Eating at Sea

Last night Semester at Sea held its first all-ship social event, a set of games based on the TV show Family Feud.  I came in near the end of the activity, to the “union” auditorium, which was packed. Moderators were taking turns reading out “best pick-up lines” that students and faculty had submitted, and I soon detected a theme:  FOOD.  Many of these “pick up lines,” featured some kind of invitation to eat, most often in the context of what is known on the ship as “snack time.”  This event occurs every night at 10:00, but last night was the first time I’d heard of it.  Just as I was settling in to listen to the rest of this event, one of the moderators rang a bell and said, “So that’s it, folks.  SNACK TIME.’  Thank goodness I hadn’t stood up, because I would have been mowed down by a moving sea of students rushing out the door and down to the dining room—like lemmings or like those sheep in “Babe” rushing en masse to the edge of a cliff before being turned back just in the nick of time by heroic sheep dogs.  There was no turning this tide back, however, and so I trailed along behind them as they surged into the dining room, where harried looking crew were hauling out tray after tray of sandwiches, cake, and fruit.  I didn’t stay to watch, but I did begin to “get” what all those snack time jokes were about!

            Of course students are always notoriously hungry, but they are moreso on this ship, which is moving constantly:  we have learned that it takes a lot of energy (and burned calories) just to keep balanced as we walk from fore to aft and from deck to deck.  There are seven decks, and some days I have gone up and down them seven or eight times—and when we’re in port getting down from the ship to the ground involves fifty very steep steps.  So everyone—not just the students—are remarking on how hungry they feel.  And boy are they feeding us.  I don’t eat breakfast (well, I have an orange or apple in my cabin), but they serve up a big one every morning, with eggs (scrambled, omelets, etc.) and ham or bacon along with all kinds of potatoes, pancakes, waffles, pastries, and cereal.  There’s a toast machine going constantly and vats of peanut butter and jam. 

            Lunch, which is from 12:00 to 1:30, always features a big salad bar, and after four days at sea I am beginning to wonder how they are managing to serve fresh lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, mushrooms, radishes—and other salad veggies—every single day.  In addition, they set up a sandwich bar (yesterday we had blue cheese and pear crostini or pastrami and swiss on rye), a soup kettle (yesterday was lentil), and then an entire set of entrees.  Lots of vegetarian dishes (braised eggplant, tofu this and that, veggie pastas galore, stir fried veggies) and other dishes: yesterday they served a delicious chicken curry with basmati rice along with a beef stew and grilled tilapia.  Also a huge basket of rolls.  Also a special dessert or two:  yesterday they offered chocolate pudding and almond cake; other times we have had brownies, pineapple upside down cake, apple strudel . . . .  You get the picture.  And that’s just for lunch.  Dinner (from 5:30 to 7:30) features more of the same—and they are invited to have up to two glasses of wine with their dinners if they want.   

            In addition to the dining room meals, the ship runs a snack bar beside the pool on the top deck.  I just discovered it yesterday by accident when I went up to check out the pool.  This was about 3;30 in the afternoon—and the snack bar was mobbed by students ordering hamburgers and hot dogs and fries:  something to tide them over between lunch and dinner! 

            It’s almost time for lunch now and I have worked up an appetite writing about all this food. So I’m headed to the dining room to get something to eat and to take my first malaria pill, which needs to be accompanied by food and/or milk. Tonight the ship’s doctor will give us a talk about malaria:  my prescription is to take a pill the day before entering a malaria area (the Amazon in this case) and continue taking them throughout the time there and then for seven days afterwards, which will get us near Ghana, where we have to take malaria pills again.  I hope all that food will wash this first one down!

Seasickness and Writing

Along with all the students and faculty on this Semester at Sea voyage are a group of researchers—from the U.S., Brazil, Taiwan, and France—who are studying seasickness. They tell us that while seasickness has plagued people from as far back as we have any records, little research has attempted to determine what prevents it in some and brings it on in others, and, especially for this project, what it means to “get your sea legs.” The research team called for volunteers to be subjects in this research, so this morning I went down to the aft fourth deck and signed up. After answering a sheet or two of questions (about my health, experiences with motion sickness, etc.) and signing a consent form, one of the researchers (a graduate student from San Paolo, Brazil) took me over near the aft railing and asked me to stand with my feet on two rectangular pieces of Styrofoam (or what looked like it to me) for fifteen minutes. I could look any direction I wanted but was to keep my hands at my side and not move my feet. I don’t know how to practice Zen meditation, but it felt to me like I went into a very relaxed, easy state: I looked out to the horizon where the water was flat and fairly gray, and then directly below me where the water was churning up in aqua swirls from the motion of the ship and the engines. I just stood there, rocking to keep my balance and soaking up the salt air and the sounds of the sea. Fifteen minutes went by in the blink of an eye. They were filming this whole fifteen minutes, to record my body movement. Then came a series of two-minute exercises, for which they strapped a harness with a sensor in it around my midriff. I stood, again with my feet planted at a particular angle and spaced a certain amount apart and was to look steadily at an object in front of me. Here I think they were getting not only body movement but eye movement. I repeated this exercise in eight different positions, and the one where I was standing perpendicular to the stern was most difficult—that is, hardest to keep my balance. But again, the time passed very quickly and before I knew it, I had finished my tasks. Tonight the team will give a talk on their research, and I look forward to learning more about it. During this experience I kept thinking about writing, first about things I would like to write about but then about how much “balance” has to do with writing. I thought of the student I worked with yesterday who was trying to balance a personal anecdote with the more academic part of her essay; I thought of another student who said her greatest difficulty in writing was to balance her need to meet deadlines with her tendency to procrastinate. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that keeping one’s balance is a great metaphor for a whole set of challenges students have to face and overcome as they mature as writers (and thinkers). I’m starting to take notes not only on how I balance my writing tasks but also the many balancing acts I have to do in any piece of writing. Who knew I’d learn a lesson about writing while taking part in a seasickness study!

Writing at Sea — and a Whole Lot More

Writing at Sea—and a whole lot more

I opened the Writing Center for the Spring 12 Semester at Sea voyage on Saturday, January 21—after posting flyers around the ship and getting the word of mouth network going.  To my surprise and delight, I had three students drop by the first hour!  Then that evening I got to speak very briefly to all the students on board.  I warmed up with a little joke at my expense and then issued a challenge: I want every student on board to write and publish something, either while on board or after they get home.  I said I’d be giving “three really cool prizes” at the end of the voyage to some writers.  Well, that really got things going, and I am going to be up against it to come up with these “cool” prizes—so all suggestions are welcome!

The Writing Center is open from 1:00 to 2:15 on every day we are at sea, and I and one of the grad students are on duty there.  Then from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. every day I hold another Writing Center hour.  In the two and a half days we’ve been open (so about 5 hours) we have had 15 students drop in for advice:  one of them is working on a sci-fi novel; another two are writing columns for their college newspapers; another wanted help with a journal entry; another was working on an application for law school—and several Chinese students wanted to practice speaking and writing English.  There are at least 11 Chinese students on board, so we are trying to find a time when we can all meet once a week for workshops on writing intended for multilingual students.  There’s also a Kid’s Writing Club afoot, which I very much hope I can do, and a couple of professors have asked me to do workshops on this or that for their students.  All in all, I think we’ve gotten off to a good start. 

            I am adjusting slowly to the schedule of Semester at Sea, which is fairly irregular.  Classes meet every day of the week when we are at sea in “A” blocks and “B” blocks.  I teach a class on B days from 10:45 to 12:00 and then have the Writing Center on both “A” and “B” days.  In addition, I attend the Global Studies lecture on “A” days.  That course is taught by a very dynamic young man who does a great job with lecturing; I know I am going to learn a lot and will write more soon about one of the books we are reading, 1493.  So the days at sea are packed full of classes and writing center sessions, followed by all kinds of programming in the evenings.  When we are in port, however, classes are suspended so that students (and faculty) can participate in field trips. Today was my first one, and what a thrill:  we boarded a catamaran and motored out a mile or so into the Caribbean on a “dolphin and whale safari.”  We hadn’t gone far at all when the boat was surrounded by leaping and cavorting spotted dolphins, splashing their silver spotted sides in the sun.  The sun was bright above, with just a few fleecy clouds to give a bit of shade from time to time, and the air at sea was pleasantly warm/cool.  In other words, perfect!  We eventually left the dolphins and began hunting for whales in earnest.  After about half an hour, the captain of the boat lowered a microphone into the water to see if he could detect sounds of whales, and did he ever:  we listened with rapt attention as the sperm whales “sang.”  Then we began searching again. I had about given up hope when the young man who had been giving us information about the whales shouted “whale on the surface; whale on the surface.” And right there, next to the starboard side of our boat, was a 30-foot sperm whale, rolling from side to side.  Our guide told us that they were almost certainly female because this was their “home” and they were calving, so we watched as this lovely lady rolled around in the water and then began lowering her head:  the captain shouted “OK, get your cameras ready. I will tell you when she will dive.”  I’m not sure how he knew, but presently he said, “One time down—get ready.”  “Two time down—very soon now.”  “Third time – going down, going down, going down.”  And with those words the whale’s tale flipped out of the water right in front of us.  What a thrill!  We went on to see about a dozen more whales, including a mama and baby who flipped their tails up at exactly the same time.  I’m not sure what was most exciting to me—but hearing them “talk” may have been best.  I thought of these huge, gentle, curious creatures communicating back and forth, and I felt humbled, as I often do at such up-close-and-personal moments with the world’s creatures.  I imagined them singing lovely songs to one another . . . and came back hoping that we could communicate half as beautifully and half as well.

Semester at Sea — First Impressions

Our ship, the MV Explorer, is beautifully maintained and outfitted for a floating college:  a library with over 9000 books onboard; a computer lab; open spaces for conferences with students; nine classrooms plus a large lecture hall; and lots of places for students to get snacks, coffee, etc.  I settled into my cabin—compact, efficient, comfortable—and then began an intensive round of faculty orientation that has lasted two and a half days.  By last night, when we took a break to welcome parents of students on this voyage for a reception, I felt overwhelmed with information I am struggling to absorb.  Technology is going to be a big issue here, since we have little access to the Internet (two satellite dishes, only one of which works at a time, and not that much bandwidth).  Students are allowed only two hours on the Internet for the entire semester.  So working with students on research is especially going to be new and different!

            During faculty orientation, we read Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, about her home of Antigua.  At eighty pages, this brief  text packs a terrific punch.  Defining “tourist” as “ugly,” “American,” and “white,” Kincaid lays out exactly what the process of colonialization has done to Antigua.  Written as a Jeremiad (in the style of Jeremiah and using Biblical allusions as well as paratactic syntax), Kincaid speaks directly to readers, addressing us much of the time as “you.”  This choice of pronouns brings the message up close and very personal:  we are implicated, strongly, in the destruction of this island, its people, and its way of life.  A Small Place is the first book that we will all read together; each faculty member will then lead discussions with a small group of students.  I expect these discussions to elicit a wide range of reactions from the students, who come from all over the U.S. and indeed many other countries.  We have some hot times ahead!

            Last night after the parents’ reception, we finally had a chance to leave the ship and wander the streets here in Nassau.  We walked up to the Governor’s Mansion and chatted with the guard on duty (knowledgeable and courteous to us outsiders) and the walked up and down the narrow shop-lined streets.  Most interesting to me was a ruin:  it looked to be a very old stone building, with leaded glass windows, that had been burned out at some point.  A large sign announced it as “Museum of Slavery and Emancipation.”  Its front was boarded off and taped to those boards was a beautiful rendering of what this site was headed for, which looked to be a shopping area.  But the form of the burned out building was included in the artist’s drawing, so I wonder if the Museum will be restored, to join the new shopping center.  Tonight we will learn a bit about Nassau’s history, and I will try to find out more about this Museum. As I walked, I passed not one but three men with ball caps that announced Jesus Is My Boss.  And at some point a woman announced, to anyone in earshot, “Today is my birthday: where’s my free slice of cake?” As I turned back, several people were approaching her, and I hope one of them had some cake! 

            Tonight we sail for Domenica, about which we are learning a bit.  This is one of the few islands in these parts that wasn’t stripped of just about everything to make way for sugar plantations (and accompanying slave labor), so we will get to enjoy its steep slopes and forests.  I’ll write more soon about what I learn there.  In the meantime, I am preparing to open the Writing Center:  there’s a lot of interest in writing among the faculty, the parents, and the lifelong learners on board.  Looks like we may have a kids’ writer’s club and as if I’ll be doing something with a group of the lifelong learners—on top of running the writing center for the 580 students aboard and teaching my class.  I don’t think I’m going to have a dull moment!

World Traveling!

Maria Lugones’s concept of  “world traveling” has long been of interest to me as a feminist scholar and as a teacher.  I first learned of this concept around 1989 when I read Lugones’s essay, “Playfulness, ‘World’ Traveling, and Loving Perception  (Hypatia, 1987, 3-19) and then, later, her book Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions (Oxford, 2003).  In reading these works, I found applications to my own life but especially to my teaching.  For in “world traveling,” Lugones outlines a way for us to be open to and to identify with one another.  Since doing so is a central goal of feminist rhetoric and writing studies, I was all ears! 

To be more specific, Lugones argues that those of us who are willing to be “world” travelers will learn not only to see others in terms of their own worlds but, more important, to learn to see ourselves as others see  us—e.g. to see ourselves from the point of  view of other worlds.  In short world traveling happens when our identity changes through a cultural shift.  Lugones speaks of such world traveling as “loving play,” a kind of game that is ludic but not competitive or agonistic; it aims to bring people together in trying to join hands between worlds—in a space Gloria Anzaldúa calls “the borderlands.” 

My students and I often talk about this kind of “world” traveling, which we can do on our very own campus or even in our homes—as well as in the works that we read.  So we practice trying to take on that new point of view, and when it is most uncomfortable, we know that it is working.  I find that students respond well to this concept, partly because it isn’t threatening to them—at least not at first.  And if they do they experience the kind of cultural shift Lugones is talking about, they are almost universally deeply moved and want to try to replicate the experience.

As I set out on this Semester at Sea voyage around the world, I have packed my “world” traveling shoes with me.  I hope I can use them to very good effect, so that I will return knowing more of the worlds of others, and more of myself.