By: Michelle K. Barron

Preparing lessons on shipwreck excavations and underwater cultural heritage discoveries can be a daunting task, primarily because of the numerous intersections of disciplines. Each area of study—be it maritime archaeology, oceanic anthropology, diasporic and migration literature, international law of the sea, or heritage studies—approaches discussions of shipwrecks differently. The inclusion of shipwrecks into a course curriculum is not only complex due to the many interdisciplinary facets, but also due to the fact that the wrecks themselves have become more accessible through the use of innovative detection technologies that subsequently increase shipwreck discoveries, thus making the interconnecting histories more complex (Dromgoole 2-3). With improvements in deep-sea technologies, the possibilities of finding submerged shipwrecks and underwater cultural heritage have increased exponentially over the past hundred years. The United Nations estimates that there are over three million undiscovered shipwrecks on the sea floor (UNESCO Press Release No. 97). While the possibility of newly discovered material is certainly exciting for instructors and their teaching assistants, there remains a lingering fear pertaining to histories surrounding the shipwrecks. When observed within their historical context, the study of shipwrecks is inextricably entwined in discussions of colonial movements across the ocean, implicating histories of violence. As maritime narratives containing shipwrecks are integrating into classroom discussions, the creative iteration of adding a postcolonial lens, in addition to Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg’s Object Lessons, helps to examine cultural narratives of violence becomes indispensable. I argue that an inclusion of discussions from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed not only aids in the (re)framing of lessons about shipwrecks and underwater cultural heritage, but also helps guide the lessons in ways that do not perpetuate the violence attached to histories of colonialism.

When approaching the subject of shipwrecks, it is essential to acknowledge that a vessel, as well as any attached underwater cultural heritage, is ensnared in histories of conflict, politics, and violence. For Freire, denying the “importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naive and simplistic” (50). As such, it is essential to be prepared to open up spaces in class discussions for conversations that include multiple interpretations of histories. Rather than setting up a lecture, it can be constructive to encourage students to read articles from numerous viewpoints before facilitating a discussion group capable of stimulating a plurality of understandings. In this way, Freire sees possibilities of critical thinking as “knowing is a social process,” one which involves communication between subjects of knowledge (92). This process of creating spaces for students to learn from each other, as much as they learn from you (the instructor or teaching assistant), goes contrary to an environment where the instructor is the authoritative figure and assumes that the students know nothing (92). According to Freire, one method of fostering an inclusive environment is to include practices that entail honest dialogue between students and students, students and the teacher, and perhaps even between disciplines (92). While it may be easier and perhaps more time-conscious to choose a single reading or even to approach a topic from one side alone, if the subject matter contains violent colonial histories, presenting a single standpoint can become problematic. I would argue therefore that incorporating numerous perspectives is critical when studying shipwrecks due to the topic’s deep roots in colonial exploitation.

Freire suggests that when instructors are seen as the sole holders of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge,’ while students are not encouraged to participate, the resulting power dynamic mirrors that of oppression and ultimately perpetuates violence against any subjugated or marginalized students (Freire 59). When it comes to lessons and discussions around shipwrecks and histories of colonial expansion, exploitation, and systemic oppression, it is clear that maintaining an environment where challenging power structures is not tolerated seems counterproductive. This notion rests on the assumption that the space of the classroom and the methods of communication impact the content being studied itself. By fostering an environment free of oppressive classroom power structures, we can open up of dialogues surrounding violent histories. The question then revolves around how to foster critical thinking and entertain a multitude of approaches to a shipwreck’s history and heritage. I suggest one particularly useful method: the inclusion of perspectives that engage in dialogue in both colonial and postcolonial areas—specifically, art and literature’s ability to shed light on differing perspectives.

In order to explore multiple perspectives during a lesson on shipwrecks, discussions that (re)center the shipwreck in histories may be a good place to start. Bogost and Schaberg’s Object Lessons can be useful in their teachings on physical objects and how they inform histories, suggesting that the objects themselves become access points into histories. One of the articles in Object Lessons by John Gifford is called “How Millennials (Almost) Killed the Wine Cork,” where the author discusses corks in order to gain access into histories of shifting towards plastic and screw-on bottle caps. By placing objects in the center of the analysis, these authors expose the ways in which things are informed by their histories. One way to do this in the classroom is by incorporating numerous voices and viewpoints when approaching an object as historically complex as a shipwreck. Inviting guest speakers, artists, and activists who engage subjects (and objects) in different ways to speak to students can be a powerful teaching tool. For example, Mille Chen’s work Extreme Centre incorporates auditory sensory experiences that challenge the viewers’ visual understanding of a particular space. As the viewer walks through a maze of large walls, speakers emit distant, muffled, and muted whispers that seem to compete with one-another for dominance. While Gifford’s work allows for a shift in the way someone could approach histories surrounding an object, Chen approaches objects through sensorial experiences. For shipwreck studies, similar methods of incorporating an object-oriented historical approach in tandem with sensory discussions can be used to help in conversations of intersecting histories.

Opening up dialogues can be achieved using another mean: literature. M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem Zong! is a (re)framing of the Zong Massacre, which occurred in 1781 when the captain of a slave ship traveling from Africa to Jamaica made the call to throw approximately 132 slaves overboard due to a spreading illness (Philip 189). This poem brings to light the histories and violence that permeate shipwreck discussions as well as challenge students to question the telling of the history through linear narratives. The author suggests that violent, oppressive histories, like those that pertain to those whose deaths were met on slave ships out in the ocean, have untold stories that “tel[l] [themselves] by not telling” (193). The process of untelling is not dissimilar to Freire’s notions of transmission (or even translation) of the way in which historical facts are questioned, where more than one approach or translation of these histories is not only legitimate but encouraged. Literary pieces such as Zong! are good examples of ways in which including a counter-narrative (or different narrative) allows for a broader discussion that may limit the potential for colonial narratives to dominate a class. By bringing in art, scholarship, and literature, the teaching focus can be steered back towards the object itself in an attempt to include numerous perspectives, leading to a more diverse and open dialogue about its histories. These various sources can become essential for students to grasp fully the implications of violent and oppressive histories, particularly in discussions involving violent histories of shipwrecks.

According to Paulo Freire, it is not enough to talk about systems of oppressions: the classroom itself needs to dismantle the same types of power dynamics. When it comes to shipwrecks and their histories, Freire’s work is vital because it forces instructors to consider not only what the subject entails, but how to frame it in a way that reflects the complexities behind its histories. Changing the classroom dynamic to ensure that students’ voices are heard, in addition to incorporating diverse counter-narratives like Zong!, can be the initial steps of preparing for a class. While the this type of lesson plan (incorporating more than one perspective or adding texts which highlight more than one opinion) can be a time-consuming task, the ways in which contradictory views can incite productive dialogue in the classroom make it a worthwhile endeavour. Using Freire’s work as a means of interrupting colonial (or dominant) discourses can help students in understanding the nuances and complexities of histories surrounding shipwrecks. Furthermore, similar methods can also be employed when approaching the subject of other objects that may connect to histories of colonial violence. Things like artifacts, vessels, or belongings that speak to histories of Canadian residential schools, or histories of oppression in the Congo, may also benefit from an approach derived from Object Lessons and Freire’s work. By using an object itself to enter into the discussion of histories as well as incorporating perspectives from an array of disciplines, counter-narratives and counter-histories are also given a voice in what is normally a colonial dominated discussion.

Work Cited

Bogost, Ian, and Christopher Schaberg. Object Lessons: Website Introduction. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.

Chen, Millie. Extreme Centre. 2007. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Dromgoole, Sarah. Underwater Cultural Heritage and International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970. Print.

Gifford, John. “How Millennials (Almost) Killed the Cork. Object Lesson. 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong! Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print

UNESCO Press Release No. 97. “Under Water Cultural Heritage: Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage Will Enter into Force in January 2009.” UNESCO News Service. 14 Oct. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.