Political leaders and health experts who communicate the impact of COVID-19 to the public are just like anyone else. Some hit the mark. Some don’t. Understandable terms, relatable ideas and the confident presentation of useful information are key to delivering a successful message, said UMW Professor of Communication Anand Rao.
And competent public discourse during pandemic-scale events, he said, can mean the difference between life and death.
The lesson, delivered Monday, was part of UMW’s COVID-19 in Context, a series of biweekly lectures that turn the virus holding the world captive inside out, examining everything from its economic impact to its influence on art. Created for current and incoming students who can receive academic credit, and offered for free to all, it’s quickly become UMW’s largest course ever. More than 1,900 registered participants are in 39 states, plus Washington, D.C., and countries across the globe, including Canada, England, France, Switzerland, Japan and Ghana.
“We have been floored by the response,” said Rao, who presented Monday’s course – “Communicating COVID-19: How We Talk About a Pandemic Changes What We Do” – with assistant professor Elizabeth Johnson-Young live via Zoom.
Nearly 40 faculty members from across the university – from fine arts and humanities to the sciences and social sciences – joined forces, along with guest speakers, agreeing to share their expertise on all facets of the pandemic. Beginning last week with a biological exploration of the virus and a look at how it affects public policy, 16 hourlong sessions take place on Mondays and Wednesdays through July 22.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to showcase the university at this very critical time,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Keith Mellinger, who facilitates the course with Rao.
The series continues today at 4 p.m., with “COVID and the 2020 U.S. Presidential and Congressional Elections” featuring professors of political science Stephen Farnsworth and Rosalyn Cooperman.
“Viruses don’t care about politics,” Cooperman said, “but political parties, candidates and voters have responded to the pandemic with important implications for the upcoming U.S. presidential and congressional elections this fall.”
A special installment scheduled for next week featuring local civil rights icon and famed blues musician Gaye Adegbalola, will bring attention to the intersection of the pandemic with the Black Lives Matter movement. National Education Association Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss and Spotsylvania County Schools Human Resources Director Melanie Kay-Wyatt, both UMW alumni, join College of Education Dean Pete Kelly to finish the series next month with a lecture on how COVID-19 is reshaping K-12 education.
The classes – 30-minute presentations, followed by 30-minute Q&A sessions open to all – are followed by chatroom breakouts for students enrolled in the three-credit course to discuss the material before they then take a quiz.
Hundreds of incoming students signed up to study the virus through the lens of history and math, psychology and literature, chemistry and culture. More than 1,000 alumni, faculty, staff, community members and viewers from around the world tune in, too, like the father-son team that messaged Mellinger to say they get up at 4 a.m. to watch the class live from Japan.
“The last several weeks have been very difficult for all of us. This course has pulled us together and solidified our strong sense of community and commitment to service,” Mellinger said. “We really are all in this together.”
All lectures are being recorded, captioned and posted on the course website located at www.umw.edu/covidcourse/. For more information or to join the course, email the College of Arts and Sciences at firstname.lastname@example.org.