Teaching in the Plague Year

Brian Taylor

November 30, 2009

The student held out his hand, and I shook it, instinctively, even though I noticed that he had been coughing throughout our meeting. After he left, I squirted some disinfectant into my palms, rubbed it all over my hands, and hoped for the best. With four students already giving notice that they wouldn't be coming to class that day, I began preparing to hold a special session online instead of face-to-potentially-contagious-face. My students were ready for such an arrangement; we had discussed it on the first day of class.

They say providence works in mysterious ways, and it may be that something awful that happened to our college one year ago has helped to prepare us for the even more serious—and potentially deadly—outbreak of the H1N1 virus or "swine flu" that the whole country is facing now.

In the first days of what we came to call "the Great Plague of 2008," the norovirus—or something like it—spread from an unknown source to about 200 students, who surged en masse into our college's health services exhibiting some rather nasty gastrointestinal symptoms.

The norovirus thrives in densely populated, enclosed spaces like hospitals, cruise ships, and college dorms. The first signs of the illness are chilliness, lethargy, and headache, followed by diarrhea and vomiting, which aerosolizes the virus, potentially contaminating everything around the victim. The disorder lasts one or two days, but the infected party remains contagious for several days after the worst symptoms have subsided. And getting the norovirus once doesn't mean you won't get it again, soon.

There was some hope that the outbreak could be contained by frequent and vigorous hand washing. But the norovirus is unusually resilient; it isn't easily killed by ordinary soaps or even alcohol. By the morning of the second day of the outbreak, ominous orange signs appeared on entry doors all over the campus: "Norovirus is very contagious. It is spread from person to person by touching contaminated objects such as doorknobs and faucets … FREQUENT HAND WASHING IS ADVISED."

By noon, my e-mail inbox was choked with messages from students who claimed to be infected. No doubt, some were, but I suspected more than a few were taking advantage of the spreading situation: the health center could no longer certify student excuses.

But I was obliged to teach that day; there was no turning back. I tried to grasp door handles in unlikely places with only one finger, which I quickly wiped with a disinfectant napkin. I wondered if the professors over in the science center were breaking out their yellow hazmat suits, respirators, and plastic booties. I saw a few students wearing surgical masks, without irony; apparently they had seen the results of the virus the night before.

The Great Plague was an online literary event of some magnitude. Extravagant stories spread faster than germs: Already-infected classmates had become zombies; unwashed, ill-clad, tangle-haired, vile-smelling, they shambled down corridors. You caught glimpses of them and ran. If you didn't, they might touch you, and then you would become one of them. The remaining healthy students had holed up in their rooms, it was said; some barricaded their doors, until they, too, inevitably joined the lurching, gurgling army of the infected.

Based on those artful rumors, I half expected to see Eric Idle—of Monty Python fame—pushing a rickety wooden cart, piled high, from dorm to dorm, chanting, "Bring out your dead!"

It's a huge responsibility to close a college of any size, even for a short time. Campuses run on tight calendars; every day is accounted for in syllabi, athletic schedules, programs, admission and registration procedures, and in countless other ways. In the memory of the oldest professors, our college hasn't had more than a couple snow holidays; there was no precedent for closing the place to prevent the spread of a virus.

But at 1 p.m. on a Friday, the county board of health advised our college to shut down. Students were overjoyed. I looked down from my office window: They were running in the streets, swirling into crowds, dispersing, and forming new clusters, cheering all the while. It was like Times Square on V-J Day: Jubilant sailors were bending nurses back and kissing them. But the mental picture in my head soon changed: I was looking through a microscope at a sea of microbes multiplying exponentially.

I finished work for the day, turned off my computer, washed my hands again, and returned home, about 20 minutes away, far in the country, fearful that I might not have escaped exposure.

I am sure some fled the campus, against the advice of the college, only to spread the virus to their far-flung families. No one could control the actions of so many still-healthy students with unexpected time and unaccounted-for germs. I heard that they were frequenting the public library and nearby restaurants, much to the concern of the local citizenry.

The college remained closed for four days, while the staff labored heroically, around the clock, to clean every surface with high-powered disinfectants. Plastic-domed hand-sanitizer stations sprouted all over the campus like mushrooms after a hard rain. Warning notices—from some unknown source—were posted in bathrooms: "All students, staff and faculty are from this day forward deputized as hand washing police officers! If you see someone trying to sneak away without washing their hands, politely ask them to return and wash their hands properly. This Noro-like virus COULD RETURN if we are not ALL diligent with our hand washing."

Judging from the Facebook page dedicated to the outbreak, our students look back on the Great Plague with nostalgia—it was all in good fun, or so it seems now that we've forgotten how awful it was at the time. There are T-shirts for sale, with "Norovirus '08" on the front. In some respects, it brought our community together—particularly our students—like the first winter braved by the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. It made them all the more ready for the struggles that lay ahead.

Looking back, it was impressive the way our students created their own information network from the beginning to the end of the outbreak. Official sources—because they have to be careful and responsible—always lag behind what people are seeing "on the ground." When an administrator's message tells you to "remain calm," that is precisely the time when you feel most like running and screaming. Despite the wild rumors—characterized more by a spirit of grim humor than actual fear—the students reassured and comforted each other and generally kept their distance using the Internet. It was a laudable, spontaneous response from the much-derided "digital generation." I can't help thinking that today's students are instinctively preparing for an era of instability that will outstrip the capacities of most civil authority.

I felt grateful that I somehow escaped the norovirus. Many of my colleagues were not so lucky, and perhaps that has helped to sustain a state of vigilance this year in the face of flu fear. The sanitation stations have remained, and hand washing has become a moral issue. I've noticed that some of my colleagues now scrub ostentatiously, like surgeons, or, perhaps, more accurately, like Dutch Calvinists. Our college was given high marks by the county for its "proactive response, quick dissemination of information, data collection, and swiftly executed disinfection plan." Everyone, it seems, is now well informed about swine flu (multiple information Web sites have been in place for months), students are being vaccinated, and the situation is being monitored continually, using social networking.

But I think this is only the beginning. In the years to come, preparedness for disease control will significantly change the way colleges organize housing, monitor student health, and conduct activities and classes. From my perspective as a faculty member, I think there are some moderate steps that we can take—partly following the lead of our students—to maintain something close to education-as-usual in the context of an emergency that suspends classes, sometimes without much notice, or when we become sick, and contagiousness lasts for many days.

For example, every course at our college now has a presence in our online course-management system—along with on-call tech support—so that students and faculty members can remain in contact outside of the classroom with greater ease than exchanging e-mail messages. We can even come close to sustaining the experience of the traditional classroom from dispersed locations. Faculty members can post PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and readings. In addition, using newer laptop computers, it's relatively easy to post audio or video recordings of our lectures, and then conversation can be held in real time via chat functions, or asynchronously using discussion forums.

We're not quite there yet, but it won't be long before we can easily conduct virtual classes with everyone "live," on-screen.

Obviously, the implementation of those approaches will function more smoothly if faculty members and students already have some experience with them. Emergency readiness—apparently, the new status quo—increasingly demands greater investment in faculty development, more incentives for experimentation with online teaching methods—and maybe even expecting competence in the use of course-management systems. Moodle tutorials may become the 21st-century equivalent of fire drills.

While I escaped the norovirus last year, I was not so lucky this year with the swine flu. After two weeks, I am finally seeing the end of my H1N1 symptoms: fever, aches and pains, chills, and a persistent cough, along with a variety of secondary infections.

As soon as I began exhibiting symptoms, I came home from the college, and, I hope, minimized the risk of exposing others. But for the most part, I was able to keep my classes going, using a variety of methods. The least effective was running a seminar via conference call. The most effective was a combination of podcasting, real-time chats, essay assignments, and discussion forums—all the tools I've learned by teaching online during the summer over the last several years.

It wasn't an ideal situation (face-to-face is still the gold standard), but most of the time that otherwise would have been lost—a whole week of classes—was salvaged, and I think we all gained some facility with new methods of teaching and learning.

And so, for me, the primary outcome of the Great Plague, and our continuing experience with H1N1, is the awareness that we have so many more tools for adapting to emergencies, if only we can persuade more faculty members to learn how to use them. We need to make technological competence as much a part of good institutional citizenship as is vigorous hand washing.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He welcomes letters from readers directed to his attention at