Category Archives: whales

Call me Ambitious: A Composition Class on Moby-Dick and its Contexts

If you’ve seen my Twitter posts the past two weeks, then you know I had the good fortune to attend an NEH Summer Institute hosed by The Rhode Island Historical Society. The Summer Institute was titled “Early American Women’s History: Teaching from within the Archives.” It was awesome and glorious. The institute was under the direction of Elyssa Tardif (Director of the Newell D. Goff Center for Education and Public Programs at the Rhode Island Historical Society) and Suzanne McCormack (Associate Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island). Marie Parys, also of the RIHS, was the coordinator of much of the logistics and an awesome contributor to the institute, too. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be revisiting my time at the Summer Institute through blog posts on various outlets.

Whale Swag. The two cds of sea shanties are still in the car.

Whale Swag. The two cds of sea shanties are still in the car.

Intermixed with my Twitter posts over the past two weeks you likely saw a lot of posts about whales, whaling, and Moby-Dick. I didn’t realize until I arrived in Rhode Island that I forgot to account for the weekend in the middle of the institute. We’d have two days off to do as we pleased. I immediately knew I was going to go to Mystic Seaport and to New Bedford. I’d never been to New Bedford and it had been a long time since I’d been to Mystic Seaport. I travel to Cape Cod almost every summer and passed these places. I’ve wanted to stop, but when you travel with shih tzus life is amazing, but travel is difficult.

This was my time to go to these places.

I love New England and that is an understatement. My mom traveled far and wide in New England. Growing up traveling to New England is what we did as a family. While working on my PhD at the University of Missouri, I often found myself homesick for Pennsylvania. That is expected. What I didn’t expect was being homesick for New England. Part of that homesickness grew out of spending so much time with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe loved New England. Again, an understatement. And my intense feeling for New England manifested in strange ways. When cranberry season came along I’d buy the smaller and more delicate looking cranberries from Massachusetts. Not those monster cranberries from Wisconsin. I tracked down Bell’s Seasoning. I started planning for a New England Thanksgiving that acknowledged the various strands of history and culture that infused the foods of New England. I started this planning in October. Eventually, my mind started turning to Thanksgiving once August rolled around. I hunted down beers from New England. If I could have found decent oysters and knew how to shuck them, I’d have done that, too.

If given the opportunity to visit sites related to a quintessential aspect of New England culture, history, and tradition—then I was going to do it. I had a lot to make up for after being in Missouri. Don’t get me wrong—I love Missouri and I don’t have any of the angst that many people feel about the middle of the United States.

The active life of the Summer Institute meant that I didn’t have a lot of time, but I had a lot to do. The folks at the institute kept us busy with lectures, site visits, and welcoming us to the community of the Rhode Island Historical Society and the city of Providence. They also did not overwhelm us with too much and that meant spending a great deal of time with the participants of the institute outside of scheduled meetings and functions. Forming a community with participants is an important aspect of these NEH summer institutes and seminars; it is equally as important as what happens in the classroom. One thing that I needed to do was create / pitch a class to teach this fall. I was already thinking a lot about Moby-Dick. I was thinking a lot about the archives and what we learned about in our workshops. I was beginning to put these things together. My visits to Mystic Seaport and New Bedford helped to make my class idea come together.

Cotton Bale

Cotton Bale

One of the most striking features of the exhibits at Mystic Seaport, NewBedford Whaling Museum, and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park is the emphasis on a telling a complete story of whaling in the United States. Each of these institutions emphasized a story of whaling that brought together science, industry, technology, and people both on and off shore. However, what I found fascinating about these exhibits was how they each wove together the story of American whaling with aspects of the story that can easily be forgotten in the wake of the whale hunt. These exhibits told stories that brought together slavery, free African-Americans, the experience of women at home, the immigrant experience, Native Americans and many others. It was a long, rich history of connections that spanned the scope of whaling. I was also overwhelmed by the just how much the whaling industry touched the lives of people as consumers of products. I think all of the exhibits that I saw made it clear that there would be no New England textile mills without the human horror of slavery and the ecological horror of whaling.

Whaling and Textiles

Rise and Fall of Two Interconnected Industries

As I thought more about American whaling and how I would develop this class, I realized that people participating in whaling and its larger cultural influence didn’t need words like hemispheric, transnational, transatlantic, or oceanic studies. I felt that these people knew how much whaling touched their lives and it is manifested in the print and material culture that remains. The way whaling touched the lives of people also shows up in the sea shanties of the time and the numerous variations for many of the songs—and I think that is a powerful aspect of the sea shanties.

A global reach connecting locations around the globe: From New England to the coast of Africa

A global reach connecting locations around the globe: From New England to the coast of Africa

The influence of rhetorical studies on my teaching leads me to see “everything as an argument” and that everything is a text. In the light of my pedagogy, then the industry of whaling struck is a vast intertext— an interconnected world, one saturated with meaning and connections for the whalers, the industries, like textiles, that relied on whaling, and those on shore that were left behind or participated as consumers. The search for that intertext is what would drive the research and writing component of the class I was thinking about developing. Yes, we would read Moby-Dick, but it wouldn’t be about Moby-Dick, it would provide an opportunity for students to follow threads from the book that likely resonated for readers of the novel at the time and those that didn’t read it. Most importantly, I envision this course as an opportunity for students to pursue what resonates with them. I had in mind an opportunity for students to explore this subject of whaling based on their own interests. In this way I’d have the opportunity to draw on the amazing ideas and resources from the Summer Institute to collaborate with students in uncovering connected threads from Moby-Dick.

The Modernist resurrection of Moby-Dick gives it this aura of just floating out there in the world as a piece of art. I think that makes it hard to get to the heart of what resonates culturally with the book’s depiction of whaling. It isn’t Ishmael and the crew floating in the middle of nowhere. Moby-Dick and the whaling industry are tethered to the commerce and culture of the time. There is no escaping it. Even something as simple as a sea shanty is a testament to the same connections and pressures.


Another confluence of whaling and the textile industry occurs in “Johnny Come Down to Hilo.” Johnny is rather taken with a “down east gal with a down east style,” but the song likely originates with African-American work songs from the Gulf Coast. A low stakes digital humanities project in the classroom could map the locations mentioned in different versions of this shanty and others.


One reason that I was also drawn to the idea of class that would provide students the opportunity to explore the intertext and contexts of Moby-Dick is that there is a wealth of digital collections available online. Students wouldn’t have to rely on database access to historical collections. Access to resources is at the heart of how I plan my classes. I want students to have an opportunity to rely on databases and the library, plus other sources. However, as we well know, not all libraries have a wealth of resources. Thankfully American whaling has a robust digital presence thanks to some amazing work by various museums and archives.

At this point a reader of this post might be thinking “You spend all of your time thinking about Harriet Beecher Stowe. Couldn’t you do this with Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” That reader would be right: I could do this with Stowe. I am sure I will at some point. I do have selfish reasons for focusing on Moby-Dick. I do spend a lot time thinking about Stowe. This Moby-Dick class is something different. I think it is healthy for me pedagogically, mentally, and intellectually to do something with Moby-Dick and not Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

My selfish reasons aside, I do have an even bigger reason for pitching a class on Moby-Dick. I’m thinking of this as a course to be used as composition class. Yes, a composition class (and I’ll come back to this in a moment). In developing themed composition classes I’ve tried to create courses that would provide ALL students, regardless of interests and majors, to make their own connections and follow their own path of inquiry through research and writing. This idea of creating a space that empowers students to follow their own path is an important part of my pedagogy. In creating a class on Moby-Dick and not Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I’m thinking about the range of students that I’ll encounter, specifically STEM majors and students not in the humanities. In this regard, my selection of Moby-Dick is inspired by the full story of American whaling as told by the museums that I’ve visited recently. At these museums the story of whaling encompasses hundreds of years and the move towards conservation and the protection of the environment today. The legacy of whaling links biology, science and technology, and environmental activism. Yes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin possesses that same resonance today; however, I’m still thinking about student access. I think it is potentially easier for students to connect with the legacy of whaling today as opposed to the fact that slavery still exists throughout the world today.

Science, Whales, and Museum Advocacy

Science, Whales, and Museum Advocacy

At this point, gentle reader, you might think I am Ahab mad for creating a class like this to run as first-year introductory writing class. I’ve thought a lot about that issue. I know of instances where Moby-Dick has been used successfully as a one-read or in the composition classroom. I take solace in the fact that there are a lot pedagogical resources that I could draw on when implementing this course. Honestly, I don’t think I could have conceived of this class three weeks ago. I owe a great debt to the presentations at the summer institute. I might owe an even greater debt to all the amazing participants that I met. I have such an amazing boost in my confidence as a scholar and teacher since attending this institute. I had the opportunity to pick up so many amazing teaching tools for using the archive and working with difficult texts. I feel confident that I could do this class.

I’ve also thought of this Moby-Dick class as one that could scale based on student need and ability. I envision this course not as being about Moby-Dick, but a course about the connections and knowledge that students create through research and writing. To that end I’ve given thought to the texts I could use. There is of course the excellent Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick with a great deal of illustrations and contextual materials. The California Press edition of Moby-Dick is also another choice with its wonderful illustrations. Lastly, there is the option of the abridged (gasp) and illustrated edition of Moby-Dick from Spinner Publications. You can see rather large sample of the Spinner Moby-Dick here. The Spinner Moby-Dick is filled with wonderful primary images, maps, and documents. It isn’t clear from the sample pdf, but these are high quality archival images in color. It is a beautiful text.

I want to create a course that allows students to make their own connections and to explore their ideas based on their own interests. Moby-Dick is a hard text, but I think the way I’m conceiving of this provides students a safe location for the hard and rewarding work of self-discovery and the creation of knowledge through writing and research.

And we could all look forward to a field trip to see this:

Note: I have thought about various assignments for this course. Multisource argumentative essays would be one of the main sets of assignments. A creative multimodal assignment is another option. Lastly, I think a course like this would lend itself well to low stakes digital humanities projects that could be completed individually, as small groups, or as a class. Tools like for distant reading, like Voyant and Wordle, along would mapping tools, like Google Maps, would be just a few things to consider.

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