Campus & Community

21st century technology takes students back to 17th century

6 min read

In 1998 cellist Yo-Yo Ma took to the road, and a growing number of people have followed him.

The road Ma embarked on was the Silk Road, a series of trade routes that crisscrossed Eurasia from the first millennium B.C. through the middle of the second millennium A.D. For Ma, resurrecting those fabled routes through performances, festivals, and workshops has been a way of bringing together musicians and musical traditions and creating cross-cultural dialogue. But it has also been an inspiration for similar explorations of cultural mobility.

Ma won many new followers when he came to Harvard in October 2006 to speak with professors and administrators about how the Silk Road Project might serve as a model for new courses with a more global, interdisciplinary perspective, courses that would focus on the links between peoples and cultures and between politics, economics, philosophy, and the arts.

Since then, several new courses have begun to take shape, with one already scheduled to make its debut in September 2007.

Stephen Greenblatt, the Cogan University Professor and one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars, is planning a course that will trace a series of ocean routes that acquired particular importance during the 17th century, uniting Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Greenblatt believes this emphasis on global exchange has particular relevance for today’s world.

“The notion that we — in the early 21st century — are the first to experience a global economy and a complex, transnational system of economic and cultural exchange is manifestly mistaken. The 17th century had its own unique institutions and perspectives, but their states and individuals encountered problems and grappled with anxieties startlingly like our own,” he said.

The online component for this course will be extensive. Greenblatt has been working with Instructional Computing specialists Paul Bergen, Philip Desenne, and Kevin Guiney to construct Web-based software based on platforms such as Google Earth that will allow students to navigate easily through texts, artwork, musical performances, 3-D maps, diagrams, and photographs. The online materials will also incorporate interactive features that will allow students to make choices and experience decision-making firsthand.

For Greenblatt, working with the Instructional Computing staff has been a positive experience.

“They’re great,” he said, “imaginative, inventive, and deeply committed to enhancing pedagogy.”

The framework for the course will be the imaginary wanderings of three ships — the Revenge, the Resolution, and the Prince Hal — that embark from London in May 1633. Conveniently, several of those on board will just have seen a performance of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” at the Globe Theatre, with which the course will begin. The ships are bound for Sierra Leone, where they plan to buy slaves to sell to sugar plantations in Barbados, but bad weather separates them as they leave the English Channel.

The first part of the course will explore London during the reign of King Charles I, focusing on British naval history, the writings of colonization promoter Richard Hakluyt, and other contemporary topics. Throughout the course, Greenblatt plans to invite guest lecturers to speak on specialized subjects.

But while the Revenge succeeds in accomplishing its original mission, providing an opportunity for students to learn about the trade in slaves and sugar and the culture of the Caribbean islands under European colonization, the other two ships do not reach their destination.

The Resolution is blown off course and makes its way to Brazil, where the crew encounters a physical and cultural world for which they are entirely unprepared. Their disorientation is intensified by trouble between Protestant and Catholic crew members. After those problems are sorted out, the officers decide to return to England by duplicating Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe. The ship makes it through the Straits of Magellan, then docks for repairs off Mexico’s southern coast where a part of the crew travels overland to visit Oaxaca. Eventually the ship rounds the Cape of Good Hope and returns to England.

This part of the course provides an opportunity to learn about 17th century religious wars, to read texts on New World cultures ranging from Montaigne to Levi-Strauss, and to explore the anthropology of Central America.

The Prince Hall, meantime, suffers the worst misfortune, running aground on the coast of Morocco. Barbary pirates take the crew captive, ransom the officers, and sell the common seamen into slavery. Four of them are sold to an enlightened scholar from Fez who converts them to Islam and sends them to the sultan in Istanbul. One becomes the servant of a Jew who works as a negotiator for the sultan, accompanies his master to Venice, where he asks the English ambassador to help him return home.

This part of the course serves to introduce students to relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds and the importance of Venice as a bridge between the two. The students study “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice.”

Meanwhile, the Revenge, having sold its slaves, sails to Virginia, where the English colony of Jamestown is in serious trouble with the neighboring Algonkian Indians. “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia” (1588) by Thomas Hariot and the writings of John Smith provide a contemporary view of the British colony.

In spite of conflicts with the natives, most of the crew elect to remain in Jamestown. A faction of religious dissidents breaks away and sails to Massachusetts, where they arrive just in time for the founding of Harvard in 1636.

Greenblatt sees some obvious pitfalls in covering so much territory and undertaking such varied topics, but it is a risk he is willing to take because of its potential benefits.

“I think there will be certain recurrent themes that will bridge diverse experiences, geographic sites, and cultures, and there will be certain recurrent texts. The breadth of the course, after all, is set off against a narrowness of focus. We are conjuring up a particular moment of global contact between 1633 and 1636. And, of course, we have the peculiar, slightly eerie pleasure of glimpsing the birthplace of the institution in which we now find ourselves.”