Photo of Northeastern students reading in a classroom.

Northeastern project interprets literature through the lens of COVID-19

Friday, May 22, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic began changing everyday life at Northeastern Illinois University, Assistant Professor of English Ryan Poll looked to literature to see what authors who lived through other pandemics might have to say to help people get through this one.

“When everything shut down, I started thinking that this disease is changing everything,” Poll said. “So, I turned to literature, just kind of looking for wisdom. Then I had the thought that it would be great if more people could look at literature through the prism of pandemics.”

Poll has been a staff writer for the online popular culture magazine PopMatters for two years and has been actively working with graduate students to get their work published on the site. In taking his desire to open the world of publishing up to more students and the opportunity to look at literature’s lessons about pandemics, Poll pitched the idea of Reading Pandemics, a curated series by Northeastern English students, alumni and faculty to the publication. PopMatters agreed to let Poll curate the series, and the first four articles in the series are now published on the website.

“Diversity is the best teacher,” Poll said. “With Northeastern Illinois University being the most diverse public institution of higher learning in the Midwest, I feel the wide range of experiences students have and the intersectional complexity they could bring to a project like this is exactly what we need right now. I learn from my students all the time because they have knowledge to things that aren’t even on my radar. It’s one of the things that makes Northeastern such a special place.”

Poll has asked English Department faculty members to help him edit the articles and make them ready for publication. Everyone involved in the series is participating because of a desire to learn and share knowledge, to “be each other’s teachers,” as Poll said.

“Most people don’t have time to read a bunch of books on pandemics, but these articles can make dissecting the lessons in some of those books more accessible to a wide audience,” Poll said. “In academia we’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we treat it as an enclosed institution. We have to learn to write for a wider public.”

This opportunity gives Northeastern English graduate students and alumni the chance to do just that. PopMatters has a global readership and is known as the largest site bridging academic and popular writing with a mission to “educate as well as entertain.”

Megan Palm, (M.A. English-Literature, expected ’20), wrote “Pandemics and Trumpian Echoes in Miller’s ‘Blackfish City.’” In the article, Palm explores this 2018 dystopian novel by Sam J. Miller and how today’s world feels reflective of the fictional one in Miller’s story.

“Although ‘Blackfish City’ is set in the future after global climate changes have flooded most of the Earth, the societal conflicts in the remaining city of Qaanaaq resemble economic and public health issues we see presently,” Palm said. “When I was reading the novel, it was impossible to ignore the echoes between the book and our present world, especially the similar manner through which corporations and governments rationalize pandemic response.”

Palm discovered this text in a course offered through the College of Arts and Sciences Confronting Climate Change, Transforming Cultures themed semester.

David Knudson (current M.A. English-Literature student) and Stephany Perez (current Secondary Education Teacher Licensure Program student), are also slated to be a part of the Reading Pandemics series.

Knudson, an English teacher at Glenbrook South High School, drew on three main themes for his article: what he’s seeing in the world today, his paternal grandmother’s experiences, and a short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” set during the flu pandemic of 1918.

Knudson’s paternal grandmother was a child during the 1918 flu pandemic. She lost her father to the illness during the second wave of the flu in 1920.

“The pandemic made quite an impression on my grandmother,” Knudson said. “She lived to be 96. In the article, I write a bit about my grandmother’s experiences, some of which I remembered and some were retold to me. Her spirit helped inspire what I was writing about, about the toughness of women and the strength of women in times like these. I’d also been concerned about the way the United States leadership has been handling the pandemic and some other world leaders, women leaders, have been credited with doing better. So, it was also a cool way to connect what I’m seeing in the world today.”

Perez’s article, “Taking a Page About Community and Responsibility from Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague,” examines Camus’ 1947 novel about a fictional plague in Oran, Algeria. She was struck by the parallels between the novel and the present day COVID-19 situation. Perez just started taking classes at Northeastern this spring and her PopMatters submission is her first publication.

“I think the feeling of dread that we all had and the wanting to be done with this stay at home stuff is totally human,” Perez said. “It’s so human that Camus wrote about it 50+ years ago. We’re in a type of situation where you have to care about more than just yourself and you can’t put your individual needs over the community’s safety. The book is a reminder of that. We’re all feeling anxieties, but for our own good it’s best to think about our collective destiny.”

Poll is anticipating that every Monday one faculty member's article will be published and every Thursday a student or alumni will be published in this series through Aug. 1. He is encouraging interested Northeastern English majors and English department alumni to submit pitches for Reading Pandemics by emailing him at r-poll@neiu.edu.