Metaphor of Plague

Spring 2015 • HIST 300-001
info | readings

Fred Gibbs (
Mesa Vista Hall, 1077
Office Hours: M 2:30-4; W 9:30-11; almost anytime by appointment

Course Description

If you were planning to come to class (like you always do, because it’s awesome), but you heard that an unknown student in the class (who was also planning to attend) had the flu, would you come anyway? Probably. If you heard that the unknown student was infected with the plague—would you still come?

The fact that we even pause to consider the difference between these two diseases (one very common and one very rare), and that we might be even more afraid of the less deadly one (plague, if you have faith in statistics), shows how resonant the idea of “plague” is in modern society. While plague is the name of a particular disease, it is of course far more than that.

This course explores the metaphor of plague as described in various historical sources with a focus on medical literature, literary texts, scientific articles, and popular media. We shall concern ourselves not only with the scientific disease known as plague, but also how various other epidemic diseases (like syphilis, tuberculosis, AIDS, and ebola) have been labeled as plagues. How and why does the label of “plague” become applied to certain disease and not others? How does such a construction shape the way we understand and respond to them? Does our opinion (or depiction) of obesity or zombies change when they are routinely described as plagues?

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the changing notions of disease and plague in Western medicine.

  • Appreciate how attitudes about disease are not based on “objective” medical knowledge, but grow out of a complex constellation of social, political, and cultural values.

  • Develop sensitivity to how a disease is not merely a set of symptoms with a discrete cause, but is socially constructed as well by virtue of how those with the disease are discussed in the media and research reports.

  • Sharpen critical thinking skills by evaluating medical discussions of disease while exposing its assumptions and putting it in historical perspective.

Work Requirements and Grading

  • The class will meet in the Teaching and Learning building in “learning studios.” Discussions will be more like labs where everyone will be working in groups to discuss the weekly topic and making extensive use of the video screens and whiteboards to share and communicate. This is an active learning course.

  • By enrolling in the course, you make a commitment to attend every scheduled meeting (a few misses during the term is fine). However, simply showing up to class counts for very little; I expect that you’ll actively participate in all discussions, presentations, etc. This work counts for 50% of your grade. If you want a course where you can passively attend lectures and occasionally regurgitate information, this course is not for you. If you are shy about speaking in class, you will become much more comfortable and fluent by the end of the semester.

  • You cannot make up missed classes, and I will not rehash the discussion for you via email because you missed class. Please, DO NOT email me asking what you missed or how to make it up (feel free to get notes from your colleagues). Medical emergencies beyond your control are the one exception to the attendance policy, and you should let me know about these ASAP.

  • I consider it extremely rude and disruptive to walk into class late, and it greatly aggravates me. Flat tires, missed busses, failed alarms, or other appointments are not excuses, they are simply failures on your part to get here on time. There are no excuses, only priorities. Accidents happen, and I undertstand you might be (barely) late once or twice. Repeatedly being late will negatively impact your grade by a half to full letter grade.

  • If you run into personal problems during the semester that make school difficult for you, please talk to me about what adjustments we can make to help you succeed in the course.

  • You will produce 3 2-page essays throughout the semester that ask you to put the readings in conversation with each other. If you are not pleased with your grade, you can revise and resubmit them after talking with me first. (30% total; 10% each)

  • Your final “exam” will consist of contributing to a small team project that compares two different “plagues.” All groups will present their research during the last week of class. You will also compose (and be individually graded on) a ~500-word essay that explains a) your contribution to the team; b) an honest assessment of others’ contributions; c) a summary of what you learned in the course and how you applied that to the project. (20%)

Note that there is a LOT of reading for this course. Like a LOT a LOT, especially for a 300-level course. One of the goals of the course is that you will learn to read and absorb information more quickly than you can already. That skill is hard-earned, and comes only with practice. Be honest with yourself about whether you have time to fit this elective course into your busy schedules.

Required Texts


View the Schedule of Readings