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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Three lessons from UW’s top scholars on the lessons of 2020


No one is immune to the vicissitudes of 2020. Not even top academic leaders.

Through hours of Zoom meetings, University of Washington vice provost Ed Taylor found himself nervously folding paper off screen. As he helped the university make high-stakes decisions about its pandemic future, his fingers kept busy shaping origami cranes.

“I line them up at my desk, I push them around during meetings,” he said. “They kept me company in the office, in an empty building.” He called them his signs of hope.

Taylor’s collection of about 300 cranes tells the story of how he coped with this year, and they will constitute his entry to a virtual time capsule, the culmination of class he led called “2020: The Course.” So, too, will a box that Franklin High School students created in their wood shop, the same shop where they built a coffin for one of their classmates, who was fatally shot by an unknown assailant in 2018. Taylor connects the small wooden box to 2020 because it reminds him of “the power of restoration, the power of giving and the importance of hope and faith during times and despair.”

Earlier this year, when Taylor and his colleagues realized the historic nature of 2020 — the intersecting lines between the coronavirus, the country’s racial reckoning and the presidential election — they started patching together a plan to teach it on the fly.

The sweeping course was aimed to help students — especially those new to the UW and experiencing their first months of college from behind a screen — make sense of the events of 2020 as they unfolded. The lectures are now available to the public, and there will be a culminating “Remembering 2020” session on Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m. that’s open to everyone.

It was the first course the UW has ever offered across its three campuses in Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma, and the configuration has given Taylor some ideas about combining these groups in different ways in the future.

“We spent some time talking about what this would mean for our students who were … going to have a virtual experience,” Taylor said. “We started thinking, let’s give them the very best of our faculty, even though it’s not the pedagogy we would prefer.”

He started asking faculty and a few alumni to participate in July, and quickly got many of the university’s all-stars on board: The president and provost. School of Public Health dean Hilary Godwin, who Taylor dubbed “our own form of a Dr. Fauci.” Dr. Benjamin Danielson, pediatrician and former senior medical director of the Odessa Brown clinic at Seattle Children’s. Arts & Sciences dean Robert Stacey on “how to make a life.” Alexes Harris, a sociology educator, on “the criminal legal system as a social problem.” UW Tacoma psychology professor Carolyn West. Megan Ming Francis, a political science expert, on “transformation vs. change around the edges.”

The class’s roughly 500 students watched the lectures on their own time and participated in group discussions, mostly online. Taylor said he first saw many of his students in a joint Zoom where they shared their time capsule projects — an idea he said associate Information School professor Joseph Janes devised. As he described it, they popped onto his screen from their bedrooms and their cars. He saw a mother with a child under her arm cooking dinner.

What stood out to him: One student whose grandfather sent him a pair of boots with the message that every young man should have a pair of boots. One student wrote a letter about the possibilities that she could lose her mother. Others showed the first ballots they ever cast in an election.

Here are three lessons from the course:

1) The sources of misinformation in a confusing year

In Kate Starbird’s lecture on misinformation and disinformation, the nationally renowned computer scientist talked about how COVID-19 created the “perfect storm” for misinformation and disinformation, from viral rumors on “cures” for COVID-19 to the idea that shelter-in-place would keep people from getting groceries — resulting on last spring’s run on basic goods like toilet paper.

Starbird, who works in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering, studied how interlocking networks spread these ideas. She also directs the Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation Laboratory and is a principal investigator with the Center for an Informed Public.

In the 2016 election, she said, trolls from Russia “enacted multidimensional online personas across platforms,” masquerading as people with all kinds of political beliefs. They were so convincing, she said, that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey retweeted one of them.

Leading up to the 2020 election, she said, much of the bad information was coming from within, from “domestic groups that are trying to flood the space.”

2) It’s time to rethink legal education

Before he made this point, Theodore Myhre, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law, said doing so could get him fired.

“Legal education is one of the things that has contributed to the problems we’re seeing in 2020,” he said. “American legal education has actually led to the undermining of democracy and frankly to the killing of racial minorities and poor people.”

His point: Legal training has become compressed into a small group of people who become licensed attorneys and often politicians. The legal process excludes everyone else, and bias gets baked into legal institutions based on who is or isn’t represented.

The tool of law, he said, is causing harm — specifically to certain communities. But it doesn’t have to stay that way: K-12 schools, he said, need to incorporate legal instruction. Law enforcement needs to learn it, too.

3) The importance of land acknowledgments

Iisaaksiichaa Ross Braine (Apsaalooke Nation), the UW’s tribal liaison and director of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ — Intellectual House was involved in the process of developing UW Seattle’s land acknowledgments — a process that officially took nine years, he said, but that is hundreds of years in the making. “We’re acknowledging tribal sovereignty,” he said. “Our right to self determination is a legal status.” Land acknowledgments honor and identify the first inhabitants of a space.

He also pointed to a new sign recognizing the traditional village UW is occupying, called “Slu?wit.” Finding that word took the work of tribal historians and language professors. The UW’s wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ longhouse style facility stood on a street called Whitman Court, which was named after missionaries involved in assimilating American Indian and Alaska Native people.

“We were forced to cut our hair, if we spoke our language, we were beaten,” he said, speaking to the history of genocide and forced cultural assimilation of Native people. “It was painful to have that address on our building.”

He left students, especially first years, with one specific wish: “That you have health. Healthy spirit, healthy mind, happy body.”

Eye-opening lectures

While Taylor hasn’t yet reviewed the course evaluations, he said the anecdotal feedback has mostly been positive. Lifelong learner Jeanette Ashworth found a lecture on healing through dual pandemics eye-opening. She wrote a note to the educator, Sharon Laing, assistant professor of the School of Nursing and Healthcare Leadership: “Your COVID19 statistics for people of color are a stark and catalyzing reminder of the dramatic health inequities that exist,” she said. “Words cannot adequately express the depth of meaning and educational and career inspiration I have experienced from you.”

Laing responded: “There is still much work that needs to be done, but with other scholars like you, our students, and community partners, the work of repair and healing can begin, and I do believe we will get there.”