Rick Phillips headshot
Rick Phillips | Associate Professor

Sociology of the Pandemic


Teaching face-to-face in a socially distanced classroom presents challenges that I had never encountered in ordinary times. How can an instructor learn to read nonverbal cues in a room full of masked students? How can a sense of community be instilled in a classroom where everyone is sitting so far apart? After a faltering start to the fall 2020 semester, I was able to overcome the limitations imposed by the pandemic, and find ways to engage students, and build rapport. Aside from these logistical hurdles, the pandemic and all the problems in its wake intruded into my classrooms because of the nature of sociology itself. My discipline is comprised of humans studying humanity, and thus students were constantly trying to apply the principles and concepts they were learning in class to the stressful situation they and their loved ones were going through in the here and now. I decided to alter my curriculum to accommodate students, and an impromptu “sociology of the pandemic” class emerged from the stress and turmoil students brought with them into the room. It was scary, contentious, cathartic, and ultimately an effective way to teach sociology.

I’m an old school professor, and I’ve always had success with old school pedagogies. I still think a substantive lecture delivered with verve and conviction is a great way to teach. I take lecture preparation seriously and labor over each class session. My lectures are interactive and performative, and the face-to-face classroom is where I do my best work.

Part of my preparation is knowing my students. I memorize names and faces from course lists before the first day of class to get a head start. The personal touch improves rapport and hastens the transformation of classes into communities. Hitting the ground running ensures a fun, productive semester, both for me and for them.

Both I and my students were disheartened when we were forced to abandon the classroom in March of 2020. So when I was given the opportunity to return to a face-to-face classroom in the fall, I jumped at the chance.

In early August I embarked on my normal pre-semester classroom “recon”—checking out my rooms, imagining my students in them, and thinking about how the layout would impact my presentation. I hadn’t been on campus since March, and so this “recon” was an eye opener. The university had implemented an extensive disease mitigation strategy, including stickers on seats to keep students spread out, hand sanitizer stations by the classroom door, and signs reminding students to mask up.

There was never a moment that I felt unsafe on campus, and I was pleased to see that my students were serious about the social distancing protocols. They didn’t want to have the plug pulled on their semester again. But social distancing and conducting a class as the pandemic was raging around us would introduce pedagogical challenges I didn’t anticipate.

Who are these masked people?

Face-to-face classes have a personal dimension that I find difficult to duplicate online. It is easy for students to chat before and after class. Students who are shy or intimidated can bring a friend with them to office hours. Sometimes office hours turn into an impromptu gathering where students can get to know each other. All of this informal interaction reinforces classroom rapport as the semester progresses. But all of that was out the window in the fall of 2020.

Teaching in the masked, socially distanced classroom was a struggle. Twenty students with covered faces were spread throughout a room that normally seats 80. It was not cozy. My effort to memorize faces and names proved pointless. I have always gauged how well things are going in class by reading faces. I know when to revisit a point and when to move on based the cues students broadcast. This time, most of those cues went unrecognized behind a mask.

Ironically, colleagues teaching on Zoom were better able to see and read the faces of their students than me, even though I had chosen to return to the classroom to regain the personal touch.

To make matters worse, my hearing isn’t great these days, and even in the best of times, I’m constantly asking students to speak up. Now students dispersed throughout a cavernous room, and they had masks covering their mouths. For me to hear them, they had to literally shout their questions and comments. That wasn’t natural for them, and so class participation suffered. I was doing too much talking.

I decided to retool my lectures mid-semester, implementing more discussion questions and prompts for student reflection throughout the presentation. And I determined that I henceforth I would be OK with long pauses after questions and prompts. Students didn’t want to yell across the room from behind their masks, and so I needed to make the silence even more uncomfortable.

For a week or two I pushed people to participate. I assured them that if they would start speaking up it would get easier. I likened it to a party that you don’t want to go to, but you have fun once you’re there. I told them we would have to consciously manufacture a class identity, because it was unlikely to emerge organically. Making light of our situation made it easier, and by semester’s end I had a big room sparsely populated with students shouting their comments and questions as if that’s the way it always is.

Incentivizing participation

Class sessions go easier if everyone has done the reading. I have always incentivized reading with pop quizzes. But this was not possible during the pandemic because so many students were cautioned to stay away from campus while they awaited a COVID test, or because they were exposed to a positive case. Absenteeism couldn’t be penalized.

I also started recording my lectures and posting my PowerPoints after class. This was necessary to ensure that quarantined students could stay current. But students knew that recordings would be posted, and so some of them got lazy. They skipped class and waited for the recordings to post.

I needed to add value to being in the classroom. Here again, the discussion questions and prompts for reflection proved to be a godsend. Once the conversation got rocking, students wanted to participate. Students who missed class began to pop into office hours to tell me how they would have chimed in. It seemed the less I was talking, the better attendance got.

Sociologists are humans studying humans

Sociology is humans studying humanity, and for this reason students always see themselves in the subject matter. I suppose if rocks could study geology or if birds could be ornithologists they would feel the same way. There is a natural tendency to apply sociological concepts to one’s life, and to one’s situation. And students’ lives and situations were consumed by the pandemic.

The fallout from the pandemic came up in every conversation, and the discussion often veered into personal territory, as students shared what was happening to them. Many were unemployed or had parents who were out of work. Others worked in jobs that put them at risk for catching the disease. Some had loved ones who had gotten sick. They were scared, broke, and their mental health was deteriorating.

Some students were openly skeptical of our societal response to the pandemic. They wondered if they—the young—were being sacrificed to assuage the fears of the old. One student pointedly asked me, “Why is your generation doing this to our generation?” This often divided the class, and things occasionally got heated.

I responded to this by implementing the sociology of the pandemic into class sessions. In my research methodology class we analyzed journalism and government data with our sociological toolkit. We found that the body of many news stories doesn’t match the sensationalized headline. We discovered that stories reporting on the findings of scientific studies frequently misreported those findings.

Parsing statistical claims in news stories was a favorite activity. For example, a graph displaying the case fatality rates for COVID-19 by age cohort appeared in Business Insider magazine, and it was widely shared on social media. This graph appears on the left. We remade the graph using the same data but with better graphing methods. Our graph appears on the right.

Graph displaying the case fatality rates for COVID-19 by age cohort appeared in Business Insider magazine. We remade the graph using the same data but with better graphing methods. Our graph appears on the right.
Graph displaying the case fatality rates for COVID-19 by age cohort appeared in Business Insider magazine. We remade the graph using the same data but with better graphing methods. Our graph appears on the right.

A common way to amplify the impact of a bar chart is to truncate the vertical axis. This exaggerates differences between categories. In the data set used by Business Insider, people over 80 have a 14.8% chance of dying if they contract COVID-19. But notice that the max value on the vertical axis of the Business Insider chart is 15%. We were not interested in what portion of 15% of the people in each age cohort died, so we remade the chart with 100% as the max value on the vertical axis.  

This exercise helped students understand that journalists and sociologists sometimes have different motives when they communicate, and this can affect something as seemingly prosaic as making a bar chart.

In sum, teaching with disease mitigation policies in place presents challenges. But as with most challenges, there are opportunities. After some initial stumbling, my students and I were able to navigate the socially distanced classroom.

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