What can the arts and humanities tell us about the ocean?

In a few hours I give my opening lecture for my ‘Maritime Studies’ course. The course one of three–along with Oceanography and Nautical Science–that the students take during an intensive 4-week onshore program. After that, they head to sea for a month and learn how to sail a working oceanographic vessel and complete the scientific projects they designed during the shore component. This class is headed to the Pacific. (Alas, I don’t get to join them so Ships on the Shore will continue more-or-less uninterrupted in the months to come.)

In a science-based curriculum like this, I use the first class to argue for the importance/centrality of the arts, humanities and social sciences to understanding the watery part of the world. [This is not easily done to a roomful of budding scientists.] Of course a book or two could be written to answer this question. Don’t worry. I won’t do that in class or here. Here’s the gist of my pitch for the arts and humanities:

In Maritime Studies we take a different look at the ocean. We focus on the human side of the story. Why? Because you can’t study the ocean and not study people. It’s fair to say that every drop of water in every ocean has been touched, in some way, by human activity, including pollution, fishing, mining commercial shipping and/or climate change. [I use the map above to make the point. It was compiled in 2008 by scientists who wanted to depict “the human impact on the oceans.” For more click here.] Scientists calculate that over 40% of the world’s oceans have been heavily impacted by human activity. So to study sea–any part of the sea–you necessarily have to study how people have impacted it. The reverse is also true. The sea has profoundly shaped the human experience for as long as there have been humans. In Maritime Studies we’ll survey human relationships with the sea. We’ll look at life, labor and leisure on, under and around the ocean. We’ll look at the different way people have thought about, described, and portrayed the oceans. And we’ll remain attentive to no only how humans have impacted the ocean but how the ocean has impacted humanity. We can only do that through the lenses of the social sciences, humanities, and the arts.


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Filed under Along the Coast, Notes from the Field

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