People of SU

A Semester at Sea

Written by Karen Bystrom

January 26, 2023

Collage of images from Tom Taylor

Image credit: Tom Taylor, PhD

(From left): Tom Taylor, PhD, in Lisbon; the Suez Canal; the Catholic Square in Granada; and Dr. Taylor at the Acropolis in Athens.

Learning the lessons of history by experiencing it firsthand. 

Travel is an integral component in teaching history for Associate Professor Tom Taylor, PhD, as evidenced by his book, Modern Travel in World History, published last June. “It makes a difference to be able to share my own photos, to connect my experiences to the history we are talking about in class,” he says.

“For example, in our class, ‘Constructing Past and Present II,’ I talk about how the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi shaped the decolonialization movements in India and around the world. When I do, I can show them pictures I recently took of Gandhi’s residence in Mumbai, his library and his correspondence with everyone from the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Adolf Hitler. I use those photos to trace the evolution of his thoughts and their impact on people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other advocates of his non-violent protest. I can talk about how my visit to his residence helps me understand how his ideas are being represented and understood in contemporary India.”

While Taylor knew that he would return with new experiences to share after sailing and teaching Global Studies with Semester at Sea last fall, he was not prepared for one of the most compelling of his career. Three days out of Spain, their ship came upon a small rowboat with 18 migrants on board, including a young child. The ship stopped and waited until a Spanish Coast Guard boat arrived to rescue them.

During this time Taylor was preparing a lecture on the Mediterranean Sea migration crisis just before coming upon the migrant boat. As he recounts in Clio Speaks, the History Department blog, “Over the next days we had endless conversations about what had happened as we tried to understand what we saw, who we saw. Seeing a boatload of refugees in the flesh, rather than as an abstract set of statistics, made the students ask many of the same questions I wanted them to think about when I was planning to talk about the story of migrants a few days later. But this gave these questions an immediacy, a set of faces, that my lecture could have never done. The face of the other had broken through and the students could not think of refugees and migrants in the same way again.” (Read Taylor’s full account of the experience.)

This marked Taylor’s third sailing with Semester at Sea, which teaches students how to interact with cultures and people of developed and emerging nations. The program strives to help students become global citizens who are prepared and motivated to take on the world’s most pressing issues. The Fall 2022 program traveled to 11 countries on three continents over the course of 105 days.

Professor Taylor taught for Semester at Sea in 2007 and 2017. “When you travel like this, you have a deeper understanding of the history and culture, think about things in a different way when you are there,” he says. “Returning to countries multiple times over 15 years you also see the changes over time.”

“As an historian,” Taylor continues, “travel allows me to link different visits to contemporary teaching, to connect the past and the present for our students in a very authentic way.”