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Student Communication: Pedagogy Musing #2

My self-maintained list of failings as a teacher is quite long. But I’d like to think that communicating with students outside of class is not on that list. I do everything in my power to make sure my students have ready access to me at all times. And yet it often feels like I’m not connecting with students who really need some help.

I use a lot of different means to make myself available to my students. Each of them has its own merits and demerits.

Office hours

The traditional method of student communication is office hours. They’re required by the university, but I’d hold them anyway. In the past, both here at GMU and in the past, I viewed office hours as a time for me to get stuff done, and I spent most of the time hoping that no one would show up. This semester, I made a conscious choice to not endure office hours but rather encourage them. One-on-one conversations aren’t my preferred mode of communication, but office hours aren’t about me.

So this semester I’ve tried to be more deliberate about how I do office hours. I’ve always had the policy that I prefer students to sign up for an appointment, and I kept that policy this semester, but I tried to shift my thinking about appointments from “If there aren’t any appointments today then I get the day off” to “These appointments help keep the meetings on track so both the student and I have a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

I’ve also tried to explicitly communicate throughout the semester that office hours are for talking about anything that is even tangentially related to the course, whether that’s grades, personal situations that are affecting coursework, or steps to take after the class is over, or anything else. This new strategy has paid off several times, where I’ve had meaningful conversations with students who needed to just talk through things. I’ve also tried to ask broader questions when they come than just “what problem can we solve right now?” and spend some time on how they’re doing overall this semester or in this class.

Everyone says things like “if you’re getting a bad grade in this class, come see me.” I say that too. But this semester I tried something new in my undergraduate class: after the midterm, where some students did not do as well as they hoped, I offered them a chance to make up a few points on the midterm. The catch was that I wouldn’t tell them how to get those points back unless they came to see me in my office. The allure of a few points back was enough to attract some students who hadn’t been engaged up to that point, and several of those students have since come back to ask questions about other things. So getting them to come just one time helped them to see that it wasn’t quite so scary. (This class has 42 students; it’s not the kind of class where I’d make an office visit mandatory.)

Nevertheless, only a small percentage of my undergraduate students have come to office hours. My graduate students are less reticent, but they have more experience navigating the academic system and they have more complicated problems. So I don’t think I’m reaching all my students where they are just by having office hours.

Email

Email is another somewhat traditional method of communicating with students outside of class. I rarely use email when communicating with students, though. First of all, it appears to be the case that many students don’t check their email with regularity (a mind-boggling concept to me!), so an email isn’t any more likely to reach a student than just making an announcement in class.

I also don’t really like email. It’s at that awkward place where formality and protocol are a barrier to both effective and respectful dialogue. I definitely don’t like getting emails like “Hey Abby!” from students (I’ve never received one of those from a GMU student), but I also don’t want a student to be so concerned with whether they should address me as “Dr. Mullen” or “Professor Mullen” that they never reach out. (And this paralysis HAS occurred with a GMU student.) I struggle enough with forms of address myself that I totally get why students do.

Email is also a very awkward way to have a conversation. Emails like “I wasn’t in class; what did I miss?” can rarely be adequately addressed without multiple emails from both parties. Emails like “I don’t understand this problem” almost never can. But email threads are so painful.

So email doesn’t feel like the best way to have real out-of-class interactions with students either.

Slack

I use Slack every day to talk to the Tropy team. I like it for its hybridity between email and text messaging, and I also like it that (set up right) it can be somewhat asynchronous. So, following the example of some colleagues, I set up Slack teams for each of my classes.

This is far and away MY preferred method of communication. I like it because I can be available to students at times when they’re more likely to actually be doing their work. I also like it because I can share links/show things fairly easily (screenshots are my best friend).

However, Slack has its disadvantages. It does tether me to my students in ways that could get problematic. I don’t think it has done so yet, but I have to be cautious about when I answer Slack messages. I tell students at the beginning of the semester that I will answer Slack questions as soon as is reasonable for me to do so, but in the evenings and weekends, I reserve the right to not be instantly available. I have gotten Slack messages time-stamped 2:00am; I did not answer those instantly. But I did answer them the next time I saw them, the next morning.

Slack is also new and intimidating for some students. In my mind, Slack is a much better text alternative to the more common group-communication tool many students are used to, the group text. But some students have a hard time following how the channels and tagging work.

It’s also true that if you’re not paying attention to the conversations, important information can pass you by as the conversation moves on to something else. And since not all students work on their projects at the same time, sometimes I end up answering the same question multiple times.

It’s hard to get full engagement from the whole class with Slack. I would prefer to make all class announcements, etc., on Slack, but I know that not all students will see those announcements. In my graduate class, I do it anyway, because I think they should be able to handle it, but if it’s something really important, I’ll send an email too. I tried to get everyone to use the Slack interface at least once during the semester—the very first day, actually, where they had to post a meme that they made to Slack. I hoped that this action would demystify the platform for the students, encouraging more interaction, but it really hasn’t.

My ideal Slack community allows students to help each other with questions and pose new and interesting questions to each other, developing a real connection to each other in this online space. I’d love for my role to not be central in our Slack teams. But the reality is that most questions and clarifications are directed at me and I answer them.

Nevertheless, I still like Slack. I like that I can answer questions in public, thus minimizing the number of times I have to answer the same question. I like being able to post new and interesting resources that I find relevant to our class discussions (esp. for my graduate students). I also like being able to have a conversation that allows me to ask lots of questions in order to get to the bottom of problems, without dozens of emails. Since tech support is a large part of my outside-class interactions with students, it’s nice to have a dynamic place to help them work through things.

What else?

Sometimes I think that I’m too available to my students. Am I giving them too many ways to get in contact with me, thus reducing the necessity for them to do creative problem-solving on their own? But then again, very often I’m asking them to do things that are completely unfamiliar to them.

My three main goals for outside-class communication with my students are (a) that they won’t be scared of me; (b) that they’ll get the help they need; and (c) that they’ll make real connections with both the material and the humans they’re interacting with in the course. For many of my students, I don’t think I accomplish any of these three.

What am I missing? How do you handle out-of-class communication?

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Preble Hall Podcast: A Bit of Self-Promotion

A few weeks ago, I got to be the guest of Claude Berube, director of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, on the new podcast from the museum, Preble Hall. It was really fun to talk First Barbary War with him. Give it a listen if you’re so inclined.

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Pedagogy Musing #1: Backward Design

[Note 1: Today is the 8th anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written about her before, but it seems fitting that I should write about her again as I start my promised series of blog posts musing about pedagogy.

Note 2: This post is called “Musing” for a reason: it’s really just somewhat random thoughts about pedagogy. It’s not meant to be even remotely authoritative; I’d settle for mostly coherent.]

I first heard the term “backward design” maybe a year ago. Backward design is a system whereby you design courses by starting with the learning outcomes or course objectives, rather than the topical coverage. When I heard the term, it confused me: why is it “backwards” to start with the learning outcomes? Doesn’t everyone do that?

It turns out that my pedagogical education has had a different trajectory from many college professors. I started learning about pedagogy by working with my mom, who had a degree in elementary education and wrote elementary-school science textbooks for a living. My first professional job (starting at fourteen years old) included proofreading pre-college textbooks and eventually working with my mom to write materials for her elementary science curriculum.

As a high schooler and then a college student, I saw firsthand the process of designing a curriculum starting with the very big picture (the scope and sequence of the whole curriculum, over the course of several years), then moving to individual grade-level objectives, then objectives and content for units of study within the grade, and then finally learning outcomes for individual lessons within the units. Then, and only then, was it time to write the content, including the activities designed to achieve those learning outcomes.

So I was surprised to find out that college courses are often designed around topical coverage, not around learning. It turns out that the way I’ve been taught to think about curricula and course materials is not particularly intuitive, especially when the courses are being designed by people who have little to no training in pedagogy. Despite all that I’ve absorbed over my lifetime of living in the household of educators (my father, about whom I’ll write soon, I have no doubt, has an EdD and wrote his dissertation about Bloom’s Taxonomy), college course design still proved a challenge for me.

How the learning outcomes matter for me

This semester, I’m teaching two classes—one undergrad and one grad—that both focus on digital methodology for historians. When I was planning these courses, I started with a pencil, paper, and a lot of ideas. I wrote them all down, and then I organized them into categories. I then tried to think about all the things I’d written down, and what I was actually aiming for when I wrote them. I used those filtered ideas as the basis for my learning objectives.

Because digital history can be so many different things, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing fun digital stuff that has little pedagogical value. The tools with the most bells and whistles may not have the most value for understanding why that tool or method works for historical analysis. So checking all my activities against the learning outcomes is one way I keep myself from going down (too many) rabbit holes.

I’m also not the best at planning out a whole semester’s worth of materials and activities in advance. I like to change things on the fly, as I see how the course is progressing. So the learning outcomes are my only guide as I adapt to changing circumstances within my courses. Sometimes I have to cut or transform a whole class plan; as long as I’m still achieving my learning outcomes for the class, I don’t feel so bad about losing that “coverage.” I also don’t feel bad about dumping assignments; the students never mind, and if something went badly for them, they probably didn’t meet the learning outcomes anyway. So I have no problem either preemptively or retroactively canceling assignments that didn’t work out as planned.

For my undergraduate course, these are the objectives:

In this course you will:
Learn the varied history of war in the antebellum United States, from the French and Indian War to the Civil War;
Create historical scholarship using varied tools and sources;
Publish historical scholarship on the web.

For the graduate class, they’re similar, but with a focus more on the field of digital history as a subfield:

Our core objectives are these:
Survey the many facets of digital history (through readings)
Create web-based digital history analysis
Practice the nuts and bolts of digital history projects from start to finish

Flexibility within parameters

I recently saw someone on Twitter arguing that learning outcomes were too restrictive and they inhibited student learning by pushing them into paths pre-defined by the teacher instead of allowing the student to guide their own learning. (If I’m mischaracterizing this thread, I apologize—it was just a quick read on Twitter and I couldn’t find it again!)

I disagree with this assessment. When students come into my classes, many of them are there because the course is required in some form or another. They don’t know enough about the course to know what they might want to know. So assuming that they can create their own objectives for whether they’ve succeeded in class feels like it’s setting them up for failure—it’s like asking them to build a house while giving them only the materials they can think of without any knowledge of how a house actually gets built.

So I think learning outcomes serve an important purpose in course design. Students who come into my courses are often skeptical, terrified, or both. Throughout the course of the semester, we work together to build confidence in both history and technology until at the end, the students can look at the learning outcomes and say “Oh yeah, I did learn something in this class!” We judge whether or not they succeed in the class based on whether the learning outcomes are met.

This system gives me a lot of flexibility. The student didn’t get the technology right the first time? That’s ok—we’re still learning, and you’ll have another chance to get it. I did a bad job of explaining something in class? No problem—we can take another run at it next week. If we don’t get to something, we don’t get to it. I worry a lot less about “coverage” when I remind myself of what the learning outcomes are.

But I’m still able to check both my students and myself to make sure we’re all working together toward the same goals. I think that’s the value of learning outcomes; they give the students parameters by which to judge their learning while giving them a chance to do more.

Challenges of teaching with learning outcomes

I believe firmly in the value of having learning outcomes. However, I still find them hard to write and sometimes hard to live by. I struggle to strike a balance between too restrictive and not restrictive enough. I try to write them so that any student who comes into my class can succeed under them, but I also want the objectives to have enough meat to be meaningful.

I also struggle with making sure I adhere to the outcomes. I do think an occasional divergence is fine, even healthy. But it’s really easy to slip back into the “I have to get through this” mindset, even in setting up course assignments and assessments. But I think that’s the key: slipping back into that mindset is the real backward design. I always want to be moving myself and my students forward. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

For me, the real challenge is in working within the learning outcomes I didn’t set myself. My undergraduate course fulfills the requirement for the Mason Core IT requirement. A Mason Core course comes with its own set of learning outcomes, created by the Mason Core committee. Courses that fulfill the IT requirement span the entire university, from IT 101 in the information technology program, to my course in the history department, to a music technology course in the college of visual and performing arts.

The learning outcomes set by the Mason Core committee were written with little attention to the humanities applications of technology. (This isn’t a knock on the outcomes; it’s just a fact.) As a result, where the outcomes I’ve crafted myself feel like they fit the course, there are occasions when I feel like I’m shoehorning sessions and activities into my class merely to meet the core requirements. But the benefits of having my course in the Mason Core outweigh the frustrations of trying to adhere to the IT outcomes.

So, how do you use learning outcomes in your classes? How do you keep yourself on track? How do you work with outcomes that aren’t yours by design?

Next time: Analog tools for digital methodology?

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Using Tropy for the Classroom

It’s no secret that I’m a Tropy enthusiast. I often say that I would use and recommend Tropy even if I weren’t the principal investigator on the project. But this semester my work is divided between Tropy and teaching, on both the undergraduate and graduate level. And it turns out that pairing these things has enhanced both sides.

In both of my classes, my students use Tropy to collect primary sources for their projects, but I’m using Tropy in a slightly different way.

Keeping Track of Course Visuals

I’ve created a Tropy project for each of my courses this semester. In these projects, I keep track of all the images I use in my courses. For my undergrads, that’s predominantly visual aids that I use in my PowerPoints. Putting the images into Tropy has two salutary effects on my course organization: (1) It encourages me to put my images into a logical folder when I download them from the Internet (rather than leaving them in my Downloads, which I’m wont to do). And (2) it encourages me to record relevant metadata about them so that I can be very accurate about what my images are and where they came from.

A screenshot of the Tropy project for my undergraduate class, showing the lists I use for organization.

I can keep all of my images in a unified folder in my file system, since I can use Tropy to categorize them into topics and even specific lectures. Using the “Show photo in folder” function, it’s easy for me to get back to the original file so I can put it into my PowerPoint.

Furthermore, I can record in the notes for each item how I used the images in class, or what I should do differently next time.

I’ve found this use for Tropy incredibly helpful as I’ve created new PowerPoints this semester but wanted to use visual materials I’d collected when I taught this class last semester. A little extra organization goes a long way for those last-minute PowerPoint needs.

Creating Primary Source Readers

For my graduate class, I use fewer visuals in PowerPoint, so my Tropy project isn’t full of that kind of material. Instead, it includes primary sources that we work with in class. When I teach with or about primary sources (which is often!), I place an emphasis on recording metadata as an ethical practice. So when we look at primary sources in class, I like to include the metadata for the items we’re looking at.

Ironically, in a digital history class, I sometimes find it more helpful to use pen and paper to think about digital history topics. But that doesn’t eliminate the need for metadata. Enter Tropy’s Print function.

Using the Print function, I can generate pages that include both the image of the source we’re talking about, and the metadata that tells the students what it is and where it came from. We can then look at a printed copy of the digital item and mark it up with colored pens and Post-it Notes. But all the time, the students know exactly what their source is and where it came from, because the information is right there on the page (and it’s nicely formatted).

An item from my Tropy project, printed with all its metadata.

I can also use the CSV export function to pull metadata out of a large Tropy project, which we can then use to think about the primary sources in aggregate. (We haven’t done this yet in class, but we’re going to in a few weeks.)

What’s Next

One of the common critiques of digital tool creation and use is that people start with the tool rather than the problem they need to solve. Being tool-focused leads to tunnel vision, lack of intellectual creativity, the list goes on. But in this case, the problems I needed to solve existed well before Tropy. It just happened that Tropy was able to provide the solution to my problems because some parts of it have outstripped the original charter for its creation. The product is the better for it, and it’s also more flexible in its uses.

Tropy has always been great for organizing photos from archival research trips—that’s what it is for, after all. But many of the features that are continually being added to Tropy make it even more valuable for other uses as well. I’m delighted that one of those uses is making this teacher’s life a little bit easier. New features that are coming down the pike will make it even better.

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In Defense of Finding Things in Archives

Over the past several months, and probably before that, several historians have been flayed on social media for making claims like “I found this forgotten thing in the archive,” and stories about their finds criticized for calling their work “discovery.” Scholars have (rightly) called out these stories as erasing the work of the archivists in those archives. But these excoriations are often accompanied by calls for all researchers to stop saying they’ve discovered things in archives. I disagree.

I work at the intersection of historians and archivists. I manage the development of software whose goal is, in part, to help researchers see and acknowledge the work done for them by archivists. I encourage researchers in every training session to increase their awareness of and gratitude for the work of those who made it possible to find the sources they’re photographing. However, another goal of Tropy is to allow researchers to add item-level metadata to the sources they photograph, a level of granularity not often achieved by archivists. Every archive would love to have item-level metadata on their collections, I’m sure, but most have neither the financial nor personnel resources to make it happen.

Hence it is entirely possible for a researcher to find, within a described collection, a “lost” source. A lost source is not necessarily one that no one has ever known existed, or that has not been placed into a location that is “organized.” It is a source that no one currently knows the location of, or possibly the existence of. When I have lost my keys in my house, I don’t mean that I have never known where they are–I just don’t know where they are right now.

Likewise, anything in an archive has of course been known to someone at some point. Someone had to accession it; someone might have even written a finding aid that included it. But that work may have been done decades ago, by archivists who took their personal knowledge of those collections with them when they retired. A researcher can certainly find a source that no current archivist knows about, even if they know the collection exists. Because finding aids almost never include item-level information, a source can be cataloged perfectly and still be completely invisible to archivists.

For example, I was recently in the Library of Congress looking at the papers of Richard Dale. In Box 1, I found, alongside the commissions and appointments that the finding aid said would be there, Richard Dale’s certificate of entrance into the Society of the Cincinnati, signed by George Washington himself. A passing librarian stopped to admire the certificate, and he was surprised to find a document with Washington’s signature on it so easily accessible. (I was too–the last time I looked at documents that included presidential signatures, the archivists had to retrieve them from the vault.) For all intents and purposes, I discovered that certificate. I daresay not one person currently at the Library of Congress knew that document was there.

Richard Dale’s certificate of entrance into the Society of the Cincinnati, October 31, 1785. Library of Congress, Papers of Richard Dale: Commissions and Appointments.

Furthermore, finding aids are an imperfect mechanism. Things get put in the wrong place. On a research trip to the National Archives once, I found in a box labeled “Charts of the Mediterranean” several schematic diagrams of the torpedo damage to a vessel called Terpsichore. There was no identifying information on those schematics, and they couldn’t be related to the charts of the Mediterranean (torpedos weren’t a thing till years after the dates on the charts). I still don’t know the significance of the Terpsichore, but my experience is a perfect example of “stumbling across” something that no archivist could have been able to point me to unless they had personally accessioned it.

Schematic of torpedo damage to the Terpsichore. National Archives, Charts of the Mediterranean.

Again, I am not saying that researchers should unadvisedly claim they’ve found something lost–I too get annoyed when people overstate their discoveries. A fully described item in an online catalog cannot be described as lost. Something an archivist showed a researcher in person is not lost. Those instances are not discoveries of those sources, though perhaps they are fresh realizations of the source’s significance. But we need to stop reflexively saying that researchers can’t make discoveries. Just because we know where the Titanic sank doesn’t mean that discovering its wreck is any less of an accomplishment. Give archivists credit for doing their job; but give researchers credit for doing theirs too.

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East Asian Studies Syllabus

Fall 2019 East Asian Studies students, here is a link to your syllabus, with hyperlinks to the PDFs. This is also available at http://abbymullen.org/havens-syllabi/.

Syllabus

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World War II in the Pacific Syllabus

Students in Professor Havens’s Spring 2019 World War II class, here’s a link to your syllabus.

Click here.

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A 21st Century Barbary War

When Thomas Jefferson sent a small naval squadron to the Mediterranean in 1801, he intended to intimidate the Barbary regencies into backing down from their claims of tribute in exchange for commercial freedom in the Mediterranean. Negotiations with the Barbary states hadn’t worked over the previous 15 years of American attempts, and the newly built navy was meant to show the world that America would take its place in the world economy by force.

Algiers was responsible for the capture of American ships that had stultified American commerce in the Mediterranean, and its fleet of corsairs was seen as the biggest threat. The Americans had negotiated many times with the dey, but he often changed the terms of the negotiations on a whim. In 1789, Richard O’Brien, then a captive in Algiers who would become the American consul-general there, did not think it was worth trying to make a formal treaty with Algiers because the dey took so many liberties with the treaties he already had (though the United States did end up making a treaty).

The squadron Jefferson sent to the Mediterranean in 1801 served two purposes beside defeating the Barbary states. First, it represented the American desire to one-up their European counterparts, who paid tribute to the Barbary rulers in exchange for free passage through the Mediterranean. But second, and more important, the Americans wanted desperately to be received as full members of the European community. The British and French were far worse for American trade than the Barbary states. But the Barbary rulers were viewed as bloodthirsty, capricious, and “not within the pale of civilization.” Fighting against them seemed like a literal and symbolic war that the Americans could win in order to show the Europeans that they could compete on a world scale.

The war didn’t go well. When the American navy arrived in 1801, they learned that Tripoli was the regency who had declared war, while Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco remained threats. Fighting against Tripoli turned out to be a difficult task. The American squadron, supposed to be projecting strength, barely spent any time blockading Tripoli, and Tripolitan corsairs easily evaded the ships. Even when successive squadrons brought bigger forces, American forces were in unfamiliar territory, and it showed. Intelligence from the State Department was slow to make the rounds, and circumstances changed so quickly that the Secretary of State was essentially excluded; instead, the few consuls in the Mediterranean were left to keep the peace on their own. Keeping consuls in neighboring Tunis and Algiers proved difficult as well, so the Americans had to rely on uncertain relationships with their European counterparts in order to gauge the mood in the Barbary courts.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Decatur boarding the "Philadelphia."" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1877. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f6c0-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Decatur boarding the “Philadelphia.”” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1877. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f6c0-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

By 1805, apart from a few spectacular events (some favoring the United States, some not), virtually nothing had been accomplished. When Tobias Lear finally negotiated a treaty with Tripoli, the high-flown rhetoric of victory without tribute early in the war gave way to the reality—the United States would pay Tripoli for the release of prisoners and peace between the two nations. It wasn’t until 1815, when circumstances were radically different in both the United States and the Mediterranean, that peace could be made without payment.

Obviously, 21st century America is not 19th century America. But there are some parallels between our current president’s approach to foreign policy with North Korea and the way the United States approached the Barbary states. Perhaps there are lessons here, perhaps not.

President Trump’s disdain for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is obvious. His epithet “Little Rocket Man” strikes a similar chord as consul William Eaton’s dismissal of the bashaw as “the madman of Tripoli” (Eaton to Richard O’Brien, 15 September 1801. James L. Cathcart Papers, Library of Congress).  And Kim does share the bloodthirstiness and capriciousness of the Barbary rulers. The Americans’ prejudices against North Africa caused them to discount the  Barbary rulers’ capacity. Hopefully our current president doesn’t follow their example.

The process of peace and disarmament with North Korea has been a hard problem for American presidents to untangle. Trump’s interest in North Korea seems to center on saving face for the United States (or, let’s face it, for himself). His behavior toward our allies in the world has caused significant damage to diplomatic relations elsewhere. In these negotiations, Trump can one-up the other powerful countries have not succeeded in convincing North Korea to disarm. So going after a common enemy might help to distract from diplomatic strife elsewhere. But just as American naval officers discovered after they constantly provoked and derided the European connections that made it possible for the Americans to stay in the Mediterranean, Trump may find that antagonizing his allies doesn’t bring the success he hopes for.

Trump’s strategy of direct confrontation is a bit like sending a squadron into a territory where the intel is thin and the friends are few and far between. American strategy in the Mediterranean suffered because their diplomatic standing in the countries surrounding Tripoli was tenuous or non-existent. Likewise, not filling key State Department posts (such as the ambassador to South Korea) may place Trump in a situation where his intelligence on North Korea would be poor even if he wants to hear it. Keeping the peace with neighboring countries who are not friends while courting war with North Korea is an equally sticky task. Hopefully Trump has put more thought into relations with China, for example, than just tweeting.

Nevertheless, the meeting with Kim Jong Un could be a positive development. Trump does have the element of surprise on his side (but his tendency to go off-script could go just as badly for the United States as for anyone else). However, Trump could learn caution from the Americans’ diplomatic meetings with the Barbary states, in which the Americans always went in assuming the rulers meant to meet in good faith, and on multiple occasions narrowly escaped with their lives and freedom.

There are a few key differences between 1801 and 2018. In the First Barbary War, the war was fought with short-range weapons and a small fighting force on both sides. The stakes are slightly higher when the potential weapons are nuclear warheads. In 1801, the United States really was a minor power. Now collateral damage from a conflict between the United States and North Korea could span the globe. Free trade and nuclear disarmament are both laudable goals—even necessary ones. I hope that President Trump goes into this meeting with North Korea, if it happens, circumspectly and with as much historical and contemporary intelligence as he can muster. He’s going to need it.

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Wiggly Tales: A Random Tale Generator

[This semester I’m taking Humanities Data Analysis with Professor Ben Schmidt. One of our tasks for this week was to build a random-walk generator using 3-grams. Here’s my quick writeup of my generator cross-posted from our course blog.]

We’ve been reading a lot of fairy tales around my house recently, so I wanted to see how well-spun of a tale I could create by walking randomly through a collection of fairy tales. I selected four fairy-tale collections from Project Gutenberg to test this idea on. Code is on GitHub.

I selected these four collections:

The addition of the Arabian Nights stories to Western European fairy tales makes the random generator more interesting, sometimes throwing the geographical sense of the tale into a different place and a different world.

This version generated my favorite beginning: “once upon a time a man by the river yes he was looking straight into the deep waters skeletons of walruses.”

But other versions of the generator took an even darker turn. Here’s the raw text:

“once upon a great procession which was conscious of pain And sore regret of which she said nothing but torment and affliction that He sniffed about to give the ants were always running to and when he approached her they did not really birds but she bore thee Thou hast nothing to me Only tell me something Why this is what you say What is the news O my sister relate to me Art thou she whom he found it impossible to think of The old rough doll You are learned and wise men assembled together in his age and to nail up my mind every earthly care and sorrow with soft turf From the narrow walks and the Wezeer the father of Is both of you should care so much that renders men sinful and impure He fully realized the true the speaker s hand saying to each other till the morning following I have with me from first to last and then burst and fell fast asleep”

 

And here’s the story, with some punctuation that I added for “clarity”:

Once upon a great procession–which was conscious of pain and sore regret, of which she said nothing but torment and affliction that He sniffed about to give. The ants were always running to, and when he approached her, they did not really birds but she bore thee: “Thou hast nothing to me. Only tell me something: Why this is what you say? What is the news? O my sister relate to me! Art thou she whom he found it impossible to think of? The old rough doll? You are learned, and wise men assembled together in his age and to nail up my mind every earthly care and sorrow with.” Soft turf from the narrow walks and the Wezeer the father of Is, both of you should care so much! That renders men sinful and impure. He fully realized the true the speaker’s hand, saying to each other till the morning following, “I have with me from first to last,” and then burst and fell fast asleep.

And sometimes it’s important to be reminded of where your texts come from. I didn’t remove any text at all from the Project Gutenberg texts, which means that the copyright and distribution information could appear in our stories too. For example:

“The two grand annual festivals are observed with public domain eBooks Redistribution is subject to particular laws or rules with respect to our beetle to himself but the observance of this Wezeer So the porter approached the Distracted Slave of Love when his boat or playing in the lap of prosperity and the fear of him said the Fire drum Peter has gone away I ll do something in me.”

I might publish a longer generated story sometime soon, but all this generator proves is that tales can be wiggly indeed.

 

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Geography in the American Quasi-War with France

After an AHA in which I heard a lot about how digital history needs to be about results as well as methodology, I decided to write up a post about the results I gained from mapping the Quasi-War. Special h/t to Cameron Blevins and Yoni Appelbaum for inspiring me to write about my research. I’m also using Yoni’s hyperlink-style citations.

For my seminar in Empires and Colonialism this past semester, I wrote about the United States’ Quasi-War with France. The paper argues that the Quasi-War was one of the United States’ first chances to engage with international law on a broad scale, and that the conflicting legal realities of an undeclared war helped to destabilize the French empire in the Caribbean to the breaking point. As part of that seminar paper, I mapped encounters between the French and the Americans (with a few British encounters) from 1797 to 1800. This map proved to be more illuminating than I expected, and it became an integral part of my argument about the primacy of prize courts in the Quasi-War. The map has clickable points where encounters occurred, as well as a fuller explanation of the judgments I made in creating it. You can see the map here. What follows is my explanation of what the map does.

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From 1798 to 1800, the United States waged an undeclared maritime war with France. Though this conflict is often described as a naval war, it was not a traditional one. Almost no French naval vessels entered the Caribbean, and the hostile encounters between the French and the Americans were almost all battles between privateers and merchant vessels.

This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.
This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.

Why were there so many privateers in the Caribbean? Geographically, the islands had always been prime areas for piratical types—lots of inlets and tiny islands for staging. In addition, the privateers served an important role in providing for the colonies. The dominance of the sugar industry had restricted the colonies’ ability to provide basic foodstuffs for their people, both white and black. Previous to this conflict, the United States had provided a large portion of the colonies’ food for the sugar workers—one scholar states that St. Domingue relied on the commerce of at least 600 American ships for basic supplies during 1796 alone. But as a result of the non-intercourse act, the supply had dried up. Consul Turell Tufts wrote in despair to President Adams about the port of Cayenne: “Every exertion is making there in Privateering, as they consider it the very harvest of Plunder; and besides, they have no other means of procuring Supplies.” 

Constant war with Britain meant that supplies from elsewhere in the empire were difficult to come by, so taking supplies that were already present made perfect sense. When the privateers captured merchant vessels in the Caribbean, they were able to bring in both the money from the sale of the vessel and cargo, and also parts of the cargo itself. The colonial governments had a vested interest in the actions of the privateers as well—not just because of the food itself, but also because of the “consequent discontent” if food was not available. In an already volatile political environment, maintaining order sometimes meant encouraging the privateers.

It’s not surprising that the United States government decided that the French were a threat enough to build a navy. Compared to the number of captures by Barbary corsairs, the French threat was immense and widespread. There’s no way to know with any certainty how many captures actually occurred, but given the number of captures that we do have information about (more than 250 captures with enough spatial information to be plotted on a map, and hundreds more with no spatial data), the total number of captures could easily range over a thousand. When the navy did finally make it to the Caribbean, its commanders adopted strategies that helped them to deal with the huge numbers of privateers in the area. Recognizing how privateers operated, the commanders planned their locations and logistics accordingly.

At the heart of both the privateers’ and the navy’s strategy was the prize court. International maritime law had established the prize court as the appropriate way to adjudicate the legal claims of captor and captured alike. 1 Privateers, by and large, adhered to the prize-court structure; at least, the claims of piratical behavior were much less frequent than accounts of lawful prize-taking. This is not to say that every prize brought into a prize court was fairly and impartially adjudicated: privateers could count on certain ports as friendly to their causes, where the commissioners would declare captures lawful prize on the slightest provocation.

Though French privateers made captures all across the world, they found the greatest success in the Caribbean. Privateers could use some of the same tactics as the famed pirates of the Caribbean, using sheltered harbors and small islands as protection and cover. But privateers differed from pirates in that privateers needed to stay close to the ports where they could send in prizes, whereas pirates tended to plunder their captures. The abundance of colonial governments in the Caribbean meant an abundance of prize courts.

Privateers’ vessels weren’t large enough to sustain long periods at sea, and captures only reduced the time they could spend at sea. Privateers elongated their time at sea by placing prize crews on board captures and sending the prizes unaccompanied into port. These prizes were less likely to actually bring the captors their prize money, since the chances of the prize making it unscathed into port decreased when the privateer did not escort the prize back. In addition, the prize crew was taken from the crew of the privateer, which meant that even this solution would eventually leave the privateer with too few men to maneuver effectively.

The majority of captures were within a few days’ sail of a prize court. For French privateers, French ports were the ideal, but other neutral ports (such as Curacao) would do in a pinch. British ports were, of course, out of the question, as the British were at war with the French. At the beginning of the war, ports in Guadeloupe (particularly Basseterre) and Saint-Domingue were most likely to condemn American prizes. As the war progressed, and the Americans negotiated trade agreements with Toussaint separate from the French government, Guadeloupe became the primary port where American prizes would likely be condemned.

Prize courts—or rather, accessibility to prize courts—also dictated American strategy against the privateers. For a navy being literally built ship by ship, one-on-one pitched battles against the privateers could never be a feasible strategy. Instead, the naval commanders focused their attention on the prize court ports: places they could be sure to encounter privateers, and even more frequently, their prizes. This strategy had two strengths: first, it gave the navy a better chance of actually capturing privateers, and thus removing their threat. But second, it also made privateering less profitable even for the privateers who eluded capture. Prizes were relatively easy to capture, since they had a skeleton crew of belligerents along with the original crew, who were all too willing to rise up against the prize crew. And if those prizes never made it into port, all the cost in munitions, time, and crew members that the privateer had expended was meaningless. No prize court, no matter how lenient, would condemn a vessel whose papers never made it to port. Though these reasons were never spelled out in so many words, they must have occurred to at least some of those men who handed down orders.

The Americans adopted a strategy, then, that kept them very close to enemy ports. They targeted Guadeloupe specifically—a whole squadron was ordered to stay “in the neighborhood of Guadeloupe,” as the secretary of the navy had put it. They were then able to capture ships in neutral waters as they came in and out of those ports. On occasion, American naval vessels came very close to violating neutral waters: international law declared that water within a cannon-shot of land was the territory of the nation that held the land. But no one ever objected to their captures on those grounds. The naval vessels maintained an even smaller range than the privateers. Privateers usually made their captures within two or three days’ sail of a prize court; the navy maintained a distance of one day or less.

This screenshot shows the encounters between American and French vessels around Guadeloupe.
This screenshot shows the encounters between American and French vessels around Guadeloupe.

The number of naval vessels on the Guadeloupe station at any one time vacillated wildly. The secretary of the navy attempted to keep at least half a dozen ships there, but maintenance needs, expiration of terms of enlistment, sickness, or any number of other factors could pull ships off their patrolling grounds. Once Toussaint began to request the use of American naval vessels to help his cause in Saint-Domingue, the number of ships at Guadeloupe was even more unpredictable. And of course, individual captains sometimes took their ships off to places outside the strategic area for convoy duty or by sheer incompetence.

American naval vessels could not maintain perpetual patrols off Guadeloupe, no matter how ideal the circumstances. Just like the privateers, they needed a safe place to go for supplies, maintenance, and prize adjudication (they too operated on the prize system). They primarily used St. Kitts, to the north of Guadeloupe, as a base for resupply. However, prices in the islands were exorbitant, so the secretary of the navy sent supply vessels from the United States as well.

These geographical constraints did not preclude the navy’s sailing elsewhere—far from it. But the number of captures very near to enemy ports indicates that the navy’s strategy was effective. By the end of the year 1800, Thomas Truxtun, who was cruising off Guadeloupe, wrote to Thomas Tingey, “With all this cruising my success has been very limited indeed, for the french have become scarce, so much so, that what I formerly found (chasing) an amusement, and pastime, is now insiped, Urksome & tiresome.”

In fact, by this time the treaty had already been signed to reestablish commercial relations between the United States and France, though it would be another several months before the terms were ratified by all parties. Michael Palmer estimates that U.S. naval forces, averaging 16 ships at any given time between 1798 and 1800, captured 86 privateers over the course of the war. 2 This number is impressive for such a small force, but it still doesn’t come even close to an annihilation of the privateer forces. Many factors contributed to the eventual decline of French privateering, but it does seem that targeting the prize courts was one of those factors.The American naval strategy had succeeded.

Notes:

  1. For more about prize law and its relationship to empire, see chapter 3 of Lauren A. Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  2. Just as we don’t have enough spatial data to map all of the French victories over American shipping, we also don’t have enough spatial data to map these American victories completely—again, the map shows about ¼ of these victories.