This fall, Dr. Malcolm Hill, department chair and associate professor of biology, taught a first-year seminar called Open Water: The Centrality of Oceans. Hill, a marine evolutionary ecologist, asked his 16 students to consider how oceans have influenced human societies and how humans are now influencing oceans.

This course covers all things ocean, from plankton to pirates, sea shanties to the slave trade. How did you prepare to teach it?

I’ve been working on the ocean for all of my professional life. Experiences from my underwater work provided some good material for the Open Water course so that was the easy part.

The University provided some very helpful workshops to get all of us ready to teach these new first-year seminars (FYS). I found my colleagues teaching the FYS courses to be very willing to share ideas and resources.

The manner of instruction in Open Water also required some re-tooling of what I traditionally do in the classroom. My biology majors write a lot, but it is usually more technical in nature. In Open Water, the students were writing thesis-driven essays, doing analysis of poems, writing a personal course log (akin to Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle”), etc.

For those areas that were outside my direct domain of expertise, I had to do a lot of background work. For example, the portion of the course that dealt with trans-Atlantic slave shipping required a good amount of background research, which was intellectually rewarding but emotionally painful.

We read and discussed the late 18th century court case Gregson v. Gilbert, which involved shipowners who were seeking compensation from insurers for the lost "cargo" of African slaves. The students were horrified to learn that the English captain ordered nearly 150 Africans be thrown overboard alive because slaves lost at sea would be worth a monetary claim.

FYS courses emphasize communication skills, introducing students to academic writing processes. Why is this important for students who go on to major in fields outside the humanities — like biology?

There is a common misperception, even among students of the sciences, that scientists don’t have to write like the rest of their peers in the School of Arts and Sciences. Writing remains one of the most powerful modes of communication, and good writing, I would argue, is necessary in every discipline. For many disciplines, writing happens to be the best way to hone critical and creative thinking.

Thesis-driven writing is particularly suited to get us to organize our thinking and in the process, we challenge our assumptions, identify faulty logic, and learn about the work of earlier thinkers. Even if the mode of communication differs among fields, developing and solidifying these skills leaves a lifetime of benefits for thinking people.

Good communication, however, goes beyond writing. But the central goal is always the same — did my audience understand me and did I add something useful to the discussion?

For one assignment in Open Water, I had my students create digital stories with the help of Ken Warren in the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology. The students produced two- to three-minute, image-enhanced stories about how some member of their families crossed the ocean to end up in North America. Given that this continent was not a natural home to a large-bodied ape like us, everyone had to come by some sea route (even if it was a land bridge).

You took your students on a trip to the Chesapeake Bay. What did it entail?

We spent the first half of our trip looking for Ligia exotica at Yorktown State Park. Don’t let that sexy name fool you — Ligia exotica’s common name is the sea roach because it very much resembles the cockroach, though they are quite distantly related. The sea roach is very fast and hard to find. I chose a non-obvious organism to get the students to really focus on what types of life exist in marine and marine-affiliated habitats. Dolphins and whales are nice and all, but the really cool, very interesting organisms often slip right under your nose (literally).

Having my students scurrying over rocks trying to catch an extremely fast organism that is less than one inch long was a highlight for me. They got very excited when they caught one, which was comical given how ugly they are (the sea roach, not the students). We then went to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, caught some minnows with a seine net, and did plankton tows to look at microscopic life in the water. It was a beautiful fall Saturday, so who could ask for more fun than that?

What’s the role of the ocean in your own research?

Nearly all of my work is done underwater. My research sites are in the Florida Keys and the Chesapeake Bay. I travel by boat to my research sites. I use scuba to set up experiments and collect organisms. The organisms that I work on, i.e., sponges, are exclusively aquatic and predominantly marine. I wouldn’t have a research program without oceans.