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“I’ve Got Enough of That”: COVID in the Classroom, Part One

COVID-19 is many things: a public health crisis, a revealer of social inequality, a life-changing personal experience. But to Daniel Groll, Associate Professor of Philosophy and chair of the department, it’s also been an educational opportunity.

This term, Groll is teaching a 200-level philosophy class called Topics in Medical Ethics. During the extended spring break, he completely redesigned his twenty-four person course in order to make it relevant to COVID-19. Greta Hardy-Mittell ’23 Zoomed with Groll to discuss the work that went into redesigning his course, dealing with difficult philosophical questions in the classroom, and what he’s learned for the future.

Greta Hardy-Mittell: Let’s talk about Medical Ethics. I’ve heard from friends in the class that it was all about COVID-19 for the first two weeks. 

Daniel Groll: Yeah. We did pandemic ethics, which is not something I was planning to do at all. The first week was on triage decisions and distributing scarce resources during a pandemic, with a focus on who should get ventilators and why. Then the second week was on healthcare workers—not just doctors and nurses, but also front of office staff or people who clean hospitals—whether they have a duty to continue working during a pandemic and why.

So the first two weeks were all on COVID-19, for better or for worse. In the evaluations I got after the first couple of weeks, there were a couple of people who were like, “I would like to not think about COVID-19, because we’re all thinking about it all the time.” But it seemed foolish not to talk about it at all in a Medical Ethics class.

GH: Yeah. Definitely being a student during this time, there are some mixed emotions. Because on one hand, it seems silly not to be thinking about relevant topics, but on the other hand, there are times when I want to think about anything but COVID-19.

DG: Totally.

GH: How did you handle that balance in the classroom?

DG: One thing I did is just foreground right up front that the topic could be extremely personal for some people depending on the situation they were in. Especially at the beginning of the term—there’s still uncertainty, but there was an even more profound uncertainty then, where we weren’t sure whether we’d all end up looking like New York. And, you know, some of my students are in New York. So you foreground it by saying that everyone should bear in mind that some people might be living this. They might be ill, their family members might be ill, or they might have parents who are frontline healthcare workers. 

And then, the only other thing was: we spent two weeks on it, and then we moved on. I would not have wanted to do an entire class on it, although I could imagine that.

GH: I wonder if, in the future, there will be entire classes on it.

DG: Right. I don’t think I’m betraying confidences, but there are all kinds of discussions about what’s going to happen next year, including interesting questions about whether portions of the curriculum could be focused on this real life issue that we’re all dealing with.

And I’m kind of with you. For some people, sometimes, they think ‘yes! I want to do more of that!’ And then there are other times, with other people, or even the same person, saying ‘no, no, no. I’ve got enough of that.’ I want to focus on this other thing that has nothing to do with it.

GH: Is that something that comes up normally in philosophy classes? Because philosophy does deal with pretty difficult subjects sometimes. 

DG: It can. I teach an A&I on family ethics, and we talk about adoption, whether there’s a duty to adopt, and how to think of genetic relatedness or non-genetic relatedness in the family. So that’s another case where you want to make everyone aware that what’s maybe an abstract or intellectual issue for you might be deeply personal for someone else. So you’re right—I think it’s often present. In this case, it’s just present to a heightened degree for basically everybody, in some form.

GH: What about the process of redeveloping the course, both in the three-week break and at the beginning of the course?

DG: That took a lot of work. A lot of mental work, of figuring out how to put something together online that’s good—that’s good enough—especially on short notice. One thing I ran into, and I think my colleagues would agree, is that you can give yourself a huge amount of work. Especially because my wife is a frontline healthcare worker, so she’s now working 45-50 hours a week. I have two kids, and there’s a program in Northfield for the children of healthcare workers, and that’s amazing. But that wasn’t running for the first few weeks. So thinking about how to put together a course while I was at home with the kids was like—I can’t spend twice as much time on one course as I normally would. I can’t do that anyway, but I definitely can’t do that if I’ve got two kids at home. 

Trying to find the balance where students felt like they were getting a good course without it being completely overwhelming for me or the students—that was hard. But I’m doing stuff now that I actually wonder, maybe I should be doing this all the time anyway. I’m recording lectures, but they don’t explain the papers. They set up the paper and then ask very particular questions to the students that they can use while going through the papers. So it’s like a guided reading.

I also broke the class into four groups, so instead of trying to meet all at once, I meet with each group for about an hour a week, but then they meet without me two other times. I think it was helpful to give up on the idea that we’re a class of twenty-four. We’re kind of like four six-person tutorials instead, and that’s kind of cool. In some ways, it makes people participate more.

GH: Outside of the classroom, in terms of your research interests, has this changed anything?

DG: It hasn’t changed what I’m doing my research on, because I’m in the middle of writing a book, but it ground my research to a complete and total standstill. When this hit, I stopped doing anything on my book, and I’m now just starting to get back to it, because I feel like I’ve gotten my head above water in terms of where I need to be for the term. 

And I’m only teaching one course. If I were teaching two courses — boy. Things would look really different. And if I didn’t have childcare — I don’t even know what it would look like.

My colleagues and I have been prepping like mad. My sense is that almost none of us are thinking, ‘This term’s a write-off. I’m just gonna phone it in.’ People are working really hard to make the courses as compelling as they can be.

GH:  I’m thinking that if we are online next fall, we have a head start as a trimester school that has already done this—already designed classes from scratch. How do you think Carleton has been different than schools who were interrupted midway through the term? 

DG: I think we all just had time to take a breath, and say: okay. Something really different is going to happen. We had time to wrap our heads around that. Even though it wasn’t a lot of time, the fact that there was a distinct break gave us time to do some thinking. I wouldn’t have been able to do that over a weekend.

I don’t know anything that you don’t know, but I think everyone is thinking this might not just be a one-term thing. There’s a pretty good chance we’re not all going to be on campus in the fall. So that inevitably makes one think, well, what would I do differently? I think people have learned a lot. We are in a better position for having done it this term, for sure.

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