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Masters of Disasters

Class Teaches Students About Tragedies, From Real World to Silver Screen

By Liam Farrell

Godzilla reading illustration

Illustration by Jason Keisling

In a new history course titled “Cities of Real and Imagined Disaster,” students study everything from hurricanes and earthquakes to “Godzilla.”

While the current generation of UMD students was raised in a post-Sept. 11 era of terror attacks and climate change, one course this semester proposes that they could still learn a thing or two about disaster from giant gorillas and radioactive lizards.

That’s the crux of a new history course titled “Cities of Real and Imagined Disaster,” which has spent the last few months taking students through everything from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, with a sprinkling of fantasy thrown in, to illustrate how humans and our institutions interact with the dangerously unexpected.

“Sci-fi movies and monsters are social critiques. They can also tell us a lot about the importance of emergency preparation, the potential impact of terrorism and climate change,” said Daniel Richter, a lecturer in the Department of History who is teaching the course. “They are not far-fetched entirely.”

Students watched the 1954 film “Godzilla,” for example, to understand how Japan wrestled with the impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Richter said. The original “King Kong,” released in 1933, was influenced by the economic wreckage of the Great Depression.

Fiction provided only a slice of the course, however—a useful hook, Richter said, to get students to examine events and consequences they might otherwise never talk about in a college classroom. One lecture involved discussing how disasters can have “contested meanings,” such as when Holocaust deniers use the Dresden firebombing to try and minimize Nazi war crimes.

“(Students) appreciate disaster in a way that really speaks to their generational experience,” Richter said.

Andrew Goldstrom ’19, a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in Montgomery County since 2012, said he came to the class with an understanding of the unpredictability of disaster, but not always the human influence. He was especially shocked by the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, which was exacerbated by dangerous building materials and inadequate emergency response and resulted in the deaths of 72 people.

“(I’ve learned) the role politics plays in responding to disaster,” he said, “and how those disasters themselves shape sociopolitical factors.”

And while students know generally that climate change will shape their future, Amy Iandiorio ’19 said the class has shown how the villain in a hurricane, earthquake or tornado isn’t always Mother Nature—humans have a role in planning for and responding to those events.

“Natural disasters aren’t natural in totality,” she said. “Everything has a human impact to it.”

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College of Arts and Humanities

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