Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Professor Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat pictured here moderating a Q&A session with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her visit to campus October 3, 2019.

When Austin Sarat, associate dean of the faculty and the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, decided to teach a noncredit summer course on the topic of catastrophe, he was inspired by the surroundings that 2020 has provided: pandemic and civil unrest.

But he also had a less topical reason for convening the 12-session “Disaster, Catastrophe and Democracy” class:  “I hate when students leave,” he admits. “Every year, at the end of the semester, I go into what I call my blue period. I miss them, and I miss the intensity of the kinds of connections that happen in Amherst classrooms.”

As Sarat explained in a recent Daily Hampshire Gazette column: “I sensed that my students needed me more than ever, even when our only contact was virtual. And I’m not sure that they knew how much I needed them this semester.”

So he invited students from several of his recent courses to tackle the concept of catastrophe. Over a dozen said yes.

Sarat wrote up a course description: “At a time when we are confronting an unprecedented threat,” it reads in part, “we need a better appreciation of the way disaster shapes society and haunts our social and political imagination.” He explained to students that there’d be no grades, and that “the only thing I’m going to ask of you is what I know you already bring, which is seriousness and goodwill.”

The group meets via Zoom for about three hours each week. Topics have included, for example, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the allocation of scarce medical resources during COVID-19 and the emergency powers of the U.S. presidency. Students have explored how humanity makes sense of catastrophe through writings such as the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan, and through films such as The Sweet Hereafter and Judgment at Nuremberg. The final question they’ll consider is: Will democracy survive disaster? 

Key players have made guest appearances in the Zoom sessions, including several with Amherst connections. Among them: U.S. Sen. Christopher A. Coons ’85 of Delaware, who discussed the challenges of governing during contentious times. “It was an honor to participate," Coons said after the class.  “My time at Amherst was an important period of personal growth, where I was challenged to view the world from different perspectives. Professor Sarat not only mentored me; he pushed me. He truly has had a lasting impact on my life.”

Ryan Kyle ’23 describes the course as “a wonderful opportunity to learn about something that is super-topical.” And In the words of Rebecca Novick '21: “This pandemic has forced us to confront aspects of our democracy that we may not like very much, and I have really enjoyed taking a closer look.” 

For his part, Sarat says his goal in teaching is always to “represent Amherst at its best,” whether he’s working with students formally or informally, in a seminar room or over Zoom. Of this summer course, he says, “I hope it’s a manifestation of the commitment to being rigorous and demanding—but also the commitment to caring for and caring about the students.”