The Teach311.org + COVID-19 collective and the History of Science ON CALL project are pleased to co-present this 4-part interview with Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a Professor of the History of Science in the departments of Biology and History at the University of Florida. We asked the award-winning teacher-scholar about her course HIS 3495/ZOO 4926: The History and Evolution of Infectious Disease, which she taught in the Spring 2020 semester while the pandemic began to unfold in the United States. In Part II, she talks about the development and organization of her course, and her use of multimedia to ensure student engagement. This interview originally took place on 4 May 2020. Due to the events surrounding the unjust murder of George Floyd, we decided to delay this publication in order to afford more space for reflection about the problem of systemic racism and the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths among Black people in the U.S.A. as well as in other countries around the world.
Question: Could you briefly describe the course, its goals and aims, and perhaps your target audience? What is it precisely that you hope to convey in this course? Since you have been teaching it for nearly 25 years, how has it changed over the years?
The course is titled “The History and Evolution of Infectious Disease.” I worked hard on that title because I wanted to convey the importance of the past, the present and the future in the subject matter but also to signal that the course bridged the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. It was designed to be taught out of the history department initially so the word “history” had to be featured prominently in the title, but I also wanted to send a strong signal about the importance of biology in the course, hence the appearance of the word “evolution.” This is very much in keeping with my view that you have to really connect courses in the history of science with history as well as science—I often refer to this as history of science with a capital “H” and a capital “S,” again something I learned at Cornell from my mentors, superb teacher-scholars like L. Pearce Williams. We err when we teach only for the purpose of professionalizing future historians of science. My goal has never been to clone myself or to push my field, as wonderful as I think it, on other people, especially younger people, or to replicate some tradition in the field. It seems to me to be unfortunately just too narrow a vision of what the history of science can do in terms of connecting to so many marvelous broader themes in a number of other fields, as well as providing us with very important practical and useful insights. And, narrow teaching does strike me as privileged. I’ve never actually worked out of a department of the history of science, so I’ve always had a sense of working hard at reaching out to prove the relevancy and utility of the field. I actually think this kind of repeated challenge to “earn my keep” has made me the adaptable and versatile teacher that I have become, to be honest. So, the title reflects the fact that the course aims to connect to broader historical themes as well as flagging engagement with science, especially sciences like ecology and evolution which often get short-changed in American higher education.
The title also conveys that infectious disease is a dynamic process. I first titled the course “The Changing Face of Infectious Disease” because I wanted to stress the fact that pathogens were always adapting to changing social practices, and I did want to put that “face” on the disease because the course is undergirded by considerations of race, class and gender. This is where the humanities and social sciences figure prominently in the class, in the way of revealing the political dimensions of infectious disease. Students learn about the extinction of indigenous populations of the Americas and some of the Pacific islands because diseases like smallpox accompanied colonization, and they learn to associate abominable practices like slavery and social injustice with infectious disease. They come to learn that blaming, scapegoating, and persecution, of people who differ, is one of the more insidious patterns common to outbreaks, and they see even the most civil societies experience division and upheaval. But, I mostly wanted that title to convey that infectious disease was a dynamic process, always changing, and that it by definition always involved a social process. My first formal lecture actually underscores the fact that infectious disease is social, by definition: it takes more than one, and pathogens exploit our very human need to be with each other. Establishing the definition in terms of the social, is one of the first aims of the course
Yet another aim is to get students thinking about evolution as a process, one that is deeply embedded in history, and inclusive of humans as well as microbes. This is important in the United States and in some communities where evolution is considered the work of Satan or not taught at all. I really wanted to show students that evolution is not just a process of organic change that gives rise to different kinds of finches, or tortoises, or moths or even fruit flies or what have you, but is also about viruses, bacteria, protozoa and a bunch of living organisms that don’t necessarily conform to any classical taxonomic scheme. Ecology, furthermore, is not only about recycling or saving whales; it is also about understanding the complex web of relations and the human tendency to alter, or disrupt those relations, and now on a planetary scale. And I wanted to build on the view that evolution and ecology are not abstract theories; they are embedded in applications like medicine and conservation. So, in the course, I go out of my way to show disturbing images of children with smallpox and talk about evolution in terms of human and social suffering, instead of the usual natural history of enchanted Pacific islands. Ignore evolution and ecology at your peril, I say at the end.
The course is taught under an HIS rubric at UF out of the history department. I chose that not just because I wanted it to count as a history of science course (we then had an undergraduate major in the area), but also because I wanted to subvert the geopolitical categories that undergird history departments in the United States. Indeed, yet another aim of the course is to stress the movement of disease, the mobility of microbes, and the fact that microbes don’t respect national boundaries. We can see that demonstrated with the movement of COVID-19 across the globe, for instance. And, I wanted very much to avoid the category of “World History,” which in history departments in the US, is a kind of marginalized, “kitchen-sink” category (all the scraps or leftovers from conventional national histories, thrown together, to make some sense of the whole history of the world in other words). The course, therefore, has no geographical or geopolitical center: it follows the geopolitical trajectory of outbreaks in the past as it moves into the present. Though the sources are mostly in English given the institutional setting, the course includes Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as of course the United States, although the US doesn’t actually make much of an appearance until the nineteenth century.
Structurally, the course is designed as a lecture course taught for 16 weeks, and it is given at three credit-hours. That means that it is a three-hour course, which I usually teach once a week. The course is taught at an advanced level targeted towards juniors and seniors, but because it is multi-disciplinary, has no prerequisites, and draws on students from some half a dozen UF colleges, it must be very carefully structured and presented. I can’t assume that my students have any background knowledge at the outset but must provide them with that. Teaching a class that has not just microbiology or zoology majors, or history majors, but also anthropology, sociology, geography and even English, classics, journalism or education majors takes special effort.
Conceptually, the course is framed by the problem of emerging pathogens. This is important, because the point of the course is to show that the past has lessons it can teach us; it can actually serve as a resource to guide us. We can mine the past to understand broad patterns not just in terms of responses and reactions, but also to gain an appreciation of changing social practices and the importance of environmental disruptions. As I noted above, I start with the late 1960s and 1970s and the false sense of security that existed. I then move backwards in time discussing changing mortality rates, along with the history of vaccination and the history of antibiotics, I offer definitions of, and background into what we know of zoonotic epidemics and spillover events. I establish that kind of foundational knowledge for the course at the outset and continue to define terms as I introduce them in the course.
Each week I track a particular epidemic or infectious disease, or at times a constellation of infectious diseases within a given category, following a chronological order for the most part. For example, I cover stigmatizing illnesses such as Hansen’s Disease (or the older term of leprosy), and then diseases associated with travel, commerce, colonization, development, diseases of crowding, poverty, industrialization, and so on. I suppose I could describe each lecture or groups of lectures in terms of a “biography” of disease, because there is a life-history that I follow in terms of beginning, middle, and then end. At some point I insert the “discovery” phase as I call it, and take students through the unravelling of the mystery of the disease in terms of the history of science, and follow this with more scientific explication of present day understanding. So the course really combines history and biology with some classical history of science in the way of using the past to see the broader patterns in the evolution of infectious disease. One of the lectures is explicitly about the history of germ theory of disease, and one is explicitly about the public hygiene movement; both come two-thirds of the way through the course as one would guess, given that they are late nineteenth century developments, but most of the lectures cover specific infectious diseases.
This kind of “biography “of infectious disease is fairly common in some of the survey “epidemic and history” genres. Where I do think my course departs from others is in its adoption of cultural history, the same mix of intellectual and cultural history that I engage in my own research, say in “The 1959 Darwin Centennial Celebration in America” (Osiris 1999) or “Singing His Praises: Darwin and his Theory in Song and Musical Production” (Isis 2009) or earlier in Unifying Biology. Briefly put, I view the history of infectious disease as discursive expression. By that, I mean that it is expressed not only in terms of bodily suffering; it is also seen in art, literature, poetry, statuary and even music; and I don’t see distinctions between elite and popular cultures. I see the discursive, circulating expressions of bodily suffering. I therefore load each of my lectures with relevant expressions of disease, as is appropriate, to drive home the point that infectious disease has shaped the way that see the world, and it in turn has shaped how we see ourselves. Each lecture has an iconic image that appears on the title of my Powerpoint slide-show that sets the tone for the lecture. The Black Death, for example, introduces students to the work of Hieronymous Bosch, while the lecture on tuberculosis introduces them to the Pre-Raphaelites and to Modigliani.
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis is Professor of the History of Science in the Department of Biology and the Department of History at the University of Florida. She has been the recipient of six teaching awards at the department, college and university levels, including the UF “teacher of the year” in 1997, the Distinguished Alumni Professorship in 2009-2011, the Elizabeth Wood Dunlevie Professorship in the Honors Program in 2014, and the UF Term Professorship in 2017-2020, which recognized distinguished teacher-scholars at UF. She has also served as Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar to nine American colleges and universities in 2008-2009, and in 2012 she was awarded the History of Science Society’s Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize.
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.