In Reading Disaster, students explore the idea and practice of witness as it relates to disasters past and present. In particular, the course focuses on the motives, techniques, politics, and controversies of the memorial act, by way of such topics as individual and collective memory, the ethics of representation, and the aestheticization and abstraction of atrocity.

Julianne Corbin engages with a number of these concerns in her final course essay, an analysis of Maya Lin’s seminal Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) in Washington, D.C. The assignment for the course’s second essay provided Julianne with a testing ground and a template for thinking about what memorial means in the United States. In that essay, about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), also in Washington, D.C., Julianne explained the historical situation that gave rise to the memorial, analyzed the museum’s architecture and exhibits relative to some of the concepts we’d explored in class, and summarized and analyzed the critical and popular reception of the memorial. Her thinking about both the USHMM and the VVM was informed by another class assignment—to visit and write a blog post about Boston’s own New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM), which relates to the USHMM in content and to the VVM in form and intention.

Over the semester, Julianne worked diligently to clarify her terms; problems with syntax and diction in evidence in the second paper are not there by the final paper. But what I especially appreciate about “Memory & Form: An Analysis of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial” is Julianne’s willingness to embrace complexity, not only in terms of the VVM’s form, but also—and perhaps more importantly—in terms of how that form impacts viewer experience and continued engagement with a controversial historical event and memorial. The Vietnam War may be over, but—Julianne argues—Maya Lin’s design remains relevant into the next century.