Friday, August 19, 2011

Pacific Island History in a Long Island Classroom

A Tale of Two Islands

In March I wrote a post about my upcoming summer course on Pacific Island history. Well, the course has now ended and I think it would be useful for me to review what worked, what didn't, and to remark upon how much I enjoyed teaching this course!

As I like to tell anyone who will listen, my course covered 6,000 years of history, and 1/3 of the Earth's surface, in just 6 weeks! (But get ready for this, my January 2012 winter session course on early China will cover 3,000 years of history in just 3 weeks! More on that later.) Our grand sweep through Pacific Island history took place in a small classroom in the Social and Behavioral Sciences building on the campus of Stony Brook University, SUNY, on Long Island. There we were, islanders talking about islanders...and yet the actual Pacific world seemed so far away. (For the record, I am a Manhattan islander --- I wonder if Pacific Islanders would really consider us fellow "islanders" though?) :)

The images in this post are reproductions of the opening slides from the various lectures I presented as part of my course "Pacific Islands: Histories of Paradise." Each image has a unique story to tell, and I am happy to share those stories with anyone interested.

The Pedagogical Approach: A Review

For those interested in the thinking behind my course, "Pacific Islands: Histories of Paradise," I invite you to read the March 2011 post for more information. Here I would like to simply recap my pedagogical approach, and then evaluate how different aspects of this approach actually played out in the classroom.

I assigned two textbooks: Alastair Couper's maritime history of Pacific Islanders, Sailors and Traders, and John Kneubuhl's trilogy of plays (written for the stage), Think of a Garden, and other Plays. I didn't necessarily plan to have this balance between academic historical writing and fictional playwriting, but the students seemed to appreciate the "change of pace" that came with our switch to Kneubuhl halfway through the semester, and so did I. I used Kneubuhl's plays "Think of a Garden" and "Mele Kanikau: A Pageant" to explore, respectively, the Mau movement in Samoa in the 1920s and the Hawaiian Renaissance in 1970s-Hawaiʻi. It was a lot to ask of my students to read 80-90 page plays instead of 20-30 page chapters or articles, but they pulled through, and to everyone's benefit. Indeed, if I had 60 weeks instead of 6, I'd assign Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, Herman Melville's Typee. Jee, we'd just read tons of novels and skip all the dry academic stuff. (Unfortunately, I can't offer a course like that right now!)

Besides the textbooks, I put tons of articles and essays and primary sources on Blackboard to accompany each class session's theme or topic. We read writings by Epeli Hau'ofa, Noenoe Silva, Greg Dening, Bruce Cumings, John McNeill, Alan Ziegler, Ronald Takaki, Patrick Kirch, Jared Diamond, Jennifer Newell, David Chappell, and others. Our primary sources included excerpts from Hiram Bingham (American missionary to Hawaiʻi in the early 19th century), Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (author of Two Years Before the Mast, about cosmopolitan Mexican California in the 1830s), and from Queen Liliʻuokalani (who was removed from power by American businessmen during the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom). On a whim, I also brought in some Hawaiian-language primary sources for the students to look at (in both Hawaiian and in my awful English translations!). I was truly impressed by how much the students got out of these sources: mid-19th-century letters to the editor written to Hawaiian-language newspapers by migrant laborers working on remote guano islands or mining gold in California. If there was ever a marginal, subaltern actor in the all the history we covered, it was the Hawaiian migrant laborer who toiled thousands of miles from home. (Well, at least that's the case I'll be making in my dissertation about these dudes.) Anyway, the students really empathized with the laborers. As a Ph.D. student working on what sometimes seems like an obscure topic, this was really heartwarming to me, and using these materials in class was one of the highlights of my semester. (Also, who would have ever thought that Hawaiian-language documents would be examined in a history class at Stony Brook? I've been thinking that when I teach classes in U.S. history I should really strive to do the same: to bring writings by indigenous peoples in indigenous languages to the table. Usually we don't let these subaltern actors speak - perhaps we don't even know that their voices are there, hidden in languages we don't even understand. Anyway, this is a call to action, for all of us, to avoid Anglophonecentrism. Did I just coin a new word?)

So those were the readings. Now, the films.

I had the students write responsive essays about any one of four main films that we all watched together in class: The Bounty (about 1780s-Tahiti), Hawaii (about 1820s-Hawaiʻi), Picture Bride (about 1910s-Hawaiʻi), and Once Were Warriors (about 1990s-Aotearoa [New Zealand]). I split the students up so that an equal number of students wrote about each film. Generally, the students enjoyed the films. Some thought Hawaii was too long (we watched the director's cut - it was over three hours long! Warning to teachers: don't use the library's director's cut!). Everyone seemed to enjoy The Bounty; they were generally surprised that Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, and other stars of today were actually alive and making movies in the mid-1980s, which is, of course, before most of my students were born. Once Were Warriors moved some students to tears, and I, too, cried. I was thankful to be sitting up front watching the movie so that I could shield my wet eyes from my students. That would have been embarrassing! Once Were Warriors is just, hands down, perhaps the most powerful movie about contemporary indigenous peoples' issues that I have ever seen. I have never seen any movie of similar weight made about contemporary Native Americans, or Native Hawaiians, or any other group. I mean, I love Whale Rider; that is a great movie, too. Both films are about contemporary Māori life in Aotearoa. Anyway, the only film that perhaps doesn't work perfectly here is Picture Bride. Because it focuses so heavily on the Japanese immigrant experience in Hawaiʻi, and offers so little information about what Native Hawaiians were experiencing at that time, it was hard for me, and my students, to put the film within the context of the rest of the class which really centered on the indigenous Pacific Islander experience.

Besides having to write about a film, I also asked my students to write about a museum object and a visual representation (image) of Pacific Islands/Islanders. The museum object assignment was fun. A number of students received extra credit for visiting the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of Pacific Peoples and writing about an object found in the collection. Students who did not visit the museum had the option of writing about an object from various online museum collections, but I really wanted to encourage students to be present with the real objects. Students chose a breadth of objects from across the spectrum of Pacific Islander cultures to write about, from New Guinea to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). I was very impressed with their work.

For the image assignment, I had students choose an 18th or 19th century visual representation of Pacific Islands or Islanders created by an outsider (most often a European or Euro-American artist). Many chose works by British artist John Webber who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to Hawaiʻi in the late 1770s. Webber's were the first images of Hawaiʻi and Hawaiians that many Europeans and Americans ever laid eyes on. Others chose works by French artist Jacques Arago, or those of British painter Robert Dampier. Pushing to the end of the 19th century, some students even discussed the work of French painter Paul Gauguin who lived for a time in French Polynesia.

Finally, if you thought that was more than enough material and assignments for a six-week course, I also had my students write a short research paper on a topic of their choosing. I have been more than impressed by the results they have submitted! They chose topics ranging from pre-contact Māori history to the impact of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) on Pacific Islanders in contemporary Oceania. Some students even researched questions in historiography, such as how European accounts of Captain Cook's death compare with Native Hawaiian accounts. Over the semester I pushed students to go beyond typing in their queries into Google and then just using whatever information came up in the search results. I stressed to them that only like 1% (if even close to that much) of what you find online is worthy of use in your papers. But I said that if they were to visit our very own Melville Library, on the other hand - which one student classified as a "scary place," while another student, a senior, admitted s/he had never taken a book out of the library, ever - close to 100% of what they'd find at the library would be acceptable for use in a history paper, if used in the right way. And, impressively, only a handful of students used any internet sources in their final research paper. Many used the library's online databases to access journal articles, and others even read piles of books from the stacks - books on Pacific Islands which probably had not been read in thirty years, if ever!

It's not that I am anti-internet and pro-dusty-old-books. Indeed, more and more of the best information on historical topics these days is easily accessed online. But that dusty old book on Samoan history just sitting on the stacks at our campus on Long Island is really a "treasure." I mean, it may be a horrible work of scholarship...but just coming to terms with it is an experience - like seeing a Pacific Islander-made object in a museum. Reading a dusty old book is something I think should be classified as an essential part of the college learning experience. For all the students who classified the library as a "scary" black-hole, there was at least one student who told me during class that s/he had an amazing experience reading a mid-19th-century book from our little library's shelves. S/he described the leather-bound cover as almost ripped off, the pages as yellowed and weathered; there was even a personal inscription in the front of the page written by some reader of days gone by. S/he could not believe that our library even had stuff like that. In my mind: that student had an awesome experience at the library! Success.

Concluding Thoughts

And so that's what we did for 6 weeks. I can't say that teaching a summer course pays well. (It doesn't.) And I can't say it was easy. (Each class was 3.5 hours long, and each 3.5 hour class required probably 10 hours of reading, writing, and powerpoint-making to pull it off. If any reader ever wants someone to lecture to an audience for an hour about topics such as colonialism in the Pacific, pre-contact Polynesian societies, the 19th-century Plantation System and blackbirding, or contemporary social and political issues in Oceania, you know where to find me!) Also, on the topic of "it wasn't easy": now that I've said nice things about the library, I do have to say that the quality of their VHS videos is really poor! Oh, my poor students! During The Bounty they had to watch clips of the Phil Donahue show that some library patron had recorded over the opening credits of the movie; during Hawaii they had to deal with the sound going in and out and in out (that was partly the fault of the A/V equipment in our department); during Picture Bride they had to deal with roving alternate bars of color and black & white across the screen throughout the whole movie. Not just that, but the sound also changed along with the roving bars so that a constant static "wave" of sound kept crashing against the spoken dialogue of the film. (Thankfully, much of the dialogue was in Japanese and we were reading the subtitles anyway!) The point is: if there is any reader out there that wants to donate to SUNY, we could sure use some upgrades in our library collection! Or, you could call your state legislator and demand that they find a sensible way to fund high-quality public higher education in this great state. Privatizing SUNY is not the answer. Raising taxes on the wealthy? That's my two cents if you care to know.

Winter 2012

In January 2012 I will be teaching a three-week course on "Society and Culture in Early China." I hope to post a course description online within the next month, and I'll be sure to include a link to that description in a future blog post.

If you have any comments or questions about my course on Pacific history, I'd love to hear from you.

Mahalo for reading!


  1. Oh Greg! You're such a natural! So love the energetic, frenetic, and intelligent approach to the course & the creative assignments. My fall syllabi sound clunky by comparison. Your students are a lucky set of folks. I'd love to see the syllabus...and get cites/access to some of those Hawaiian-language sources that were such a hit.

  2. Hi KDSH (I'm pretty sure I know who you are!):

    Thanks for your supportive comment! I really enjoyed teaching this you can probably tell!
    I'll be emailing you my syllabus. As for the Hawaiian-language sources, they probably won't be of much use without my translations. What I'll send you are the few that I picked out and used in class. My English translations are really sloppy, but, perhaps you might make use of them in one of your own classes! That would be great!

    So what are you teaching in the fall?
    All my best,

  3. Hi Greg

    Great work with your class course. I thought I'd suggest another film you might consider adding to your course. It is the first Samoan feature film, released last year, entirely spoken in Samoan and set in modern Samoa. It's called The Orator / Le Tulafale. The cinemas in the cities of Samoa, NZ and Australia were packed out by Samoans (including elderly Samoans who rarely go to the cinemas) as it is a more accurate portrayal of Samoan life (in Samoa) than the more urbanised experiences shown in movies like Once Were Warriors or Siones Wedding.

    Keep up the great work.


  4. Hi FreshyNZ:

    Thank you for your note. And thank you very much for the film recommendation. I will definitely check out "The Orator / Le Tulafale." I don't think it came to theaters here in NYC, so I will watch for its release on DVD or online. And hopefully next time I teach this class I can use it!

    You are always a great source of advice and information. Thanks for reading and sharing!