Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Views of a Changing Sea: Literature and Science


Science, literature, and art have much in common and arguably encompass all human experience and knowledge. Although this holistic philosophy was embraced by many great civilizations and formed the intellectual background to the western Renaissance and Enlightenment, it has become somewhat distorted by the 20th century focus on mechanistic causality and specialization that continues today, particularly in the sciences. This Introductory Seminar seeks to bring science and the humanities closer together to view complex problems in ways that individual disciplines cannot.

Specifically, we will examine issues concerning today’s oceans through scientific, literary, and historical lenses. Our focus will be on the Gulf of California, Mexico, and our core text will be the “Narrative” portion of Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research(1940) by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, republished as The Log from the Sea of Cortez in 1951. This work is more than a travelogue or scientific report – it is an informal treatise on a holistic way of thinking that is necessary to unravel complex problems, including ones that Steinbeck addressed in The Grapes of Wrath and other novels. Thus, we will work through The Log slowly and purposefully and supplement it with relevant readings from historical and contemporary works, including Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind(1941) and poetry of Robinson Jeffers, a contemporary of Ricketts and Steinbeck who also lived on the Monterey Peninsula.

We will discuss the structure of The Log from the Sea of Cortez in terms of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero Cycle” and break the voyage up into 8 chronological and thematic segments, each of which will have a weekly session devoted to it. In some cases, we will compare segments in The Log to an account of the same days in the field notes of Ed Ricketts to emphasize aesthetic commonalities and differences in the two sources. Each segment will also examine a relevant “special topic” of ocean health, and a team of two students will create an original presentation on this topic and lead a discussion as part of that week’s seminar. One or more short poem by Robinson Jeffers describing the relationship between humanity and the natural world, what he called “Inhumanism,” will be read aloud and discussed each week.

As a class in week 5, we will develop a reader-friendly outline of points encompassed by “non-teleological thinking,” the subject of Chapter 14 in The Log from the Sea of Cortez and a conceptual keystone that is often glossed over due to the dense style of its original author, Ed Ricketts. We will also consider the novel Cannery Row in light of non-teleological thinking. For a final project, each student will create an individual, interdisciplinary project based on precepts developed during the course to address an aspect of ocean health of personal interest. These projects will draw on students’ appreciation of the bridge between science and humanities that we have explored and will be presented in the last seminar session (Week 10). Throughout the seminar, participation, discussion, and personal expression will emphasized.

This seminar will include one Saturday morning virtual field trip to the rocky intertidal zone of Hopkins Marine Station.


Meet the Instructor(s)

William Gilly

William Gilly spent his early years in Allentown, Pa., exploring rocks, fossils, and whatever else turned up along the way home from school. He majored in electrical engineering at Princeton, did graduate work at Washington University and Yale University in physiology and biophysics, and during summers did postdoctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. This work focused on ion channels in the giant axon of squid. He came to Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in 1980, because of a squid fishery in Monterey and the deep pool of marine expertise. During his years at Stanford, his focus on squid has drifted steadily from a molecular-physiological level to a behavioral-ecological one. Personal observations of change in the Gulf of California, plus a belief that humanities and sciences are two sides of the same coin, have led Professor Gilly to offer this seminar and to engage in new STEM education efforts with the Western Flyer Foundation.