Natural Disasters in the Americas — Syllabus

Professor: Dr. Claire Perrott

Course Description

Fire, drought, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and pollution shape the natural and human world. In this reading-based class we will study different disasters from modern day Canada to Argentina. Some questions we will examine are: How have natural disasters shaped human history? How have the explanations for and responses to disasters changed over time? What does this tell us about human culture and society? How “natural” are natural disasters? Who has suffered most from environmental crises?

Land Acknowledgement

This course will be held on Marian University’s main campus that is located on the ancestral lands of Native peoples who were removed unjustly. We in this community are the beneficiaries of that removal. We honor the heritage of the Native people, what they teach us about stewardship of the earth, and their continuing efforts today to protect the planet.

Learning Objectives

This course also has the following learning objectives: Students will

  • Locate primary and secondary sources by using library resources.
  • Analyze primary and secondary sources to identify, comprehend, and critique historical debates.
  • Explain historical trends involving natural disasters.
  • Evaluate the connections between humans and the natural world.
  • Develop a historical research project.

Course Materials

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Pyne, Stephen J. The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next. Univ of California Press, 2021.

Horowitz, Andy. Katrina: A History, 1915-2015. Harvard University Press, 2020.

Buchenau, Jürgen, and Lyman L. Johnson, eds. Aftershocks: Earthquakes and Popular Politics in Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

Grade Breakdown

Grades will be updated on Canvas throughout the semester, and it is up to you to check your grades frequently. If you believe a grade has been posted incorrectly, you must let me know within two weeks of the grade being posted or I will be unable to change it.

30% Participation

15% Primary Source Assignment (3 x 5%)

10% Discussion Leader

20% Essays (2 x 10%)

25% Final Project


Participation (30% of total grade):

The success of this course depends on the enthusiastic participation of each individual, which it is why the largest percentage of your grade is based on daily participation. It is absolutely essential that you come to class prepared to discuss the course content (lectures, readings, videos, digital history, etc). This means that you should have the readings finished before class and that you should bring a copy of your notes/questions on the material to class. Participation points will be assessed based on in class discussions but also may be assessed by: attendance, reading quiz, or in-class essay. The format may differ each class and the assessment is subject to change over the semester. Disregard for classroom policies as defined in the syllabus and laid out in our classroom-decorum-discussion will result in a loss of participation points.

Participation grades will be recorded in Canvas once a week with consideration of the Self-Assessment you complete each class period. One of your lowest weekly grades will be dropped, no questions asked. See below for the make-up work policy.

Primary Source Assignment (15% of total grade):

For this assignment you will find and present to the class a primary source related to the weekly readings. Think about it like show-and-tell. Throughout the semester you will present three (3) historical primary sources to the class, one of each format:

  • Newspaper article
  • Image
  • Popular culture item/reference

Students will present the item to the class and give a brief description, background, and describe the relevance to historical study of disasters (roughly 5 minutes). We will then, as a class, discuss and analyze how the primary source relates to the readings. Each student will sign up on Canvas for their three time slots during the semester.

Discussion Leader (10% of total grade):

Once during the semester, you will lead the discussion based on the assigned readings. The responsibilities of the discussion leader include designing 5-7 open ended discussion questions that will promote thoughtful analysis of the material for at least 30 minutes. The discussion leaders will read their questions aloud and facilitate the conversation with follow-up comments and questions. You are required to meet with the professor before leading discussion.

Essays (20% of total grade):

You will write two 1000-word essays throughout the semester. I will provide you with a menu of prompts based on the books we read, and you are to choose 2 and write 2 separate essays. At least one must be turned in before Spring Break and the second must be turned in before Week 12. I will not accept late work for these essays under any circumstance.

Final Project (25% of total grade):

Beginning in Week 12, you will be working on a research project that involves library research, thesis development, and historical analysis. You will produce historical research in a digital format. You must contact me by email before the end of Week 12 to get approval for your project. You should feel free to pursue topics of personal interest and I encourage you to find a natural disaster that happened in your hometown, just keep in mind that you will need to have plenty of supportive evidence (both scholarly secondary sources and historical primary sources). The end result will be an engaging and creative research project presented in digital format. The assignment challenges you to use the historical toolkit that you will develop in this course while cultivating and pursuing your own research interests.

Deadlines and Make-up work Policy

There are three deadlines in this class that are non-negotiable, with no excuses: 1) one essay is due before Spring Break on March 6th before 11:59pm, 2) the second essay is due on April 10 before 11:59pm and 3) the final is due Monday, May 2 before 11:59pm.

You will choose the dates of your Primary Source and Discussion Leader assignments. If you fail to present on the day you select, you will receive a 0. This is non-negotiable. You may switch your selected days with a classmate without letting me know and still receive full credit as long as the switch is consensual between both students.

You may request make-up work to replace your participation grade if you must miss class. To request the make-up assignment, email the professor before the missed class and submit your assignment via email within one week of the missed class. Keep in mind that you get to drop a participation grade equal to one week with no questions asked.

Support for Student Well-being

Considering the general stress that comes with being a student during a global pandemic, students may encounter setbacks from time to time that can impact academic performance. If you encounter difficulties and need assistance, it’s important to reach out to me. I am here to help you navigate this class and college demands in general. I can also refer you to resources available to you through the University.

**Our Learning Environment:

When the opportunity for discussion in class arises, it is important that we engage in respectful conversation, and we are generous with each other. At times, we will explore complex and polarizing concepts. Conversations about culture, religion/spirituality, race, gender, class and sexuality can be difficult. Consequently, our classroom serves as a safe space for everyone to talk, explore, and most importantly, learn. Disagreements are okay. However, your comments should refer to the material, not classmates. In discussion, you will be expected to support your arguments in writing and conversation with textual references. Disrespectful behavior, including the usage of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic language, or terminology that is hostile to any minority group, will not be tolerated.

Laptops/Electronic Devices Policy (created by students)

Use of cell phones and smart watches is not allowed during class. You may use tablets and laptops in class to access readings and to take notes. Use of tablets and laptops during presentations and group discussion is discouraged except when referencing articles or notes. We will use an honor system if you choose to make use of electronic devices during class: it is your responsibility to use your devices for class purposes. You will self-assess your participation accordingly.

I reserve the right to ask you to put away a device and use pen/pencil and paper if you fail to pay attention or distract those around you. I also reserve the right to ban all electronic devices for the entire class other than those allowed for accessible notetaking registered with the University. Disruptive behavior related to electronic devices will be seen as improper classroom behavior in violation of the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

Improper Behavior, Cheating, and Plagiarism

I expect respectful behavior in my class. Respect your classmates, me, and yourselves. Improper behavior is prohibited in class meetings, during office hours, on the Canvas page, and in any format related to this course. Any violations will be delt with in accordance with the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

Academic honesty violations (cheating and plagiarism) are very serious and will be dealt with in accordance with the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. For more information on academic honesty, see Section 9 that states: “All Marian College students are responsible for knowing and avoiding academically dishonest behaviors.”

Don’t pass of other’s work as your own. Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism. The first offense will result in an F for the course and reporting to assistant provost where the student is entitled to due process.

Agreement and Disclaimer

By enrolling in this course, you agree to accept the policies described in this document. You are free to withdraw from the class if you find these policies unacceptable. The faculty instructor reserves the right to modify this syllabus at any time during the semester. They must give students fair notice of any syllabus changes.

Assignments and the schedule are subject to change due to the Pandemic. The course schedule and assignments are designed with the most up-to-date information and policies in mind.  If the situation changes, I will make every effort to keep the schedule as consistent as possible; however, please note that the due dates for assignments and tests may be changed during the semester in response to the changing health and safety requirements or policies of the University. When changes are made, they will be communicated via Canvas Announcement or Canvas message and all assignment due dates will be updated. 

Course Schedule

Unit One: What is a natural disaster? Weeks 1-3

  • Book: Steinberg, Acts of God

Unit Two: Fires

Weeks 4-5

  • Book: Pyne, The Pyrocene
  • Wed. Feb 9: Guest Speaker on Fire Ecology

Unit Three: Hurricanes 

Weeks 6-8

  • Book: Horowitz, Katrina
  • DUE Mon. Feb 28 before 11:59pm: Discussion Questions for Guest Speaker
  • Wed. March 2: Guest Speaker on Katrina
  • DUE March 6th before 11:59pm: At least One Essay

——- Spring Break March 7-11 ——– 

Unit Four: Earthquakes  

Weeks 9-11

  • Book: Buchenau and Johnson, Aftershocks
  • Wed. March 23: NO CLASS, Prof at Conference
  • DUE April 10 before 11:59pm: Your second Essay

Unit Five: Pollution and Slow Violence 

Weeks 12-15

  • Readings: on Canvas
  • Wed. April 20: Guest Speaker on Water Pollution and Water Ecology

Featured image: Parícutin erupting with smoke drifting off lava flows and out of hornitos. Navarro, Postcard. Smithsonian Institution Archives, William F. Foshag Papers, 1923-1965 and undated, 7281, Box 9, Folder 7.

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