McMullen Naval History Symposium Recap

This weekend, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the McMullen Naval History Symposium. It was my second time at the U.S. Naval Academy, and I have had a great time.

Our Panel

I organized a panel titled “Politics of the Sea in the Early Republic,” in which the panelists looked at how the navy and maritime concerns influenced political discourse (and vice versa). Bill Leeman argued that Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the navy in the Barbary Wars was more pragmatic than idealistic. The question of who could declare war–was it the president or the Congress?–was a live one in the early republic. What were the president’s powers when a foreign country declared war first? These are the questions that Jefferson had to grapple with as he sent the navy to deal with the threat of the Barbary States.

My paper picked up the political question in the War of 1812. Titled “Naval Honor and Partisan Politics: The Naval War of 1812 in the Public Sphere,” the paper investigated how partisan newspapers approached the naval war, using exactly the same events to make exactly opposite political points. Interestingly, both political parties also used the same imagery and rhetoric. They both used the concept of honor in order to castigate the other party. I’ll be posting an edited version of the paper on the blog soon, so you’ll just have to wait to read the exciting conclusion.

Steve Park addressed how the Hartford Convention, held at the end of the War of 1812, addressed–or rather, didn’t address–the concerns of Federalists. Since the Federalists had traditionally been strongly in favor of naval buildup and the end of impressment, it was highly surprising that the delegates did not really mention these concerns at all in their convention resolutions. Nevertheless, they were not secessionist, but instead sought a constitutional solution to their perceived grievances.

We were very fortunate to have a premier naval historian, Craig Symonds, as our chair, and an excellent younger scholar, David Head, as our commentator. The audience was involved in the themes of our panel, and they asked great questions and pushed each of our ideas in fruitful directions. Even after the session was over, we continued to field questions informally, and I had some profitable conversations about the paper even afterwards during the reception.

New Connections

The historians that attend the naval history symposium are members of the community I want to be a part of. Senior scholars in the field of naval history attend every year, including many historians whose work has been integral to my research. This year, I met several of those historians. Two were particularly special, as they are essentially responsible for my desire to do naval history. Frederick Leiner, who is a historian of the early American navy only as a side interest, wrote Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798 and The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War Against the Pirates of North Africa. Millions for Defense was the book that set me on the path to studying the Barbary Wars. And Christopher McKee wrote the seminal work on the naval officer corps of the early republic, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession, which has shown me the breadth and depth of the stories in the naval officer corps. These stories will undoubtedly keep me busy for a lifetime. (I also would love to make that book into a digital project, but that’s a task for another time.)

Almost as exciting as meeting a few of my history heroes, I also met some young scholars, working on their PhDs or just finished with their degrees. Several of them were women, also doing naval history. These meetings gave me so much hope for the future–for my own career and for the field at large. I can’t wait to keep up with these scholars, and perhaps even forge some meaningful relationship and collaborations with them. I also met some young scholars who are doing digital history. In light of my previous blog post about the intersection of DH and MH, I’m very excited to learn that the field is not quite as barren as it seems. Again,  I hope to establish some meaningful connections and build up a community of digital naval historians.

The symposium left me with lots of new ideas, new avenues of exploration, and new professional connections. So now I’m looking forward to jumping back into my work!


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? 

The Message of the Historical Medium

[This post was written for my graduate class, “Doing Digital Humanities,” and originally posted on that course’s blog.]

Literary scholars and creative writers spend quite a bit of time thinking about the medium in which they work. Historians tend to think about such things less, since literary theory often doesn’t work well with historical inquiry. Serious historical scholarship is almost always created in a standard medium: the monograph.

Reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium Is the Message” for class, I thought that a more careful examination of the historical medium might be in order.

Traditional Medium for Traditional History

The historical monograph has several salient features. First, it’s a fixed document. Once it’s published, it really can’t be changed. Second, it has clear structural organization (table of contents, preface, introduction, chapters 1-…, afterword, notes, bibliography). Third, only a few names, often only one, appears on its cover.

Perhaps these elements of a monograph are what make it so appealing to many historians. For many years, the typical historian focused on national history. He worked within a closed geographical boundary (the United States, let’s say), generally within a fairly rigid time frame (the early republic, let’s say). In many instances, the goal of his research was to standardize and/or streamline the nation’s history into a coherent narrative. The parts that didn’t fit the thesis were left out or marginalized. The monograph could just as easily have been written on a typewriter as a MacBook.

The method of doing history correlates fairly well to the medium in which it is displayed. A closed geographical area is written about in a fixed canonical document. A standard organization correlates well with a coherent national narrative. An individual listed author emphasizes the originality of the work. Though the connections of the work to the broader scholarly community are often emphasized, the collaborative efforts of archivists, researchers, and others are usually less noticeable. Many great historians of both past and present have expertly used their medium to tell a compelling narrative that explains many aspects of human history.

But not all.

New Methods, New Topics…New Media?

National history, in the last few decades, has fallen out of favor for many historians. Gender, class, race, and other themes that transcend the history of one nation have become more prevalent topics of study. These themes have often proved messy, unable to be fit into one coherent narrative. In a way that’s the beauty of this new way of thinking about history: it doesn’t have to be neat. It doesn’t have to work out in the end.

So we have to ask ourselves: is the monograph the medium suited to this message? Perhaps not. Instead, perhaps we should look for a medium that allows for multiple narratives to be investigated simultaneously, for massive amounts of data to be made comprehensible, for something that doesn’t tie history between two covers.

Cultural and social historians have long used large data sets, visual aids, and multiple narratives in their monographs. But these features often have the effect of confusing the issues or bogging down the reader instead of helping to bring clarity to complicated problems. (After all, who but the most dedicated of us actually reads all the sociological data charts or carefully scrutinizes every single map in a monograph?) Sometimes publishers do not even allow their authors to include their large data analyses in their published work.

These sorts of historical inquiries, then, would seem to invite a different type of medium, one that’s better suited to their message.

Perhaps digital humanities can help provide a new medium for the new message of history. Maps can be made interactive, better demonstrating real movements. Visualizations can be dynamic, showing in one setting what might take multiple confusing charts or graphs in a monograph. Large data sets can be published online, where users can manipulate them or filter them to match their interests. At its simplest, digital humanities can provide a way to simultaneously provide multiple equally weighted narratives, which the reader can choose to read however he or she wishes.

Digital humanities also provides a way to change the inequalities of credit for work on a project. Collaboration is at the heart of traditional historical writing no less than in the heart of digital humanities, but DH tends to be more open about equal credit for all collaborators (and is working toward a better model all the time). Perhaps, then, it fits well with history whose goal is to give all people of all types their part in the history of the world.

So maybe digital humanities is a way to control the messiness of these new ideas of history without losing their analytical coherence. It may be a different type of coherence than historians are used to, but these are different questions.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Some historians wonder whether the digital humanities will change the way history is done. They worry that the message of the new medium does not fit well with the message of the entire historical discipline. They fear that the traditional practices of reading and writing will be jeopardized by the new modes of expression in the digital humanities. But historical analysis is still going on, even in new digital projects. Writing is still happening, and it’s being read. In fact, digital writing has the potential for a much larger readership. So the question isn’t whether reading and writing will disappear (I’m pretty confident that they won’t), but whether the specific medium in which historians like to work will have to make room for other media.

I’m a traditional historian. I like monographs. I like national histories. My field, naval history, is highly traditional in subject, methodology, and practitioners (male-dominated would be an understatement). But my field also has great potential for non-monographic treatment. What better field can you have for mapping than one whose entire existence is about movement across the globe? What better field can you have for networks than one whose highly stratified structure belies the tangled web of intense personal connections amongst a tight-knit group? What better field can you have for big data work than one that records practically everything about each of its denizens’ environments multiple times per day?

I don’t think monographs are going anywhere, not just yet anyway–nor do I want them to. But I do think it’s time for historians to exercise a little creativity in their choice of medium. As DH research changes the questions we ask, perhaps the message of our research requires a different medium to match it.