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Pandemic academic: Dr. Ron Barrett’s course on infectious disease couldn’t be timelier

Ron Barrett

Ron Barrett Provided

How do you teach a class called “Pandemic Infections” to a bunch of 18-year-olds in the midst of an actual pandemic?

According to Dr. Ron Barrett—a medical and cultural anthropologist whose specialty is the social aspects of infectious diseases, healing, and how humans come to terms with our mortality—pretty much the same as always.

“I’ve been teaching the course for about 17 years now,” says Barrett, who taught at Emory and Stanford before joining Macalester College as an associate professor. (He spoke to City Pages in a personal capacity.)

Back in 1998, Barrett co-authored a paper on epidemiological transitions and emerging infectious diseases with then-colleague George Armelagos. That paper formed the foundation for Pandemic Infections: The Class.

“I taught the course as a first-year course seven or eight years ago, and what I found from that is students come in with a lot of interest and a lot of enthusiasm. They also come with a lot of presuppositions,” he says.

“The temptation is when somebody throws something out at you, and you can quickly answer, it is to quickly answer it. But what happens is you set a precedent for people asking you a whole bunch of other questions, when the objective is to really get them to think.”

From day one, Barrett makes it clear that he won’t be his students’ fact-checker. “We will examine facts about COVID, we will examine facts about infectious diseases,” he explained. “I’ll tell them upfront, ‘I’m not gonna answer your questions about COVID.’ What I’m going to do is ask them to give me questions that they have, and then talk about how we go about answering those questions, because that’s far more important,” says the prof, who tracks epidemiological movements around the globe as part of his work.

“The point of the class is, that although infections like COVID-19 may be somewhat new, the human determinants of those infections are quite ancient and recurring,” Barrett told us. “There are a lot of lessons that probably should be learned by the public that still haven’t been.”

So how does the professor, with his wealth of knowledge informing the present moment, endure the public and current policy? For Barrett, the hard part hasn’t been designing all his classes so they can be online or in-person, switching back and forth depending on the circumstance.

“I am, I guess, frustrated by the inability of our leaders and the general public to learn lessons about pandemic infections that we should have learned a long time ago, and that we’re still not fully learning now,” he says. “The hard part is that, six months, seven months, whatever, into this thing, we’re still not coming around and asking the right questions.”

Want to learn more without enrolling at Mac? In 2013, after teaching Pandemic Infections at their separate campuses, Barrett and Armelagos co-authored An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections, structured after the course and paper that inspired it.