Williams–Mystic

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Williams-Mystic, the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport, is an interdisciplinary semester program based at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut. The Williams-Mystic program educates undergraduate students in a semester-long academic investigation of the sea that is accompanied by original research opportunities and travel throughout the United States. Founded in 1977, the Program has welcomed over 1,500 students from more than 100 different colleges and universities.


Academics[edit]

Students at Williams-Mystic enroll in four courses: Maritime History, Marine Policy, Literature of the Sea, and either Oceanography or Marine Ecology. Students engage in independent research throughout the semester in each of the courses, engaging in personal interests as they relate to maritime studies. Each class concludes with a cumulative research project, exam, or academic paper. Courses are taught between classroom and collections space on the Mystic Seaport grounds and the 8,000-square-foot (740 m2) James T. Carlton Marine Science Center (MSC), which opened in September 2007. The MSC offers facilities for teaching and research of estuarine/coastal biology and geology.


Marine Policy

Instructor: Dr. Catherine Robinson-Hall

As students become familiar with the dynamic and ever-changing nature of marine policies and laws, the seminar format of this class unfolds into discussions and debates that challenge students to explore concepts that take them out of their comfort zones, and broaden their views of topical, current issues facing our Nation’s coasts and ocean. Students will better understand the effects these policies have on our daily lives, our society, and our natural marine and coastal resources. Students will have a singular opportunity to argue a compelling public beach access case before a panel of appellate judges, while delving into important constitutional precepts that continue to be challenged today in our own United States Supreme Court.

Students choose a topic to follow closely throughout the semester and prepare a primary research paper where they research that topic in depth, interpret its origins and causes, and present viable solutions in accordance with marine law. The goal of this paper is to contact stakeholders and others directly involved in a currently contested marine policy issue, conducting personal interviews to get the facts first-hand, rather than relying on newspaper accounts or web sources.

Maritime History

Instructor: Dr. Glenn S. Gordinier

In this course, students cover a chronological survey of American maritime history from the period of European contact to the present in a variety of contexts, including social, cultural, economic, political, military, gender and labor history. The classroom for this course is the museum, with its 60 historic buildings, 17 acres, and millions of artifacts, documents, photos, and boats. Students examine and analyze material objects and manuscripts, as well as published sources and secondary works. Students also develop research skills rarely utilized at the undergraduate level and produce a research paper based upon their use of the extensive primary resources available at Mystic Seaport’s G.W. Blunt White Library and at other local research institutions available to Williams-Mystic students.

Literature of the Sea

Instructor: Dr. Richard King

In a typical semester students may read Ernest Hemingway when sailing on the Straits of Florida, John Steinbeck when exploring Cannery Row on Monterey Bay, and Mark Twain on a steamship headed down the Mississippi River. Students read Rachel Carson beside the Mystic River estuary, Kate Chopin on the sands of the Gulf of Mexico, Ursula K. LeGuin on the sands of Oregon, Langston Hughes standing on a levee of the Mississippi River, and they read, of course, Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick aboard Mystic Seaport’s historic whaleship the Charles W. Morgan, a vessel nearly identical to the vessel Melville climbed aboard at age twenty-one. Back in the classroom, students discuss the relationship between literature and students’ emerging knowledge of maritime history and marine science while examining these works through a mixture of lecture, small-group tutorials, formal and creative writing, and occasionally even drama.

Oceanographic Processes

Instructor: Dr. Lisa Gilbert

This course examines coastal and open ocean environmental science issues. Topics such as sea level rise, global warming, coastal erosion and hazards, pollution and nutrient cycling, and fisheries productivity shed light on the critical importance of understanding the human relationship with the sea. The focus of the course is on controlling processes with regional comparisons. Blue water oceanography is conducted in the Atlantic and comparative coastal oceanography includes field studies on the West and Gulf coasts of the US as part of the Williams-Mystic program. Oceanographic Processes also explores the diversity of ocean ecosystems and communities through numerous field studies in New England marine habitats that lead to independent research projects.

Marine Ecology

Instructor: Dr. James T. Carlton

This course examines the ecology and biology of the marine environment. The class inquires into the processes that control the distribution, abundance, and diversity of marine organisms, while studying the ways in which animals and plants relate to their environment. The wealth of diverse local habitats is explored through field trips and research projects. Quantitative field exercises on rocky shores, in salt marshes, and in estuarine communities are supplemented by a detailed study of other major marine ecosystems. Marine Ecology explores new developments in understanding marine communities, the patterns of ocean productivity and processes that alter nutrient dynamics, biological invasions, and symbiotic associations. Woven through the course is the theme of how human activities impact the delicate balance between organisms and their environment in the world’s oceans.

Maritime Skills[edit]

Additionally, students participate in maritime skills courses taught by Mystic Seaport staff. These offerings include small-boat handling, sea chanteys, shipsmithing, canvas working, and demonstration squad.

Field Seminars[edit]

Each semester is composed of three field seminars with varying locations: Offshore Sailing Voyage, the Pacific Coast, and the Gulf Coast. Traditionally the fall semester sails offshore in the Gulf of Maine and travels to Northern California, while the spring semester sails offshore in the Straits of Florida and travels to the Pacific Northwest. Each semester attends the Gulf Coast field seminar in Louisiana, unless you happened to participate in Fall 2013's experimental Hawaii Seminar.

Professors take their courses on the road (and sea) for each seminar, delivering their lectures in a wide variety of locations.

Offshore Sailing Voyage

Each semester, Williams-Mystic students and faculty take a 10-day voyage aboard a traditionally rigged tall ship. The Offshore Field Seminar complements the Williams-Mystic curriculum by exposing students to a broad scope of experiences at sea. Students live out of sight of land for an extended period of time and experience a more “salty” way of life. Offshore, students become members of the crew and will be assigned to take the helm, set and strike the sails, and stand lookout on the bow. While at sea, the ship functions around the clock: three watches rotate, which allows students to experience life at sea during various points of the day and night. Each watch remains a cohesive unit, led by a mate who teaches you to steer, navigate, handle sails and operate the ship.


Gulf Coast

With its rich history, romanticized literary image, incredible biological and geological resources, and pressing environmental and policy challenges, a field seminar to the Gulf coast adds an exciting dimension to the Williams-Mystic experience. Incredibly complex environmental and policy issues reflect the ever-changing face of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf Coast, and are fundamentally intertwined with the literature and history of Louisiana. Williams-Mystic students explore the issues of the largest oil spill in U. S. history at one of the epicenters of the disaster: Grand Isle, featured frequently in the national media throughout the summer and fall of 2010. We speak to shrimp fishermen and alligator wranglers, steam down the Mississippi River on the stern-wheeler Natchez, and see Mark Twain’s river of yesteryear as it coexists with the overwhelming industry and commerce along its levees today.


Pacific Coast

  • FALL SEMESTER: Northern California

In the fall semester, Williams-Mystic travels to the central California coast. Students fly to San Francisco and first travel South to Monterey Bay, the site of the nation’s largest marine sanctuary, where they observe giant kelp forests and sea otters, and visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Students study the important historical events that shaped the history of California. Students read from Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast and learn of the era of the great sardine industry which created Cannery Row, made famous in John Steinbeck’s novels. Students explore the incredible diversity of intertidal marine life in the tide-pools of the Monterey Peninsula and experience the spectacular vistas of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. The program then heads north to visit San Francisco Bay, where we examine the maritime history of the bay from first Spanish sightings to the importance of the clipper ship, the Gold Rush era, and the development of the modern harbor. The program visits a container ship terminal, and look at the marine life of the bay, consisting of a mixture of native and introduced species. The program then heads for University of California’s Bodega Marine Laboratory (BML), 60 miles north of San Francisco. From BML the group expands west to explore the Point Reyes National Seashore and the oyster farms of Tomales Bay. The group travels as far north as Fort Ross, a Russian fur and hide settlement of the early 19th century, before returning to San Francisco and the incredible Red Wood forests.

  • SPRING SEMESTER: Pacific Northwest

In the spring semester, Williams-Mystic travels to the Pacific Northwest, focusing on the Washington and Oregon coasts. The group flies to Seattle and spends the first two nights along Elliott Bay, with a clear view of the mountain ranges meeting the waterfront. To examine the complexity of West Coast fisheries management issues, the group visits Fishermen’s Terminal, home of America’s largest fishing fleet. Students then travel to the Port of Tacoma to see one of the most efficient container ship ports in the country, next heading up the Columbia River to the Bonneville Dam, near Portland. Traveling out to Astoria, OR, the group bunks aboard the Lightship Columbia at the Columbia River Maritime Museum and stand where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific in 1805. The University of Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB), is located on the shores of Southern Oregon’s Coos Bay in the crab and salmon fishing village of Charleston. From this base, the group continues to explore the history, science, and policy of the Pacific Northwest as we visit the striking South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Oregon Dunes National Seashore, and the magnificent rocky intertidal reefs at Cape Arago, where thousands of California sea lions winter at the time of our visit.

Student Life[edit]

At Williams-Mystic, a classmate can also be a roommate, housemate, or neighbor. Students are placed in one of five historic houses owned by Mystic Seaport, where they cook, clean, and socialize with their peers. These houses are steps away from Mystic Seaport's riverside grounds and, together with the administration building and Marine Science Center, comprise the program's very own Williams-Mystic neighborhood. This one-of-a-kind combination of residential and academic togetherness offers students a unique environment in which they explore the nation's maritime realm.

Student houses:

  • Albion House- located directly across from the seaport on Greenmanville Ave, just around the corner from the rest of the houses.
  • Carr House- the most recent addition to the program's collection of historic homes, and home to Sebastian the Flamingo.
  • Johnston House- resembles Carr House in footprint and layout, with the exception of a garage that houses the program's bicycle fleet.
  • Kemble House- located just behind Sturges Cottage, and is often used for T.A/Intern housing.
  • Mallory House- the largest of the five houses, and is located just behind the administration building.


If the houses begin to feel a bit too cozy, the MSC provides students with a 24-hour research and study space, fully outfitted with computers, books, couches, desks, and a state-of-the-art marine science laboratory. Directly adjacent to the MSC is Sturges Cottage. Sturges Cottage is a communal recreational space where students can enjoy cable TV, a foosball table, a piano, and basic workout equipment.


Students of the Williams-Mystic program have 24-hour access to the Mystic Seaport and its facilities, and students will often take advantage of their all-access pass for both recreational and scholastic purposes. Whether students want to read Herman Melville's Moby Dick aboard the country's last remaining 19th Century whaling ship, or they just want to take one of the seaport's dinghies out for an afternoon sail, students are sure to find a space within the seaport that peaks their maritime interests.


Away from the classroom and the seaport grounds, students will continue to find plenty of local attractions to occupy their time with. On the weekends, students will often organize group activities such as: trips to the Mystic Aquarium, bike rides around the river (which is actually an estuary), walks downtown for a scoop of Drawbridge Ice cream, a game of basketball at the Mystic YMCA, or even an inter-house potluck.

Participating Colleges[edit]

Williams-Mystic welcomes students from all universities. These are a few of the institutions that participants typically hail from:

  • Williams College
  • California Maritime Academy
  • Amherst College
  • Bates College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Carleton College
  • Colgate College
  • Connecticut College
  • Dartmouth College
  • Kenyon College
  • Oberlin College
  • University of Rhode Island
  • Smith College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Temple University
  • Trinity College
  • Wellesley College
  • Wesleyan University

References[edit]

External links[edit]