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Mugur Geana: 'Behaviors have become more polarized'

Mugur GeanaAs a medical doctor and professor, Mugur Geana has a unique perspective of the pandemic. Eight months after Covid-19 hit the United States and KU went online, Geana talks about how “pandemic fatigue” started to show with many people no longer taking CDC guidelines seriously. According to three national surveys conducted by Geana between April and September 2020, people feel informed about COVID, but behavior has become more polarized over that time span. 

Looking back to March, he was surprised at the United States’ delayed response to the pandemic and the polarization among Americans amidst a health crisis. Because Geana’s area of interest is health communication to underserved populations, he was sure to keep his students well-informed about the pandemic once KU decided to finish the spring 2020 semester virtually. This semester, he is teaching Journalism 460: Research Methods in an asynchronous format, which he says has decreased participation and engagement among students. On a more positive note, however, Geana thinks the pandemic has strengthened the relationship between faculty and administration, which he hopes will continue into future semesters.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Maddie Hall: This is Maddie Hall. Today is Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. I am interviewing Dr. Mugur Geana for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. Welcome.

Mugur Geana: Hello. Hi, my name is Mugur Geana. I'm an associate professor of strategic communication at the William Allen White  School of Journalism and Mass Communications. I'm also the director of the Center for Excellence in Health Communication to Underserved Populations. My area of interest is health communication with specific emphasis on underserved populations, and also how to design impactful and persuasive health communication campaigns. My areas -- Yes. Go ahead, Maddie.

Maddie Hall: Go ahead. Go ahead. Sorry,

Mugur Geana: No, just wanted to say that. In addition to that, what I'm teaching is mostly research methods at both graduate and undergraduate level.

Maddie Hall: OK. So going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Mugur Geana: Well, I'm a medical doctor, so I'm trained as a medical doctor. So it's really not, not a big surprise after knowing what was happening in China and other parts of the world. The fact that what turned out to be an epidemic ended up being a pandemic, especially in today's world, that it's so interconnected and with all the travel pathways that exist. So that was not a big surprise. What was a big surprise for me is the way that the United States reacted to the news of what's happening in China and some other parts of the world. And how should I say this -- more or less how he did not react, OK, because a lot of the things that, from a public health perspective, need to be in place in order for us to deal with the pandemic were actually not in place.

So from a purely professional perspective, that was an amazement. In terms of where I was when I heard that KU was closing, I think we were in the first week of spring break last semester. Yes. And that, like I said, that it was not a big surprise, everybody more or less was expecting that to happen, but it was a quite significant transition from having, you know, in-person classes to then having to teach online classes. But I suspect you're going to ask about that. So I'm not going to get into those details right now.

Maddie Hall: Yes. So how has this semester been different when comparing the Spring 2020 semester with the pandemic to the current semester with a pandemic?

Mugur Geana: Well, I think there are two major differences, especially from my perspective. One was the fact that we knew what to expect, you know. In the spring 2020, we had to change more or less overnight. We had two weeks to convert in-person classes to online classes. Right now, this semester, at least for me, I already knew that I was going to be teaching my two classes online. So I had time over the summer to prepare and, you know, better adapt those classes for an online delivery. That was one thing. The other thing is that, to a certain extent, students got more information and were, to a certain extent, better prepared to deal with the pandemic. For example, when things started back in 2020 in February and March, one of the things I was doing, even when we were having in-person classes, was to give students every week an update of what's happening in the world, what the novel coronavirus, and, you know, basic things related to how to keep themselves safe and so forth.

Then I continued doing that even when I started online classes, as it was an asynchronous class. So the first class of every week, I would start my class - and there were video classes - with an update on the pandemic, both locally and also internationally, and some of the things that were newly discovered or any new information released by the World Health Organizations or the CDC, because I found out that a lot of students were not having that kind of information. Also in March, as well as in April, I started a podcast for a company called Treepple. It was 90 seconds, specifically dedicated every day to updates on the pandemic. And that was, I think, distributed to more than 10,000 websites all around the country. I did that for two weeks. So this year I found, like I said, students are more informed. They're, to a certain degree, also more compliant to social distancing measures.

But at the same time, I see that some have, I would call it pandemic fatigue, it's starting to show. And you know, people have started thinking that this is not that big of a deal. A lot of the students now had COVID-19 and again for a young person was not necessarily a big deal for many of them. And this is something that comes out also from the research I'm doing. I run three surveys, national surveys, about COVID and sources of information, and trust, and attitudes, and behaviors related to COVID. One was done in April. The other one was at the end of May. The last one was early in September. And it shows that, yes, people know more, have more information, but at the same time, people's behaviors have become more polarized. And yeah, that's about it. I hope this answers your question.

Maddie Hall: Yes. What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Mugur Geana: Not being able to see my students face to face. That's by far my biggest challenge because I like to interact with students. I like to talk with them. I like to get constant feedback. The way the classes are right now -- because they're asynchronous -- we meet from time to time over Zoom, to, you know, for me to answer questions they have or to interact to a certain degree, but it's really not the same thing. So by far that's been the hardest part to do.

Maddie Hall: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Mugur Geana: I would say, I wouldn't say necessarily increased, but it changed in terms of effort allocation. Basically, I think that the No. 1 difference is that the lines between being at work versus being at home had blurred significantly. So I find myself -- not that I was not doing that before -- but more often than before, I found myself, you know, at 11 p.m. working on something related to school, not necessarily on a research project. Also because we have to prepare these classes online, preparation and making sure I have all the things that I need to deliver an easy-to-understand and comprehensive lecture, video lecture, all those needs have increased. And also it's about production time. It's about making sure I write my script because, you know, a lot of this is video. Also, I provide captions. Just want to make sure everybody understands what I'm talking about. So overall, course preparation and feedback to students, also individual feedback to students, it's really taking more time than it took, let's say, when classes were in-person.

Maddie Hall: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Mugur Geana: What do you understand by perception of the pandemic?

Maddie Hall: It could mean a lot of different things. So maybe your understanding of COVID or how you personally followed guidelines or what things you did, maybe how it's affected you mentally or emotionally, just anything like that. So if your perception now is different than what it was back in March.

Yes. I don't think I changed my perception of the pandemic. I still think it's a very serious issue that we did not deal appropriately with. I still think there are a lot of unknowns and I still, I think it will go -- is going to be with us for some time to come. Yesterday's announcement by Pfizer that they have found that in Phase 3 clinical trials their vaccine is over 90% effective. That was really good news, but there's still a lot of unknowns about that vaccine. Also the study data they provided was also on a very small number of patients that didn't develop COVID, about 94 patients, which is not enough, but again, these are promising news. In terms of affecting me mentally, I'm not sure how it affected me. I think more than the COVID-19, I was dismayed by the polarization that we are seeing in this society, even when it comes to something as serious as a public health crisis. And I think that it is the one issue that affected me more than the pandemic per se. That's about it.

Maddie Hall: Can you describe the level of participation among your students on Zoom in comparison to in-person classes?

Mugur Geana: Well, like I said this is an asynchronous class, so I'm not teaching live on Zoom. We only meet time to time at the scheduled intervals for me to try to answer questions. Participation in Zoom has -- it's definitely lower than it would be when doing in-class meetings and also not only participation, but the level, at least from my perspective, the level of engagement of students in Zoom meetings is less than what would happen in class.

Maddie Hall: What do you wish students would understand about professors' experiences this semester with the pandemic?

Mugur Geana: Oh, that's a really interesting question. OK. I think that the No. 1 thing that students might understand is that we're going through the -- more or less the same struggles that they have. OK. And I know they want to be in class. I want them to understand that we really want to be in class as well. And that we also think that better instruction can be delivered on a face-to-face basis than on a remote environment, like Zoom or something similar.

So that would be one thing. The other thing goes -- I think there's a perception among students that holding classes online it's easier for professors. And I know there's been a lot of people arguing that they need to get their tuition money back and everything else. Well, I can tell them and I would love for them to understand that in terms of preparing for a class and the amount of effort that we have to give to make sure classes are appropriate and instruction delivery it's appropriate, it really takes a lot more time and effort from our part. So if things may look easy when they see an online lecture or when they interact with us via Zoom, they're easy because we put a lot of effort into making it look easy for them. So that's, that's about it.

Maddie Hall: How do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Mugur Geana: Well, I have to laud the School of Journalism for what it did. I think it was extremely appropriate, timely, and the right things were emphasized. And I think -- so one of the things that you need to remember is a lot of things that the School of Journalism did were based on directions from the center, the KU central administration. And we also had to work in consensus with all the policies that KU took at university level. In addition to that, I think that the administration of the school really emphasized the health of the students and health of faculty and staff as a primary principle that they abode by during everything that we're experiencing and seeing in the spring of 2020, related to the pandemic. So at least from my perspective, I think it was, and also compared to what I've heard from other colleagues at other institutions, I think that what the School of Journalism did was exemplary.

Maddie Hall: How has the pandemic changed the School of Journalism and KU?

Mugur Geana: Huh. That's an interesting question. And not a question that's easy to answer. So I'm not sure that my appraisal will be extremely valid for the entire School of Journalism because let's say there's limited knowledge on that area in terms of how it impacted the school overall. But one thing that I see is that probably it helps build stronger bonds between faculty, between faculty and staff, between the administration and faculty, because of these common goals.

Also, I think it facilitated, you know, we used to be, as researchers, pretty isolated in our -- it's called the ivory towers. Everybody was doing their own thing. Well, I think COVID also brought a different level of collaboration and interest in, you know, having common research agendas that to a certain extent will benefit the school or society, especially for those of us that are doing a lot of applied research.

So for KU: KU has realized that these can be improved from an administrative [perspective] from the way instruction is delivered, the expectations they have and the resources they have. And I think that one result was, you know, a really important investment into infrastructure, especially for delivering online instruction. And I hope that this is something that we will continue doing. And I think both at KU overall, as well as at School level, we have improved our understanding of online delivery. And not only that, we have improved the way we are now preparing and we're ready to deliver online courses. And I -- and I hope this will continue, Not to the extent that it is right now, but hopefully once the pandemic it's gone, we will take everything that we've learned and be able to come up with maybe some new programs or a different way of interacting with our students.

Maddie Hall: How do you think KU will be better from everything that's happened?

Mugur Geana: I hope it will be a more cohesive university and also one that will work more towards common goals. That's about it. I think that's a lot of discussion on that topic, but let's stop it there for now.

Maddie Hall: My final question is what advice would you give to someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Mugur Geana: Listen to your public health professionals. OK. Don't take things lightly, make sure people are informed, make sure the information they get it's accurate and valid, make sure they attend to sources of information that they trust. And that they're -- that those sources of information are valid and trustworthy. And also understand that collective well-being, it's extremely important in the pandemic. Yeah, that's about it.

Maddie Hall: This is the conclusion of this oral history.


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