Asia. My goal was to use this occasion to direct them outside their American comfort zone. In the case of coverage in the Korea Herald and Taiwan News, students also had access to English-language coverage depicting the daily battle to isolate and contain a highly infectious microorganism in a transparent manner in democratic societies with robust public health systems.
Just as other social actors have seized on the pandemic to promote their pre-existing interests, I sought to channel understandable student anxiety into more rigorous exploration of the world in which they are embedded and the historical factors conditioning our current situation and potential paths for social, as well as medical, recovery.
Daniel Burton-Rose is a Lecturer in Chinese, Asian, and World History in the History Department at Northern Arizona University. He obtained his doctorate from the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University in 2016. He is the co-editor, with David A. Bello, of the anthology Insect Histories of East Asia (University of Washington Press, forthcoming) and is completing a manuscript titled Celestial Officials of the Jade Bureau: Prophecy and Spirit-Writing in Qing Conquest China. Burton-Rose serves as the Editor for East Asia of Asian Medicine: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Medicine, to which he has also contributed. His work can be viewed at: https://nau.academia.edu/DanielBurtonRose.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.