Students read about, explore Chesapeake Bay

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Imagine a college course where students read and discuss literature about the Chesapeake Bay, acquire canoe paddling skills, and spend days exploring the Chesapeake Bay and one of its tributaries, the Susquehanna River, and related cultures.

At Penn State, the Department of English and Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management offer just that, an immersive adventure that enhances students’ appreciation of the natural world and understanding of how nature, culture and recreation are intertwined. Students enroll simultaneously in the courses Exploring the Chesapeake Bay, ENG 181A, and Recreational Canoeing, RPTM 197, for one distinctive experience.

“Sailing, catching blue crab, eating raw oysters, talking to local watermen, and having the adventure of a lifetime; these are a few of the experiences I enjoyed while on the Chesapeake Bay trip,” said Brooke Fecko, who is majoring in neurobiology. “The class, adventure literature, is all about discovering Bay life through the experiences of various writers and bringing the things we learn to life through trips to the Bay.”

Led by instructors Adrian Benedetti, a doctoral student in recreation, park and tourism management, and Bob Burkholder, associate professor of English, the philosophy of this course is that the intellectual activity of the literature classroom informs and enhances the instruction and physical activity of canoeing and exploration of the culture of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Benedetti said, “I would hope students obtain a more holistic opportunity to experience how we are molding and molded by the natural world around us. How, if we go too far, we may lose not only the natural resource, but the culture that it nurtured. Seeing how most elements are tightly intertwined may help students to think critically and look a little deeper when needing to better understand a place, job or situation. People have very different perspectives, in literature and real life, and what you see on the surface may not be the real story.”

Burkholder said, “I hope students will have a new appreciation of place, their own and the places they visit. I hope they have a deeper understanding of how human culture is tied to the health of the environment. I hope they will enjoy reading and writing more, and I hope they will have experiences that they will remember and reflect on for a long time after the class.”

Students on boat in Chesapeake Bay

Students enjoy songs of the Chesapeake Bay on an historic skipjack, a boat used to harvest oysters under sail. 

Image: Penn State

Specifically, students are assigned various readings, including "Red Kayak" by Priscilla Cummings, "The Lord’s Oysters" by Gilbert Byron, "Chesapeake" by James Michener and "Susquehanna, River of Dreams" by Susan Stranahan. Students are also required to learn the skills needed to become a competent recreational paddler.

Throughout the semester, students read the assigned literature, work on paddling skills and participate in day and multi-day trips to the Chesapeake Bay, Harrisburg River, Safe Harbor Dam and West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

In September, students spent four days in the Chesapeake Bay area. On the first day, students visited Pickering Creek Audubon Center and viewed writer Gilbert Byron's home. Then students went to St. Michaels, Maryland, and visited the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum where they walked the grounds and received a themed tour.

On the second day, students met and listened to local watermen who described how they make their living and the health of the bay and its natural resources. They also went aboard a historic workboat and received a hands-on course about the bay's wildlife, ecology and threats.

For the third day, students spent most of their time on a historic boat, skipjack "Elsworth," which was built in 1901, and took a tour of the Chester River while tasting local food, including oysters and cured ham. They also toured historic Chestertown, Maryland.

On the final day, students visited Betterton, Maryland, where they attended a small concert by the Chesapeake Scenes, which combined local poetry, storytelling and folk songs.

Students dine together, sampling steamed crabs

Students learn about the Chesapeake Bay by sampling one of its most famous products, steamed crabs.

Image: Penn State

“I learned about the culture of the Eastern Shore and the habitat of the Chesapeake. Also, I learned a lot about the wildlife of the area, and how important it is to conserve natural species and habitat,” said student Hannah Conroy. “Furthermore, I was able to see the area we were reading about, which offered a whole new dimension to the literature."

Conroy, who is studying political science, said the course will leave a lasting impact on her.

“This course is truly amazing. Rarely do I get the chance to learn in such a hands-on and experiential way,” Conroy said. “What I’ve learned will stick with me, as I have firsthand experience with skipjacks, crabs, and the culture of the Chesapeake Bay. This class is unique and a great opportunity and I'm very glad I got to experience it. As a political science major I do not learn much about the environment or nature, so I am very glad I took this course and got to experience something completely different from my normal courses.”

Students explore Bay geography on a historic workboat

Students discuss Chesapeake Bay geography aboard the historic deadrise workboat "Spirit" with Captain Andrew McCown.

Image: Penn State

Sarah Xenophon, who studied environmental resource management with a minor in English at Penn State before graduating in May, took the course in a previous semester. Now a watershed technician for Penn State’s Agriculture and Environment Center, she said the course taught her that no one field of study or one single human being stands alone from the rest.

“Having experienced the Chesapeake Bay through this class, I now feel that many people and many ecosystems play a part in the culture and livelihoods of the people who depend on the bay proper,” Xenophon said. “Everyone upstream, every wetland and estuary, and every policy, from zoning to fishing laws, play a part in the Bay’s health and therefore the culture of the whole region. Society’s relationship with nature is one that I am still working to understand and better manage as a professional environmental scientist.”

Fecko, who plans to become a dentist, acknowledges that on the surface such a course may not have a visible direct connection to her career goals; however, she has discovered such a link.

“This class is helping me gain perspective of the lives of others who have very different lives than my own,” Fecko said. “In learning and experiencing other cultures, even within my own country, I believe there is understanding and empathy to gain from the experience. It is my belief that with this greater understanding I can work better with others.”

This course is offered each fall semester; other similar “adventure literature” courses are offered in the spring.

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Last Updated October 25, 2017