Valérie Loichot: Teaching Discourse of Disaster

Valérie Loichot is a Professor of French and English and core member of Comparative Literature. Her interests encompass Francophone studies, Caribbean literature and culture, literature of the Americas, and postcolonial theory. Loichot's new book in progress, “Water Graves,” investigates the lack of proper funeral rites, a phenomenon Loichot calls the "unritual," in the aftermath of slavery, hurricane Katrina, and ecological ruin in the Anthropocene. In Spring 2016, she taught a CFDE University Course called Discourse of Disaster.

Can you explain your University Course? What was the topic, and what subjects and ideas did you discuss throughout the semester?

The course was called Discourse of Disaster. It was not about disasters per se, but rather about different representations and discourses on disaster from a very interdisciplinary perspective—from disciplines as varied as literature and arts and culture (my own field) to nursing, law, theology, physics, ethics. . . . Two of the case studies we looked at were Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, in 2005, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Looking at these so-called natural disasters, we realized there was no such thing as a solely or purely natural disaster, but that there were always several human-made factors that contributed to a large-scale loss of life, wellbeing, or property, such as racial and social discrimination, and a deep history of colonialism.

Your syllabus included three events that were open to the community. Could you explain, briefly, what those events were?

Because I had a class of 13 students drawn from disciplines ranging from theology to the English PhD to a master’s degree in development to Rollins School of Public Health students  to undergraduates in the college, I thought it would be a great idea to open up that small circle to a larger audience. I selected the sessions that I thought would have the most impact and would also appeal to people from both within and outside of Emory. The first session was Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im from the law school and Dr. Mohamed Kelli, who is an Emory cardiologist but also a Syrian refugee. Because the refugee crisis has been so present in the news and on my mind, I thought I couldn’t teach a class on disaster without engaging with it, and this event was quite successful. It made me, my students, and the audience more aware of the discrepancy between citizen rights and human rights and of the fact that human rights are not practiced universally.

For the second event, I invited Dr. Regine Jackson, who is a sociologist at Agnes Scott College. She works on Haitian-American populations in the U.S., and she spoke about her theoretical perspective, what a sociologist can do in the wake of disaster. I also invited Hope Bussenius, a professor of nursing at Emory, and her husband, Patrick, who is an engineer and helped clear rubble in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. This was right after we saw a film by Haitian director Raoul Peck [Assistance Mortelle/Fatal Assistance] about aid in the aftermath of the earthquake of Haiti that presents international aid as one of the disasters that happened in Haiti—something that was more destructive than constructive at times. It was fascinating, after seeing this film, to listen to people who had actually worked as relief workers in the fields of nursing and engineering—it created some productive tensions in the discussions.

The last event was about aesthetic creation after disaster, and about the importance of not only surviving, but also living, and asserting humanity through beauty. I invited the Vega String Quartet and Dr. Richard Prior in the music faculty at Emory to perform and discuss music performed in the aftermath of disasters. Students got really into the specificities of the musical techniques to represent anger, grief, and other deep emotions linked to immense loss.

How has the University Course changed your teaching or your teaching philosophies going forward?

The experience was ground-breaking in my pedagogy. I’ve always been a fan of interdisciplinary studies, and have always loved pushing the boundaries of a specific area of study. This convinced me that this sort of interdisciplinary teaching has to be a collaboration of people from different disciplines. Because there’s really a thirst for these kinds of courses, I’m hoping Emory University will make them more practical to teach and to take for faculty and students from all schools. . . . Even though I just finished teaching this class, I’m already missing it and thinking of ways that I will be able to work again with students from Rollins and Candler, as well as other schools, from whom I learned a lot. I was a bit nervous before the class started, because I wondered, “How will I manage class discussions with students from the college, and third, fourth year PhD students together in the same class?” However, it worked really well, because they each had their cool ideas to contribute, shared their expertise in the practice or critical study of disaster, and they helped each other, and even found internships for each other! I’m hoping to be able to continue teaching such stimulating and truly interdisciplinary courses, and encourage my colleagues to do so as well.

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