Seafood and Pirates: Joel’s Classes

I taught two classes in China:  The Biology of Seafood and The History of Ocean Exploration. I am going to talk about the rest of my temporary teaching job in another post, but here is what we’ve talked about in my classroom.

Against a backdrop of modern Zhuhai buildings, a lone fisher wades into rain and low tide to dig for clams.
Against a backdrop of modern Zhuhai buildings, a lone fisher wades into rain and low tide to dig for clams.

 

The Biology of Seafood

I have taught a course like this in the U.S. both at Whitman College and at Gustavus Adolphus College.  It is fun to tell people the “behind the scenes” story of something quite ordinary.  Seafood, like cellphones or shoes, is a product that has a truly global industry.

A Biology of Seafood student gives a speech.  Student pairs were assigned half of a book chapter, and then gave a speech.  That way everyone in class at least heard the book's contents, if they didn't read it for themselves.
A Biology of Seafood student gives a speech. Student pairs were assigned half of a book chapter, and then gave a speech. That way everyone in class at least heard the book’s contents, if they didn’t read it for themselves.
A slide from The Biology of Seafood lectures.
A slide from The Biology of Seafood lecture on environmental ethics.  Most of the Seafood class is about science, but we start out with ethics and finish with fisheries economics.

 

Teaching this class in China was different. These students have little, if any, awareness that nature is disappearing at an alarming rate.  They have little practical knowledge of science, especially biology (the state of sex ed in China is woefully lacking).

The connections between living things in the ocean are more complicated and diverse than what you find on land.  To illustrate this, each student is an animal or plant.  Yarn links each student creature to what they eat, and to what eats them.  One student was a microscopic shrimp (a copepod) who couldn't move because of the 11 different strands of yarn tying her in place.
The connections between living things in the ocean are more complicated and diverse than what you find on land. To illustrate this, each student is an animal or plant. Yarn links each student creature to what they eat, and to what eats them. One student was a microscopic shrimp (a copepod) who couldn’t move because of the 11 different strands of yarn tying her in place.

 

In China, there is no problem with evolution as an accepted fact (why does any other country even question something so obvious?).   And, unlike even my most hungry sushi-obsessed American students, my Chinese students have made it clear that they really will eat anything from the ocean.  Squid in ink, steamed mantis shrimp, sauteed jellyfish  – ANYthing.

Baskets of shells in a seafood processing shop in Zhuhai.  These are for local use, but places like this ship seafood abroad as well.  Around the world, the total money made from selling cocoa, rubber, coffee and tea COMBINED almost equals the amount of money made in seafood exports from the developing world.
Baskets of shells in a seafood processing shop in Zhuhai. These are for local use, but places like this export seafood as well. Around the world, the total money made from selling cocoa, rubber, coffee and tea combined ALMOST equals the amount of money made in seafood exports from the developing world.

 

 

The History of Ocean Exploration

When I first contacted UIC for a sabbatical job, I had proposed the seafood class and four other biology classes.   Evidently they had enough science in their curriculum, thankyouverymuch.  Instead, they chose the class that I proposed based more on my hobbies than on any real qualifications.  So it is that I taught a world history course called History of Ocean Exploration.

A ceramic jar from a Tang dynasty (618-906CE) shipwreck.  Chinese porcelain has been found from Indonesia to Somalia on the "maritime Silk Road."  Photographed from a display in Guangzhou.
A ceramic jar from a Tang dynasty (618-906CE) shipwreck.  Ancient Chinese porcelain has been found from Indonesia to Somalia on the “maritime Silk Road.”  Photographed from a display in Guangzhou.

 

A slide from History of Ocean Exploration.
A slide from History of Ocean Exploration.  Roman coins have been found in ancient Chinese tombs while Chinese Buddhist artifacts have been found in Viking archaeological sites.  It always has been a small world, after all.

 

Fishing in international waters means that there are essentially no rules.  Whoever is the fastest, wins.  The resources lose.  Here, my Biology of Seafood students (fishers) have 30 seconds to gather little candies (the fish) that were hidden around the classroom (the ocean).
Fishing in international waters means that there are essentially no rules. Whoever is the fastest, wins. The resources lose. Here, my students (fishers) have 30 seconds to gather little candies (the fish) that were hidden around the classroom (the ocean).  Next, I will institute a fishing regulation – they cannot use their hands.

 

I chose little scenes from history to illustrate how the coastal world has always been global.  I used two books as texts:  Paine’s The Sea and Civilization and Konstam’s The History of Pirates.  And I got a crash course in Chinese history to boot!  We talked about stuff you may remember from school:  Columbus, the Titanic, Blackbeard.

A slide from History of Ocean Exploration.  We discussed pirates starting with ancient Greece and Rome, and finishing with Somalia and the South China Sea.
A slide from History of Ocean Exploration. We discussed pirates starting with ancient Greece and Rome, and finishing with Somalia and the South China Sea.

 

At a fishing villa just off Zhuhai's coastal highway, Susie and I discovered two dozen women putting tiny shrimp onto tiny hooks.  Around the developing world, fishing is done almost exclusively by men while women actually work longer hours mending nets, cleaning gear and fish, and selling the seafood.
At a fishing villa just off Zhuhai’s coastal highway, Susie and I discovered two dozen women putting tiny shrimp onto tiny hooks. Around the developing world, fishing is done almost exclusively by men while women actually work longer hours mending nets, cleaning gear and fish, and selling the seafood.

 

But we also talked a lot about modern issues:  why a downed airplane is hard to find, why China is sending robots to the moon, piracy off Somalia and elsewhere, how to resolve which country owns disputed islands.  And I guess that this is a very unusual approach to history in China.  From what my students told me, high school history classes are memorizing scores of dates with little attention paid to anything outside China.

 

Sailing vocabulary can be confusing, but my students really enjoyed learning pirate talk.  Especially the idiom "son of a gun."
Sailing vocabulary can be confusing, but my students really enjoyed learning pirate talk. Especially the idiom “son of a gun.”  Another slide from my History of Exploration class.

 

In History of Ocean Exploration, we talked a lot about ships.  Here is a model of a ship from the world's first peacetime navy - the Chinese navy of the Song dynasty (960-1279CE).  Song boats routinely sailed the Indian Ocean trading in silks, ceramics, metals, and spices.  From the Maritime Silk Road display in Guangzhou.
In History of Ocean Exploration, we talked a lot about ships. Here is a model of a ship from the world’s first peacetime navy – the Chinese navy of the Song dynasty (960-1279CE). Song boats routinely sailed the Indian Ocean trading in silks, ceramics, metals, and spices. From the Maritime Silk Road display in Guangzhou.

 

At the Maritime Silk Road exhibit in Guangzhou, Simon poses happily by a female guard lion.
Globalization comes full circle:  at the Maritime Silk Road exhibit in Guangzhou, Simon poses happily by a female guard lion. Simon visited my classes once or twice this semester, and all learning stopped as soon as he toddled into the door.
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