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HISTORY 3CH3 Natural&Tech.Disasters

Academic Year: Winter 2017

Term: Winter

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Dr. Michael Egan

Email: egan@mcmaster.ca

Office: Chester New Hall 610

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 24134


Office Hours: By appointment

Course Objectives:

Catastrophic History contains a series of learning outcomes.

Introduction to thematic history Students will receive an introduction to the history of natural and technological disasters and their influence on social, cultural, political, and economic history across time and place. Concentration on a theme (disasters) forces students to engage with history differently than they might when studying a particular nation-state.

Development of digital analytical skills Natural and technological disasters serve as a vehicle for students to acquire and develop digital research and analytical skills. Considerable class time will be spent introducing specific types of software and teaching students how to “see” history through a series of novel perspectives. This is a hands-on experience. Students should plan to bring their laptops to class in order to conduct in-class work. Much of this will take place in groups, where students can help and learn from each other. Students are expected to further hone their skills outside the classroom.

Development of communication skills Effective communications skills will be stressed and developed in HIST 3CH3. Students will engage in a series of writing and non-writing methods of communicating their research findings over the course of the semester.

Basic historical research & analysis In HIST 3CH3, students are producers, rather than consumers, of knowledge. Research and discovery constitute the lynchpin of course aims.

Emphasis on the value of collaborative work Shared efforts produce superior results. The culminating project for this course will task students to work in teams.

Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

In lieu of textbooks, HIST 3CH3 requires that students have access to the following tools:

1. XMind 8 (be sure to purchase the Academia Discount)

2. Students are also expected to have access to OCR software. I highly recommend subscribing to Adobe Acrobat Pro for the duration of the semester. 

3. Students should also register for a Google Account in order to facilitate some of the collaborative work we will be doing.


A Word on Course Tools: Given the focus on student discovery, this HIST 3CH3 prioritizes software over course texts, while striving to keep course costs to a minimum. Course readings will be housed on the Avenue to Learn page. The lone expense is a tool called XMind 8, which assists in visualizing and mapping ideas. We will make regular use of this software throughout the course, so it is a required purchase. It is available for both Mac and Windows. I hope, too, that it is a program that students might find of some organizational use beyond the course. I also insist that students have access to optical character recognition (OCR) software. There are a number of different options. I find that Adobe’s is excellent—and I can provide some instruction on how to use it. But there are free ones out there. Frequently, you get what you pay for (Adobe’s monthly rates are not prohibitive), but students are invited to look around for whatever reader suits their needs and budget. We will also make use of the Google Drive for some timeline work and for some collaborative efforts. It would be wise to register for a Google account as early as possible to expedite collaborative work.

Method of Assessment:

Grade Breakdown:

Participation:                                         5%

Reading Quizzes:                                 10%

In-Class Collaborative Exercises:         10%

Mind-Mapping Submission:                   10%

Slidecast:                                               20%

Student Blog:                                         45%

    Set-up:                                                1%

    Research Statement:                          2%

    Annotated Bibliography:                      3%

    Timeline:                                              4%

    Primary Source Analysis:                    5%

    Response Piece:                                 5%

    Visual Analysis:                                   5%

    Interlocution:                                        5%

    Overall Content:                                  15%

Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Deadlines are firm. Because computers and printers and bandwidth connections invariably tend to crash at exactly the point when assignments are due, students are strongly encouraged to avoid waiting until the last minute. In the 21st century, in a course on disasters, technology glitches do not constitute a satisfactory excuse for late submission. The same applies for the reading quizzes. Since the syllabus and course schedule is available to students in advance, I recommend that you begin readings early in order to avoid any untimely illnesses or other misadventures. A 10% per day penalty (to a maximum of 20%) will be levied against late assignments. Late assignments will only be accepted within two weeks of the stated deadline. Late assignments will be graded without comment.

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at www.mcmaster.ca/academicintegrity

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at mcmaster.ca/msaf/. If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail sas@mcmaster.ca. For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:


Wednesday, 4 January: Course Introduction

    Notes Syllabus & course overview

Friday, 6 January: What is a Disaster?


    “Definition of Disaster”

Wednesday, 11 January: Catastrophic Vocabulary

Friday, 13 January: Lisbon Earthquake

    Notes    Disasters and the making of the modern world

        Brief introduction to XMind

        Wordpress site must be registered and link submitted to Avenue DropBox by                 noon on Monday, 16 January 2017


    Voltaire, “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster”

    Rousseau, Letter to Voltaire, 18 August 1756

    Bressan, “November 1, 1755”

    European Review (6 essays)

Wednesday, 18 January: Lisbon Earthquake, too

    Notes    Lisbon Earthquake group-write

        Each group must submit their group-write piece by the end of class.

Friday, 20 January: Timelining

    Notes     Introduction to Timeline JS. 

        Topics for next Wednesday’s collaborative work will     be assigned.

        Individual research statement must be posted on blog & link submitted to Avenue             DropBox by noon on Monday, 23 January 2017

Wednesday, 25 January: Disaster Timelines

    Notes    Collaborative exercise in building a timeline with Timeline JS

        Prepare ~150 words & collect one visual artifact on your pre-arranged disaster             prior to class

        Each student must submit their own timeline by noon on 26 January 2017

Friday, 27 January: Seismology & Citizen Science

    Notes    Whiteboard group work on the making of seismological knowledge        


    Valencius, “Accounts of the New Madrid Earthquakes”

    Coen, “The Tongues of Seismology in Nineteenth-Century Switzerland”

Wednesday, 1 February: Mt. Tambora

    Notes    In-class mind-mapping exercise (intro to XMind)


    Townsend, “Year Without Summer”

    Oeschger Centre, “Tambora and the ‘Year Without Summer’ of 1816

Friday, 3 February: Doing History

    Notes    Develop argument, narrative, flow as keys to history communication in XMind

        Individual research timeline should be posted on blog & link delivered to Avenue             DropBox by noon on Monday, 6 February 2017

Wednesday, 8 February: Cholera & Disease in History

    Notes    Introduction to word clouds & visualizing historical texts


Friday, 10 February: Mt. Krakatoa

    Notes    Introduction to historical research & source hunting

Wednesday, 15 February: Earthquakes: Comparative Newspaper Analysis

    Notes    Comparative earthquake analysis group-write

        Each group must submit their group-write piece by the end of class.


    London, “The Story of an Eyewitness”

    Hovey, “Earthquakes: Their Causes and Effects”

    The Nation, “Earthquakes: Then and Now”

Friday, 17 February: Earthquakes: Comparative Newspaper Analysis, too

    Notes    Introduction to Voyant & analyzing textual proximity as a research method

        Annotated Bibliography should be completed on blog & link should be submitted             to Avenue Dropbox by noon on Monday, 20 February 2017

Wednesday, 22 February & Friday, 24 February: Midterm Recess

Wednesday, 1 March: Talking Floods

    Notes    More fun with word clouds & Voyant, mapping change over time


    McPhee, “Atchafalaya”

    Benjamin, “The Mississippi Flood of 1927”

Friday, 3 March: Dam Failures

    Notes    Topics for next Wednesday’s collaborative work will     be assigned

        Visual Analysis posted on blog & link posted to Avenue DropBox by noon on                 Monday, 6 March 2017


    Johnstown Flood (video)

    Blitz, “On Occasions Like This, I Envy the Dead”

    Petroski, “St. Francis Dam”

Wednesday, 8 March: Technological Disasters

    Notes    Collaborative bibliographic timeline construction

        Prepare ~50 words, and collect 6-10 scholarly sources and one visual artifact on             your pre-arranged disaster prior to class.

        Each student must submit their own timeline by noon on 9 March 2017.

Friday, 10 March: Acts of God: Are Disasters Natural?

    Notes    Lecture & discussion on the language of disaster


    Talman, “Nature, the Despot, is Still Untamed”

Wednesday, 15 March: Catastrophe & History

    Notes    Mind-mapping catastrophic history as a method of historical intervention

Friday, 17 March: Risk Society

    Notes    History of the future: How risk became the centrepiece of disaster analysis

        Mind-mapping vulnerabilities


    Beck, “Risk Society”

Wednesday, 22 March: A New Species of Trouble

    Notes    In-class poster work on the new risky technologies


    Osnos, “The Fallout”

    Fortun, “Advocacy After Bhopal”

Friday, 24 March: Response, Management, Mitigation

     Notes    Lecture & discussion on the lessons taken from disasters

        Mind-Mapping Submission due in Avenue DropBox by noon on Monday, 27 March             2017


    Elliot, Eisinger, & Sullivan, “The Red Cross’ Secret Disaster”

    Elliot & Sullivan, “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Only             Built Five Homes”

    Knowles, “Lessons in the Rubble”

    Bliss, “What We Can—and Can’t—Learn from the Floods in Baton Rouge”

Wednesday, 29 March & Friday, 31 March: No Class

Wednesday, 5 April: Disaster (& Historians) in the 21st Century

    Notes    Discuss & visualize 9/11 & Katrina in disaster history context

        Slidecast due by noon on Friday, 7 April 2017. YouTube link must be submitted in             Avenue DropBox. Make sure privacy settings permit viewing


    Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”

    Steinberg, “The Drowning of America”

    Klein, “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”

Monday, 10 April: Final date for blog updates before grading

Other Course Information:

Course Description:

They typically feature as episodic footnotes in more traditional historical accounts, but disasters have had a profound influence on human histories. This course means to flip the traditional narrative, and consider a revised history where catastrophe is one of the prime movers of modern history. It takes as its underlying premise the suggestion that natural and (more recently) technological disasters—their impact, their remediation, and indeed their anticipation—have played a critical role in the emergence of the modern world. In a world evermore influenced by climate change, economic insecurity, and peoples in crisis, a careful examination of disaster and its historical relationship to the human condition is not only warranted but essential.

This course explores a modern history of disasters, while putting heavy emphasis on student discovery through the use of digital tools.


Rather than structuring the course around lectures, an emphasis will be put on developing in-class research skills and techniques in order to facilitate student inquiry (there will also be some lecturing—though I promise to keep it limited and upbeat). This means that attendance is more or less mandatory.

Participation is just that. While there will be opportunities to engage in classroom and small group discussion, participation also implies the deliberate investment in active learning. Class activities require student buy-in in order to realize success and self-discovery. This component of the overall grade evaluates student attendance and assumes that students will come to class prepared to discuss the assigned readings and to take on the outlined tasks. 

Participation also insists that we will all respect each other, even when we disagree. (I will not tolerate aggressive contributions that discourage others from participating; such behaviour will be reflected in a low grade). In addition, participation assumes that we will bring our knowledge, ideas, and commitment to class, including ideas from lectures and the readings. Think about counter-arguments and questions to ask.

Participation does not mean perpetual contributions. It also involves cooperation and listening. And it demands active attention in the class and to its discussion. When giving a participation grade, I consider the relevance of students’ remarks to the readings, critical skills, depth of analysis, understanding of material, amount of participation, and clarity of thought and expression. Often, the best participation grades are awarded to students who ask questions that take us beyond the immediate scope of the readings and/or connect their thoughts to other topics previously raised. I do not mark simply on quantity. Nor do I expect students to agree with me. I do expect that we will engage in thoughtful, sometimes robust, debate and discussion. These are the criteria for marking class participation. Finding it difficult to speak in class is not an acceptable excuse for lack of participation; students are encouraged to integrate themselves into the culture of the class and find ways to contribute in smaller group settings.


Reading Quizzes: 

A series of reading-related, multiple choice questions are posted on the course Avenue to Learn site. The relevant readings are marked in the schedule below with an asterisk. The quizzes are designed to demonstrate comprehension of course readings. These must be completed prior to the class in which the readings are listed in the syllabus.


In-Class Collaborative Exercises:

More heads work better than one. Over the course of the semester, students will engage in graded group work in the classroom. In two instances, students will produce a short “group-write” summary statement of assigned readings, designed to demonstrate a shared understanding of the topic in question. These should be ~300 words in length. Student groups will submit their statement as a group by the end of the class session.

On two other occasions, groups will work together to develop data for disaster timelines. This will likely involve doing some modest preparatory work ahead of class time. In class, the groups will discuss and prepare the timelines using Timeline JS. Each student is required to submit their own version of the timeline within 24 hours of the end of the class time.



The major portion of the students’ evaluation in HIST 3CH3 will be their development and maintenance of a blog that they should keep active over the course of the semester. Students are required to register a Wordpress page (this is free) for this purpose early in the semester. They will be tasked with a series of required posts and encouraged to explore their own curiosities with their own research topic. This assignment requires that students select a specific disaster as a case study early in the semester and develop a broader research agenda around it. Their focus needn’t be the disaster in its entirety. Students might be more interested in asking how the state responds to or mitigates disaster, or how societies prepare for potential catastrophe. Similarly, students might be interested in how race, class, or gender might inform disaster in its aftermath. But they should have a case study-based anchor. Students are invited to pursue their topic freely, adding posts over the course of the semester as they see fit. Success in this portion of the assignment will very much stem from regular contributions, rather than a mad dash at semester’s end (this approach will be penalized). In addition to building their area of expertise, students will be required to submit the following posts:

Research statement: Relatively early in the semester, students should determine their research focus for the semester (23 January 2017). This piece should outline the topic as an introduction. It needn’t have a thesis statement, but it should explain and justify the selected topic and hint at the various directions in which subsequent investigation might lead.

Timeline: Students will have acquired experience working with timeline software by this stage of the semester, and they should demonstrate their familiarity with it by producing a more extensive timeline for their own research project by Monday, 6 February 2017. For this assignment, students may use either Timeline JS or XMind.

Annotated bibliography: Prior to the effective execution of any research paper, students should have a feel for the lay of the land. That requires building a bibliography of sources germane to their topic. The bibliography should be as exhaustive as possible, drawing primarily from scholarly work. It should consist of primary and secondary sources. Students should also provide ~50 summaries of at least 8 scholarly secondary sources they feel are most important to their work. The bibliography should be compiled before Monday, 20 February 2017.

Primary source analysis: One of the great pleasures in studying history is to learn of past events through the words and experiences of people who actually witnessed them. Students should devote at least one post to their voices, drawing on newspaper reporting, diaries, letters, or other relevant texts to help bring the past to life.

Visual analysis: While there is the potential for an analysis of some visual artifact to overlap with the primary source analysis above, students should also consider how non-textual representations have shaped our understanding of the past. Taking either a monument or a photograph or painting, students should use it as a springboard into further analysis of their work. Students should aim to complete this task by Monday, 6 March 2017.

Response piece: Rather than blogging in a vacuum, students are encouraged to explore their classmates’ pages (a master list will be distributed). One of their posts should link to a classmate’s post and be response to their discussion. This isn’t meant to ignite debate (although it can), but rather to acknowledge the community of ideas that this class means to foster. Indeed, a particular post might inspire a rethinking of one’s own topic or invite inquiry along a heretofore unconsidered avenue. There is no deadline for this particular assignment, beyond 10 April 2017, at which point the blogs will be evaluated as a whole.

Interlocution: Also before 10 April 2017, students should engage a classmate working on a similar topic for a podcast discussion. The oral discussion should be recorded (not typed) and last 8-10 minutes. In effect, the student leading the discussion is the one who is being evaluated. In the interest of variety, students may not reverse roles. Instead, they should look for other classmates with whom to interlocute.

*Note, too, that students must have registered their Wordpress site and posted the link in the appropriate Avenue to Learn DropBox by noon on Monday, 16 January 2017.    

These specific submissions should be posted to the blog, and students should paste the link into the appropriate Avenue to Learn DropBox by the stated deadline.


Mind-Mapping Submission:

Distinct from the course blog (though students should certainly feel free to post their mind map to their blog), students will submit a mind map that outlines the plans for a major research paper on their semester-long project. The mind map should include a ~250-word introduction and overview of their topic. It should state their intended argument and the sources they mean to bring to bear on what amounts to an imaginary paper. The rest of the submission will consist of mapping their hypothetical essay, using XMind. The exercise is designed to gauge how students organize their ideas and work when constructing a traditional essay. Note that students are not required to write the finished piece, but the structure should be consistent with how they ultimately present their slidecast (see below) albeit with more depth. The mind maps should be posted to the appropriate Avenue to Learn DropBox no later than noon on Monday, 27 March 2017.



The culminating project in HIST 3CH3 is a slidecast (slides + audio) in pecha kucha format: 20 images @ 20 seconds each for a total of 6:40. The slidecast should be on the same topic as their blog and mind map. Slidecasts should be posted on YouTube (make sure that privacy settings make it possible for me to access your presentation) and the link submitted to Avenue to Learn by noon on Friday, 7 April 2017. Students should also submit a transcript of their presentation, complete with full citations. Students will be evaluated on style (adhering to the strict format), research, content, and efficiency. 10% of the slidecast’s evaluation will be assigned to the transcript. Note that the assignment will not be considered complete until both slidecast url and transcript have been submitted.

Final Exam:

There is no final exam in HIST 3CH3.

E‐mail Communication:

Please do not contact me using the Avenue Mail. I will occasionally send a message to the entire class through that medium, but I do not check my Avenue mail frequently. Instead, send me an e-mail to my regular McMaster address (egan@mcmaster.ca) from yours.

Note, too, that I mean to keep fairly strict e-mail hours. Do not expect a reply to your e-mail between 20.00 and 9.00. And do not expect to receive an e-mail reply on weekends. Which is to say: if you have a pressing question or concern, do not leave it until 21.00 on Friday evening to send me a message. I endeavour to reply to e-mails promptly—especially those that are time sensitive—but I apologize in advance if it takes more than a couple of days to reply.