Duke University, Spring 2012


Hardly a month goes by without images of natural disasters flooding the news: mine shafts collapse in West Virginia and Chile, hurricanes ravage the Caribbean and the southern United States, wildfires rage across the West, and earthquakes wreak catastrophic horror in Haiti and Japan. But just how “natural” are these natural disasters? And what counts as a disaster? This course explores the relationship between disasters, culture, and politics. We’ll think about the political decisions and cultural forces that leave some countries and regions more susceptible to disaster than others, and we’ll consider some of the ways that societies have responded in the aftermath of these crises. We will discuss natural disasters like fire, earthquake, and hurricanes, and we’ll also ask whether pandemics and terrorist attacks can even be classified as disasters. This course is a capstone seminar, which means that we’ll spend the semester honing the skills required to produce a research paper: locating and analyzing primary sources; evaluating scholarly articles and books; formulating compelling historical questions and arguments; and presenting these arguments in written form. Course readings will provide a starting point as we discuss how to think and write about disaster.

Select Readings

John Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research
Dave Eggers, Zeitoun
Ted Steinberg, Acts of God, The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America
Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London
Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906