Sailing through California History

Randall Stephens

I've taken students on the occasional field trip to Boston. I've never sailed up the coast with them. (It's hard enough for me to navigate the cow path streets of Beantown.)

Rick Kennedy, professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University, spent ten days on a sailboat this
May, teaching California history to eight students. (I interview Kennedy in the Youtube video here. We talk about how he teaches the class, the curriculum, and the experiences of students.) The class sounds like a blast. According to Kennedy's syllabus:

The course is not like a classroom course; rather, it is an extended fieldtrip. As such it strives to enhance a student's attentiveness to surroundings and ability to see layers of history at particular sites. On walking tours we want to have a heightened awareness of human history in geography, architecture, and town planning. The sailing will encourage awareness of the wind, currents, and tides that, in the past, had much influence on human hopes, plans, and accomplishments. Fieldtrips should help us learn to see the historical evidence that surrounds us, to read the ways topography pushes people in certain directions, the ways architecture proclaims intentions, and the ways a point jutting into the Pacific draws sailors to its lee.

We read and write too. We center the class on a great classic: Two Years Before the Mast, written by a student who sailed away from college in order to go to California in 1835. The book describes California during an era of political instability when a small number of Californios were trying to figure out what to do with a hard-to-get-to but increasingly
desirable land.

The class is largely, but not exclusively, designed for those thinking about careers in
teaching or tourism (parks, museums, and historic preservation). Emphasis throughout the class is on methods of thinking about local history that help us understand larger issues of world history, European history, American history, Native American History, missionary history, and varieties of cultural history. We also look for opportunities to cross disciplines into navigation, astronomy, and cartography.

Sign me up, prof!

There's much this class can accomplish. I was particularly interested in how a course like this can get students to think about the hardships and day-to-day lives or those who have gone before us. Sailing up and down the coast was a common enough experience for Californians. Re-enacting that, I think, gives history students new insight, even empathy.

Now, if I can just master that tiny sailboat on the Charles River . . .