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Blog Post

Living with the Urban Ocean

By Rajini Srikanth
October 5, 2021
Living with the Urban Ocean

Students traveling to Thompson Island aboard the Columbia Point to practice close observation and recording. Image courtesy of Sarah Shapiro.

The University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston) is extremely fortunate to be located on a peninsula surrounded by Boston Harbor and the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. Our NEH-funded project “Living with the Urban Ocean” is intended to get students excited about this beautiful natural resource at our doorstep. Our vision is to enlist the power of the humanities to interest students in the harbor’s history, ecology, and significance to the city and inspire them to care emotionally about the harbor and its 30 islands. We want our students to appreciate and protect the harbor and islands’ long and unfolding geological and human history, their cultural significances, and their value as an ecosystem that supports living creatures of all kinds, as well as a health-promoting natural resource that provides fresh breezes, rich greenscapes, and life-sustaining collaborations.

With an NEH Humanities Connections grant, we designed new courses and adapted existing ones to create a cluster of four courses that span all levels of the undergraduate curriculum (from a first-year seminar to a senior capstone) to expose students to the many ways in which they can connect to the harbor and the harbor islands. Students can be responsible and passionate stewards of these resources as future coastal engineers, poets and storytellers, community activists, historians, visual and performing artists, economists, urban planners, biologists, anthropologists, sustainability strategists, or as some combination of these roles.

Our university has a boat—the Columbia Point—that can hold up to 100 people, and we have used it to get our students onto the harbor and to visit the islands. Boat trips cost money; our NEH funding subsidized our use of the boat across several of the cluster’s courses. The students’ exclamations of wonder as they felt the ocean’s spray and the breeze and looked back from the boat on their city and their campus underscored for us the importance of facilitating a sensory experience of Boston Harbor. These sensory experiences offered opportunities for students to craft the language to articulate the emotions generated by the experience and capture it as memory.

We preface the boat trips built into our courses with a Boston Harborwalk—a guided walking tour of the pathway that originates on our campus and meanders for miles along the city’s harbor—to build skills of observation and recording. Sarah Shapiro, a graduate from our MFA program, incorporated the Harborwalk into the syllabus she helped create for one of the cluster courses, “Writing and the Environment.” Shapiro taught the students, many of whom were environmental sciences and environmental studies majors, what it means to observe attentively and with mindfulness, how to become aware of your senses and your thoughts, how to record what you observe—both with your ready-at-hand phone camera and with language. Focusing on the details of what they saw, and what they felt about what they saw, allowed students to draw interpretive conclusions from visual and emotional experience. Representative comments from students (captured in the evaluations of the course) include: “This course made me look at everything more in depth”; “I can’t talk enough about our sense of place. I’ve just totally slowed down in so many aspects of my life so that I can really absorb what I’m doing and where I am.” This fall, Shapiro will take a group of faculty members from the School for the Environment on a Harborwalk and “train” them in how to build into their pedagogy the types of exercises (on observation and the language of recording) she does as a creative writer with her students.

One of our science faculty colleagues—Paul Kirshen, an engineer who was enlisted by the city to provide expertise on how Boston could protect itself against the inevitable sea-level rise and resulting surge of crashing waves—is the Director of the Stone Living Lab, a coastal resilience research and education partnership that is studying nature-based solutions to sea-level rise and climate resiliency in Boston Harbor and the islands. Kirshen’s involvement with humanities faculty, including the director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies, Cedric Woods, as part of the “Living with the Urban Ocean” project helped him realize the importance of engaging the elders of local Native American communities, for whom the islands hold culturally sacred significance. A member of the Massachusetts Tribe at Ponkopoag represents the indigenous communities’ interests on the Stone Living Lab steering committee. Kirshen has also acknowledged that the infusion of the humanities into his environmental capstone seminar—which he co-taught in Spring 2020 with Leonard von Morze of the English department—pushed him and his students to consider how history and culture ought to be integral, and not just ancillary, to engineering and science-based solutions to climate and environmental challenges.

Von Morze, in the course he co-taught with Kirshen, asked students to “read” the visual world of historical artifacts and landscapes as they would printed material. In doing so he sought to expand students’ conception of literary studies, in which texts tend to be treated as the only evidence of history and culture—an approach that marginalizes the early perspectives of Native Americans in the Boston area who did not have a writing system.

Patrick Barron, who teaches environmental literature and eco-criticism, is an enthusiast of an outdoor curriculum—one that involves students getting hands-on experience with kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and other water- and land-based outdoor pursuits. He took students to Peddocks Island as part of his Fall 2019 course on “Literature, Culture, and the Environment,” so that they could physically experience the island and use that knowledge to comment on a plan under consideration for how to “develop” Peddocks to enrich the economic health of the city. Students made the 40-minute boat ride to Peddocks and spent several hours walking the island and observing its natural and cultural landscapes.

The most recent course developed for the curriculum cluster is a first-year seminar called “The Urban Ocean.” This interdisciplinary course—combining indigenous studies, marine science, history, politics and law, and narrative writing—has still to see its full potential unfold, because its first offering in Spring 2021 took place virtually during the pandemic. This is the entry-level course into our grand plan for infusing the humanities into the study and stewardship of the Boston Harbor and the Boston Harbor Islands at UMass Boston. The course was developed and taught by a School for the Environment (SFE) doctoral student, Kelly Luis, who has since gone on to take a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Luis is the kind of student with interdisciplinary thinking who could be a role model for all entering first-year students: she is very clear that she is an indigenous woman scientist whose role models are her ancestors and woman scientists of color. She does not isolate her identity as a scientist from her identity as a Native Hawaiian woman. The passion that she brought to her creation of “The Urban Ocean” course is now being continued by another doctoral student, Sara Bistany (who worked closely with Luis in Spring 2021), also from the School for the Environment.

Finally, we wish to acknowledge our external partner, the National Park Service, and particularly its Director of Natural Resource Partnerships, Marc Albert. Albert and his colleagues at the National Parks of Boston have been stalwart supporters of our NEH “Living with the Urban Ocean” grant, facilitating permits to visit the Boston Harbor Islands off-season and serving as guest speakers for our courses. They are familiar with our student demographics, having supported a Natural Resource Science Internship for SFE students for several years, and they are eager to strengthen links between the National Park Service and communities of color. Their investment in our grant activities promises to be deep and long-term. It is our hope that UMass Boston can become an official state-legislated partner of the National Parks of Boston so that resource-sharing between us can be more fluid.

The “Living with the Urban Ocean” grant has confirmed for us that we as humanities scholars should be proud and bold in articulating the value of our work for the future flourishing of our planet. We have been able to generate much excitement among our colleagues in multiple disciplines, and the campus as a whole recognizes that our cluster of courses could be the foundation for cultivating the next generation of innovative, effective, and empathetic stewards of the Boston Harbor and the Boston Harbor Islands.

We would like to acknowledge our colleague Betsy Klimasmith, Professor of English and stalwart champion of the humanities, who urged us to publicize the work of the “Living with the Urban Ocean” team.

Project leaders

Top row (from left to right)

Cedric Woods is a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. He combines over a decade of tribal government experience with a research background; he has served as the director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies (INENAS) since 2009.

Leonard von Morzé is an associate professor of English at UMass Boston working on Atlantic world topics. He cotaught an introductory course on “Writing the Environment” and a senior capstone on “Developing Boston Harbor Across Time Scales.”

Sarah Shapiro is a poet, Walking with Awareness Instructor at-large, and part-time Lecturer in the English Departments of UMass Boston and Northeastern University.

Paul Kirshen is a Professor in the School for the Environment at UMass Boston and also Director of the Stone Living Lab—a partnership of the university, Boston Harbor Now, the National Park Service, and the City of Boston focused on research on nature-based solutions for coastal resiliency and flood risk reduction.

Bottom row (from left to right)

Patrick Barron is a Professor of English at UMass Boston. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in various journals. His most recent books are Spooring, a collection of poetry (2020), a translation of Towards the River's Mouth by Gianni Celati (2019), and The Agropastoral Landscape of the Majella National Park (2019).

Marc Albert is the Director of Natural Resource Partnerships for the National Parks of Boston, which includes the Boston Harbor Islands National & State Park, Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historic Site. Marc facilitates the study and management of natural areas and cultural landscapes of the parks through partnerships and community engagement.

Kelly Luis is a Kanaka Maoli postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She developed the first-year Urban Ocean seminar in the School for the Environment at UMass Boston.

Rajini Srikanth is Dean of Faculty and Professor of English at UMass Boston. Among her many interests are climate justice and human rights. She is lead coordinator of the “Living with the Urban Ocean” NEH grant.

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