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Catastrophes as Turning Points (UNIB10013)

Undergraduate level 1Points: 12.5On Campus (Parkville)

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Year of offer2019
Subject levelUndergraduate Level 1
Subject codeUNIB10013
Semester 2
FeesSubject EFTSL, Level, Discipline & Census Date

There is much to be learned from failure, and in recent history there has been no shortage of examples of human-made catastrophes - the Bhopal Chemical spill, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Challenger explosion, the Thalidomide disaster, the release of Cane Toads, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, the collapse of the West Gate bridge. Through a series of case studies, drawn from different disciplines and from different Faculties, students will appreciate the educative value of human-made catastrophe. Each may be seen as a turning point in our understanding of the world, and our place in it. Students will critically examine the dimensions of failure, the contested accounts of causes and explanations of failure, and will assess the professional, political, institutional, and public responses to failure. Students who successfully complete this subject will be able to convincingly interpret and respond to situations where things go badly wrong through an understanding of:

  • the educative value of human-made catastrophe;
  • the contexts in which things go wrong;
  • the range of factors and causes that are implicated in catastrophe;
  • the theoretical grounds upon which causal claims are made, and are contested;
  • critical assessments of common responses to human-made catastrophe.

Intended learning outcomes

Students who successfully complete this subject will:

  • develop an appreciation of the educative value of failure for our understanding of technical, scientific and economic systems;
  • demonstrate an ability to critically evaluate claims about the causes of failure;
  • demonstrate the ability to convincingly critique responses to failure;
  • develop a sound knowledge of the meaning of failure, the dimensions of failure, and the terms in which failure is said to occur;
  • develop a sound knowledge and understanding of iconic examples of failure;
  • develop an understanding of the methods and analytical skills required to conduct a small scale case study.

Eligibility and requirements





Non-allowed subjects


Core participation requirements

The University of Melbourne is committed to providing students with reasonable adjustments to assessment and participation under the Disability Standards for Education (2005), and the Assessment and Results Policy (MPF1326). Students are expected to meet the core participation requirements for their course. These can be viewed under Entry and Participation Requirements for the course outlines in the Handbook.

Further details on how to seek academic adjustments can be found on the Student Equity and Disability Support website: http://services.unimelb.edu.au/student-equity/home



  • One 1500 word essay presenting a critical account of the causes of catastrophe and the value of catastrophe in theoretical terms, due week 5 (30%)
  • A tutorial paper using the current week’s case study, providing an account of the causes of the catastrophe, or the value of the catastrophe, due weeks 5-12 (20%)
  • A 2000 word case study using a case not covered in the readings, providing an account of the causes and the value of the catastrophe, due at the end of semester (50%)

Hurdle requirement:

  • Students must attend a minimum of 75% of tutorials in order to pass this subject.
  • All pieces of written work must be submitted to pass this subject.

Note: Assessment submitted late without an approved extension will be penalised at 10% per day. After five days late assessment will not be marked. In-class tasks missed without approval will not be marked.

Dates & times

  • Semester 2
    Principal coordinatorDarrin Durant
    Mode of deliveryOn Campus — Parkville
    Contact hours35 hours - 2 x 1 hour lecture per week and 11 x 1 hour tutorials scheduled across the semester
    Total time commitment170 hours
    Teaching period29 July 2019 to 27 October 2019
    Last self-enrol date 9 August 2019
    Census date31 August 2019
    Last date to withdraw without fail27 September 2019
    Assessment period ends22 November 2019

    Semester 2 contact information

Time commitment details

170 hours

Further information

  • Texts

    Prescribed texts

    Subject readings will be available online.

    Recommended texts and other resources

    Wider Reading

    HortonForestW. and Dennis Lewis (Eds.) Great information disasters: twelve prime examples of how information mismanagement led to human misery, political misfortune and business failure.London,England, 1991.

    Landauer, Thomas. The Trouble with Computers, London, MIT Press, 1997.

    James C. Scott, Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven:YaleUniversityPress, 1998.

    Tenner, E. Why things bite back: technology and the revenge of unintended consequences, New York: Knopf, 1996.

    Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor, Chicago:UniversityofChicagoPress, 1986.

    Lyytinen, K. and R. Hirschheim 1987. Information Systems Failures: A Survey and Classification of the Empirical Literature.OxfordSurveys in Information Technology (4): 257-309.

    Hall 1980. Great Planning Disasters. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

    Perrow, C. 1984. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.New York: Basic Books.

    Vaughan, D. 1996. The Challenger Launch Decision : Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA.Chicago:UniversityofChicagoPress.

    Joyce Fortune and Geoff Peters (2005) Information Systems: Achieving Success by Avoiding Failure. Wiley.

    Andrew Hopkins (2002) Lessons from Longford: The Esso Gas Plant Explosion. CCH Australia Ltd.

  • Breadth options
  • Available through the Community Access Program

    About the Community Access Program (CAP)

    This subject is available through the Community Access Program (also called Single Subject Studies) which allows you to enrol in single subjects offered by the University of Melbourne, without the commitment required to complete a whole degree.

    Entry requirements including prerequisites may apply. Please refer to the CAP applications page for further information.

  • Available to Study Abroad and/or Study Exchange Students

    This subject is available to students studying at the University from eligible overseas institutions on exchange and study abroad. Students are required to satisfy any listed requirements, such as pre- and co-requisites, for enrolment in the subject.

Last updated: 14 August 2019