Tag Archives: THATCamp

Lessons from From Enemies to Allies: Changing Scale in American Naval History

In the plenary session at From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference about the War of 1812 and Its Aftermath, several senior scholars addressed (among other things) the direction scholarship on the War of 1812 should go. One major theme that emerged was the need to study the War of 1812 in a global context. American historians of the war often treat it as if it were the only thing going on in the United States and in Britain between 1812 and 1815, when in fact it wasn’t the only thing going on in either place.

This interest in globalizing the study of the War of 1812 correlates with a session I attended at THATCamp about how changing the scale of your research can open up new lines of inquiry. The initial example in the session was a literal change in scale: blowing up a literary text to being a poster size instead of a normal book size. But we also talked about how changing the scale on a more intellectual level can also be a good thing.

Two of the keynote speakers at FETA addressed scale as they talked about the context in which the War of 1812 occurred. Andrew Lambert explored how the War of 1812 fit into the much larger story of the Napoleonic Wars, and Alan Taylor explained how the war fit into a larger context of changing borders within the United States, not just with Canada or Britain but with the Indians as well. Looking at the War of 1812 on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars, or on the scale of U.S.-Indian relations, can drastically change how one understands why the Royal Navy did certain things or why certain U.S. policies seemed counter-intuitive for fighting a war with the British alone.

Taylor advocated a change in the temporal scale as well as the geographical one, suggesting that we should think of the war as spanning 1810 to 1819, rather than 1812 to 1815. This change in temporal scale highlights the border disputes that Taylor discussed in his talk, and it certainly makes one think differently about the chronology of the war (including the oft-quoted myth that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was over, a fact that isn’t true whether you subscribe to the 1819 end date or the 1815 one).

These changes of scale bring new life to what some people, even historians, view as “stagnant” history. (Bill Pencek, the organizer of the conference, told us of a person who believed that naval history was “already settled.”) They allow us to ask new questions about the history of the United States, Britain, and Canada, and they allow us to approach the standard questions (such as the causes of the war) with fresh perspectives that may provide better answers.

Though the War of 1812 is not going to be my own main research focus, I think these ideas of scale can be easily applied to any conflict. I’m particularly excited about applying them to my own topic, the Barbary Wars. If any part of American naval history could benefit from a change in scale, I think it’s the story of the Barbary Wars, which is often written as though the United States was the only nation dealing with the Barbary States, ever. But if we change the scale, look at the more global picture of the Barbary Wars, and perhaps even change the temporal scale as well, this minor conflict in the Mediterranean may help us understand a lot more about the navy, diplomacy, foreign relations, and politics in the early republic of the United States.

 

Digital History and Naval History: Ships in the Night

 

Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.
—Henry Wadworth Longfellow

This month I attended two very different professional conferences. The first, THATCamp CHNM (aka THATCamp Prime), is so unlike normal conferences that it’s billed as an “unconference.”[1. If you want to know exactly what an unconference is, read the THATCamp About page.] It brings together people from a wide swath of academic disciplines to talk about digital humanities. Sessions ranged from talking about programming languages to teaching digital history to talking about size and scale in academic research. Many of the people in attendance were relatively young; many hold “alt-ac” jobs.

The other conference could not have been more different. Even its title, “From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference on the War of 1812 and its Aftermath,” fits it into a tight disciplinary mold. Though it drew scholars from the United States, the UK, and Canada, all the scholars were primarily historians of the 19th century, and a large proportion were military historians. My fellow panelists and I were among the youngest there by a fair margin; very few of the attendees were graduate students or young scholars. A surprising number of panelists were independent scholars. It was very much a traditional conference, with concurrent panels and two (great) keynote addresses.

I’ll write more about each conference later. For now, I want to talk about where I hope the fields of digital history and naval history may go, based on these two conferences. It has long been my impression that digital humanities and naval history (and military history more generally) are a bit like ships passing in the night. Every once in a while, they graze each other, but they quickly separate again and carry on without much change to either field. Conversations with people at both conferences confirmed this suspicion. When I asked some people at the War of 1812 conference if they’d ever thought about using digital mapping tools or creating online exhibits, the response was generally “I don’t really do computers.” But they were drawing digital maps—in PowerPoint. Similarly, I don’t know anyone who self-identifies as a DHer whose primary academic discipline is military history—at least no one I met at THATCamp CHNM. (Big huge disclaimer here: obviously, I don’t know all the DHers in the world. If you work on military history and do DH, we need to talk. Please email me.) But military history comes up—witness one of the models for Omeka’s Neatline exhibits: the battle of Chancellorsville.

So I found it somewhat amusing that in both conferences, the most interesting outcome for me was related to the other discipline. At THATCamp, I won third place in the Maker Challenge (along with my partner in crime Lincoln Mullen) for creating an argument about promotions of naval officers from 1798-1849, which actually came in handy while I was talking to scholars at FETA. And at FETA, the best contact I made was with a scholar who wants me to help him build a database about engagements during the War of 1812 not unlike the Early American Foreign Service Database. He’s one of those who “doesn’t do computers,” but he understands the values of accessibility and openness that THATCampers hold dear.

Going to the two conferences almost back-to-back highlighted for me how much each field might enrich the other. These connections give me hope that someday soon, digital historians can “speak” naval historians with greater success. And then, not all will be darkness and silence between the two.

Who’s with me? 

THATCamp New England Roundup

On Saturday, I went to THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) New England at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve known of THATCamps for several years, but this was my first chance to actually attend one. I went to four sessions: Libraries, Archives, and Museums; Customizing Omeka; Doing Digital History with Non-Digital Sources (link to notes); and Network Analysis.

This post isn’t a comprehensive record of everything that went on, but rather just a few things that I found interesting or valuable about the experience.

1. The value of collaboration. In at least two of the sessions I went to, collaboration was explicitly discussed: between colleagues in the same discipline, colleagues in similar disciplines, colleagues in totally different disciplines (historians and computer scientists!), and even professors and grad students.

The bottom line: the best DH work is collaborative.

The challenge: Collaborating is risky. Working with people who know nothing about your subject matter can make communication difficult (but remember that your collaborator has equal difficulty communicating with you).

Best practices: Communicate, communicate, communicate! And in the final outcome, be sure to give credit where credit is due–the Fair Cite initiative can help humanists correctly and fairly give collaboration credit to all people involved in the project, academic or alt-ac.

 

2. New tools (for me) of digital humanities: I was introduced to several tools and resources that I never knew existed and I can’t wait to explore further. The two big ones are these:

Quantum GIS: This open-source mapping software may be the answer to my mega-problems with Neatline. Trying to use the institutional copy of ArcMap through the remote desktop was a complete disaster, besides my surprise that anything from CHNM/Scholars’ Lab types would require proprietary software. Turns out–it doesn’t! My life is revolutionized!

SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context): This is a site where Linked Open Data is used to provide access to an aggregate of archives. To be truthful, even after half a session’s worth of discussion about LOD, I still don’t really understand what it is, but the value of an aggregate of archives, including rudimentary network graphs based on the metadata in the archival records, is only going to increase as more archives get linked to this database.

 

What were the major takeaways from the conference for me?

1. I need to go to more THATCamps now that I’ve got a little more lingo in my vocabulary.

2. I personally have opportunities for collaboration. The sessions weren’t the only places I learned about collaboration: interaction with the other campers opened up a staggering array of potential opportunities for me. It was remarkable how many people there were doing something related to naval history or the early republic. And many of them are working with things that I can either help with or be helped by. I’m excited about the new contacts I’ve made. In fact, this week a new friend and I are going to be customizing our Omeka sites based on what we learned at THATCamp. And now I’m thinking I would like a collaborator to help me make some maps for my site as well. (Digital cartographers, I’d like to chat if you’re into drawing oceans and battle diagrams.)

 

If you’re interested in digital humanities, I’d recommend you try to find a THATCamp in your area to attend. Since THATCamps have proliferated like rabbits over the past few years, you should be able to find one (for instance, another THATCamp, Hybrid Pedagogy, occurred simultaneously with THATCamp New England, and before the end of 2012, there are nine more THATCamps across the globe).