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    Students in Jessica Hower's First-Year Seminar on pirates discuss Robert Louis Stevenson's classic book about pirates, Treasure Island.

New First-Year Seminar traces the history of pirates from ancient to modern times

Southwestern students may call themselves Pirates, but who were the REAL pirates?

Some Southwestern students are learning that this semester in a new First-Year Seminar taught by Jessica Hower, assistant professor of history. The seminar is titled “A Pirate’s Life for Me”: Pirates, Piracy, and Southwestern University.

Hower said she wanted to teach the class ever since she was interviewing for her position at Southwestern.

“When I found out the Pirates were the mascot here, I couldn’t believe they didn’t have a class on pirates,” she said.

Hower is familiar with Pirates because her research focuses on the development of Britain and British imperialism in the 16th century and the Atlantic World more broadly.

“You can’t tell the story of the British Isles, the Early Modern Era, or the early British Empire without telling the story of the entangled four continents that surround the Atlantic Ocean, and when we begin paying attention to maritime, as opposed to simply terrestrial space, we find pirates and potential counter-cultures that don’t fit easily into national or regional borders,” she said.

Hower said pirates and piracy make a great way to introduce students to a wide variety of topics and disciplines such as economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, philosophy, history, literature, art history, environmental studies, science and technology – which is the goal of the First-Year Seminars.

Over the summer, Hower had students in the class read the 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island. On the second day of class, they discussed the book, read scholarly articles on where Stevenson fits into the popular literature and history of piracy, and compared several different works of art and movies that had been based on the book. They even asked whether illustrations, without the author’s permission or consent, constitute a kind of piracy of the original written word.

In addition to studying real pirates such as Bartholomew Roberts, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) and Captain Henry Morgan, the class will cover topics such as why pirates have always captured our imaginations, the legacy of fictional pirates, and how piracy has changed over time and space.

The class will also cover modern-day piracy on the high seas and the theft of intellectual property and popular media.

So is the Pirate an appropriate mascot for Southwestern?

“Perhaps it all depends on your definition of a pirate, your point of view, and the context,” Hower said. “But with Long John Silver, Jack Sparrow, and their pals, we certainly have some dodgy company, to say the least!”