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 III, she goes into more detail about her use of high and popular culture in her course. 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, has it changed over the years?
NOTE: What follows is a continuation of Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis’ answer to the second question posed in our interview. To read the first part of her answer to this question, please click here.
I use visuals very heavily in my lectures and have combed public health posters, conveniently available on-line now especially for syphilis and gonorrhoea, or striking cartoons, caricatures or scary images for diseases like cholera.
I read excerpts from eye-witness testimonials, or at times from works of literature, for example from Boccaccio’s Decameron for the plague. I note novels and great works of literature that either reference infectious disease, or were inspired by them, like Daniel Defoe’s a Journal of the Plague Year, Katherine Anne Porter’s, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, or Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Magic Mountain. And I just love the cinema and think it an underutilized resource in the history of science, so I show scenes or videos when I can find them, for example, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal for the Black Death and Restoration for a great scene from the plague of 1665 that features Robert Downey as a plague doctor, along with some of the very classic scenes from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. I also show Black Robe for smallpox, Out of Africa for syphilis, and The Painted Veil for cholera. Since it aired, I make reference to Downton Abbey, because it demonstrates the “W” curve in the 1918 Spanish Influenza that explains who lives and who dies. But, I most look forward to the lecture on diptheria because I know my students will love the ending, which features the film Balto, which they saw as children and which retells the story of the lead sled dog that took the vaccine to Nome, Alaska and averted a disastrous outbreak.
I also use music when I can, which is something I often do in in my teaching. I just love to see the look on my student’s faces when they walk into class sometime around Halloween to the sounds of Danse Macabre from Saint-Saëns. For the year of Darwin topic, I put together a multi-media lecture to argue that expressions or instantiations of Darwin and his theory could be found everywhere, which is material I eventually published in ISIS. It helps to break the monotony of the lecture format and moves the class along more quickly—and I have to keep it moving quickly given the 2-3 hour block of time for lecture that could potentially become very boring. The combination of music and visual images also help to evoke a range of emotions appropriate to the history of infectious disease, something that can be a challenge to convey. Although the story I tell has a number of these surprising elements and asides, it is nonetheless relentless in tracing an unfolding narrative of suffering and loss. I tell my students that each epidemic in history leaves behind a distinct fingerprint, a signature, if you will, that becomes inscribed in collective memory. Every cruel epidemic is cruel in its own way, to paraphrase Tolstoy.
The course culminates with the return to the starting point of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and with AIDS. I draw on Jacques Pépin’s multidisciplinary account of The Origins of AIDS (Cambridge: 2011) to revisit the initial problem of emerging pathogens. The book is fairly technical in some of its chapters so students need considerable guidance in order to follow it, but I think does an excellent job of showing the concatenation of events, the many social and medical practices, the biological and ecological contexts, all in the bigger context of colonialism that led to the emergence of the HIV virus. It is a kind of capstone reading because it gives students a sense of this multi-causal chain of practices and contexts that can lead to emerging pathogens. At the end, I draw on several quotations from the book to underscore the importance of human-made disruption in the natural world and the animal-human connection, and to underscore the theme of the course embodied in a 1970s jingle from an American television commercial for margarine, that “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” And I pull all of it together in one final lecture that offers reflections on the journey we’ve undertaken into the past as we move forward to the final lecture, which I title “When Biology Meets History.”
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.