By Abby Weingarten
Teaching students about plague during a pandemic was an oddly exciting prospect for Carrie Beneš, Ph.D., a New College professor of medieval and Renaissance history who has spent much of her academic career studying the era of the Black Death.
When the College transitioned to remote learning due to COVID-19 concerns in early March, however, Beneš knew she’d have to get inventive with her lesson plans for her upper-level seminar, Death, Hell and Capitalism: Medieval Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch. Beneš’ solution? To launch an interactive project for her students that would explore the past-and-present plague parallels in an entirely modern way. It was a class website she ultimately named Dispatches from the Brigata.
“It was last-minute, it was jury-rigged, and some course goals had to be jettisoned entirely (mostly those related to the research paper), but I hope the materials on the site show that we were all able to stay engaged and creative,” Benešsaid.
Beneš—a cultural historian who specializes in late medieval Italy—focused this particular class on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, to show how the experience of medieval Italians was especially applicable to the events of 2020. The book by the Italian author offers one of the most famous eyewitness descriptions of the Black Death in 1348, and the 100 stories of the Decameron are told by 10 young people (known as the brigata) who quarantine themselves in a villa outside Florence, Italy.
“We were able to use this time in quarantine (from Italian quarantena, 40 days) to reflect on parallels between our own circumstances and those of Italians during the Black Death. I was really trying to show how accessible the material is,” Beneš said. “For example, the stories Boccaccio was telling in the Decameron were kind of like the modern phenomenon of the BuzzFeed ‘listicle.’ Every day, these 10 people sat down and said, ‘What is the story each of us has to tell right now? We’ll tell 10 today.’ So I incorporated these types of listicles into our assignments.”
Typically, the final product for this class is a thesis-preparatory research paper, but Beneš decided to assign a variety of short weekly projects instead. Each page of the website now includes students’ responses to a single assignment, whether that is a PowerPoint presentation, an infographic or a paper. Some examples include The Polyptych (exploring medieval styles of art), Quarantine Challenge (recreating famous works of art at home), Boccaccio (the listicles), Plague (comparing medieval and contemporary responses to the plague), and Pro Tips (a page in which each student recommends a single course reading).
Sarah Lane, a rising fourth-year student, said she felt consistently challenged by the coursework in Beneš’ seminar.
“Dr. Beneš’ class was my favorite virtual class this past semester, by far,” Lane said. “I will be perfectly honest, I am not super into medieval history, as my focus is more on modern history, but I think a lot of this connection had to do with Dr. Beneš’ assignments.”
Beneš asked her students to create stories about people’s lives in quarantine, infographics about contemporaneous art, descriptions of who they would “nominate for hell,” and other random fun exercises.
“I remember telling my friends and family about my different assignments because I was so excited about them,” Lane said. “I was surprised and enthralled with how connected I felt to people in medieval Italy, and I don’t think that I would have felt the same if I had written a 10-to-15-page paper. I am very thankful for Dr. Beneš’ creativity and adaptability, and I hope more professors approach online classes in the way that she did.”
One of the assignments invited students to design a contemporary version of a polyptych—a painting composed of multiple panels that was often used as an altarpiece in medieval Italy. Second-year Jamie Friedman (known as “Emilia” on the site) created a polyptych that was an homage to frontline nurses during the pandemic.
“In medieval pieces, they tended to have a main figure the art was dedicated to, so I decided to portray a nurse. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, nurses have continually worked to try and do what they can,” Friedman said. “They come in contact with people who have contracted the virus and put their lives on the line. These people right now hold, in a sense, human life in their hands, as they are one of the last hurdles to help save lives.”
Like Friedman, fourth-year Jenna Courtade said the Black Death material in Beneš’ seminar was eerily relatable, and that she “felt a lot of connections between the Decameron and our current state of living.” And third-year Adrienne Hill said working on the class website brought out her creative side.
“The website is a nice showcase to others who want to learn more about medieval Italy and how it relates to our own time now (in a fun way),” Hill said.
Teaching the class was an entirely new experience for Beneš, who never before had the opportunity to cover one of her favorite topics—plague—while actually in the middle of a plague. It reaffirmed her appreciation for—and connection to—the material.
“In the past, when I’ve taught the Black Death (before the COVID-19 pandemic), there used to be a tendency for students to view medieval people and the ways they responded to plague as silly,” Beneš said. “But now students see that the ‘silly’ ways medieval people responded are exactly how we’re responding to the pandemic right now. So, how can we build on those comparisons and learn from them? It’s a moment of humility, for sure.”
To see the Dispatches from the Brigata website, visit sites.google.com/ncf.edu/dhc2020
For more Black Death resources, visit Beneš’ list of recommended reading material: sites.google.com/a/ncf.edu/benes/plague
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.