The Teach311.org + COVID-19 collective and the History of Science ON CALL project are pleased to co-present this 5-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 IV, she discusses the disciplinary and institutional challenges of getting this course approved and placed on the books at the time. 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: The course is taught in multiple units. Has that been a challenge? What has been rewarding about the course?
The biggest challenge that I faced with the course was that I could not secure its approval. Courses at UF have to go through a fairly rigorous process moving from the department to the college level, and then the university level and then to the state when the final rubric is assigned and the course is approved and placed on the books. So, we have to pass multiple committees that often examine the proposed syllabus, but also assess the department, and even the qualification of the instructor. These committees try to perform quality control, as well as avoid replication. The University of Florida is absurdly large with some 16 colleges for over 55,000 students that are constantly competing with each other setting up instructional programs to garner resources for themselves. It can actually get pretty nasty with turf battles breaking out if courses resemble existing courses, or if some strong personality is on the committee with a rigid taxonomic schema for disciplinary knowledge, or is a disciplinary gatekeeper or enforcer, as happened to me. I actually had problems in the history department initially because my colleagues didn’t understand the syllabus. I think if I had simply called it “Plagues and People,” or “The History of Epidemics,” it might have made your average historian more comfortable, but I really wanted to stress the ecological and evolutionary contexts of the outbreaks, and to bring it to the present with emerging pathogens, so that became a problem.
I eventually chose the present title, altered the syllabus slightly in language and added a couple of books that were recognizable to my colleagues and it made it through my unit. Unfortunately, it was blocked at the college level, my college being inclusive of both liberal arts and sciences (as in CLAS), no less than twice. The humanities faculty did not see it as a humanities course, and the science faculty did not see it as a science course. They would not designate it as either an “H” or an “S” which was a requirement for electives. There was no field I could attach it to properly so that it could be a required course—this of course, is part of the challenge of getting novel or unusual courses on the books. The only way to do that is to make them elective, and at UF that means it must become part of the general education curriculum and be assigned a credit for meeting the requirement of a humanities or science course. I was pretty frustrated, but as a historian of science, I was fairly used to the phenomenon of “falling between the cracks,” and had lived with it for most of my graduate career at Cornell and at UF. Nevertheless, I persisted, and the third time I submitted the proposal for approval to CLAS, it went through, thanks to some sympathetic soul in the anthropology department who loved it and decided to confer the course with an “S” designation, and making it count toward the social science credit. I didn’t much care who laid claim to the course in CLAS to be honest; I was just glad it could be given a formal listing and permanent rubric, and after 2004 or so, when I worked out a joint appointment with the biology department, I was really pleased that I could teach it for hybrid credit. Students can now sign up for either an HIS or history credit for the history major, or a ZOO credit for the biology or zoology major. It is probably the only course taught out of two such disparate units, one of which is part of the humanities, the other a natural science, which actually gets students credit for a social science.
But my real vindication came in about 2001 or so, a couple of years after the course finally made it on the books. In May of that year, Science ran an entire issue on the ecology and evolution of infectious disease, and chose that famous image of the Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom, the 17th century plague doctor for the cover. The mix of history and ecology and evolution made me smile, and gave me the new cover page for my syllabus and the image that has since set the tone for the course. But even better still, UF created EPI, the Emerging Pathogens Institute, a multidisciplinary behemoth of an institution on the edge of the campus with new hires in the biology department. I suddenly found myself in a unit surrounded by disease modelers combing the archives for data on pandemics like the Spanish Influenza of 1918. They don’t need any convincing that the history and evolution of infectious disease is important enough to teach, or in the way that I teach it.
I can’t say that I have faced huge challenges beyond that. It is always hard for me to lead up to the lecture on AIDS because I remember the loss of my friend, and it becomes personal, but I like to think that sharing that emotion conveys something about how bad it became for some of us in the 1980s. My students are terrific, and as I noted, come from a huge number of majors on the campus, many from colleges well outside of CLAS. What minor challenges I’ve had with the course mostly come from the lack of good reading material. I still don’t have a strong textbook that I can use as a kind of backbone for the course, and end up having to cobble readings together. I suppose that is the price one pays for designing a course that is of your own making, but I don’t consider this too big a problem or a major challenge. And the material is itself so engaging, that even when I offer it at larger class sizes, to students who sit there for 2-3 hours every week in a lecture format, it is still pretty easy to engage them, especially when I use strong visuals, videos and the films that help connect the material to news headlines or to popular culture.
I have, of course, amended the syllabus a bit over the nearly 25 years that I’ve been teaching the class. I routinely update the lectures to add the latest information, or to track the latest emerging pathogen, and I do change some of the readings when new ones become available, but the overall arc of the course, its goals, aims, its major themes have not been hugely altered over the years. I may be doing a bit more with climate change using some of the more recent literature that connects emerging pathogens with it, and perhaps more with wildlife traffic and extinction, Asian markets, factory farming, and cruise ships as incubators; whatever is making scientific headlines and capturing the public imagination becomes part of the course each time I teach it, but I’m still trying to get students to think in terms of the big picture of infectious disease and convince them that is an urgent problem. I won’t need to convince anyone of that after COVID-19!
I’ve always felt that students really enjoyed taking the class as it took most of them out of some narrow box in their majors. I enjoy seeing the history students learn something about the history of science and about science. Too many just lack confidence in science. I’ve actually had brilliant history majors tell me that they were afraid to take an actual science course, but wanted to wade in gradually with a history of science course like mine because they knew it was important to their understanding of history. And I just love seeing my science majors learn to see science in not just standard history of ideas, but in art, music, and literature and to be able to engage the social and political dimensions of science that they are often dissuaded from seeing in their science courses; so many of them are starved for this kind of broader thinking, or relevance, especially some of the microbiology majors who take my class. They are often pre-meds, who are in a very narrow program taught out of the College of Agriculture and Life Science. Some tell me that they never even knew this kind of course existed, and I tell them that is what the history of science can do for them. I often get students from the College of Journalism who are interested in current events and topics so it is a pleasure to see them dig into both the historical record as well as some of the scientific details—and then it is always rewarding to get the occasional English or classics or art history major who learns to see disease in some of the great works of art and literature. So, it is rewarding to see them think about their own majors in novel ways or learn about something they didn’t know existed. Though I wish it weren’t happening, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be peculiarly rewarding for me as a teacher, as many students from nearly the last 25 years reached out to me, telling me that they were taking materials from the class, especially the one on Spanish Flu and using those now famous statistical curves to argue for school closures, or telling me that they could hear echoes of my voice in the news. Some were actually afraid and were just reaching out to me to talk, or to thank me for preparing them—but one of them told me she was working for an influential midwestern Senator and helped prepare some 70 of his staff members for COVID-19, because they knew what was coming.
I had also been tracking the outbreak with my class this January too, as I usually do when there is a new outbreak somewhere, when it appeared to be only a local event in Wuhan, China; in fact, I warn them at the beginning that every time I give the course there is a new outbreak, somewhere, every time I offer it. And in this case, every week when we met, I did an update and told them that I feared we were watching a train wreck–we followed the scientific developments and the twists and turns in policies, and measures, but it was still happening far away for them. When we went remote the second week in March, the first thing one of my students said on Zoom was that he could not believe that I had predicted it (I’m not sure I believe in the predictive qualities of history, but this one was a disaster waiting to happen, in my view). Thanks to all these former students, some already with children of their own and concerned about the future, I decided to write an editorial for The Gainesville Sun that was just for them, and then I had even more e-mails from former students who read it when it was picked up in South Florida and Sarasota print media: https://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20200403/betty-smocovitis-real-life-lessons-for-infectious-disease-class
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.