“An Ocean in Mind”

By Rainer Buschmann, Professor of History

This title of a book written by Will Kyselka captures my mindset as I approach the largest geographic feature on earth located in close proximity of Channel Islands’ beautiful campus. There is a forceful, physical reality to the Pacific inherent in the crashing waves arriving at Ventura County beaches.

At the same time, the Pacific has also been an area populating imaginations, a historical artifact that links individuals from the Americas, Asia, and the waterlogged world of Oceania. This ocean is perhaps best remembered as a fierce, less than pacific, battleground, pitting American units against the soldiers of the Japanese imperial army during the brief, but intense years of the Second World War. In more positive but equally distorting ways, the Pacific is frequently evoked as an unchanging tropical paradise. I should confess that such oversimplifications initially attracted me to this ocean.

Interested in the diverse island cultures of the Pacific, I turned to graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Hawaii. Easily the most diverse place I encountered over the course in my life, Hawaii also transformed my intellectual curiosities and trajectories. Encountering many people who called the Pacific their home, I found myself confronted with the poignant question of “why are you studying us?” Unable to provide a satisfying answer led me to abandon anthropology and embrace the closely allied field of history. As my mental map of the Pacific became more populated and less static, I was inspired by the late Tongan writer Epeli Hau‘ofa’s quote: “Conquerors come, conquerors go, the ocean remains, mother only to her children. This mother has a big heart though; she adopts everybody who loves her.” Hau‘ofa’s saying gained significance when I explored traces of the Pacific in archives located in Basel, Berlin, Lisbon, and Seville.

Arriving at CSU Channel Islands during the time of its opening allowed me to put in place some of these oceanic visions. Devising a strong global component to CI’s history major, I emphasize themes rather than random facts in my classes on the human history of the Pacific and other oceans. Successfully combining teaching and research (my fourth book has just appeared), I instill in my students the notion that history is not just found in books or journals. In fact, the past, I illustrate in my courses, is something that surrounds us all in both comforting and troubling ways. It is this notion that has guided my development of popular classes that include co-taught sections on Asian Warrior Cultures, Environmental History, and Nazi Germany with fellow CI Professors Kevin Volkan and Don Rodriguez. 

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© Fall 2014 / Volume 18 / Number 2