Teaching a Disaster

Anthea Butler explores why and how she will add material on Katrina to her courses on black religion and on fundamentalism. 

September 12, 2005

For you academic types who watch television like myself, the images of the evacuees in New Orleans and other places along the Gulf Coast are seared into your brain. Our students also are ingesting these images and stories, and some are personally affected. Disasters, from whatever cause, can become redeeming moments to unhinge us from the syllabus and lesson plans that we have so carefully contrived, and to allow current events to enter into the classroom. I’d like to share some of how I am approaching Katrina in two very disparate classes, what I hope this will achieve, and make some suggestions as to how others might consider doing the same.

My two courses this semester -- African American Religious History and Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism -- both provide entry points into interrogating and discussing this disaster with my students. The African American religion class lends itself obviously to this endeavor. Since my course starts off with religion and the slave trade, I have already introduced students to the importance of the port of New Orleans as a place in which enslaved Africans entered America. It is perhaps no small irony that their descendents who were living in New Orleans were confined to almost slave-ship like conditions in the convention center and Superdome.

New Orleans is also home to a large number of African American Catholics, in part because of the Code Noir that required slaves to be baptized into the Catholic church within 30 days of purchase in Louisiana. The dead that slip into the view of the camera also conjure up images of religious belief and meaning. Newscasters hoping to exploit the cultural angle have invoked voodoo, a large part of the religious and social lore of New Orleans, improperly. The images of  people fleeing, of family members trying to reconnect, all bring to mind the Freedmen's Bureau, post-Civil War, and the endless newspaper advertisements during the Reconstruction period to find loved ones. More than a century later, their counterparts are on Internet lists of missing family on the Red Cross and various news outlets. How best to bring all of these issues and images together for students to see the connections?

In order to provide a touch point for students to discuss these issues, I am using many of the current images alongside historical images of slave ships, with descriptions of the conditions that slaves lived in prior to arriving in the port of New Orleans. In the weeks following, I will revisit the issue of the cultural losses that have occurred in New Orleans by talking about the development of religious life and culture of both African Americans and the free Creole population of New Orleans. Whether its food, jazz music, religious beliefs or Mardi Gras, African American culture and religion permeate these iconic images of New Orleans. Finally, the great migration of African Americans out of New Orleans is strangely reminiscent to the Great migration, which provided religious renewal to cities like Chicago and Detroit. One wonders if the same will occur with the New Orleanians taking their African based cultural identities with them.  Fundamental to all of these is race, class, and gender. The historic hesitancy to come to the aid of African American populations because of the confluence of these constructs is core to the understanding of the tragedy unfolding in New Orleans and the gulf coast region affected by Katrina.

Similarly, my Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism course provides a place for some cogent discussion about New Orleans as well. The perception by many right wing Christians that this is God’s punishment or mercy will brook much conversation of Evangelical beliefs and public policy. Pat Robertson, fresh from his call to assassinate Hugo Chavez , sent Bibles to the Astrodome. The Bush Administration and FEMA have looked to faith-based organizations as a way to disseminate assistance for disaster victims during this time. Bush has even called for a national day of prayer for the victims of Katrina.  What does it mean religiously, politically, and for public policy issues that the administration is using these avenues to dispense aid, as well as sympathy? How do evangelicals and fundamentalists process the racial components of the disaster?  Will Fundamentalists and Evangelicals regard for New Orleans as a sinful city impede the rebuilding process? In this class, in addition to discussions, we are reading Web sites from various religious organizations, tracking the manner in which aid is being given, and chronicling the administration's "appeals" to faith during this time of national crisis.

Students in both classes have already warmed up to my initial use of hurricane Katrina’s  aftermath in conjunction with their respective courses. We have already discussed briefly whether Bibles or bread was the appropriate response for the Astrodome (bread wins 2-1). In my African American Religion class, several students said that they were upset about the images and commentary on African Americans as “refugees” in New Orleans. Students seem to appreciate the mention of current events, even if their everyday campus worlds are seemingly unaffected by these external events. Tying in current events to historical events is a no-brainer in terms of both retention of information and ideas, as well as a way for students to expand their thinking and knowledge base. If that discussion turns into some type of activism, (whatever the flavor) I know that the discussion struck a nerve. I am also hoping that the connections to the historical narrative in both classes will provide students with a touch point to engage the various assignments and readings throughout the semester with a bit more fervor than usual.

There is also, of course, the issue of becoming personal in the midst of a crisis or disaster situation. I have opted to “keep it real” by sharing with my students the fact that my family was personally affected by Katrina. Nine of my family members from New Orleans were missing for a week, and as of this writing, I have re-established contact with 8 who were evacuated, and spread across Texas and Oklahoma. I too, am living in a vacuum not knowing if a relative has survived this tragedy or not. In the midst of my anger and frustration at the government's handling of aid to New Orleans, I consistently remind myself that my students’ opinions may differ vastly from my own. What I strive for then, is a classroom in which students feel comfortable in expressing opinions different than my own. I encourage that atmosphere by stating upfront that I will not grade them on “opinions” and that I hope that they in turn trust me enough not to evaluate my effectiveness simply on personal opinions that I may occasionally share with the class.

How can you then, effectively use this disaster in your courses this fall and subsequent semesters? Since we all cover a broad range of subjects, from liberal arts to business, to the sciences and humanities, here are several basic tips.

1. Don’t force yourself to be current. In other words, if you can’t think of a logical connection to the course material, don’t do it. Students can smell a rat from far away, and if you are straining to fit the material in (although Katrina wrath spans the gamut from arts, to engineering, to religion and even zoology!), it will come off as contrived and backfire on you. For instance, Kanye West’s outburst that “Bush don’t care about Black folks” on an NBC show raising funds for Katrina victims may be newsworthy, but it doesn’t have enough heft for a historical discussion in my religious history course. However, if I were teaching a communications or journalism course, NBC’s censoring of his statement on the West Coast feed of the show would fit the bill perfectly for an in-class discussion.

2. Use material from various news sources. With some exceptions (as in my case, where I am wanting to find the more radical viewpoints as contrast) many news outlets have posted photos, articles and op-eds that help to illuminate the connections you are hoping students will make. Anne Rice’s piece in The New York Times, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” is a masterpiece of both writing and historical knowledge about New Orleans African American culture, as well as a scathing critique of how the country has responded to New Orleans historically.

3. Don’t overdo the disaster. Spending an entire semester, month, or even week on the disaster will fatigue your students, and they will just grow to resent it. Use your head about how much, in what section, and when you mention the disaster.

4. Don’t throw out your original course content. It is very tempting to get rid of some of the more boring elements of the course in favor of the current "sexy” topic. Keep in view your original goals of the course, and inject current events into that content.

5. Be open for the unexpected. Bringing up current events like natural disasters can open up all sorts of issues, such as students who are directly affected with deaths or displacements in their families. If you are uncomfortable with students coming to you with these concerns either in the classroom or privately, make sure you know the resources to turn them to on campus so that you do not have to bear the responsibility of “fixing things” alone.

Despite any misgivings you may have, I believe that it is an invaluable asset for professors and instructors alike to be prepared to bring the “real world” into the classroom. It not only changes our students, but it changes us, and helps all of us to process the vagaries and vicissitudes of life.


Anthea Butler is assistant professor of religious studies and a member of the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University of Rochester. She is also co-editor of The North Star: a Journal of African American Religious History.


Back to Top