The Blue Humanities

photo of a calm sea
A Calm Sea. CSIRO [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath . . . for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness . . . ” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Herman Melville speculated on the “sweet mystery” of the Pacific Ocean and all that is cloaked beneath its restless blue mantle in his masterwork, Moby-Dick. Scientists and humanities scholars in many disciplines continue to delve into the marvels and celebrate the mystique of the oceanic world. 

The term “blue cultural studies” was coined by Steve Mentz, an English professor at St. John’s University, in his 2009 article, “Toward a Blue Cultural Studies: The Sea, Maritime Culture, and Early Modern English Literature.” Mentz believes the sea’s ancient meanings shifted in the early modern period as geographic experience and knowledge of the maritime world increased. Insights into these studies can be found in his exhibition, Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550–1750, hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In a Humanities magazine article on this topic, John Gillis, author of The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History and a professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, concludes that many aspects relating to the sea are yet to be explored, and "the significance it holds for modern culture and society is only just beginning to dawn on us."

EDSITEment offers a number of resources, targeting a variety of grade levels, to support teachers with an interest in a deeper exploration of our oceanic domain.

Amazing Whales! is an informational read-aloud exemplar text directed to the youngest students. This resource covers the habitat, characteristics, and behaviors of whales and serves to introduce budding naturalists in the primary grades to this species. (Aligns with Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.)

Melville’s Moby-Dick: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres, a three-lesson curriculum unit, offers advanced high school students an introduction to several unique features of the novel without demanding as much class time as reading the entire text would. (Aligns with Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.)

These lessons comprise a series of close readings of selected chapters in Moby-Dick:

  • Lesson 1. Narrative Voice has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator, Ishmael, through a close reading of chapter 1.
  • Lesson 2. Dramatic perspective In order to examine Melville’s various characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael, students perform a close reading of one genre, dramatic script, in chapter 37.
  • Lesson 3. Literary Genres guides students through Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—sermon, scientific writing, drama, and hymn—and moves them into an analytical discussion of the novel that goes above and beyond its appeal as fiction.

Tracking John Steinbeck is a series of video chats discussing the influence of marine biologist Ed Ricketts on John Steinbeck and his writing. Giving special attention to the Log of the Sea of Cortez, the outcome of a marine expedition Steinbeck made with Ricketts in 1940, Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw and a marine biologist, Bill Gilly, speak to the deep interconnections and ecological views that tie this work to The Grapes of Wrath. Applications for secondary level literary studies and ideas for ecology projects abound! (Aligns with Anchor standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.)

Under the Deep Blue Sea gives elementary students the opportunity to explore oceans and ocean life. This lesson has students "dive underwater" to discover the life forms that live in the sea. After listening to stories and poems, they engage in artwork and creative writing activities. (Aligns with Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.)

Sylvia Earle, NOAA’s first female chief scientist, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, told an audience at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, “The ocean touches you, with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink . . . we are sea creatures every bit as much as dolphins . . . our very existence depends on the presence of an ocean that works in our favor.” It is important to underline this interdependence for our students as we strive to build their awareness and appreciation of the oceanic world reflected in the blue humanities.

Additional Resources for Teachers

John Steinbeck Social Critic and Ecologist offers background for reading on John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez with a slide show for teachers. The following lesson plans are products of Summer Scholars at NEH-funded Steinbeck Institutes for Schoolteachers inspired by that work:

Oklahoma Humanities Summer 2015 magazine article by Katharine Pandora, "Thinking Like an Ocean: Discovery is part science and part imagination.”

On the Water: Stories from Maritime America from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum is a portal that represents the broad sweep of America’s maritime history and reflects patterns of technological, economic, social, and cultural change.

Secrets of the Ocean Realm is a PBS series that explores never-before-seen behaviors and complex survival tactics of sea creatures, including science activities for grades 5–7 (with extensions for lower and upper grades).

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