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English Fiat Lux classes center around understanding, studying COVID-19’s impacts

UCLA’s English Department has created three new Fiat Lux classes for spring quarter, each focusing on a different facet of the pandemic’s effects. One class explores social media and advertising, while another takes a more literary approach with Albert Camus’ “The Plague.”
(Daily Bruin file photo)

By Aaron Untiveros

April 15, 2020 5:56 p.m.

Finally, English courses where students can study viral memes and TikTokdance challenges.

The UCLA English department is currently offering three Fiat Lux courses centered around COVID-19. Professors from various departments will guide students toward a deeper understanding of the pandemic’s effects through exploring theories of rhetoric, advertising and pop culture. As a result, these courses provide professors and students the freedom to think critically about the impacts of the pandemic, said Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. Berry will join the discussion in King-Kok Cheung’s Fiat Lux course concerning the representation of China in the media.

“Courses like this provide a platform to explore what is happening behind the headlines and really think deeply about the broader implications,” Berry said. “A lot of students are not in a state of mind to focus on their studies. All they are thinking about is the coronavirus, and these courses provide an outlet to explore this issue from a nuanced and multifaceted perspective.”

[Related: Scattered Bruins: International students from China explore new art forms while in isolation]

Cheung, who is also a professor of English and Asian American studies leads the Fiat Lux course English 19: “COVID-19: Formation of Imagined Community through Digital Media,” built on theorist Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities.” The book explores how a sense of community was created by the readers and writers with the rise of newspapers.

In Cheung’s course, the importance of literature and choice of words will also be addressed, focusing on events such as President Donald Trump’s decision to refer to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and the viral spread of the “Wuhan Diary” by Fang Fang, which follows the spread of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. She said it is important for students to understand the danger of censorship and that an open exchange of information is necessary to arrest this pandemic more quickly.

In a separate class, associate professor Caroline Streeter analyzes how social media utilizes music and parody as a response to the virus in English 19: “COVID-19: Viral Media during Pandemic – Social Media, Music, and Coronavirus.” One such song being discussed is the widely popular “Ghen Cô Vy,” produced in collaboration with the National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health in Vietnam, which served as a public service announcement to adopt a sanitary lifestyle in light of the virus. Since its release, a TikTok dance using the song has become popular as well, with choreography based on proper handwashing techniques.

[Related: Theater students improvise virtual methods to replace in-person productions]

The course also examines the changing industry of advertising and the spread of messages on social media in wake of COVID-19. After witnessing international cooperation through platforms like TikTok, popular traditional aspirational advertising methods – with celebrities in the limelight – are being challenged by the successful rise of authenticity, Streeter said. The common people tend to hold the spotlight in pop culture today instead, she said, influencing the general public on social media platforms and beyond.

“I think social media is really showing us a different side, … that there are things that matter more to people than conventional good looks and wealth,” Streeter said. “There’s something about being genuine and being spontaneous, maybe even being goofy, and that relatability is not just about the aspirational.”

In a more literary approach to the pandemic, UCLA associate professor Robert Maniquis teaches the course English 19: “COVID-19: Albert Camus’ The Plague: Physical Disease and Disease as Social Metaphor.” Students will use works such as “The Plague” and analyze it in the context of present circumstances, discussing topics concerning disease, such as living in quarantine, that were far from everyday discussion a year ago.

With these three courses, students are encouraged not simply to witness the unfolding of events the pandemic brings, but understand them, critically analyze them and develop new perspectives of looking at them Cheung said. After being moved entirely online, the Fiat Lux courses offer more space to accommodate students, Cheung said, for those who wish to join the discussion on Zoom.

“We need to have people with all kinds of nationalities, all kinds of dissident views to be able to speak,” Cheung said. “I want this to be a safe space for the students.”

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