Category: disasters

Getting your bearings if you were surprised

In the wake of an election that has chagrined many, I made up a list of 10 films for students in my “Disasters” course. My intent was to help them get a sense of why we are where we are today, in a way that wouldn’t require them to add to the mountains of reading and problem sets they already do for their courses.

The list is below–they’re mostly documentaries. But not the boring kind. I decided to leave it handwritten, rather than type it up, because I think we could all use traces of each other as human beings right now. Plus, that way you can see my “Depress-o-meter” rating for each film (in the margin). I did that so you won’t end up watching something terribly depressing when you’re already crushed, as my students seemed to be this Wednesday  when I saw them in class.

Disasters Course: Choose Your Own Disaster

In a comment of no more than 750-1000 words, discuss the disaster you chose to research and make an argument about its root cause.

Be sure to include  answers to the following somewhere within your essay: What type of a disaster is the disaster you chose (i.e. what was its root cause)? What does studying this particular disaster tell us that we wouldn’t have known from simply hearing about the disaster in the news as it was happening? How did your disaster look different when viewed through contemporaneous news sources, versus academic sources that studied the disaster after the fact?  How does the disaster you chose fit with in with, or differ from, other disasters that we’ve looked at in class? Why is it (or why isn’t it) important?

Be specific in supporting your argument with evidence—cite your sources using parenthetical citations in the text of your essay, or–if you prefer–by using endnotes. Due by 10pm on Nov 24th. Please leave an extra line of whitespace between each of your papragraphs for formatting (otherwise the paragraphs run together).

Disasters Class: Nader, Carson, Bhopal, and the Dalkon Shield

As discussed in class, this phase of the course asks you to start to think critically about multiple historical events in relation to each other. For this blog comment, think about the “disasters” we’ve studied since the midterm–namely the ones we discussed through Nader’s and Carson’s writings, the responses to Bhopal, and the article on the Dalkon Shield.

Write a 600-800 word essay that identifies one similarity shared by all of these disasters, and one difference that emerges. The difference you identify may separate out one disaster from the rest, or it may help you group the disasters into 2 or 3 groups that have salient congruences within each group, and salient differences between the groups. As usual, go for the points of similarity and difference that are less obvious, and therefore more revealing, as you construct your argument. What new insights do your comparisons reveal? Discuss them and how you came to them. Post your essay in a comment by November 3, at 10pm.

Disasters Class: Windscale

We’ve spent a fair amount of time in this class talking about how perception plays a major role in defining a disaster. For the unit on Windscale, the class did an experiment: initially, you found historical, contemporaneous news stories on this nuclear accident in the Times of London , without knowing any details of the event. At that point, I asked you to come up with an argument about what happened based on the 5 most interesting articles you found, which also formed a coherent narrative or had a similar theme. The idea was for you to put yourselves in the shoes of someone in Britain encountering the event as it unfolded and see what impression you got.

Next, you will read recent articles and watch a documentary about Windscale to see how only recently has the historical narrative of what happened started to solidify. For many years, what the public knew about the event was partial, incomplete, and inaccurate. At this juncture I want you to think big: what kind of a disaster was this? What caused it? And, would you have gotten this impression if you hadn’t watched the documentary or a similar historical narrative, but only seen the event unfold in news media at the time? What do your answers to these questions tell us about disasters that we might not already have understood?

These are all questions I want you to keep in mind as you write your next essay in the blog comments. For that essay I want you to focus on the following: How did your impression of the incident at Windscale change between the time you did your article search in the London Times and after seeing the documentary? Use specific evidence from your news articles (cite the article title and date of publication using parenthetical citations) and specific details from the film to support your argument. (500-600 words, due Monday, October 7th by 10AM.) Be mindful of the advice and comments I gave you with your grade on the first essay post.

Disasters Class: Sweatshops, Then and Now

Today in class you watched a documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. You also read articles about the much more recent sweatshop tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Using specifics from the film and the articles you read, discuss some of the similarities between the Triangle fire and the Dhaka building collapse. Your essay should be 350 to 500 words and should have a clear argument. In other words, in comparing these two events, your essay should tell us something new and non-obvious that leads us to a better understanding of the history of labor.

Disasters Class: Post Your Article Links

Post the links for your 4 articles in a comment here. Run your searches in Galvin library’s online newspaper databases, not just on the open web using Google. Be sure the articles come from reputable news sources like major newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal) or news magazines (The Economist, Wired, Newsweek). As a reminder, the topics are:

1) Dumpster diving

2) Timothy Jones, an expert on food waste and former head of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona

3) Bill Clinton’s “Good Samaritan Act”

4) Locovore movement


Disasters Class: In-Class Exercise

For class today, you listened to a podcast from NPR’s This American Life and Planet Money that sought to explain mortgage-backed securities and the housing crisis. You also read an article about the recent problems at Knight Capital.

Today in class you will think about these two events to try to come up with potential solutions to the problems presented. The catch is that the solutions cannot rely solely on the action of national governments, or on the actions of consumers (in other words, a “buyer beware” model). You should also include a brief explanation of why those two models of solving the problem wouldn’t be ideal.

Before you present that orally in class, however, I would like you to fire up your neurons by posting a brief paragraph (no more than 4 sentences) on how the podcast and the article are related. The goal will be to post that quickly enough so that your classmates can read it while they’re working on the rest of the assignment.

Note: if you were not present in class today, you should write out an answer to all of the above and post it in the comments in order to get credit for the 4th blog assignment.

Disasters Class: Assignment 3

Note: This post represents a live-blogging experiment in class. I put up the prompt during class and students worked in teams of 2 to come up with an argument, for which they got online and IRL feedback from me and other students, before posting their final collaborative essays.


Last class we ended by discussing Nader’s and Carson’s insights together.  We came up with the idea that sometimes culture, government, and industry are in a causality loop and that infrastructure, perhaps counterintuitively, cannot be effectively planned, but can only respond to problems and disasters–“real life testing” in a sense. But, this idea is not really going to work for the Bhopal disaster. Think about how to create a new insight that has explanatory meaning for Bhopal.

Bhopal Memorial Statue:
Your comment should answer the following:

How does the Bhopal disaster differ from the environmental and public health disasters described by Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson? In your answer, have a clear argument and address how infrastructure and government play a role. The key here is to come up with a new insight, being mindful of what we’ve already gone over during last class. It may help to begin with clearly, concisely defining and characterizing each specific “disaster” Nader and Carson brought to light, and then move on to discussing Bhopal. Try to keep it to no more than 3 paragraphs.

Work in groups of 2 and post a first comment that clearly states your argument in no more than 1 to 2 sentences. If your  argument is replicated by someone else’s group, both groups will have to change their arguments, to make it less obvious and more original. In order to share your arguments and posts, I will approve the comments in real time. Once your argument is approved verbally or online by me, you will do a finalized comment with your whole essay. The deadline on the syllabus still applies. Be sure that your single comment has both of your wordpress handles on it so I know who worked on which entry.

Disasters Class: Assignment 2

After watching the Pruitt Igoe Myth documentary, directed by Chad Friedrichs (a professor of film at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri) answer the following in a blog comment of no more than 3 paragraphs:

The documentary explodes the myth that Pruitt and Igoe failed because of modernist architecture or the people who lived there. It does this by showing us the “bigger story” that has been boiled down–or disregarded– to create these reductive myths.

What was one element that you found surprising about this “bigger story” and how might it help us understand the perils of urban development more broadly? Use examples from previous class units that deal with the history of urban development in your answer and focus on systems. In addition to having a clear argument that teaches us something new and interesting about urbanization, try to show change over time in your answer.

For more information about what the film covered, see the official website.

Due by 10 pm (not 10 am as it says on your syllabus) on Oct. 4. No credit given for comments submitted late.

Welcome, students.

It’s that time of year again, when we return to the classroom and try to make old lessons new. At least in history. Fortunately, that isn’t hard when you teach history of technology. There’s nothing like a rapidly changing contemporary landscape to put past technological developments into new perspective on a continual basis.

This year I’m doing a new course, somewhat cheekily titled “Disasters!” It looks at technological change through the lens of regulatory and social paradigm shifts caused by disasters: environmental, organizational, medical and more. It also shows students how to work with historical newspaper sources and databases, because as we discussed in class earlier this week, one of the key defining elements of a disaster is the public perception of an event as such. We are fortunate enough to now have the London Times Digital Archive for this purpose (prior to this year IIT had only very limited newspaper databases–I hope we’ll be able to get the historical New York Times archive sometime soon, despite its expense).

Sketch of early electronic (mostly) computing landscape doodled as a study aid for my students last fall.

I’m also teaching my History of Computing course (aka Computing in History), revamped with new articles and learning activities that incorporate just-opened primary documents from my summer trip to the UK National Archives. Later in the semester you’ll be seeing some blog commentary from my students as part of their class assignments.

In fact–students–this post would be a great time for you to test out leaving a comment. You don’t have to use your real name if you don’t want to, but be sure to pick one handle and stick with it for the rest of the semester. Answer this: how many unread messages do you currently have in your main email inbox? For me, it’s 9,607. Yikes.

Don’t worry if your comment doesn’t show up immediately: I need to approve them.