Digital Humanities Naval History

Digital Methods for Military History: An Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities

In October 2014, I ran a workshop at Northeastern University called “Digital Methods for Military History,” designed to (you guessed it) introduce digital history methods to military historians. It was a two-day event that covered a lot of ground, and many participants suggested that they’d like a longer period of instruction or a follow-up event.

A lot has changed since 2014. I was a graduate student then, not even advanced to candidacy. I was a fellow at the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, feeling my way through the wilds of digital history, mostly under the auspices of the Viral Texts project. In 2013, I attended my first THATCamp Prime, where I met Brett Bobley, the director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, and he and I talked about how military historians could be brought into the digital humanities fold. From that conversation, the project was born. Looking back on those conversations today, I continue to be humbled by the confidence that Brett, the NEH, and the NULab and College of Social Sciences and Humanities placed in me, a very young graduate student, to pull off the workshop.

In 2016, while still working on my dissertation at Northeastern, I started a job at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as a part-time wage employee on the Tropy project. I defended my dissertation in April 2017, and since then I’ve transitioned from wage employee to research faculty, and now this fall to instructional faculty at George Mason University. I’ve worked on Tropy for that whole time, and continued my own research on the First Barbary War while I work on turning the dissertation into a book (as one does), as well as being involved in several other grant projects.

This grant, an Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities to fund a new 2-week institute on Digital Methods for Military History, feels special, though. It’s fitting that a project that was conceived during my first visit to RRCHNM should find its way back to the Center, where so many great institutes have occurred in years past. It’s a privilege to follow in their footsteps in teaching about digital history. I’m honored that the NEH again found the instruction of military historians a worthwhile endeavor and gave me a chance to assemble a great team to do that instruction.

This institute is two weeks instead of two days, giving us a lot more time to delve more deeply into the topics that military historians already find interesting. We’ll be spending our time investigating data creation and cleaning, visualizations, and mapping. We chose those topics because they are ones that many military historians are familiar with but don’t know how to create on their own. We’ll also be thinking about how to see a DH project through from beginning to end. Our instructors are top-notch practitioners in these areas: Jason Heppler, Jean Bauer, and Christopher Hamner (and me).

The planning has only just begun, of course, but the tentative dates are July 20-31, 2020. Stay tuned for more information and a call for participants. This time, we’ll also be able to pay for people to come, which will hopefully make it possible for some historians to come who couldn’t afford to pay their own way to the workshop.

I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to introduce military historians to tools for the digital age, and I’m humbled that the NEH has funded this institute. I’m looking forward to working with a great group of military historians in summer 2020!

Digital Humanities NULab

Boston-Area Days of DH Wrap-up

[cross-posted to]

Now that it’s been almost a month since the Boston-Area Days of DH, I figured I’d better write a wrap-up of the conference. It was my very great pleasure to help Prof. Ryan Cordell organize the conference, and along the way I learned a lot about DH and about scholarly work in general (and about scheduling and organization and making sure the coffee gets to the right place…).

The Boston-Area Days of DH conference was sponsored by Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. Originally, it was designed to coincide with the worldwide Day of DH, sponsored by CenterNet. It would do in a conference what Day of DH does online: highlight the work that Boston-area digital humanists are doing and start conversations based on that work. In addition, we tried to include sessions to help digital humanists do their work better.

Day 1 Breakdown

Our first session, the lightning talks, was designed to highlight as many projects as possible in a short amount of time. All the presentations were interesting, but I’d like to especially mention a couple. First, the Lexomics group from Wheaton College presented on their text analysis work on Old English texts. This group was unusual both for the work they did and also for their place in the field: all the presenters were undergraduates at Wheaton. I found it very heartening to see undergraduates doing serious scholarly work using digital humanities. Second, Siobhan Senier’s work on Native American literature was especially inspiring. I love how she is using digital tools to help expose and analyze literature of New England Native Americans. She’s using Omeka as a digital repository for Native American literature, much of which is not literature in words, but rather in art or handicraft (such as baskets). I think this is a perfect use for the Omeka platform.

After the lightning talks, we were able to run a set of workshops twice during the first day of the conference. The topics ranged from network analysis (taught by Jean Bauer), to text analysis (taught by David Smith), to historical GIS (taught by Ryan Cordell). I heard lots of good feedback about how helpful these workshops were, though I wasn’t able to attend any myself.

The keynote address has to rate as one of the most entertainingly educational talks I’ve ever heard. Matt Jockers, from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, sparred with Julia Flanders from Brown University in a mock debate over the relative merits of big data and small data. They’ve posted their whole talk, along with some post-talk comments on their respective blogs (Matt’s and Julia’s). The talk is certainly well worth the read, so rather than outlining or overviewing it here,  I’ll just entreat you to go to the source itself.

Day 2 Breakdown

On Day 2, we suffered an environmental crisis: a sudden snowstorm in the night on Monday night which made travel a much greater hassle than it already is in Boston. As a result, our numbers were greatly reduced, but we soldiered on, sans coffee and muffins.

Our first session was a series of featured talks about specific projects. Topics ranged from gaming, to GIS, to pedagogy, to large-scale text analysis. Augusta Rohrbach discussed how a game she’s working on, Trifles, incorporates elements of history and literature into a game environment to teach students about both history and literature, while engaging in questions about gender and social issues as well. Michael Hanrahan talked about how GIS can reframe questions about rebellions in England in 1381, and on a wider scale, how GIS can reframe questions of information dissemination. Shane Landrum talked about how he uses digital technology to teach at a large, public, urban university, and the challenges of doing DH in a place where computer access and time to “screw around” are real problems. And Ben Schmidt talked about doing textual analysis on large corpora using Bookworm, a tool created at the Harvard Cultural Observatory.

The final session of the conference was a grants workshop with Brett Bobley, director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. By staging a mock panel discussion such as might occur in a real review of grant proposals, Brett was able to instruct us about what the NEH-ODH is looking for in grant proposals, and how the grant-awarding process works. I found the issues that Brett raised about grant proposals to be helpful in thinking through all of my work: am I being specific about my objectives? about who this will reach? about how exactly it’s all going to get done? These questions ought to inform our practice not just for grants, but for all the work we do.


All in all, despite some environmental setbacks, I think the conference was a great success. A friend, upon seeing the program, remarked to me, “Wow, a digital humanities conference that’s not a THATCamp!” I’m all for THATCamps, but I do think that pairing this sort of conference with the THATCamp model allows us to talk about our work in different ways, all of which are valuable. So, with some trepidation, I will join those who have already called for this conference to become an annual event. (After all, with a year of experience under our belt, what could go wrong?)