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 V, she discusses how she has uniquely taken advantage of being in Florida (and Poland) to tailor the course materials to students, all the while making conscious efforts to avoid biological determinism. 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 and Indigenous people in the U.S.A. as well as in other countries around the world.
Question: You’ve been teaching this course at the University of Florida. Has Florida’s natural history, its climate, and its political culture shaped how you teach this class?
Yes, of course. Something is very wrong with people who live in Florida and aren’t aware of the distinct Florida environment, whether that is changing climate which now poses existential threats every August when we have stronger and stronger hurricanes, or the astonishing wildlife that is quickly being extinguished by overdevelopment and population growth. We have a staggering number of animal-human collisions whether that is frequent encounters with Florida black bears feeding off of human trash because native saw palmetto plants, whose berries are staple foods, are being cleared by homesteaders or for golf courses; or alligators losing their habitat and threatening children and small companion animals in backyard ponds; or even the daily invasions into home life by palmetto bugs, aka, the giant roaches of Florida. We are of course especially aware of invasive species like the Burmese Python which has taken over the Everglades to the detriment of even the largest of gators; and it hard to avoid the magnificent live oak trees of North Central Florida festooned with hanging epiphytes like Spanish moss, that are omnipresent, so yes, most Floridians are very aware of the environment of Florida, and the fact that it is vanishing rapidly. I do try to capture some of this in my teaching, making references to the Florida environment as much as I can; this is important for my students most of whom come from south Florida, which has been denuded of its native tree canopy and most of its wildlife. I’m in the part of Florida that is still a conservation heaven, and is popularly called “the other Florida” for this reason. It also happens to have a very grim history of slavery, racialized massacres, and a record number of lynchings that I do include in this course.
Indeed, I take every opportunity to locate infectious disease in Florida and my lectures on diseases of commerce, development, travel and colonialism that include yellow fever and malaria do draw on Florida material. I always evoke this marvelous phrase from Robert Bruce’s book on The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876, that development in the southeast of the United States was characterized by “flora, fauna, and fever.” During one of the many yellow fever epidemics, quarantines were set up outside of Gainesville, Florida and managed by masked vigilantes, members of the KKK, who would pop out of shrubbery with their shotguns, when a traveller came by. If they were white, they were sent to quarantine, but if they were African American, they were shot dead. Much of Florida’s history has been shaped by its environment, and especially by the very abundant and diverse species of mosquitoes that seem to flourish in it, so I include the Florida scene as much as I can in the course, and watch as my students come to terms with a disease that had such important local influence, after they have seen the devastation following the Black Death in Europe; they can’t exactly get away with thinking of infectious disease as something “foreign,” when I point to its importance all around us.
As a state of Florida employee, I try to avoid criticism of any one political party, but by the end of the course, my students do get a sense of the where my sympathies lie, given that the course has a very strong environmental ethic that becomes crystal-clear at the end. I am not pro-development but avoid saying that explicitly, and put to use quotations from Jacques Pépin’s history of the origin of AIDS to make the point that we need to rethink what we eat, how we live, how we treat each other, and other animals in the environment. It is pointless to talk of Asian wildlife markets as incubators of zoonotic epidemics, when chances are that it could happen right in Florida given the reliance on factory farming, the animal-human collisions, the dense crowding in the cities of south Florida, and the vulnerable geography of peninsular Florida which seems literally assaulted by some of the most active hurricanes on planet earth. And of course, the course has a strong evolutionary message because many of my students have come out of high schools where teachers were intimidated by conservative politics and weren’t actually taught anything of science of evolution.
Overall, however, the course as stands can be taught most anywhere and still have relevance. I taught it at the Kolegium Artes Liberales at the University of Warsaw while I was Kosciuszko Foundation Visiting Professor in 2017. The students had reactions similar to Florida students to most of the material, except for the Black Death, which I should have anticipated. When I showed them slides of the many plague monuments and columns found in the piazzas and squares of Europe, for instance, one of the students interrupted me and excitedly pointed to a red-roofed house in one of the squares in the Czech Republic because her aunt lived there. And shortly after that, the students began a lively discussion of Poland’s purported immunity to the Black Death taking the class in an interesting direction. The part that surprised me most, however, was their reaction, or lack thereof, to the images I shared of “memento mori,” as well my slides of Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. Normally, my students gasp when they see the explicit reminders of death and the death motif everywhere, and especially those gruesome chandeliers and other decorative church fixtures made of human bones at Sedlec, but my Polish students just weren’t fazed by any of the slides, not even remotely. Not only had they grown up with these kinds of reminders of death, but they made sure that I knew that Poland could boast an equally impressive “chapel of the skulls.” When the class finished, I made a bee-line to Wroclaw and hired a driver to take me to the village of Kudowa-Zdrój so that I could see the Polish “chapel of the skulls.” I remember him giving me a very strange look when I asked if he could drive me to see the chapel which was pretty hard to get to; most tourists were interested in castles and cathedrals. He later took a photo of me that I can include in future classes on the Black Death.
Question: What do you want people to most know about the value of teaching this topic from the vantage of the humanities?
I’ve never bought into a division between the humanities and sciences, and at times I’m not sure my mind is wired along disciplinary lines at all. This might sound strange given that I’ve worked on the history of disciplines, their emergence or formation, and the process of legitimation, but that is because I am interested in that process of disciplining and bounding knowledge so as to make disciplines. I view them pretty much as dynamic inventions or inherited traditions. And they can, and do, get in the way of knowledge-making and problem solving. I’ve always worked around a problem, or I try to answer some driving question in my research. So, once I choose a problem or ask a question, I’ll draw on the tools necessary from any discipline to help me as needed.
Again, my graduate training at Cornell enabled me in this, and I know that I recognized that knowledge was fluid while I traversed the campus, making my way from the natural sciences located on one end of the campus to the humanities on the other end; the philosophy of graduate education at the time allowed students to form their own committees which did not necessarily align with one’s graduate field. This enabled us to control our training, so as to enable original and creative work in our research. The price I’ve paid for this, as noted above, is that I often found myself living at the margins of all units, and often just fell between the cracks. That often left me hustling every semester, and teaching in areas way outside my field, like the classics department or English, or having to going back to the plant biology, or ecology and systematics, or even neurobiology and behavior to get teaching fellowships for the semester. It sometimes was a real pain, but I did learn to work in a staggering assortment of disciplines straddling both the humanities and the sciences and realized that this whole “two cultures” thing didn’t make much sense outside of C. P. Snow’s historical imagination.
All that being said, the course as it stands would be easily recognizable as a humanities course. It uses books for the readings heavily, most written by historians, and the assessment combines longer examination with the essay format. More importantly, the goal of the course is to show that the past can serve as a resource for the present and the future; and as I said earlier, we can mine it to find broad patterns and themes, and when we do that, we find staggering parallels not just in the kinds of ecological and evolutionary contexts that give rise to new pathogens, but also in the way that changing social practices provide opportunities to be exploited by them. We also learn about policies, and their outcomes, especially when we have access to data, as we do in the case of the 1918 Spanish flu. The course does mix the humanities together with the social and natural sciences, but it never reduces the humanities to the social or the natural sciences, which is a common problem when one brings biology and history together carelessly, and it avoids biological or environmental determinism–this, I need note is one of many problems I have with books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (Norton: 1997). And finally, the course draws very heavily on literature, art, music, poetry and other forms of expression in the way of gaining understanding, about how infectious disease has shaped the human imagination. As I’ve watched the responses to COVID-19 unfold, I’m left thinking of the many instances in the past where we have seen similar patterns, from racism and xenophobia, to the blaming, to quarantines and their problems, to the sharp political divisions that threaten to tear the fabric of society. I’ve found myself literally reciting those parts of Thucydides epic History of the Peloponnesian War that narrate the story of the calamitous “Great Plague of Athens” of 430 BCE. More of an emotive Greek tragedy than a history, it has been widely read in literary circles and subsequently shaped the genre of plague literature, making it an enduring classic; therefore, the fact that it speaks to us across the ages isn’t a surprise, but I still just can’t get over parallels with the United States and the COVID-19 response, from the collapse of institutional structures, to the failure of leadership, to the lawlessness, cynicism, and hedonism displayed by some groups—so many similar morally and politically questionable actions and deeds! The Great Plague of Athens, we are told left democratic Athens so weakened that it eventually succumbed to its rival, the oligarchic Sparta. I just hope we don’t have some analogous outcome with COVID-19.
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.