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Sample Syllabus

Although the assignments may change slightly, this sample syllabus is intended to give you a sense of the types of reading and other work required in the course.

Sailing the Chesapeake: Cultural and Natural Landscapes (ENGL 181A)

“Heaven and Earth never agreed to frame a better place for man’s habitation.”
Captain John Smith, True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia (1608)

“If these biology fellers are right, there’s a lot to learn about an arster.”
John Larrimore, Skipjack Captain for Forty Years

“Sailing the Chesapeake” is a course that aims to introduce you to the ecology and culture of a distinctive geographical region through study of the history, natural history, and literature of that place. The central assumption of the course is that experience is essential to the study of place and art and ideas. The course includes a number of “experiences” that enhance the academic study of the Chesapeake and its watershed, from a canoe trip on the West Branch of the Susquehanna; a trip, guided by Chesapeake Bay Foundation naturalists, on the Main Stem of the Susquehanna, at Harrisburg; and a long weekend of Bay Studies at Echo Hill Outdoor School, on the Bay near Chestertown, Maryland, including sailing on a historic skipjack on the Chester River, Bay Studies in a historic Bay workboat, and sampling of local cuisine, music, and folklore. There is also a day of education and service — a bank planting on the tributary of the Susquehanna in Lancaster County. These experiences will inform our reading, which will range from John Smith’s own account of his 1608 exploration of the region, to a novel by “the Thoreau of the Chesapeake,” Gilbert Byron, to recent poetry, fiction, and essays about the Bay and/or its watershed. The overall effect should be a broadening and deepening of your understanding of the Chesapeake region, and what I hope will be an unforgettable experience.


  • Gilbert Byron. The Lord’s Oysters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
  • Richard Harwood, ed. Talking Tidewater: Writers on the Chesapeake. Chestertown, MD: Literary House Press, 1996.
  • James Michener. Chesapeake: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2003.
  • John R. Wennersten. The Chesapeake: An Environmental History. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2001.
  • Optional Book: Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson. Life in the Chesapeake Bay: An Illustrated Guide to the Fishes, Invertebrates, Plants, Birds, and Other Animals of Bays and Inlets from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras. Fourth Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. (Any edition of the book will be fine.) This is an excellent illustrated field guide to the estuary.

There will also be a course packet available to be copied in 138 Burrowes Building, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every weekday.


This is an academic course with an experiential component, not just a series of outdoor adventures. You will get the greatest benefit from the course if you give balanced consideration to both the intellectual and physical requirements of the course. Reading is a significant part of this course — it will make the trips much more meaningful for you — so the expectation is that you will do the assigned reading, complete it on time, and come to class ready to discuss it.


There will be a very short, multiple-choice reading quiz at the beginning of each class meeting. In order to accommodate legitimate absences from class, your lowest quiz score will be dropped before calculating your final quiz average. You must read the assigned material carefully to do well on these quizzes. Missed classes can result in a significant lowering of your grade because you will miss the quiz and the opportunity to participate in discussions. Without exception, missed quizzes cannot be made up.

Class Presentation

During the last half of the semester, each student in the course will be required to do a brief (10 to 15 minute) presentation on some predetermined topic related to the content of the course. These reports will be based on topics suggested by assigned reading and course trips and will serve as an end-of-the-semester review of some of the significant content of the course. You will have an opportunity to sign up for a report early in the semester, and you can spend the first half of the course, gathering information for your presentation. The expectation is that the reports should draw on and reiterate information from the reading and trips and also add to that information. The aim should be to review and deepen the knowledge we acquire during our experiences off campus. PowerPoint presentations work best. Reports will be graded on visual appeal, the quality of the information presented, the organization of that information, and the overall effectiveness of the presentation.


There will be a take-home final exam that will require you to write a brief interpretive essay (3 to 4 pages) on a question about the work of the semester. You will be asked to use your experiences and your reading as evidence in your essay, so it’s important to keep up.

Response Papers

You will be required to write three papers of 2 to 3 pages in response to our outdoor activities: one on either the Harrisburg or West Branch trip, one on the trip to Echo Hill School, and one on the service project in Lancaster County. These papers should be a serious reflection on what you have learned from your experience, comprised of your detailed observations, some discussion of the information presented to you on the trip, and your consideration of the meaning and importance of what you experience.


Participation and good humor are keys to the success of this course. In the end, we will be spending a lot of time together, including three days on the Eastern Shore. We will have much more rewarding and enjoyable class meetings if everyone chimes in and these, in turn, will make our trips much better than they would otherwise be. So participation is a significant part of how your final grade will be determined. Obviously you need to be on the trips and in the class meetings to participate: Absences will affect your grade in a negative way. Please attend and please be of good cheer!

Your final grade will be determined in this way: The three reflective response papers are 40%, the quizzes are 15%, the class presentation 15%, the final examination is 10%, and participation is 20%. You must complete all the required work described above in order to receive a grade in the course.

Sample Calendar of Assignments

(Those assignments designated “Packet” in the syllabus can be found in the filing cabinet in 139 Burrowes Building, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. weekdays.) There is a photocopier in that room for your convenience. The copier takes change and bills, but it does not accept Lion Cash. Please be sure to return the file in good order to the file cabinet when finished so your classmates can also copy the material.)


3: Introduction to the course


10: Jack Brubaker, “Harrisburg: Water Gaps,” “Harrisburg: Renewal,” “Harrisburg: Ice,” “Harrisburg: Drought,” pp. 140–156 in Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake (Packet); Susan Q. Stranahan, “Geology,” pp. 7–37 in Susquehanna: River of Dreams (Packet)

13: Float Trip on the Main Stem of the Susquehanna at Harrisburg with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

17: James Michener, “Voyage Seven: 1811,” pp. 405–413 in Chesapeake: A Novel; Film:Expedition Susquehanna (2007)

19: Jack Brubaker, “Long Reach River,” pp. 79–117 in Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake (Packet), Susan Q. Stranahan, “Logging” pp. 75–115 and “The River and the Bay,” pp. 279–301; response paper one due in class

23–26: Trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore (leave late Thursday afternoon and return Sunday evening)



1: William Warner, “The Bay,” pp. 3–12 in Beautiful Swimmers: Waterman, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay (Packet); Andrew McCown, “Of Crabs and Chicken-neckers, Bare Feet and Hurricanes, Out-of-Town Newspapers and Mister Fishnocks,” pp. 25–32 in Here on the Chester: Washington College Remembers Old Chestertown (Packet); Robert Day, “The Statue Man,” and “The Linguist,” pp. 80–91 and pp. 102–108 in Talking Tidewater; Tom Horton, “Thoreau Times Forty,” pp. 172–177 in Bay Country: Reflections on the Chesapeake; and Tom Horton, “The Last Skipjacks,” pp. 139–153 in Talking Tidewater

8: James Michener, “Voyage Eleven: 1886,” and “The Watermen,” pp. 640–709 in Chesapeake: A Novel; response paper two due in class

15: Gilbert Byron, The Lord’s Oysters, pp. 1–156

16: Canoe trip on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, Rolling Stone to Karthaus (all day)

22: Gilbert Byron, The Lord’s Oysters, pp. 157–330; response paper three due in class


29: John Smith, A Map of Virginia (1612) at, pp. 75–99 and pp. 141–151, the latter from “Proceedings of the English Colony”; James Michener, “Voyage Two: 1608,” pp. 44–56 in Chesapeake: A Novel; John R. Wennersten, The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography, pp. 3–37


5: John R. Wennersten, The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography, pp. 38–139


12: Tom Horton, “Short Important Trips of Oysters,” pp. 52–59 in Bay Country (Packet); Tom Horton, “Killing Geese,” pp. 71–79 and John Barth, “Goose Art,” pp. 59–71 and Bill Gifford, “Modern Man” pp. 171–186 in Talking Tidewater

13: Service Trip with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Bank planting along a tributary of the Susquehanna River

19: William Warner, “Beautiful Swimmer,” and “Lester Lee and the Chicken Neckers,” pp. 90–119 and pp. 145–184 in Beautiful Swimmers (Packet)

21: No Classes — Thanksgiving Holiday (until November 23)



3: Wennersten, “Is the Chesapeake Dying?” pp. 177–215 in The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography; Tom Horton “The Bay Connects Us, They Bay Reflects Us,” and “State of the Bay” pp. 3–42 in Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay, Revised and Expanded Edition (Packet)

10: David Finkel, “Bay Blues,” pp. 154–170 in Talking Tidewater; Tom Horton, “Saving the Bay, pp. 197–209 in Bay Country (Packet); course evaluations