Tamson Pietsch

Nov 5, 2023

The Floating University

Experience, Empire, and the Politics of Knowledge

University of Chicago Press 2023

A globe-trotting and scandal-ridden story of American empire and higher education, The Floating University: Experience, Empire, and the Politics of Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 2023) tells the story of one of the first ‘semesters at sea’. Led by the New York University Professor of Experimental Psychology James E. Lough, the SS Ryndam departed from Hoboken, New Jersey in 1926, bringing over 500 American students to nearly fifty global ports and meetings with Benito Mussolini, Mahatma Gandhi, and Pope Pius XI. Along the way, the students came to terms with the contours of American empire and, through direct experience, learned subjects ranging from botany to painting and journalism, all the while leaving a vital imprint on the communities and people they intersected with. 

Looking behind the ribald headlines of jazz, drugs, and alcohol, The Floating University mines a diverse historical archive to reveal how the Ryndam’s voyage—for all its eventual failure—sheds a unique light on the footprint of American empire, the societal role of higher education, and the intellectual grounding of the generation of Americans that came to dominate international politics following World War Two.

Tamson Pietsch is an Associate Professor of Social and Political Sciences and Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research focuses on the history of ideas and the global politics of knowledge, particularly within universities and other institutions of knowledge. Professor Pietsch received her DPhil from the University of Oxford and worked at the Universities of Oxford, Sydney, and Brunel University London before taking up her present role.

Thomas Cryer is a PhD Student in American History at University College London, where he studies race, nationhood, and memory through the life, scholarship, and activism of the historian John Hope Franklin.

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Thomas Cryer is a PhD Student in American History at University College London, where he studies race, nationhood, and memory through the life, scholarship, and activism of the historian John Hope Franklin. @ThomasOCryer

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