On Skis and Rafts: Norwegian Explorers and the Building of a National Identity

Students in a first year seminar giving a presentation.

What the course catalog says:

This course looks at the historical relationship between Norwegian nation building and exploration through the lives of three of Norway's most famous explorers: Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, and Thor Heyerdahl. Students examine their diaries, log books, and photographs to understand explorers' varied motivations for venturing across oceans and discover how the explorers’ experiences of exploration develop alongside social and political developments in Norway. Students also learn about events like the fierce competition to reach the North and South Poles in the nineteenth century and one man's determination to sail a balsam raft from Peru to Polynesia in the wake of World War Two.

What the professor says:

My research background is in Norwegian history and I’ve always been fascinated by the amount of talent Norway has contributed to the history of exploration. I think the materials are well-suited for a 185 J-term course in terms of the length because it focuses on three explorers, which is ideal for a three-and-a-half-week course. Students can really immerse themselves in the lives and writings of these explorers and come away having learned much about Norwegian exploration and nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history in a short amount of time. Students learn about the histories of Europe and Norway, and gain knowledge about individual explorers.

At first glance I think people might assume that a course on three Norwegian explorers would be very narrow in scope. In contrast, I find that students learn about topics as wide-ranging as European imperialism, the Kalmar Union, World War One, and the exploration of the Northwest Passage in studying the lives of Nansen, Amundsen, and Heyerdahl. Students also complete three group presentations. In this way, the class gains the contextual knowledge necessary for reading the expedition memoirs and diaries that the explorers published after their expeditions.

Anna Peterson, assistant professor of history

What a student says:

I happen to be of Norwegian heritage so I’m interested in this topic. The course also, in a way, reminded me of Paideia. We discussed what we read and the professor helped us understand the material at a deeper level. I believe the course will help prepare us for doing the research unit next semester in Paideia and how to get a presentation ready in one day.

I really liked having one class for a whole month. It was challenging at times to get a really good presentation ready for the next day of class, but I felt the discussions and sitting in on the other students’ presentations were very rewarding. My one big take-away was learning how the Norwegian expeditions affected Norway’s nationalism and why it was important.

—Britta Preslar