English (Public Texts) ENGL-5207H: Imagining Immunity
A graduate-level English course in the Public Texts M.A. program at Trent University is using arts-based approaches, including a public blog and a published anthology of flash fiction, to explore issues around COVID-19.
Students in ENGL-5207H: Imagining Immunity have been contributing essays about the pandemic to vaxxers.net and have published an anthology of flash fiction called ‘I’m Unity’ (co-edited by students LA Alphonso and Patricia Harte-Maxwell, with content produced by Eli Hansen, Kelly Gair, Sarah Perkins, Gabriella Peters and Lina Vermeer) that includes stories imagining a futuristic community facing a pandemic where immunity nurses inject experimental vaccines into residents and the town blasts ‘stay-home’ messages from a loud speaker every hour.
“Most people are not doctors or scientists who pore over data related to pandemics but we all love to listen to stories,” says Dr. Kelly McGuire, an associate professor and chair of the Gender & Women’s Studies department. “Art and culture play an important role in teaching us about immunity and vaccines while helping us address our concerns and express our fears.”
COVID-19 offers a unique learning experience
Imagining Immunity was first offered in 2018 and explores how we think of immunity as a product of culture, as a constructed “idea,” that reflects many of our assumptions about the relationship between the self and other, individualism and, in a broader sense, our relations with our communities.
“Our focus isn’t really on immunity in a medical sense but rather on how non-medical areas of concern like politics, philosophy, and culture inform how we think about how the body and immune function,” Professor McGuire says. “But having said that, I do feel fortunate to be able to draw on the backgrounds of some students in immunology and virology.”
Last term was unique because students were living through a pandemic so they spent most of the course exploring issues around COVID-19 and vaccine hesitancy.
Using the blog, students shared thoughts on a wide range of topics including the role of language and metaphor in shaping our understanding of disease and medicine; COVID-19 and the paradox of parenthood; film and persuasion narratives; and the staging of “vaccine theatre” with the release of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Other students in the course, including Heather Marshall, Christopher Taylor, Rachel Taunton and Amanda Canella, have also actively contributed to the blog. Some linked their work to their own blogs, and several shared their own personal experience of the pandemic through creative nonfiction.
“Because the immune system is essentially a public text that we habitually misread, the creative work in both the blog and anthology acknowledge that there is an important role for health humanities and arts-based approaches in addressing vaccine hesitancy and public-health outreach,” Prof. McGuire says.
Learn more about the English M.A. (Public Texts) at Trent University, which explores what it means to “go public” – to “publish” – and how that act resonates for writers, cultures, and publics.