Teaching About Conflict and Resilience During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Agnieszka Paczynska

The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic – shifting instruction to an online format, its impact on public health as well as secondary impacts on society and economy – have translated into new challenges for university instructors and raised new questions about how to teach most effectively in this new context. Here are some of the ways COVID-19 shaped the way I teach courses in peace and conflict studies.

Over the summer I co-taught the online course COVID-19, Conflict, and Resilience. This was a new elective that Leslie Dwyer and I designed as the pandemic was gathering steam in April and May before its full impacts were apparent. This fall I am teaching an introductory course for all our incoming MS students, Foundations of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, an intensive, 6-credit course. I significantly revised the Foundations course to adapt it to both an online format and to ensure that it reflected the different social, political, economic and public health context in which we found ourselves. 

Based on these two experiences, one which is still on-going at the time of writing of this article, a number of issues have become apparent. We, as instructors, had to quickly adjust our course formats and teaching strategies while juggling increasingly challenging home lives. With home schooled kids, growing concerns about older and sick friends and relatives, and economic and political anxieties we were distracted. Our students were experiencing these stresses as well. 

Acknowledging adversity and responding to these new stresses, anxiety, and depression among students is absolutely essential. Acknowledging that as Cynthia Enloe points out, although all of us are sailing on the same rough seas we are sailing in very different boats was also necessary. The structural inequalities in our society that the pandemic exposed and amplified could also be seen among our students. While some had secure employment, stable homelife and access to healthcare, others felt much more vulnerable and exposed to pandemic’s negative impacts. We have asked students to develop self-care plans, which we also did for ourselves and shared with students. In these plans students had the opportunity to think about how they were going to ensure that their bodies, minds, and spirits were nurtured during the pandemic. We also asked students to think about identifying who were the people they could turn to and rely on for support and love? What could they do for their community and to care for that community during these trying times? Then we asked students to set some realistic goals for what they wanted to accomplish during this period of lockdowns, social distancing, and isolation. 

During the class we periodically checked in with the students to see how they were doing with their self-care plans. Thinking intentionally about how to implement them was helpful for us and for the students. We found ourselves being more mindful about taking the time to focus on our own well-being but also on making sure that we nurtured our support network and that we engaged with the communities where we lived. From conversations with students, my sense was that the self-care plans gave many a sense of agency which was important in a context that often felt so out of our control. We also shared various resiliency resources with students that were available either through our university or through other organizations and institutions. We encouraged students to share any additional resources they were familiar with to supplement needs we have missed. Our lessons included collected and shared examples of community resilience, mutual aid, and healing during pandemics and epidemics to further augment the importance of care. In our class sessions we also collected novels about pandemics such as Camus The Plague and Shelley’s The Last Man, dance and music performances, graphic arts that dealt with pandemics throughout history, comedy routines. We shared these resources with each other to lift our collective spirits and to provide ideas about how to remain connected and supportive of the communities we were embedded in. We found that looking at the experiences of past pandemics and epidemics and how individuals and societies deal with them rather than making us more worried about what we were experiencing in our lives, gave as also glimmers of how such extreme events sometimes created widows of opportunity for ushering in positive social change. 

The summer months were difficult; many students were isolated in their homes, some with little to no physical human contact; other students were frontline workers and dealing with the stress that this brought about; yet others grappled with job losses, family health crises and homeschooling children that left many of them exhausted, anxious and overwhelmed. In those times of unprecedented stress, we found that there was something comforting about seeing Bolshoi ballet or the Alvin Ailey company members, dancing together but separately in their homes. We shared real laughter as we collected dark comedy sketches about COVID-19, creative adaptations of pop music classics people did at home to fill time while in lockdowns, and listened to a Liberian rock group’s campy rendition of the 2014 Ebola epidemic public health advice. Toward the end of the summer students shared with us that both the self-care plans and the collecting of resilience resources was really helpful in getting them through this difficult time. 

This fall, students in the Foundations course have also developed self-care plans and we share resiliency resources on our discussion boards. While these were helpful to students, I found that it is important to be much more flexible in terms of assignment deadlines and absences from discussion boards than in pre-pandemic times. There are times when students feel too overwhelmed or too depressed to fully engage with the course. Universities of course have many resources to assist students experiencing mental health problems and we as instructors need to make sure they know about these resources. At the same time, giving a student more time to complete an assignment or having them take a break from discussion boards can also help alleviate some of the pressure. It is unreasonable to ask a student who is forced to move in midst of the pandemic because of employment loss or who is not able to be with a dying loved or is separated for months from their partner because of international travel restrictions to meet all the deadlines on the syllabus. But often it is simply the emotional and mental exhausting of living for months in a heightened state of anxiety and stress that demands a bit of a time out from the fast pace of an intense course. 

As the pandemic spread around the globe and across the United States, it had a profound impact on public health, social, economic, and political dynamics. We focused on these in the summer course and I continue to incorporate them into the Foundations course. The COVID-19 pandemic has both exposed and amplified structural inequalities in the United States and globally. In countries of the Global South, the pandemic hit poor, marginalized communities especially hard. In many of these countries the informal sector that dominates the economy and the reliance on remittances make people uniquely vulnerable to economic dislocations. Malnutrition, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and displacement amplify vulnerabilities and decrease resilience to the pandemic. For many who rely on informal employment, therefore, the choice has been between obeying lockdown orders and starving to death or going to work and exposing themselves to the virus. 

In the United States, the pandemic was disproportionately experienced by people of color, with disproportionate presentation, in both elevated rates of infections and mortality, experienced by African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans. The pandemic was also accompanied by a new wave of mass protests in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following the killing of Mr. George Floyd. A police officer in Minneapolis placed his knee on Mr. Floyds neck, suffocating him for close to nine minutes, while horrified bystanders recorded the event. Protests spread across the country, expanding the BLM support coalition, and shifting white Americans perceptions of racial injustice. We incorporated these structural inequalities and the mass mobilizations into the summer elective and I have also incorporated them into this fall’s required course. The online platform allowed more opportunities for students to engage with the theoretical material in a variety of ways. They watched news footage, webinars and documentaries, and listened to podcasts.

Students are seeing these conflicts unfold around them and often experienced them first hand. When we were designing the summer elective, we were not sure how students would react to spending 8 weeks discussing the very crisis that was affecting them on a daily basis. It turned out that providing a space where we could explore the history of past pandemics and how societies reacted to them, examine peace and conflict theories to shed light on the structural violence and social inequities that the pandemic exposed, and the resiliencies of communities and individuals as in the face of these challenges was something the students were craving. By tackling these issues head on the course created a place where students were able to reflect on these dynamics and, through exposure to theories, make deeper sense of them. Students reported this gave them a sense of agency about what they could do to support and work toward resilience in their own communities.  

In this fall’s Foundations course I am doing something similar and have incorporated the pandemic and the BLM movement throughout the syllabus. In many ways, the very format of an online course provides a particularly effective way for students to engage in conversations about these difficult issues. Each week on the discussion boards they are able to think about and reflect on the connections between the theories they are learning and their own lived experiences. This format has allowed for a much more nuanced conversation to unfold than would have been possible in an in-person class. For one, rather than a few students dominating the conversation as can often happen in an in-person course, everyone is able to contribute. 

Students who may have felt uncomfortable or uncertain about how to engage in discussions of structural racism and inequalities appear more comfortable when they are contributing to discussion boards. They have time to formulate their ideas and think about how to respond to ideas those put forward by others. Carefully developed discussion prompts have generated intense conversations, with some students sharing their personal experiences with structural inequalities and racism and others considering how the pandemic has made them aware of structural violence in ways they had not been in the past. Sharing these ideas and experiences in a virtual format has allowed much more frank and meaningful conversations to unfold. Thus, the pandemic, the structural violence it has exposed and amplified and the challenges that we face as instructors in this new environment, has also provided an opportunity for deeper conversations about difficult subjects and new ways for students to think about their own agency in midst of a crisis. 



Agnieszka Paczynska is Associate Professor at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University. She received her PhD in political science from the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the relationship between economic and political change and conflict, globalization and local conflicts, post-conflict reconstruction policies and peace and conflict pedagogy. She has authored State, Labor, and the Transition to a Market Economy: Egypt, Poland, Mexico and the Czech Republic (Penn State University Press, 2009/2013) and edited Changing Landscape of Assistance to Conflict-Affected States: Emerging and Traditional Donors and Opportunities for Collaboration (Stimson Center, 2016), Conflict Zone, Comfort Zone: Pedagogy, Methodology and Best Practices in Field-Based Courses (with Susan Hirsch, Ohio University Press, 2019) and The New Politics of Aid: Emerging Donors and Conflict-Affected States (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019). Her book Teaching Peace and Conflict Studies (with Susan Hirsch) is forthcoming in 2021. She has observed elections in Afghanistan, Egypt and Liberia, conducted program evaluations in Liberia for the UN Peacebuilding Fund and International Alert, and a number of conflict assessments for USAID and the US State Department, including conflict assessments of Afghanistan, the DRC, Liberia, Pakistan, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Tanzania.