Disaster, Memory, and Popular Culture

From the sinking of the Titanic to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, how do disasters shape the human experience? How do communities remember disaster, and how do popular movies, songs, literature, memorials, and museums actively shape how we think about disasters? What can popular works of writing and film that explore the post-apocalyptic world tell us about contemporary, real world disasters?

Inside the Classroom

This course begins with the premise that disasters are fundamentally social events. We will explore issues related to how disasters are remembered and what role popular culture – popular movies, literature, songs, and more – plays in how we think about certain disasters as time progresses. We will read writings by journalists, memoirists, historians, psychologists, scientists, ethicists, and sociologists. Popular music, poetry, feature films, documentaries, memoirs, and fiction writing will all be included in our studies to help us better understand how societies cope with, rebuild, and continue on in the aftermath of disaster.

We will explore a series of case studies related to disaster, which will include both historical and contemporary examples ranging from hurricanes and tsunamis to terrorist attacks, nuclear accidents, and genocide. We also will explore what it means for societies to have popular, fictionalized “post-apocalyptic” works of art and culture that explore disasters that end the world as we know it. Students also will have the freedom to explore and research disasters, historical and contemporary, real or imagined, that most interest them.

Outside the Classroom

Students will have the opportunity to hear from a range of experts, including an oceanologist who studies tsunamis and climate change, a chemist instrumental in cleaning up the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and a sociologist of disaster. We also will hear personal narratives from community members in Richmond, New Orleans, and New York City whose lives have been personally marked by disaster. Our work will challenge us to think locally, nationally, and globally as we confront disasters that know no geographic or disciplinary bounds. Our travels will take us to New Orleans to better understand the continuing impact of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and environmental disasters, such as the sinking bayous of Louisiana and the eighty mile stretch of land lined with petrochemical companies known colloquially as “Cancer Alley.” We also will travel to New York City to visit the 9/11 museum and think about disaster and commemoration in a much contested museum site and space.

Research and Capstone Project

Over the course of the fall semester, students will conduct a research project focused on building an “archive” around one specific disaster event of their choosing. Over the spring semester, students will work in groups to create a “mapping disaster” project in which selected archives will be expanded and mapped onto an interactive, map-based database.