NEH Summer Institute
“The American Maritime People” at The Frank C. Munson Institute
An NEH Summer Institute for College and University Teachers
The Frank C. Munson Institute at Mystic Seaport most recently hosted the five-week National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute, “The American Maritime People,” from June 23-July 25, 2014. The NEH Institute gives college teachers the opportunity to enhance course offerings by studying the influence of maritime activities on U.S. history and culture. This, the fifth NEH Institute at the Munson Institute, built upon the latest research in studies of the sea, which has recently been the focus of increasing scholarly interest. In a series of seminars, “The American Maritime People” employed interdisciplinary perspectives on American maritime studies, with an emphasis on the most recent social, cultural, and ecological approaches. Those selected to attend the Institute received a full stipend of $3,900 to cover expenses for the program.
“The American Maritime People” are the vast number of seafarers and citizens of shoreside communities who have shaped this country culturally, economically, and diplomatically throughout its history. Working on the sea and on the inland rivers and lakes, these people transformed the United States through developments in transportation, technology, the national economy, naval forces, and international diplomacy. Their history offers a naturally dramatic and compelling way to understand the national identity. With an economy based on container shipping and a foreign policy that continues to make use of a Navy deployed around the world, the United States citizenry continues to be deeply dependent on these maritime activities.
The institute sampled 400 years of American maritime history. Emphasis was placed on the most influential recent work in maritime studies, much of it by scholars who agreed to contribute personally to “The American Maritime People.” Their studies have examined a wide range of topics: Daniel Vickers on the inter-woven lives of coastal farmers and fishermen in Massachusetts; Lisa Norling on the independent lives of whaling wives in New England; Jeffrey Bolster on the large population of “Black Jack” sailors of color in the ante-bellum cities of the East Coast, and the historic impact of fisheries on the natural stocks; Marcus Rediker on the collectively organized workers of sailing ships in the Anglo-American Atlantic world, piracy, and the slave trade; John Hattendorf on the development of navies; James Carlton on introduced species; Mary K Bercaw Edwards on Herman Melville’s career at sea; and Helen Rozwadowski on the development of marine science and coastal recreation, among other scholars. The institute’s co-directors offered perspectives on their respective areas of research: Glenn S. Gordinier on smuggling collusion during Jefferson’s Embargo and asymmetrical naval warfare during the War of 1812, and Eric Paul Roorda on Caribbean maritime history and the contemporary cruise industry.
In addition to sessions led by the faculty and guest speakers of the institute, the curriculum involved field seminars in nearby port communities. Trips to Stonington, Connecticut and Newport, Rhode Island were part of the curriculum, along with optional trips to Groton and New London, Connecticut and New Bedford, Massachusetts. The field seminars featured maritime tours of these diverse coastal settings, each guided by scholars who have studied the respective ports’ development over time.
During the summer of 2014, the world’s only surviving wooden whaling vessel, the Charles W. Morgan, returned to the sea. Her historic 38th Voyage took the 1841 ship to historic seaports in New England. The NEH Summer Institute participants visited the vessel during her unprecedented journey.
Study at Mystic Seaport
Most of “The American Maritime People “ Institute took place at beautiful Mystic Seaport, one of the largest and most comprehensive maritime museums of its kind in the world, in coastal Connecticut. The Museum covers 17 acres, with 60 historic buildings, and more than 500 historic vessels. The NEH institute took special advantage of primary source materials from the vast manuscript collections of the G. W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport; the facilities of the Museum’s Collections Research Center, where artifacts and photographs are preserved for research; and the public exhibits of Mystic Seaport itself. All together, these facilities make an inspiring campus for program participants.
The institute emphasized and integrated the participants’ individual interests, ongoing research, and teaching projects. There was time provided each week for members of the group to make full use of the resources of Mystic Seaport, including extended opening hours at the library manuscript collection for the NEH participants. Ongoing discussion of everyone’s developing work was encouraged through weekly research forums. These sessions allow the time and opportunity to reflect on the progress of the institute and the material covered up to that point each week.
In addition to cultivating the participants’ research interests, the institute helped them to explore and innovate ways to use maritime subjects in their teaching, and to bring their research into the classroom.
Selection of Candidates
The selection of candidates for participation in “The American Maritime People” was made by a committee comprised of the co-directors and a faculty member. The criteria for selection was the opportunity and ability to make use of the summer institute experience in their work; a demonstrated commitment to teaching; pertinent research interests; and evidence of personal energy, affability, and intellectual curiosity, which are qualities conducive to an active and encouraging group dynamic for the exchange of ideas. Applicants chosen for the program committed to participating for the full five weeks of the institute. They received a stipend of $3,900 to cover expenses for travel to and from Mystic, books and research materials, and food and housing for the duration of the period spent in residence.
After a week of orientation to the resources available at the site of the institute, each participant was encouraged to outline their priorities and make a plan for what they would like to accomplish during the subsequent four weeks. Possible objectives were: conducting research for an article, book chapter, or longer work; pursuing experiential learning in any number of Mystic Seaport venues, from Museum exhibits to sailing craft on the Mystic River; writing essays on themes suggested by the institute’s proceedings or its physical, historical or cultural environment; compiling and reading a list of works on a subject, or by an author, of particular interest; developing new courses or lesson plans to interpret maritime topics or employ maritime approaches; and any number of other goals identified by the individual professors taking part in the institute. Guided by this chart of scholarly activities, the participants contributed to a portfolio of work of their own design, documenting their experience in Mystic and providing the basis for integrating what they learned into what they teach and write.