SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer
December 04, 2018
The Sea and History
13˚17.9’N x 61˚26.6’W
NExN, 7-10 knots
2 ft. swells (at least that is according to the logbook; it sure felt stronger!)
Compared to a typical college classroom, teaching maritime studies at sea presents some unique challenges. Time is particularly precious aboard the
Corwith Cramer: while she is underway, one third of students are standing watch at any given moment. When not on watch, they are processing data collected during their reef surveys; studying every aspect of ship operations (from sails to radar to engineering); and doing their best to maintain minimum levels of rest, hygiene, and leisure. When we do have time for a history lesson, the weather doesn’t always cooperate: Sunday’s class on the quarterdeck was cut short by a passing shower. Moreover, for students, it’s easier to see how life aboard the ship revolves around their courses in nautical science and oceanography. It’s harder to directly relate this experience to their two other courses in history and public policy, which I am currently responsible for teaching (until Dr. Matthew McKenzie takes my place next week).
However, rather than see these challenges as obstacles, I have embraced them as opportunities. I am thrilled to have the Cramer-and the Caribbean Sea itself-as our classroom. Formal maritime studies discussions are squeezed into morning watch, but informal discussions can happen at any time, a benefit of living in close quarters with students that would be impossible in a typical university setting. Upon arrival at each of our port stops, the entire ship gathers on the quarterdeck, where I give a short “debrief” on that island’s history, in full view of the island itself: how cool is that? Topics include conflict between Indigenous people and European colonists, the introduction and subsequent abolition of plantation agriculture reliant on slave labor, and twentieth-century independence movements. Each island experienced these phenomena differently, and I think it’s important for students to understand the distinct history of the places we visit in order to be informed researchers, rather than casual tourists.
In addition to the port stop debrief, students also complete short primary source readings focusing on particular aspects of that island’s twentieth- century history. (I emphasize “short” because I genuinely do not want students alone in their bunks, agonizing over assigned reading, when they could be sailing or simply contemplating the unfathomable natural beauty that surrounds them.) In Grenada, we studied the island’s 1979 revolution and the US invasion that followed four years later. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we read about the political and economic problems associated with decolonization, particularly the perils of relying on one or two agricultural exports. Subsequent readings will examine the legacy of record producer George Martin’s AIR Studios in Montserrat, excerpts from Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, and the establishment of Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.
I cannot say enough about how proud I am of this group of students. Few, if any, chose this particular SEA program because of its history and public policy components, but, like me, they have embraced the challenge of studying these topics at sea. Whether they are trying to untangle the environmental message in Peter Matthiessen’s unconventional novel Far Tortuga (which they read before boarding the Cramer), or coming to terms with the lack of protection for the region’s coral reefs, they have impressed me with their insights and intellectual curiosity. They ask provocative questions on diverse topics, such as the relationship between historical and modern piracy (Hannah), the use of corals in the production of lime (Colleen), and “decolonizing” academic curricula (Mahalia).
Students have even anticipated my own lesson plans! Yesterday, Laura spoke up on behalf of several shipmates about organizing a maritime poetry discussion group. I had hoped to spend some time discussing the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s “The Sea is History” (1979), so I distributed the poem early and asked Laura to lead the discussions. In the poem, Walcott laments the lack of monuments commemorating the history of Antillean people, asking rhetorically, “Where is your tribal memory?” He answers, “The sea has locked them up. The sea is History.” Walcott spends the rest of the poem using the sea as a metaphor for Caribbean history, from enslavement to independence. I have no doubt that students will be able to decipher Walcott’s message and make connections that I failed to notice, as they have already demonstrated themselves to be quite skilled at literary analysis, in addition to being superb sailors and scientists.
With my time on the Cramer coming to an end next week, I want to express my gratitude to SEA for this wonderful opportunity. It has truly been the highlight of my career in academia. Thanks, in particular, to the other faculty members-Captain Sean Bercaw, Jeff Schell, Matt McKenzie, and Kalina Grabb-for your guidance and friendship, and to the crew of the Corwith Cramer for your patience while teaching this first-time sailor the way of the ship. (I still have a lot to learn!) Finally, thank you to everyone at SEA-students, staff, and sailors, in Woods Hole and at sea-for welcoming me into this brilliant community, which I hope to remain a part of in years to come.