Hot Topics: Student Writing Meets Our 2020-21 Moment of Crisis

Hot Topics: Student Writing Meets Our 2020-21 Moment of Crisis

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means” said Joan Didion, during a 1976 lecture. I think it’s safe to say that most of us who teach in PWR agree that writing provides a way to make sense of the world, and work to instill that sensibility in our students. And what a world we’ve had to make sense of this past year! Daily life has been monumentally disrupted by COVID-19, while climate change has produced catastrophic weather events around the globe and unprecedented fires right here in the Bay, the increasingly unrepresentative democracy of the US political system has shuddered under the weight of the 2020 election, and never before seen numbers of people have taken to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In PWR, we provide students with a place to use writing and research to understand, and shape, their world, and many of our students have met the moment by choosing to focus on the events of 2020-21 in their research projects.

What follows is a selection of the projects from PWR classes from Spring 2020, Fall 2020, and Winter 2021 that have directly contended with current events. While students’ complex and often-intersectional projects don’t necessarily neatly fit a single descriptive category, I’ve grouped them together to showcase the breadth of disciplines and approaches students have brought to these topics.


With the pandemic sending the class of ’23 home from campus mid-way through their first year, and class of ’24 Frosh spending their entire first year of college in virtual classes, COVID-19 has, understandably, inspired many student projects this year.

One of the Lunsford prize nominees for Spring 2020, Analaura Amezquita Calam, provided an early dive into the pandemic when she explored attacks on medical workers in her project “The Pandemic of Fear." Watch it here:

Other COVID-19 related titles for students’ papers include:

  • “The Root of COVID-19 Racial Health Disparity: How Pre-Existing Conditions of Black Americans are Caused by Systemic Inequality”
  • “The Emotional Divide: The COVID-19 Pandemic, Distance Learning, and Mental Wellbeing in Young Children”
  • “Asian-Americans Overwhelmingly Trust the COVID-19 Vaccine, but Why?”
  • "Pandemic Rhetoric: The Pervasiveness of Wet Market Misconceptions and the Ignored Role of the Food Industry"
  • "From Food Banks To Quarantine Diets: Examining Privilege & Food Habits During a Global Pandemic"

Other explorations of the pandemic have looked at:

  • War metaphors and COVID-19;
  • Animal Crossing as a means of socializing during the pandemic;
  • Emotion eating during COVID-19;
  • Changes in HIPAA privacy laws in response to the COVID-19 crisis;
  • How COVID has highlighted FLI Student Disparity;
  • Healthcare rationing in hospitals during the COVID crisis.

Social Justice Movements

Ongoing social justice movements have inspired nearly as many projects as the pandemic, with titles such as:

  • “Defunding the Chicago Police Department: Distributive Justice to Reduce Racial Inequities in Chicago”
  • “The Racial Reckoning: Political Strategizing for Black Reparations”
  • “Signaling the Masses: The Relationship Between Social Media and Social Justice”
  • “Reform or a New Reality?: An Abolitionist Framework for Justice for Breonna Taylor”

Additional social justice topics include:

  • Stanford’s lack of support for Black student athletes in the wake of George Floyd’s murder;
  • How the Portland protests reveal how empathy can unify and separate people in the face of moral judgement;
  • The implications of defunding the police and how they affect movements for racial justice in the future;
  • Empathy and support for BLM among Asian Americans.

The 2020 Election

2020’s heated presidential campaign, and the aftermath of the election, catalyzed projects on:

  • The impact of race on political party affiliation;
  • How female politicians—including Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris--attempt to overcome the perceived problem of “likability” in their campaign ads;
  • Media participation in partisanship as witnessed during the Capitol insurrection.

Other Current Events

This is a far from comprehensive list of the all the ways PWR students met the moment. Students wrote about many other current events around the globe, including Trevor Cambron’s PWR 2 project “Burning Down the Santa Cruz Mountains: My Escape From One of the Most Destructive Wildfires in California’s History,” which will be published in the Process journal for student writing.

Other contemporary topics include:

  • The Syrian refugee crisis’ impact on education;
  • The recent Reddit-driven GameStop investing boom;
  • Changes to the professional status of college athletes;
  • Upcoming Affirmative Action cases and the Supreme Court.

The events of 2020-21 will continue to provide material for PWR projects for years come, and I for one look forward to my students continuing to help me make sense of the world.


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