Ocean life has long played a definitive role in shaping human societies, and yet rarely appears as more than a passing curiosity in fields such as world history, food studies, and science and technology studies. From the whale wax used to make perfumes to buttons made from shells found in the Sulu Sea, material artifacts from the world’s oceans have figured centrally in human history. Oceans have also been a site of the unknown that have both inspired human imaginations and also become forgotten spaces. In 1590, an early map by Abraham Ortelius depicted the surrounding waters of Iceland with giant sea monsters, including one that supposedly had the power to heal the human body. These imaginings also speak to the ways in which humans have altered and affected the global marine environment, particularly in our present era. Perhaps this is most clearly captured in the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a stretch of ocean between Hawaii and California, which is “like a toilet bowl that swirls but doesn’t flush,” said sea captain Charles Moore, the individual who brought the patch to the world’s attention in 1997. From sea monsters to garbage patches, ocean life—in the broadest sense of the term—offers a powerful lens through which we might rethink and better understand the changing place of the sea in the human past and humans in ocean history.
This course explores the emerging field of marine environmental history. Instead of treating the sea as a conduit, corridor, or battleground, as is often done in maritime histories, we will approach the ocean as a contact zone, a place of socio-ecological encounter, thereby emphasizing the historical web of human interactions with marine environments. To this end, the class is organized around how people have come to know, work, and govern the world’s oceans across time and space. Through course readings, discussions, and lectures, students will get a sharp sense of the many ways in which different disciplines—from biology to history—have engaged the subject of the ocean and its ecology in shaping the global past.
The goals of this course are for students to:
1) Acquire a broad understanding of how people have known, used, and affected the world’s oceans in human history.
2) Develop an interdisciplinary methodology for mapping and analyzing changes in the global marine environment and its changing uses.
3) Gain a critical appreciation for marine environmental history as a field, which can shape ocean policy, resource management, and conservation practice.
Structure of the Course:
- Imagining the Ocean
Week 1: The Marine Environment as Historical Space
Weeks 2-3: From Maritime History to Marine Environmental History
Week 4 (Seminar): Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life (1941, 2007).
- Knowing the Ocean
Weeks 5-6: Ways of Knowing the Marine Environment
Weeks 7: Ocean Knowledge as Political Science
Week 8 (Seminar): John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Being the Narrative Portion of Sea of Cortez, the Report of the Steinbeck-Ricketts Expedition in the Gulf of California (1951, 1995).
- Working the Ocean
Weeks 9-10: The Marine Environment as a Site of Production
Weeks 11-12: An Ocean of Commodities
Week 13 (Seminar): Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997)
- Governing the Ocean
Week 14: Overfishing and Pollution
Week 15 (Seminar): Callum Roberts’s The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea (2012)
- Final Assignment Due
Week 16: Annotated Bibliography Due
Class meetings will be structured into two parts: first, a 15-minute written activity or group exercise; and second, a lecture and discussion period for 60-minutes. The writing exercise will commence at the beginning of class, and will be done using 3×5 cards. Students will be asked questions relevant to the week’s readings and in preparation for the day’s discussion and lecture.
Seminars are also an important component of this course. Seminars function as capstones for each thematic section. For seminar weeks, we will only meet on Thursdays (not Tuesdays and Thursdays as we would for non-seminar weeks). Additionally, for seminars, we will break up into small groups and work through a book that we have read in advance. We will do a close reading of the book, and set it within the context of the respective section. The four books, as noted above and below, bring together key concepts, relevant methodologies, and empirical groundings, which are specific to the core themes explored through this course. A specific learning activity has been designed for each book.
In addition to selected articles and chapters, the course has four books, which will serve as capstones for each specific section. These include:
- Imagining the Ocean
Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2007, 208pp.).
- Knowing the Ocean
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Being the Narrative Portion of Sea of Cortez (1941), the Report of the Steinbeck-Ricketts Expedition in the Gulf of California (New York: Penguin Books, 1995, 320pp.).
- Working the Ocean
Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 294pp.)
- Governing the Ocean
Callum Roberts, The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea (New York: Penguin Books, 2013, 432pp.).
Assignments and Grading
Seminar Reports (3 reports, 15% each report: 45% of the final grade)
At the conclusion of the first three thematic sections, students will complete a seminar report based on the book, the activity, and our discussion. Each one of the three seminar reports is worth 15% of the final grade. To receive the full credit for the assignment, students must participate in the seminar and complete a 900-word report.
Daily Exercises (25% of the final grade)
During most class meetings, students will undertake short writing exercises worth a total of 25% of the final grade. The exercises will take no more than 15 minutes, and responses should be written on 4×6 note cards. The exercises will generally occur at the beginning of class so it is imperative that students are on time and prepared to work. To receive the full credit for the daily assignment, students must provide clear answers to the inquiries posed by the instructor, and it is required that responses draw from the assigned readings. The question-format will remain consistent throughout the course, and will likely focus on asking students to articulate the thesis of a particular reading or pair of readings.
Final Project (30% of the final grade)
For the final assignment, students will prepare a research paper analyzing a type or form of ocean life. Drawing on journal articles, books, and podcasts, among other sources, students will develop their analyses based on the frameworks we have covered through the course. In doing so, students might decide to explain how approaches to sharks, dugong, or oysters have shifted over time or possibly pursue a contemporary examination of garbage patches or artificial reefs. The 1500-word analysis will be due at the end of the course (Week 16).
Section 1: Imagining the Ocean
Week 1: The Marine Environment as Historical Space
This week’s readings emphasize the need to rethink the stability of ocean space within a broad range of studies and genres. In different ways, they draw critical attention to the power of nation-states in defining how we see the past. The aim of the week’s readings is to establish a conceptual foundation for imagining the marine environment as historical space.
-Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986): 22-27.
-Rainer F. Buschmann, “Oceans of World History: Delineating Aquacentric Notions in the Global Past,” History Compass 2 (2004): 1-10.
-Jerry H. Bentley, “Sea and Ocean Basins as Frameworks of Historical Analysis,” Geographical Review 89, 2 (April 1999): 215-224.
Week 2: From Maritime History to Marine Environmental History
The next two week’s readings introduce students to the emerging field of marine environmental history. With a focus on oceans and seas, the readings explain the scholarly shift from maritime history (and its inattention to the marine environment) to ocean history (and its concern for nature). The aim of the week’s readings is to provide a rationale for conceptualizing the marine environment as an historical space within human societies.
-Helen M. Rozwadowski, “The Promise of Ocean History for Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100, 1 (June 2013): 136-139.
-W. Jeffrey Bolster, “Opportunities in Marine Environmental History,” Environmental History 11, 3 (July 2006): 567-597.
-William M. Tsutsui, “The Pelagic Empire: Reconsidering Japanese Expansion,” in Jared I. Miller, (ed.) Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 21-38.
Week 3: From Maritime History to Marine Environmental History (Part II)
-Joseph E. Taylor III, “Knowing the Black Box: Methodological Challenges in Marine Environmental History,” Environmental History 18 (January 2013): 60–75.
-Helen M. Rozwadowski, “Oceans: Fusing the History of Science and Technology with Environmental History,” in Douglas. C. Sackman (ed.), A Companion to American Environmental History (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 442-461.
Week 4: Seminar
This week’s readings focus on the marine biologist Rachel Carson and how, as a scientist working for the Bureau of Fisheries in the 1930s and 1940s, she developed an ecological perspective, which centered the ocean within human society, rather than outside it.
-Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2007, 208pp.).
-Susan Power Bratton, “Thinking like a Mackerel: Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind as a Source for a Trans-Ecotonal Sea Ethic,” Ethics & The Environment 9, 1 (2004): 1-22.
Section 2: Knowing the Ocean
Week 5: Ways of Knowing the Marine Environment
The next two week’s readings explore the role science has played in knowing the ocean. These science stories stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the South China Sea, and extend from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. The readings illustrate not only why the ocean became part of human history, but, and more importantly, how this process happened across space and time.
-Helen M. Rozwadowski, “Playing By—and On and Under—the Sea: The Importance of Play for Knowing the Ocean,” in Jeremy Vetter (ed.), Knowing Global Environments New Historical Perspectives on the Field Sciences (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 162-189.
-Helen M. Rozwadowski, “‘Small World’: Forging a Scientific Maritime Culture for Oceanography,” Isis 87, 3 (September 1996): 409-429.
Week 6: Ways of Knowing the Marine Environment (Part II)
-Iris H. Wilson Engstrand, “Of Fish and Men: Spanish Marine Science during the Late Eighteenth Century,” Pacific Historical Review 69, 1 (February 2000): 3-30.
-Gerard Sasges, “Absent Maps, Marine Science, and the Re-imagination of the
South China Sea, 1922-1939,” Journal of Asian Studies (April 2015): 3-29.
Seminar 1 (Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind) Report Due
Week 7: Ocean Knowledge as Political Science
This week’s readings examine how ocean life and its deep ecologies became the subject of political science in the twentieth century. On the political, we see in this week a turn towards the ocean environment as a place for Cold War science, research, and advantage.
-“The Ocean’s Secrets: New Adventures in Science,” UNESCO Courier 7-8 (July-August 1960): 4-66.
Week 8: Seminar
This week’s readings focus on John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, and how they came to know the marine environment on the Western Flyer. Steinbeck’s narrative humanizes the marine collecting experience by drawing attention to the social world of expeditionary science.
–John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Being the Narrative Portion of Sea of Cortez (1941), the Report of the Steinbeck-Ricketts Expedition in the Gulf of California (New York: Penguin Books, 1995, 320pp.).
-Kirk Johnson, “75 Years After Steinbeck Sailed, a Boat Is Readied to Go Back to Sea,” New York Times (Nov. 12, 2015).
-Antony Adler, “The Ship as Laboratory: Making Space for Field Science at Sea,” Journal of the History of Biology 47, 3 (Fall 2014): 333-362.
Section 3: Working the Ocean
Week 9: Oceans as Sites of Production
The next two week’s readings underscore the place of work in experiencing, but also changing the ocean. The readings focus on the entanglements between seas and societies, and how these relationships shaped human imaginings about the marine environment as a site of production.
-Micah Muscolino, “Fishing and Whaling,” in J.R. McNeill and Erin S. Mauldin (eds.), A Companion to Global Environmental History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), 279-296.
-Peter Neushul and Lawrence Badash, “Harvesting the Pacific: The Blue Revolution in China and the Philippines,” Osiris 13 (1998): 186-209.
Week 10: Oceans as Sites of Production (Part II)
-John Kleinen, “‘Stealing From the Gods’: Fisheries and Local Use of Natural Resources in Vietnam 1800–2000,” in Greg Bankoff and Peter Boomgaard (eds.), A History of Natural Resources in Asia: The Wealth of Nature (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), 245-264.
-Eric Tagliacozzo, “A Necklace of Fins: Marine Goods Trading in Maritime Southeast Asia, 1780-1860,” International Journal of Asian Studies 1, 1 (2004): 23-48.
Seminar 2 (Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez) Report Due
Week 11: An Ocean of Commodities
The next two week’s readings explore the ebb and flow of commodities as entry points for exploring how the marine environment shaped human societies and the way human societies affected the ocean. The aim of the readings is to draw out material connections, which link a plurality of places, people, and practices. Focusing on commodities also enable students to think more critically about the scales of consumption, connection, and circulation.
-Manon Osseweijer, “A Toothy Tale: A Short History of Shark Fisheries and Trade in Shark Products in Twentieth-Century Indonesia,” in Peter Boomgaard (ed.), A World of Water: Rain, Rivers, and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007), 103-124.
-Victoria Penziner Hightower, “‘We were never weak in the old days’: Gender and Pearling in the Southern Gulf Emirates, 1870-1950,” Liwa 4, 8 (December 2012): 5-17.
-Edward D. Melillo, “Making Sea Cucumbers Out of Whales’ Teeth: Nantucket Castaways and Encounters of Value in Nineteenth-Century Fiji,” Environmental History 20 (2015): 449-474.
Week 12: An Ocean of Commodities (Part II)
-Paul Josephson, “The Ocean’s Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick,” Technology and Culture 49, 1 (January 2008): 41-61. That’s a great title.
-“‘The Great Fish Swap’: How America Is Downgrading Its Seafood Supply,” David Bianculli’s interview with Author Paul Greenberg, Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/2015/07/17/423490in 558/the-great-fish-swap-how-america-is-downgrading-its-seafood-supply)
Week 13: Seminar
This week’s readings capture the rich possibilities of a commodity-focused history, and how this kind of history interacts and intersects with a wide range of fields such as animal studies, food cultures, STS, world history, and environmental sciences. Kurlansky’s Cod offers a moving narrative, which enriches the place and power of the ocean in the human past.
-Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 294pp.)
-Jakobina Arch, “From Meat to Machine Oil: The Nineteenth-Century Development of Whaling in Wakayama,” in Jared I. Miller, (ed.) Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 39-55.
Section 4: Governing the Ocean
Week 14: Overfishing and Pollution
This week’s readings survey the consequences and implications of industrial consumption on the wealth and health of the marine environment. They consider changes in technology, politics, law, and society, and how these changes created the perilous state of our modern oceans.
-Carmel Finley, “Global Borders and the Fish that Ignore them: The Cold War Roots of Overfishing,” in Erika M. Msumek (ed.), Nation-States and the Global Environment: New Approaches to International Environmental History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 62-75.
-Cheryl Lyn Dybas, “Ode to a Codfish,” BioScience 56, 3 (March 2006): 184-191.
-Paul Greenberg, “Tuna’s End,” New York Times Magazine (June 22, 2010).
-“‘Moby-Duck’: When 28,800 Bath Toys Are Lost At Sea,” Terry Gross’s interview with Author Donovan Hohn, Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/2011/03/29/134923863/moby-duck-when-28-800-bath-toys-are-lost-at-sea)
Week 15: Seminar
This week’s readings focus on the accumulated crisis facing the marine environment, but also the precarious lives, which are tied to the industrial exploitation of the ocean’s resources. The intertwining of fates—oceans and societies—culminates in Roberts’s The Ocean of Life, and so do the policy solutions and ethical interventions needed to secure a promising future for both. This final seminar brings together many of the concepts, methodologies, literature, and framings we have examined, from seeing the ocean as an historical space to governing it as a vital ecological system (vital for human societies).
-Callum Roberts, The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea (New York: Penguin Books, 2013, 432pp.).
-Ian Urbina, “Outlaw Ocean: Five-Part Series” New York Times
Seminar 3 (Kurlansky’s Cod) Report Due
Week 16: Final Assignments Due
This week students turn in their 1500-word research papers analyzing a type or form of ocean life through the frameworks we have covered this semester.