Welcome Aboard the HMS... Classroom?

June 18, 2008
By Maria Kim Jimenez, Germantown, MD

(This college essay is a response to the question: “If you could teach a class about your favorite subject, what would you teach and how would you do it?”)

A stack of dusty books lies at the corner of a littered desk, and in between a corroding, barely distinguishable name plate and a stub of a candle stands a stout inkwell, sitting atop leaflets of peppered blotting paper. To the south of it is spread an aged map of the world circa 1798, and to the northwest hide two compasses, one with its twiggy legs pointing conveniently to a bulky sextant and the other swinging its arrow north. The classroom has suddenly taken on an antiquated face, and the air smells faintly of the pungent sea. This is the future abode for my undying passion. This is the class I would do anything to teach. “This” is Life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Such a course, if placed into my hands, would never be deemed a bore (although I must admit that the course’s name itself is seemingly captivating only to ancient folk, history buffs, and anglophiles). However, even if those are the types of individuals that would enroll in the class, my enthusiasm would in no way be damaged. The very word “life” connotes an experience that involves all senses, and I would teach the course based on that premise. My students would be able to see, hear, touch, smell and even taste aspects of life in the British Navy during the peak of Napoleon’s reign.

As described above, the classroom I would give my lectures in (if possible) would be designed to emulate the captain’s quarters of a British warship without the continuous fluctuation of the ocean’s waves. Not only would this setting provide a more comfortable and unique classroom to learn in, but it would also bring my students back in time and allow them to familiarize with the everyday places sailors and officers in the British Navy occupied. Likewise, I would arrange field trips or expeditions to visit historical vessels to further establish the living conditions and homes of these nautical men of the past. For my students to have the opportunity to step aboard a tall ship and to actually see and touch what constituents if the King’s Navy saw and felt would put my students in their shoes and thus make the learning experience all the more fulfilling.

Following in suit of the sightseeing aspect of my class curriculum, I would also provide my students with visual and aural media that interpret life in the British Navy in an adequately accurate way. On my good days, or otherwise, on the days in which my emotions are in good balance, I would showcase to my students common sea chanties or other songs popular among the period’s “Jack-tars.” With that portion of auditory information, they would be expected to interpret certain lyrics and attempt to explain their themes, where they originated, and how they relate to life in the Navy. However, on the more enjoyable part, feature length films based on nautical fiction of this era would also be shown to further depict (in live action) the common lives of sailors and officers aboard warships.

Although going to boating shows, hearing cannons fired, and watching seafaring movies can play a part in the complete understanding of life in the British Navy, one sense has yet to be explored—the sense of taste. Now, in my class I would in never require students to lick the deck of a ship or drink seawater in order to gain that full “sailor” experience. Rather, I’d have them delve slightly into the daily diets of men on the sea and try their talents as cooks to create meals and beverages based on recipes of actual foods eaten during that time. I’d remind them that the foods they’d cook were eaten on a regular basis by sailors due to their long respites from land, and I would challenge them (if any were willing) if they could eat the same things over a course of a month. The results, I predict, would be fascinating.

However, every course, despite the multitude of ways to teach it, needs, at some point or another, some reading and bookwork. In this case, my course would consist of nonfiction and fiction. Textbooks on the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars would be used for research purposes and fiction written on the subject would also be read and analyzed for their historical accuracy, factual information, and enjoyment. The references used would range from illustrated book companions to lexicons of nautical terms and slang. All of these would in turn provide a solid factual basis for the course while also introducing students to vocabulary and colloquialisms used by sailors and officers. The bookwork would also permit students to apply what they learned and experienced from the hands-on activities and put the whole course into a colorful perspective.

My passion, I admit, may appear unorthodox to the normal, 21st century eye, but I thoroughly enjoy this subject and have explored it in my own time. To go back in time and imagine the lives of those deceased in a world that has long since been forgotten becomes an adventure for me, and if I ever had the opportunity to teach a course on this, my sole goal would be to revive the world and lives of British sailors and officers and expose them to the quizzical, yet piqued faces of my would-be students.

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