Finding “Disaster Citizenship,” an interview with Assistant Professor Jacob Remes

By Eric Norcross, student, SUNY Empire State College; assistant editor, The Student Connection

February 22, 2016

Picture of Jacob Remes Jacob Remes is an assistant professor of public affairs, history and labor studies at SUNY Empire State College, based out of the Metro region, in Brooklyn, NY. Professor Remes recently published the book “Disaster Citizenship,” and I had the opportunity to talk with him about the impacts of disasters, how they bring communities together and how writing about it can help educate.

The Student Connection (TSC): Can you tell us a bit about “Disaster Citizenship,” your intentions going into the project and how you got involved with the subject matter?

Professor Jacob Remes (JR): I picked "Disaster Citizenship" as the name for my book because it echoes author Naomi Klein's phrase ‘disaster capitalism.’ Klein wrote in her book, “The Shock Doctrine,” that disasters are scary and make society weak and pliable, the solidarity among citizens is diminished by the shock of disaster. While I like a lot of Klein's book, I think this central part of her argument is wrong. Instead of society being weakened by disaster, it's strengthened. What I describe as disaster citizenship is an increased sense of solidarity.

When I started the project 10 years ago, I was asking a lot of different questions. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the first semester of my second year of graduate school and we all watched as, it seemed, the city collapsed into anarchy. There were stories of people shooting rescue helicopters. People who were there and ready to help were too scared to go into the city. But then we learned that all those stories were untrue. Nobody could find a helicopter pilot who had been shot at. In fact, people began to unite and help each other. I wanted to know, how did people react during that strange moment when the state appeared to blow away? So I wrote a dissertation proposal that was basically about answering that question. But when I got to the archives, I realized that the set of questions I posed in my proposal were only a small part of it. The state didn't blow away in big disasters. In fact, disasters are a time when the state grows stronger. But it's also when people experiment with new ways of being citizens.

TSC:  What did your research practices consist of? How did you manage the balance of time?

JR: Different parts of the project required different types of work. As a historian, what I want to do is go to the archives, read my sources and then tell the stories I find in those sources, with my analysis. I conducted research in 17 different cities in two different countries—and I read. I have many pages of typewritten notes, often transcriptions of documents. I had the luxury of time—I went to Halifax for an entire summer and I was in the archives five and a half days a week for three months. For me, reading sources in the archives, making judgments about what to write down and thinking about what I've read at night is a key part of my analytical process—it’s when I start thinking about what I'm finding. Other people swear by quicker trips to the archives; they take digital photographs of everything and then go home and start the analytical work. 

The danger to my approach is that sometimes I make the wrong decision about what's important. For instance, one of my big archives was a collection of files the Halifax Relief Commission kept on everyone who received any aid from them. There are about 14,000 of these files arranged in several hundred boxes, each with remarkably detailed information about the family—the ages, occupations, wages of all the family members, what organizations, like churches, they belonged to, whether they owned or rented their home, and either how much their rent was or how much their house was worth. I did what's called a ‘simple random sample’ of these files, which means that I looked at every file in every sixth box. I created a database to keep track of each file I looked at and dutifully kept track of everything in the file--except, inexplicably, the data about people's houses. A year or two later, when I was writing, I desperately wanted that information and I still think the book would be better if I'd been able to talk about renters versus owners and how much people's rents were.

Over the past decade, I had to balance my workload in a variety of ways. Research is very different from writing, revising and rewriting. Not only are the work processes different, the way I needed to balance my time was different. For instance, when I was working on the second draft, I had a big three-ring binder with the manuscript printed out and I made edits by hand. I think much better when reading on paper with a pen in my hand. My students know this is how I mark their papers too. A big task at that point was to cut the content by reducing 180,000 words in the current version to 110,000, by request of the publisher. Every morning before going into the office, I'd sit in a coffee shop for an hour or two and read whichever chapter I was working on and cut out sentences and paragraphs, or rewrite sections. For other parts of the process, I needed to spend the whole day on it, uninterrupted by thinking about other things.

One of the things I learned in writing this book is that sometimes things just take time. Now I know to build in time to do nothing, because doing nothing is actually valuable thinking time. Having that apparently unproductive time was a luxury, but a necessary luxury.

TSC: What are some of the complexities of the subject matter that readers might not typically know or understand?

JR: There are three important things to take away from my work, as well as from the broader field of work in disaster studies. The first is that there's no such thing as a natural disaster. Disasters are social. If you think of a hurricane going over an uninhabited desert island, it's not a disaster, even if the island floods and trees come down. What makes it a disaster is if there are people around. And the way people experience disaster is very much shaped by where they are in society. People who have less money, fewer friends, less power, less status—experience disasters as worse than do people with more of those things. So, if we want to prepare for disasters, we need to think about those inequalities in society.

The second thing is about how people behave in disaster. If you watch a disaster movie you typically see people panicking and acting crazy. You see looting and you see traffic jams and the only person who can think clearly is the hero of the movie. But that's not actually what happens. In real life, people ban together and help each other, check on each other and support each other. This is an undisputed fact of disasters, documented over and over again in disasters for the past 100 years. And yet when we plan for disaster, we plan to expect disorder. We send the police and the National Guard. When the U.S. government sent soldiers to help after the Haitian earthquake in 2010, they spent their time carrying giant guns, ready to stop looting and riots and other disorder, rather than actually helping people.

And that brings me to the third important thing which is,that every social worker is a cop. What I mean by that is that even when the government helps people—even when it responds with social workers instead of soldiers—there is an element of coercion. I think we can accept, maybe, that sometimes coercion is necessary, but we have to start by recognizing it's there. We have to remember that when the governor closes the New York City subway in preparation for a storm, there's a cost to that caution. When we offer people shelters, we're also regulating their behavior when they get there.

TSC: From a critical, cultural and/or academic standpoint, where does your book fit into the greater conversation?

JR: One of the nice things about a book is that you have a chance to enter into multiple conversations. I have something to say to disaster scholars about how post-disaster altruism is structured and how it can be political, to historians of welfare about how recipients' demands for power began long before the welfare rights movement of the late '60s and '70s and to historians of U.S. foreign relations about how Americans and Canadians created a political community on both sides of the border.

The biggest conversation I'm entering is about how to understand the Progressive Era—between about 1893 and 1918. In 1967, a historian named Robert Wiebe came out with a book called “The Search for Order,” which basically argued that the way to think about the progressive era was about a desire to make the world more orderly. The stream of thinking that flows from Wiebe essentially argues that the progressives wanted to intervene ino the world through new ways of knowing--through engineering and social science. You see this in nature, as in the Panama Canal and the national parks, in the economy, as with trust-busting, and in society, with prohibition and child labor laws. What I wanted to do was see how the objects of those interventions understood and experienced them. How did it feel to be someone who was helped in this new ‘scientific’ way? In my book, I show how people wanted to be helped; they really wanted to maximize the support and help the government would give them, and it wasn't that they wanted to be left alone by the government. But they wanted that help on their own terms. They wanted to keep the freedom and autonomy and privacy over their own lives they had before they needed help.Image of the book titled Disaster Citizenship

TSC: Is publishing necessary for professors to ascend in their careers?

JR: Yes, generally. This is because in order to be a good professor, you need to be a scholar, and in order to be a good scholar, you need to teach. I see this mutuality in my own work. I teach the history of the U.S. welfare system and I teach disaster studies. In both cases, teaching those topics over and over made me think about them differently and that new way of thinking—from what we talked about in class, what questions students asked and what I thought when I read the texts I teach multiple times—made it into my book.  But equally, my teaching is really deeply influenced by my scholarship. You'd have to ask my students, but I think I'm more interesting in the classroom and help my students understand better the Progressive Era—the period I write about—than other periods in my welfare history class.

Publishing has become much more important in recent years. The State University of New York, like all universities, wants its professors to be both teachers and scholars; we're evaluated on five things, including ‘effectiveness of teaching and mentoring’ and 
scholarship. SUNY Empire State College has long had a very expansive idea of scholarship and, in our reviews, we're mostly judged on our teaching and mentoring. But increasingly, we're being asked to do more serious research, which usually means publishing more. The question is whether we'll have time to do that work. Right now, mentors at ESC don't have that, and if we're going to increase our publishing, we'll need it.

TSC: Did you learn more about the subject matter by tackling this project than before you started?

JR: For me, the process of writing (and revising) is the process of thinking and learning, which is to say I didn't learn a lot and then put it into a book. It was the process of writing the book that taught me. That was true from the very conception of the project.

For more information on “Disaster Citizenship,” visit the University of Illinois Press website. 

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