UVA Wise Professor Ryan Huish and colleagues Kenneth Purscell and Witold Wolny find themselves in an interesting predicament.

The three, as faculty nationwide, are finishing the spring semester teaching their classes remotely as a result of the COVID-19 virus crisis. But few faculty members find themselves teaching a course called “The End of the World: Perspectives from Science, Religion, and Popular Culture” smackdab in the middle of a troubling global pandemic.

“It is very interesting that we happened to be teaching this course when a pandemic broke out,” Huish said.

The interdisciplinary course pairs environmental science, religion, philosophy, and honors curricula. The disciplines share a deep fascination with the topic of the end of the world. The course tackles what elements of mutual understanding, motivation, peace, and enlightenment can be gained through an in depth and multifaceted study of apocalyptic literature and thought.

Huish, recently named one of Virginia’s outstanding faculty members by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, is looking at the situation as an opportunity to make the lessons relevant as students adjust to sudden virtual learning. He is also finding ways to hone his teaching skills in the process.

“Perhaps the course has helped prepare the students a little bit more for these events, which are giving deeper meanings to the pedagogical practices of ‘problem-based learning’ and ‘immersion learning’ based on our course concepts, real time,” Huish said. “We don’t have to rely on some hypothetical situation or case study, we’re living it.”

Pandemic diseases came up in an early discussion when the class was in the traditional classroom setting. Huish believes it is still important to keep the discussion going, especially in a virtual platform.

Huish and his colleagues had planned to have the students host a community forum on the topic, incorporating course content into interdisciplinary public education and engagement. The COVID-19 crisis changed those plans. The current course lessons will have a huge element of practicality, and toilet paper will be a topic of discussion.

“We are thinking creatively on how to still engage the broader community without having the in-person forum discussion together,” Huish said. “I am also organizing a survival scavenger hunt using their iPads and local plants near their homes.
UVA Wise decided in the fall to provide all full-time students, faculty and staff with iPads. The initiative has proved to be a true saving grace for the virtual lessons as students practice social distancing to combat the spread of the deadly virus.

“They can take photos of plants that I can help identify and note which ones have documented uses for things like food, medicine, and yes, even toilet paper and other sanitary products,” Huish said. “These can be shared with the whole class. I can also suggest certain common plants for them to search for near their homes—some that are breaking dormancy now. These plants are sometimes called ‘famine food’ or ‘famine plants’ for their use to supplement nutrition and other needs when other resources are scarce.”

Huish, a botanist, said the nation’s ancestors knew more about those plants, and now is the time to realize the value of their ethnobotanical knowledge.

“We need to try to learn it ourselves,” Huish said. “This pandemic will probably give our students more motivation to learn these and other skills.”

Purscell, adjunct professor of sacred texts, explained that the concept of the class grew from a desire to take a large topic and explore it across several disciplines. The instructors did not have a preconceived notion of the results.

“Science and religion seem so at odds with each other, and popular culture is often regarded as frivolous,” Purscell said. “And yet each one of these disciplines deals frequently with issues of catastrophe and collapse and the ending of a way of life.”

The colleagues decided to see what it would be like if they put all of this in a metaphorical test tube and shook it up. Purscell said the answers from students were amazing in the first eight weeks of in class instruction.

“Students had to deal with ideas and methods to which they had not been exposed,” he said. “They stepped up, and constantly asked very good questions. Together we got down to the basics of our disciplines and tried to frame new ways of thinking about scientific inquiry and about the exploration and use of religious texts.”

Purscell finished his portion of the course and was looking forward to Wolney’s lessons.

“I thought we would come back from spring break ready to do some fine, creative work,” Purscell said. “Then the end of the world came. Well, not literally, but the class had talked about that, too, and that the ‘End of the World’ is often a shorthand way of talking about the ‘End of Us,’ whoever ‘Us’ happens to be, and the end of ‘Our’ life of expectations.”

Purscell will miss what he called the “best discussions ever around the world’s least comfortable table,” but the team is shifting to teach virtually. He believes the students will be better at the digital course than their instructors, but creative work is still in the works.
“It is going to be different, but not just in the change of media,” he said. “We have some concrete experience. Our world is different. The threat is very real, concrete. That is going to shape our discussion in serious ways. To put it in the terms of the religion module, our genres, contexts, metaphors, and rhetoric have all been drastically changed. Our conversation cannot possibly stay the same.”

Purscell said he remains unsure where the class will go and what will come out of it.

“We’re still going to talk about life and death in the face of apocalyptic disaster, but it’s going to be a lot more relevant,” he said. “And it may just keep us a lot saner in a world now full of unknowns.”