Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Summer Course on Pacific History

This summer I will teaching my own undergraduate course for the first time at SUNY Stony Brook. Yay! This course will take place during the second summer session, from early July to mid August 2011. These sessions are only six weeks long, with classes meeting twice a week for three and a half hours each session. That might appear to be a very long session! But with a mix of lecture, class discussion, group work, and audio-visual surprises - including many excellent films - I imagine our time in class will just fly by.

I humbly note that my course, HIS 340-J: Pacific Islands: Histories of Paradise, will attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible:

To cover 6,000 years of the history of 1/3 of the entire Earth in just six weeks!

But that's Pacific history for you. Of course we will have to cut corners in just about every corner. I am, by default of my own research interests and knowledge base, going to focus overwhelmingly on Polynesia and the Eastern Pacific, most specifically on Hawaiʻi. But there will also be significant lessons and/or readings concerning Tahiti, the Marquesas, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Kiribati, Fiji, and New Guinea, if not more.

To get a sense of the major historical topics and themes that the course will attempt to tie together, please see the course description by clicking on the course title (link) above.

Choosing a textbook for this class has been a very hard task. For a course like this, with its sweeping scope over all Pacific time and space, few books that I have read in Pacific history seemed suitable for use in any more than just a handful of lessons. And the books I originally turned to as potential unifying agents for bringing the many threads of the course together - books like Greg Dening's Islands and Beaches, for example - are all out of print. But if you really want a copy of Dening's classic book for your own library, here is a link to where you can buy a bargain-bin copy for as mildly inexpensive as $279.24!

So this is what I've decided to work with instead:

Alastair Couper's very recent Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples (2009), and John Kneubuhl's collection of plays, Think of a Garden, and other Plays (1997).

Couper's book will provide the most generalist of overviews for each week and each session, covering all space and time from the earliest Pacific Island colonizations to the lives of present-day Oceanian "voyagers" on transoceanic cargo ships, from New Guinea east all the way to Rapa Nui. Couper has a particular interest in Micronesia, and especially Kiribati, which I think will serve as a fitting compliment to my own lectures which will probably inevitably focus too much on Polynesia and Hawaiʻi. So we will get two different perspectives between us.

Kneubuhl's plays will jump in during the last two weeks of session. "Think of a Garden" concerns the mau independence movement in Western Samoa in the 1920s and 30s, while "Mele Kanikau: A Pageant" engages with the debates over tourism, and conflicting ideas of indigeneity and authenticity in 1970s Hawaiʻi at the outset of the Hawaiian Renaissance. We won't read the third play in the collection, which is too esoteric for the purposes of this class. Overall, Kneubuhl will help us enter the twentieth-century world of Pacific Islanders through very readable and enjoyable dramatic prose.

As for films, I am still sorting out the list and figuring out what will fit within the course's limits, but I do know that these four films will anchor our discussions of cinematic representations of the Pacific:

Hawaii (1966)

That's probably enough of a tease to get some readers' minds spinning. Course registration for summer session begins on April 6, 2011. New York State residents can take SUNY courses at very reasonable rates (at least compared to the rate for out-of-state students!), so if you are in need of credits towards your bachelor's degree, or if you specifically need that elusive "J" to satisfy your DEC requirements, consider registering for my course! It will be fun!


  1. Sounds awesome, Gregory! I wish I could come to New York to take your class! (I also wish I could have the chance to teach my own class). I look forward to seeing the syllabus and hearing more about how it all comes together.

  2. Please use the podcasts as reference points to Polynesian cosmology and cultural development

    BTW: as a member of the Samoan Writers group, Siuleo o Samoa" we did the first reading of "Think of a Garden" at John and Dottie's place in Taputimu. My short stories on the blog evolved from the group. There are ten stories in all.


    From Pago Pago,

    John Wasko

  3. Gee, I just saw the BusyCorner link on the blog roll. Wikipedia's American Samoa wiki needs serious work. I started with the academic citations and will fill in as time permits. Maybe the students can take it on as a collaborative project

    From Pago, JW

  4. Dear AZ: Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. I, too, wish that you could teach your own class. Your students would just love you! I am thoroughly enjoying planning the course; I hope it is as much fun to actually put it into action!
    Also, your new blog is great! I have been enjoying every post.

    Dear John: Thanks again for contacting me. I had remembered you saying previously that you knew John Kneubuhl closely and were involved in a writer's group with him. I am REALLY excited about using these plays as windows upon history for my students.
    I have also enjoyed the few podcasts on your site that I have so far listened to.
    Also, thanks for the suggestion about wikipedia. The course's final paper asks of each student to select a Pacific Island nation (or territory) of their choosing and write up a short, encyclopedia-style entry on various aspects of that nation's/people's history. If any student(s) select to write about the history of American Samoa, perhaps I may put them up to the challenge to try and improve the wiki site. And perhaps they could help with the wiki pages of other Pacific Island nations/territories as well.

    All my best,