By Harris Solomon

** This microsyllabus originally appeared in Dr. Harris Solomon’s newsletter Vital Sign: Medicine, Public Health, Ordinary Life. You can subscribe to the newsletter and access the original post here.

Teaching to the Times

Some people on social media are expressing concern about the conjunction between the current monkeypox outbreak and the upcoming start of the university academic year. Some of that concern is about transmission risks (i.e, how people potentially becoming infected with monkeypox will affect learning). Some of that concern is about pedagogy in a different sense: how to teach about sexuality, illness, and inequalities in a moment when yet again, so much that could have been done to prevent suffering has not been done. 

I teach regularly about epidemics, from HIV to diabetes. The last few years have been a continuing learning experience in terms of teaching about health crises squarely in the middle of a massive health crisis. So, what follows is just one iteration of a three-week module on monkeypox, modeled in part around questions my students have contemplated in other courses. It is under no circumstances comprehensive (no syllabus is) and its citational genealogy partly reflects my position as a medical anthropologist teaching in the US, partly my reading habits, and partly my experience teaching certain materials that galvanize student engagement. 

It’s a set of small provocations, not a strict primer. Please adapt it for what you and your students need!

Structurally, the elements of the mini-syllabus center around key questions emerging from specific touchstones. The touchstones give students a spot to zoom in for concrete particulars and to zoom out for big, transferable questions. They’re not tied to any one discipline or course topic, either, which is in keeping with my hope for re-mixing and re-thinking the connected teaching materials from wherever you’re sitting.

Monkeypox Mini-Syllabus

The Outline

Week 1 – Outbreak

Key Question: What’s at stake in narrating the monkeypox outbreak as an emergency?

Learning outcome: This week, you’ll learn how to study the stories told about disease outbreaks and their politics of urgency. We’ll discuss how outbreak narratives can be a lens onto our beliefs about a virus and about us.

Week 2 – Risk

Key Question: What’s at stake in defining specific risks around monkeypox?

Learning outcome: This week, you’ll learn how to account for complex and often-fraught relationships between perceived disease risk, behavior, and identities. We’ll discuss some of the resonances between monkeypox and HIV, and how those resonances matter.

Week 3: Action and Care

Key Question: What’s at stake in calls for action to prevent and treat monkeypox? 

Learning outcome: This week, you’ll learn about forms of action and care that emerge in the face of discrimination, neglect, misinformation, and resource inequity. We’ll discuss what measures are being taken to address monkeypox, and why this matters. 

The Syllabus

Week 1: Outbreak

Key Question: What is at stake in narrating the monkeypox outbreak as an emergency?

Touchstone: Boghuma Titanji, Monkeypox—not doing enough is not an option. 

In-class Activity: Storyboarding the monkeypox outbreak narrative.

In pairs or larger groups, choose between five to ten news articles about monkeypox. Sample for stories from different months (starting in May 2022). Work through these questions:

  1. What forms of information are highlighted?
  2. Who’s included and excluded in a given narrative arc, and what are the corresponding implications?
  3. What kinds of time and temporality are operating? Is there language of emergency and if so, how is it working?
  4. Are there particular uses of metaphor, comparative/contrasting language, or images?
  5. Using pen/paper or a whiteboard program such as Miro, create a timeline for the monkeypox narrative from your news samples. 
  6. Plenary discussion: How do the findings from different groups overlap and diverge? 

Connected Readings:

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (excerpt, e.g., pp 93-112)

Edna Bonhomme, Contagion on the Plantation

Week 2: Risk

Key Question: What’s at stake in defining specific risks around monkeypox?

Touchstone: Michaleen Doucleff, He discovered the origin of the monkeypox outbreak — and tried to warn the world (NPR News)

In-class activity: Reading Richard Berkowitz’s pamphlet How To Have Sex in an Epidemic

  1. What’s the strategy and philosophy about sex in the pamphlet?
  2. What kinds of assumptions about identity are operating?
  3. How do those assumptions about identity intersect with and diverge from desire and behavior?
  4. What comparisons and contrasts can you draw with what you’ve read and heard around monkeypox?
  5. What’s at stake for you in labeling monkeypox a “gay disease” or an STI?

Connected Readings:

Jennifer Brier, Infectious Ideas (excerpts, e.g., Prologue and Ch 2, Marketing Safe Sex)

Paula Treichler, from How to Have Theory in an Epidemic (excerpt, e.g., Introduction) 

Week 3: Action and Care

TouchstoneMonkeypox Protest Disrupts AIDS2022 Plenary (video content: explicit language)

In-class activity

A. In groups, choose a slogan chanted at the AIDS2022 MPX protest (e.g., Share The Shots!) to think through these questions

  1. What action is the slogan meant to demand?
  2. How does the demand get elaborated? 
  3. Who gets to voice it (e.g., who speaks at the podium?)
  4. What is the strategy guiding their speech? 
  5. What forms of care do the protesters deem necessary, and from whom?

B. Compare and contrast how you see the monkeypox protest with other demands for health equity, such as:

Connected Readings:

Dan Royles, America Responds to Monkeypox: Learning from the History of HIV/AIDS

Ngofeen Mputubwele, The Agony of an Early Case of Monkeypox

MK Czerwiec, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371.

Author Bio

Harris Solomon is Fred W. Shaffer Associate Professor in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health at Duke University. His most recent book, Lifelines: The Traffic of Trauma , reflects on the enduring links between medicine and movement. It develops an in-depth account of India’s high rates of traffic accidents and traumatic injuries, told through the story of one of Mumbai’s busiest public hospital emergency wards.

You can follow Professor Solomon on twitter @harrissolomon and subscribe to his newsletter Vital Sign