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Pirates Invade the Classroom

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A black flag with a skull and crossbones.

A class on piracy doesn’t seem like it would fit into the typical general education curriculum, but SIS professor Dylan Craig’s first-year seminar entitled “The Persistence of Pirates” intends to introduce a complex problem in international relations (IR) to first-year students in an engaging and accessible way.

Tackling Complex Problems

As part of American University’s core curriculum, students take Complex Problems seminars during the fall or spring semester of their first year. These seminars offer them an opportunity to tackle real-world problems and answer enduring questions on a unique subject.

“In these courses, we want to acclimate students into taking something that is big and complex and picking it apart productively,” says Craig. “When you’re done, you understand an issue’s inputs and outputs, and later, are able to do it again the next time you face another complex problem.”

When brainstorming ideas for his seminar, Craig quickly realized that the phenomenon of piracy is as complex and multifaceted as it gets. Piracy, or the criminal activities conducted on the margins of human societies, has existed as long as there have been human societies.

“Piracy has produced movies and Halloween costumes, but also provides really deep insights into international relations, the environment, gender and sexuality, slavery, power imbalances in the Caribbean, US revolutionary history, the Founding Fathers, and the history of Rome,” says Craig. “I realized this is what folks have been aiming to achieve with general education courses. You can come at this topic from any angle.”

The Complexity of Piracy

Because of its pop cultural footprint, Craig says that people generally understand piracy only through the storyline of Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. But Hollywood’s portrayal of pirates on movie screens is an oversimplification of global piracy’s complexity and endurance.

According to Craig, the study of piracy can be approached through IR theories on state building, institutions, and sovereignty, and SIS students who take the course will benefit from the study of pirates as nonstate actors in the international system. But Craig’s course will also focus on the areas of interest outside of SIS—so students from other schools can be introduced to international relations and the class, as a whole, can understand piracy as an issue that crosses disciplines.

“As an environmental studies major, if you're studying monsoon winds and how they contribute to the cycle of piracy in the Indian Ocean, you're in very familiar territory—talking about rain cycles and their effects on populations and economic activity,” says Craig. “Suddenly, you understand that this IR phenomena of piracy has strong roots in this subject you care about.”

The Persistence of Pirates

Offered next semester, the class will cover a different topic on piracy every week, with discussions ranging from the social hierarchy on pirate ships to how pirates dress. By tackling a complex and long-lasting problem like piracy, first-year students will gain a better understanding of international relations and develop problem solving and critical thinking skills throughout the semester.

“Whenever things like war or peace last throughout history, we feel like we should study them,” says Craig. “Anyone who's interested in human existence should be super curious about piracy. It’s a phenomenon that has outlasted so many different eras of history.”