Closer Readings Commentary

The Blue Humanities

We have come to know the sea as much through the humanities as through science. … The sea lurks in the imaginations of millions, if not billions, of people … forever in our dreams and nightmares, more now than at any time in history. — John R. Gillis

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 R. Gillis, author of The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History and a professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, concludes that the sea holds special, untapped significance for modern culture and society that is only just beginning to dawn on us.

This summer, EDSITEment unfurls several new and updated resources aligned to the Common Core State Standards to help students and teachers explore 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 This 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:

  • 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 Moby Dick 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 Steinbeck and his work— in particular, The Grapes of Wrath. Giving special attention to the Sea of Cortez, the outcome of a marine expedition Steinbeck made with Ricketts in 1940, a Steinbeck scholar and a marine biologist speak to the deep interconnections and ecological views that tie this work to Steinbeck’s novel. Ideas for student literary and 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):

Last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Sylvia Earle, NOAA’s first female chief scientist, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, told the audience, “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.

Related websites

John Steinbeck: The Voice of a Region, A Voice for America offers John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez with inspired lesson plans from Summer Scholars at NEH-funded Steinbeck Institutes:

Oklahoma Humanities: Summer 2015 magazine

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)

Treasures@sea provides clear, multi-layered, humanities and scientific content to educate elementary school students about the ocean and the life it contains, including a host of ocean writing activities and art activities.