Their desks in a circle, a group of Memorial University students are discussing an article that draws a comparison between the sinking of the Titanic and the Holocaust.
There’s a question about whether or not it pushes the boundaries of good taste.
It’s likely one of many spirited conversations the class has had since History 3806 (Titanic histories) first started up in January.
Student Carly Bigelow is from Alberta, but she believes the course is important because of Newfoundland’s strong ties to the ill-fated ship.
“I think it’s really forgotten about a lot,” the sociology major says.
“It confused me (when I got here). There’s nothing about the Titanic in Newfoundland, but there’s a huge thing surrounding it in Halifax.”
Her classmate, Lucas Taite, says he was interested in the course because everything he knew about the ship came from the “romanticized James Cameron film.”
“I wanted to kind of separate the fact from the fiction,” says the second-year history student.
“I didn’t want to have to think of Leonardo DiCaprio every time I thought of the Titanic. I just wanted to see some of the facts behind it and the real story.”
The special topics course is the brainchild of Valerie Burton, a maritime historian.
She says it’s about asking the question, what is history for?
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“Which is my driving research question, the question that comes into almost everything I do,” she says, adding, with this course, the question quickly becomes, what does the Titanic mean to you?
Burton hopes the course helps her 34 students explore the Titanic from a historical perspective in a way they might not have prior to her lectures.
She’s an expert on crew lists and agreements and her knowledge provides insight during the course.
Burton has been an academic for more than three decades and says one of the semester’s most interesting moments occurred when the Costa Concordia ran aground off Italy in mid-January.
Students were able to follow that event in real time on their mobile phones and make the connection between what was happening and what had happened with the Titanic.
She says the “walls of the classroom fell away” and there was a “connectivity of the past and present.”
“There’s never been a moment like that in my more than 30 years of teaching,” Burton says. “It was very special.”
She says she’s trying to offer History 3806 as an online course, which would introduce it to a completely different group of people.