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Higher Education Modules

Responding to AIDS: History, Politics and Visual Culture


The Responding to AIDS: History, Politics, and Visual Culture module is divided into three two-hour units that explore thematic and visual material in the Surviving and Thriving exhibition, as listed below. Each class includes a brief introduction with instructional notes and provides a selection of primary and secondary readings along with suggested class discussion questions designed to draw out some of main themes explored in the readings and exhibition. The module is designed to provide instructional resources that an educator may adapt in whole or in parts, as is appropriate for specific academic goals in a variety of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and professional or applied sciences. Information about the module’s author, suggested use, and academic objectives is also available online at About the Module.

  • Unit 1: An Introduction to the History of AIDS in the United States

    “An Introduction to the History of AIDS” uses primary and secondary source readings to introduce students to a variety of factors involved in the emergence of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Students will examine how historical interpretations of AIDS changed dramatically in the first years after its identification, just as our understanding of other infectious diseases have shifted and evolved over time. Students are also asked to analyze and interpret the government’s response to the epidemic, and critically evaluate what steps were taken or not taken to respond to the disease.

  • Unit 2: AIDS and Visual Culture

    The “AIDS and Visual Culture” unit introduces students to the subject of visual culture and challenges them to interpret the role of imagery in the history of responses to AIDS. Students are asked to analyze how public health officials and activists created messages designed for target populations. They are encouraged to deconstruct the various strategies used in public health posters, as tools of public education designed to encourage disease prevention.

  • Unit 3: Scientists and Activists Respond to AIDS

    The “Scientists and Activists Respond to AIDS” unit examines how and why two specific groups struggled to understand AIDS in the 1980s. Public health officials and researchers undertook pioneering projects on shoestring budgets in order to identify the virus, determine how it was spread, and develop effective treatment regimens. As the Surviving and Thriving exhibition notes, against the backdrop of fear and misunderstanding that permeated society, scientists’ initial findings sometimes produced unintended political consequences. For activists, meanwhile, AIDS presented unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Students examine how activism and advocacy shaped public policy and responses to AIDS.

  • Projects and Bibliography

    The module includes three sample projects that students may take on for further research and analyses of the complex interrelationship among science, politics, and culture that have shaped how we understand and treat HIV/AIDS, both the disease and patients. It also offers a bibliography of additional resources related to the subjects addressed in the module, as well as selected websites that provide contemporary information on HIV/AIDS.