Masters of Disaster: Studying Catastrophe with Douglas and Sarat

Submitted on Thursday, 3/28/2013, at 10:53 AM

by William Sweet

How are we all going to die? There are so many options, changing from week to week: killer tsunamis, mile-wide meteors, avian flu, earthquakes school shootings, and dirty bombs. If you need a little distraction from this gloom, maybe it’s time to take in a movie. The Poseidon Adventure? Armageddon? The Day After Tomorrow? Melancholia? Something with zombies?


Lawrence Douglas (standing) and Austin Sarat (left)

Human history is chock-full of disaster and catastrophe, and ours seems to be an age of permanent catastrophe so much so that it seems that our time is split between suffering catastrophe, worrying about it, making plans to minimize it and arguing over why it happened to us.

“The Meaning of Catastrophe” is an effort to make sense of calamity and of responses to it. Not one but two “masters of disaster” lead students through this catalog of woe: Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, and Lawrence R. Douglas, the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought and author of the novel The Catastrophist.

The idea for the class grew out of a set of conversations among an interdisciplinary group of faculty who have been getting together to study and discuss the idea of catastrophe. Next year’s Copeland Colloquium will bring to campus five scholars from around the country to address this very theme.

“One of the great things about Amherst is that it gives one permission to engage in forays that are not bound by disciplines and by the conventional definition of subjects,” said Sarat.

In addition to fostering cross-discipline studies, Amherst also distinguishes itself in encouraging team teaching, giving students the opportunity to learn from such pairings as Douglas/Sarat. One notable pairing has been David Sofield, Samuel Williston Professor of English and Pulitzer Prize Winner Richard Wilbur ‘42, teaching poetry. “Reinventing Tokyo: The Art, Literature, and Politics of Japan’s Modern Capital” brought together Samuel C. Morse, the Howard M. and Martha P. Mitchell Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations, with Timothy J. Van Compernolle, Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations (Japanese).

Unlike many institutions, Amherst credits each professor co-leading a course as if he or she were leading the class alone, said Dean of the Faculty Gregory S. Call. Preparing to co-lead a class can takes as much, if not more, effort than going solo, Call said.

“It’s not efficient. It’s an example of Amherst choosing to do something for the quality of the educational experience,” he said.

Team-taught courses come together in a variety of ways. Call noted that some, such as the “Catastrophe” course, grow out of a continuing discussion, while others might literally start over a lunchtime conversation. “It’s largely a matter of serendipity in some cases,” he said.

There’s no complicated algorithm to how the “Catastrophe” class is split up; the professors just take turns.

“It’s not like a tag-team approach, where I do my spiel and then we slap hands and Austin takes over,” Douglas said. “One of us will lead the introduction of the material, but it’s not like the other one is just sitting passively.… We’ve tried to have a little bit more of an active engagement with one another, so that he’ll make a point, and I will expand on that.

“I think the students enjoy this, when the professors get into a dialogue with each other,” he said.

Students agree. This mix makes the “Catastrophe” class, and courses like it, very popular.

“It is fascinating to watch how they construct their arguments against a peer, rather than a student,” said Matthew DeButts ’14. “I learn a lot from their back-and-forth. … I find myself more and more concerned about the topic as the semester progresses.”

“I feel like Professor Douglas is more of a lecturer; he has a very charismatic style,” said Heather Richard ’13. “Professor Sarat has more of a Socratic method, calling on students and having them lead the discussion. They both have efficient and interesting styles; they’re possibly my two favorite professors at Amherst.”

The course treats catastrophe as a sudden and often dramatic disruption of the existing normative order of a community, often resulting in large scale human suffering and death. Douglas draws a distinction between this and tragedy, which carries the ancient Greek understanding of catharsis, and apocalypse, a Christian vision of a final disaster cleansing the world of sin. The course starts not with Newtown or Jonestown but with the Book of Job, the biblical story of one man’s apparently monumental—and inexplicable—suffering. They move from Job’s misfortunes to those of Oedipus, who accepts his punishment, and then onward through philosophy, literature, and history.

But the class isn’t simply about parsing out what is tragedy and what is catastrophe, the teachers say. Their intent is to examine students’ assumptions about the taken-for-granted ways in which communities are held together and how we react when they come apart in the face of a catastrophic event.

“I think of teaching as taking students on a journey from the familiar to the strange,” Sarat said, “Starting with what they think they know, what they think they understand, and then playing with that understanding, so as to deepen and increase its complexity. This course is a concrete exemplification of that.”

It makes sense to study this subject across departmental lines, said the instructors, noting that catastrophes, human and natural, are the focus of much law and much art rise of technology and democracy has done little to abate fears about disaster.

“Anyone who has read Hobbes’ Leviathan understands how the catastrophic is central to the constitution of the liberal legal and political order,” Sarat said. “But there is a more contemporary way of describing it, which is to think about the United States post-9/11, and the growth of the idea of a permanent state of emergency or the growth of the idea of ‘preparedness.’”

“Catastrophe is as fresh as today’s newspaper,” he said.

 

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