Williams-Mystic’s academic curriculum contributes to an educational experience that is both interdisciplinary and immersive. Each semester, our faculty collaborate so that all coursework becomes part of the big picture, showing the ways our coasts and oceans are connected across multiple disciplines. Our students take four courses: American Maritime History, Marine Policy, Literature of the Sea, and Marine Science (either Oceanographic Processes or Marine Ecology). Students attend regular weekly classes as well as cross-course seminars, panels featuring scholars and industry professionals, and hands-on day trips to locations around New England.
Literature of the Sea
The ocean, and human relationships with it, have featured in literatures and cultures around the world for thousands of years. But since literary study is typically based around authors’ homelands, the oceanic experience is often pushed to the periphery—an “empty space” to be crossed between nations, a “vast darkness” antithetical to human life, or a mirror for land-borne concerns. Increasingly, however, scholars and readers are centering the sea and stories about it as a means of stepping outside human frameworks of space and time, situating the complex emotions and narratives inspired by the ocean into a network of geologic history teeming with other-than-human life. This course examines a wide range of texts and perspectives on the ocean and human relationships with it. Doing so will help us consider how literature both plays into and subverts dominant viewpoints of the ocean.
American Maritime History
This course considers the lives of people who crossed the sea, who worked at sea, and who lived their lives along its waters. We cover centuries (seventeenth to twenty-first) and oceans (Atlantic and Pacific) as we delve into these experiences, and in so doing, discuss issues ranging from colonization, dispossession, and war, to food, family life, and sexuality. While the nature of this course means that we cannot linger long on any one topic, I hope you come away from this course with a broader understanding of maritime history and the many ways in which it can be practiced.
Your classroom includes the museum, with its 60 historic buildings, 17 acres, and millions of artifacts, documents, photos, and boats. You’ll have the chance to examine and analyze material objects and manuscripts as well as published sources and secondary works. You’ll also develop research skills rarely utilized at the undergraduate level and produce a research paper based upon your use of the extensive primary resources available at Mystic Seaport’s G.W. Blunt White Library and at other local research institutions.
Marine Policy lies at the intersection of coastal populations, coastal environments, competing uses, development pressures and opportunities, and the laws and policies that regulate these biologically diverse and productive regions. We will examine contemporary challenges facing our coastal zones and identify local, state, regional and federal frameworks of decision-making. With no single authority or law establishing the overall control of our coastal zone and coastal resources, our study requires that we read and analyze case law, government regulations and policies, and statutory law to better understand how state and federal governments manage our rich and vibrant coasts. Equally important is an examination of the impact of legal decision-making on coastal environments, and the communities that depend on sound stewardship of our shared coastal resources.
Oceanographic Processes examines the science of coastal and open ocean environments, and provides an introduction to oceanography. As you critically examine and discuss subjects such as sea-level rise, climate change, coastal processes, pollution and nutrient cycling, ocean acidification, and ocean circulation, you will continue to pinpoint how these topics inform the human relationship with the sea. Central to Oceanographic Processes is a curiosity to how fundamental physical, geological, chemical, and biological processes interact to create the ocean environments that we experience. You will also be able to contextualize modern oceanography with illustrations of past oceans and climate that we can learn from the geological record.
Since Williams-Mystic provides a unique opportunity to observe and discuss ocean science firsthand through field seminars and research trips, the focus of the course is on controlling processes with regional comparisons. In this course, independent research forms the core: students design their projects and investigate the ocean across a variety of dynamic coastal environments near Mystic, including Atlantic beaches, intertidal mudflats, salt marshes, Fisher’s Island Sound, and the Mystic River Estuary. Within these projects, students are able to take advantage of a wide array of field and laboratory equipment (including small research boats) to carry out their research. Williams-Mystic field seminars are a crucial complement to our local observations: bluewater oceanography is conducted in the Atlantic during your offshore trip and comparative coastal oceanography includes field studies on the West and Gulf coasts of the US.
We have explored only a fraction of the ocean, with about 10% of marine species classified and 20% of the ocean mapped. Many discoveries remain to be made, and marine ecology is one technique to uncover new insights. The field of marine ecology, rooted in the theory of evolution, describes the mechanisms and processes that drive the diversity, abundance, and distribution of marine organisms. The goal is to document natural patterns and make predictions about how species will respond to environmental changes by investigating the relationship between the abiotic environment and biotic interactions. This course will take a deep dive into the unique challenges to life in the ocean. You will compare and contrast different marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, kelp forests, and the deep sea. You will also practice a marine ecologist’s skillset as you design, carry out, and analyze your own research project, which will improve your scientific writing, data analysis, and communication skills. Importantly, you will connect your research and course topics to larger marine conservation issues and broader societal impacts.
One of the hallmarks of Williams-Mystic’s marine science curriculum is independent research, which involves field and laboratory investigations in a superb set of habitat choices: not far from the Williams-Mystic’s marine science laboratory are a wealth of aquatic habitats, which range from sweeping marshes to the open pounding surf of exposed Atlantic beaches. Students explore and launch research projects in marshes, tidepools, estuarine fouling and plankton communities, sandy beaches, mudflats, sandflats, subtidal bottoms, and open marine waters. Our small research boats and field equipment fleet also allow you to sample the Mystic River Estuary and Fisher’s Island Sound.