Travel Writing (Section 4)

Discipline: English Writing
Instructor: Fowler
Credits: 3

Field Work: Day 2 - Wednesday, 16 March | South Africa Download Syllabus

Cultures around the world put up monuments to memorialize heroes, achievements, events (whether traumatic or triumphal), religious aspirations, intentions for the future, and regrets about the past. What does the world preserve and remember? And how? These built sites mark real places and help produce a virtual reality that becomes even more powerful than the real.

In this course, we’ll visit, study, and write about such cultural sites — including especially UNESCO World Heritage Sites — and the ways they encounter their many audiences. Beginning the course with brief readings in ongoing conversations about heritage (in anthropology, human rights philosophy, and art history), we’ll then develop an approach to take with us in our fieldwork. Throughout, exemplary travel writing from contemporary authors will model the beautifully written, ethically alive, aesthetically responsive prosecraft to which we’ll aspire. We will consider the way that words collaborate with architecture and landscape to allow built sites to address their various audiences, support ritual performance and liturgy, embody visual and verbal perspective (bring a camera, even if it’s only in your phone), and direct our experience with signage, story telling, inscription, graffiti and other modes of legitimate or rebellious interactivity.

Students will develop individual and collaborative accounts of heritage sites according to their particular itinerary of visits, writing multiple short essays and then choosing two of them to develop into longer essays.  In addition to great writing, a high quality of class participation will be rewarded (this is a seminar, not a lecture course).

Field Work

Country: South Africa
Day: 2 - Wednesday, 16 March

We take a ferry to a green little island that looks back at Cape Town and Table Rock from far out in Table Bay: here is the Robben Island UNESCO World Heritage Site of South Africa, where for three centuries South African elites ran a sequence of exclusionary institutions that included a “hospital” for sufferers from leprosy, a military base, and a maximum security prison. (There is also a site of Muslim pilgrimage on the island: an Indonesian prince in exile died here in the 18th century.) This lonely, somber spot locked away socially unacceptable people from society and the mainland, including the magnificent Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years imprisoned on Robben Island until the people of South Africa rejected apartheid and its political prisoners were finally released to worldwide rejoicing. Mandela was soon elected the first president of the newly free nation. UNESCO describes the site as a symbol of the triumph of democracy over oppression, and it is sure to be very moving. There will also be penguins! The challenges of writing about Robben Island are moral and political as well as logistical; the visit has been a highlight of many past voyages. Our guide will be a former political prisoner, telling his story, and our writing will help pass it on. From Robben Island, we move into the center of Cape Town to visit St George’s Cathedral, where the inspiring Archbishop Desmond Tutu (friend of Semester at Sea!) once led the congregation. Banding together with important Cape Town mosques and synagogues, St George’s was instrumental in the fight against apartheid. We will study the exhibit about their activism in the church crypt. There should be time to see the stained glass and perhaps to walk the prayer labyrinth before we head back to the ship and work together on our own guidebook to the Robben Island World Heritage Site in the context of South African liberation.

Academic Objectives:
1. Visit the UNESCO site and experience its layers, documenting our responses; consider protest through St Georges. What kind of encounter is a pilgrimage to Robben Island?
2. Articulate the implied audience, the effectiveness of the spatial organization, the point of view of stories told.
3. Develop an analytical account of the concept of heritage embodied at the Robben Island site and its successes. What should we “add” to the site on our website to make Robben Island a more effective experience for our readers?