How myths form: Accounts from Mt. Pelee
This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection
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- Scientific Accuracy
- Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
- Pedagogic Effectiveness
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This page first made public: Nov 7, 2012
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Description and Teaching Materials
Teaching Notes and Tips
In class, I tell the students that I want to use the various accounts they found to piece together the story of what really happened in that eruption. I set up two lists on the board in class: one for what we are sure occurred, and one for discrepant or contradictory accounts. Note that almost nothing will go on the first list, so the space for it can be small; it will wind up only containing information like "The volcano erupted", "The eruption was in the year 1902", "A lot of people died", and "St. Pierre was destroyed".
Depending on class size, I either solicit accounts from volunteers or go around the room to ask each student for one of their accounts. While they explain or read their accounts, I summarize them on the board under the two lists, moving them as necessary as accounts contradict each other. Sometimes to keep the class involved I go around a second time in this open-ended way, but often the discussion quickly becomes energetic enough that I instead start asking the class directed questions about key pieces of information. Useful questions to ask include:
"On what date did the eruption occur?"
"What type of volcanic activity occurred?" Related: "What destroyed the city?"
"How many people died?"
"How many people survived?"
"Who were those survivors, and how did they survive?"
"What happened before the eruption and why?"
"What happened after the eruption and why?"
...plus anything else that comes up during the conversation and about which the students' accounts disagree.
Expect and be prepared for extensive discussion about each of three characters: Ludger 'Sanson' Cyparis/Silbaris, a cobbler, and a little girl (including variably their names, crimes, ages, how they survived the eruption, and what happened to them afterwards). I typically find and provide an image of the Silbaris circus poster when the discussion has established that he joined the circus after the eruption (the poster tends to then inform one of the reasons for the discrepant death count numbers):
I always have a copy of the Vulcan's Fury chapter on the eruption for additional details and information on all of these issues, including some key points that are difficult to find else where (e.g. the rum fire that burnt St. Pierre to the ground after the pyroclastic flow).
This activity is a lot of fun for instructors and for the students, and tends to be remembered vividly. It can take up to an hour for just making the list, depending on how many accounts you have an how lively the discussion is. I find it helpful to then follow up with a conversation with the class about social response to disaster and/or the formation of legends and myths around natural phenomena and catastrophic events, depending on the topic of the course. Some possible discussion questions:
- How did so many discrepant accounts come to be? What is the motivation for telling or changing a story about a catastrophe?
- Which stories get passed on and why?
- Has modern technology changed how this happens or how much it happens? Why/why not?
- How do societies react to news of a disaster? What are the different ways that happens?
- What do those reactions say about how we conceptualize risk and disaster? How does that influence societies when dealing with natural hazards?