The University of Newcastle, Australia

Online virtual exchange gives sociology students new perspective on COVID-19

Thursday, 13 August 2020

University of Newcastle sociology students are exchanging diverse perspectives and collaborating with their peers at the University of Texas in Austin USA in a unique global virtual exchange program.

Dunca McDuie Ra
Professor Duncan McDuie-Ra

Member of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities and Urban Sociologist, Professor Duncan McDuie-Ra teaches the course Landscape and Power, a new undergraduate course exploring how our surrounding environment shapes social interactions.

Duncan developed the course with Austin Professor Jason Cons to encourage students to look at the ordinary scenery around them in a new way to reveal details about the area’s demographics, politics, history and more. The course shifted to focus on COVID-19 when the effects of the pandemic began to be felt in early 2020, with students examining how their environment was impacted by COVID-19.

“Initially students were to go out and study landscapes using walking ethnography. When the lockdown started to take effect, many of these landscapes were empty and lots of places were restricted. It really limited where students could go,” Duncan said. “However, this helped us to understand and compare the impacts of COVID in our region and at the University of Texas (UT) where they were going through the same thing. We ended up having a very experiential account of COVID through the research of the students and we were able to compare these experiences across countries”.

Duncan and Jason designed the course pre-COVID, but once the pandemic became all-encompassing, they rearranged some of the weekly topics to sharpen their analytical tools on the pandemic.

“We introduced three new modules; 'Panic, Containment and Quarantine'; 'Bio-security and Preparedness'; 'Inequalities & Care'. We developed these on the go and co-taught them to both cohorts.”

Duncan said the online international exchange component of the course proved invaluable to his students’ work, allowing them to compare and contrast two environments in real-time—Austin and Newcastle—that are vastly different in some ways, but whose similarities have become more poignant as a result of the global health crisis.

“There were a lot of similarities: empty landscapes, changing feelings and experiences of space, heightened fear and anxiety when outside, new rules and transgressions of these rules observed in everyday life,” Duncan said.

One of the students’ early assignments was to complete a walking ethnography, observing and analysing the details of a familiar area around them, which they later translated into photos and essays to discuss with their peers.

The course was intended to give students points of comparison between two settler colonies with similar histories of dispossession, violence, industry (and post-industry), extractive economies and urban gentrification by focusing on landscapes.

“This is crucial to the course. It is about the relationships between society and space. Rather than focusing too much on culture or official histories or local politics we focus on the landscapes and let the other issues flow from paying attention to the spaces around us. COVID refocused our gaze and actually made comparison even easier. We were all living it in these different places. It immediately created shared experiences. The online exchange made all this possible.”

“We were able to be in each other’s lives during this crazy time. And it helped. It helped to be able to turn our gaze to the ways COVID was reshaping the space outside our front door. We could watch it unfold and talk to students in the US about what they were seeing. This was much healthier than focusing on the barrage of information in the media,” Duncan said.

Students in the course at UT and Newcastle studied how different factors like gender or race can affect how people view the pandemic and how it impacts various groups differently. Their final project considered how the pandemic shaped their environment with distinct inequalities.

"One of the main differences the students noted were in public reactions. There seemed to be more opposition in the US, more overt challenges to new rules. Most of the other differences were found in personal cases and examples; how undocumented families deal with suspected COVID cases, COVID and homelessness, COVID without health insurance, COVID and the US-Mexico border.”

“Analysing what COVID looked like in the material world around us was a great way to contend with it, and it helped having people to share that with on the other side of the world. Also, the new modules we developed allowed students to think of the ways COVID and other ruptures to our lives play out in space; in the landscapes around us. This was really crucial because we do get a little accustomed to focusing on media or online worlds in these circumstances. This way we got to think through what we could see unravelling in front of us; from the supermarket to the emergency room, the local park to the empty beachfront.”


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