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“Rethinking Pandemics” Course – Deana Byrnes

Posted by on Tuesday, October 20, 2020 in Robert Penn Waren Center.


This summer the RPW Center teamed up with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Vanderbilt to offer an online course for its members entitled “Rethinking Pandemics: A Cultural History from Antiquity to Now.” OLLI helps adults over 50 rediscover the joy of learning and build community through diverse social interaction.

Deana Byrnes was one of the participants. She shared her experiences with the course as well as her course-related journal project below.


What I Did This Summer – Rethinking Pandemics: A Cultural History from Antiquity to Now

When telling friends and family about my summer OLLI plans, I heard a common refrain: “You want to learn about the plague?? Right now??”

Cover of Deana's Pandemics course journal
Cover of Deana’s Pandemics course journal – See additional excerpts below

After months of a quarantine lifestyle, I admit that my friend and I were ready to sign up for a Vanderbilt OLLI summer Zoom course regardless of the topic. But honestly, who could resist the chance to make some sense of our pandemic “now” by learning about pandemics of the past?

About the Class:  Medieval Medicine and Leeches

The Rethinking Pandemics class surpassed my expectations. It was fascinating and informative, relevant to our current situation, and entertaining. Professor Holly Tucker created and taught the class. She effectively shared her deep and broad understanding of the subject matter while developing an effortless rapport with OLLI students via Zoom. She brought the information to life using everything from ancient texts to Saturday Night Live sketches. And who knew leeches are still used in medicine today? At Vanderbilt!

We learned of the origins of modern medicine, historical and scientific details of the plague, and much about Medieval life. We learned of the challenge to uncover factual contemporary accounts from those who suffered and about the evolution of stories when those facts are few.

Through it all we gained a new perspective of the world-wide struggle to unravel the understanding of COVID-19. We found parallels between our pandemic lives and those of long-ago societies.

About the Journal: Our Contemporary Experiences

The idea of contemporary records leads me to the most interesting (and fun) part of the class. The students were tasked with keeping individual journals for the duration of the course. We were given occasional prompts as part of our weekly assignments, but for the most part, we could fill it however we wished. At the end of the six weeks we had the option of donating our journals to the Vanderbilt COVID-19 Community Archive.

This allowed us to participate in a community effort that will provide contemporary accounts of this time for archival and future research. As a part of Rethinking Pandemics we have helped to ensure that the facts of this time are not so few.

I would recommend this class without reservation. For the curious, it is fascinating and useful under any circumstance. But for today, it applies directly to our lives.


Deana Byrnes is a retired IT consultant and a relatively new Vanderbilt OLLI student. Originally from Indiana, she has lived in rural Middle Tennessee with her family for the past six years.