To the Shores of Tripoli- Print Project Proposal

I was very impressed with the research conducted by Michael Whitmore and Jonathan Hope in Shakespeare by the Numbers: On the Linguistic Texture of the Late Plays, as the article revealed how quantitative analyses of texts can enhance one’s comprehension of their literary features.  In a similar manner, I hope to more fully understand the “linguistic footprint[s]” of documents from the Barbary Wars.[1]

Although I intend on doing a digital project for this course, my hypothetical print project would entail using Voyeur to evaluate primary source documents from the U.S. conflicts with the Barbary States (Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis).  Collectively known as the Barbary “pirates,” beginning in the mid-1780s the navies from these four nations began capturing American merchant vessels, enslaving the crews, and offering ships and sailors back for ransom money.  For this project, though, I would focus on 1796-1805, as this time period saw escalating tensions that culminated in the Tripolitan War of 1801-1805 (the first U.S. war against a non-white country).

As I have mentioned in class, my dissertation takes a cultural and gender approach to examining America’s relations with the Barbary Powers from 1784-1815.  I argue that the Barbary Wars created an early sense of American cultural exceptionalism, as American participants constantly denigrated the North African men’s masculinity through describing them as effeminate, militarily inept, sexually deviant, and unfit for democracy.

As a brief background, Presidents Washington and Adams preferred to pay tribute to purchase temporary peace and ransom, creating a sense of humiliation and emasculation among many American officials.  Shortly after becoming president in May 1801, however, Thomas Jefferson dispatched the young American navy to the Mediterranean Sea; various naval battles occurred throughout the next four years.  Concurrently, U.S. consul in Tunis William Eaton aspired to implement a coup in Tripoli, which led to a smashing victory in the coastal city of Derne in March 1805 that is commemorated in the Marine Corps Hymn lyric “from the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.”  Shortly after, a treaty was signed with the bashaw (ruler) of Tripoli, in which the U.S. paid $60,000 for peace and the freedom of three hundred captives from the ship Philadelphia.

By utilizing Voyeur to gather diction, grammar, and verb tense data from the correspondence among American diplomats, naval officers, and politicians, I could determine linguistic patterns from which to draw conclusions.  Sources are readily available, as the federal government printing office produced the six-volume Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers during FDR’s administration.[2]

Using Voyeur would also add additional layers of subtlety to my research by allowing me to easily compare the correspondence of different classes of Americans to discover if they used significantly different language to describe the Barbary pirates.  American sailors came from the lower social order, while the diplomats and politicians hailed from the middle-to-high classes.  I would have to decide which documents to choose, as looking through volumes of sources for this course project would be unfeasible.  I think it would be best to draw both from texts that I have already cited in my research and those that I have reviewed, but did not include.  Perhaps Voyeur could help me see importance that I have overlooked.  Further, I would like to examine change over time.  Did descriptions of the North African men written by these groups of American participants change in intensity as the Barbary conflicts intensified?

I have known that my dissertation would be interdisciplinary in nature since it will incorporate a substantial amount of literature, including captivity narratives, plays, and poems (I can eventually use Voyeur to examine these, too).  Coming into this semester, I was unaware of the potential impact digital tools could have on my research.  I am delighted to have to learned about many of them and, although I intend to build a website about the Barbary Wars for my class project, I plan on using Voyeur during my dissertation research.

[1] Michael Whitmore and Jonathan Hope, “Shakespeare by the Numbers:  On the Linguistic Texture of the Late Plays,” Early Modern Tragicomedy, eds. Subha Mukherji and Raphael Lyne (Woodbridge, Suffolk:  D.S. Brewer, 2007), 150.

[2] Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, 6 vols. (Washington D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 1939).

Playing with Justice: Argument Wars

Here’s the issue.  You’re trying to get students to understand the Supreme Court.  Not just that it’s an organization that consists of nine justices and that it interprets the law, but how it actually goes about doing so.  How does the court hear and structure arguments?  How is it that over the decades, the Court can by interpreting the same document, reach so many different conclusions?

Enter Argument Wars, a game designed to simulate arguing cases before the SCOTUS.  You begin by choosing a lawyer, and then choosing a case.  Your choices range from classic cases such as Brown v. Board of Education to more hot button issues such as Snyder v. Phelps, and you can argue for either side successfully.  This is one of the more interesting hidden messages of Argument Wars.  It’s not about perceived who has the moral high ground, but who can structure the better Constitutional argument.  It’s actually more fun to play the side that historically lost to see how workable their argument was.

The game does a great job of summing up both sides of the case in one sentence and then sets you to work.  You start by selecting one of

to make your case.  On the one hand, the cards are structured into real categories of argument, on the other, some of them are ludicrously easy.  Your opponent can then object to your argument if its silly.  If no one objects you then move onto the next portion.  At this stage you select which Constitutional amendment or clause justifies your argument.  The final part is perhaps the most challenging, though more so for being arbitrary than for being actually difficult.  You are required to string together a fill in the blank sentence which sums up the argument, picking from three sets of fragments.

Based on all of this, the judge awards you points, and the side with the most points wins.  At this point, you’re informed how the case actually turned out, and are given the option to “certify your victory” printing out a certificate that can be turned in to a teacher.  It’s easy to see how this game could easily be applied to a history, or street law class.  While it is built for middle school students, it’s actually worthwhile at any level.

This game deserves kudos for a lot of reasons.  It allows students to see how the Constitution is actually applied to law, and how to make a legal argument based upon it.  It simplifies complex legal arguments without unduly sacrificing their meaning, and it’s actually quite fun.  I especially got a kick out of the look of disappointment on my opponent’s avatar when he lost his case.  “Yeah take that Brown,” I found myself saying, “No desegregation for you!”  But then, I tend to get a bit competitive.

Of course, by reducing these cases merely to their Constitutional arguments, and divorcing them of their cultural context, students can loose some important perspective on the social role in Supreme Court cases, and the singular impartial Judge is certainly not at all typical of the Court.  This game, however, is about the meat and bones, not deep analysis.

YouTube as the Voice of Dissent – Digital Proposal

YouTube has the potential to be the ultimate democratic tool for being heard – users do not even have to be able to read or write to reach an audience of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.   This seems to upset the received notions of mass media as a centralized operation, so capital intensive as to be controlled mostly by wealthy individuals or corporations.  How is YouTube allowing users to contend with traditional media outlets like television news in conversations about history, politics, and other social issues?  What are users saying, and how are they saying it?  What is the viewership compared to that of the traditional media?  How is traditional media responding – are they engaging this ongoing commentary at all, or are they attempting to keep above the fray to maintain the image that they are authoritative?

I propose to curate a web exhibit that attempts to document the ways in which YouTube users reply to, argue with, remix, and mash up traditional new media and the public figures quoted therein about history, politics, and social issues. These videos constitute an assertion of identity on the part of the users who create and upload them.  No longer does the traditional news media have such a disproportionately louder voice in documenting historical and political events.  Users have the chance to restate and refine public perception of historical events, registering them publicly, and arguing their own point of view about history.  My exhibit will take the form of a website that will host both typical and atypical examples of dissenting YouTube videos along with commentary on each, placing them into a larger social and historical context.

Videos such as the one in which Tea Party protestors actually confront a CNN anchor about what they perceive to be her biased reporting represent perhaps the most literal manifestation of YouTube users “talking back” to the traditional media. Other users are less confrontational and more humorous in their assertion of identity on YouTube.  Autotune the News satirizes news anchors and public figures by turning their words into performances of catchy original songs. Other users face the camera themselves, taking the media to task for what they perceive to be bias.  Sometimes these users don’t even need an entirely articulated, coherent point of view – just a lot of anger.  This particular user was exceptionally angry about the way he perceived that history was being written by media, as well as by contemporary politics in general.  Week after week for a very long time…  Many of these commentaries have thousands of views, while an unscientific survey of the CBS News Channel reveals a surprising number of videos with views in only on the double or triple digits.  Certainly, this doesn’t account for CBS’s television viewership, but it suggests that in the digital realm, from the perspective of traditional media, the inmates have inherited asylum…

I can find no scholarly research that deals directly with the phenomenon of YouTube users directly engaging the media to assert their own historical and social perspectives.  More often the commentary and research details how YouTube and other social media has been used to organize and disseminate information about political unrest in countries like Iran, Egypt, or the Sudan.  The YouTube users who register their discontent with the views expressed in traditional media by news organizations and public figures is in the tradition dissent literature and free speech on the part of common people that predates the American Revolution – the biggest difference now is the prominence and proliferation of this dissent.

Digital Media in Museums: Print Project Proposal

For my print project, I am interested in analyzing how different types of museums use digital media to interact with varying audiences. For example, how do the web sites of larger museums with substantial budgets, compare to the sites of small house museums? In order to further examine this question, I would like to compare and contrast the use of digital media in three museums. While I do my research, I am interested in examining the information each web site contains and see how they use online exhibits, digitized collections, or other forms of interactive media on their site. I am particularly interested in examining the web sites of the National Museum of American History, The Sewall Belmont House, and the Historical Society of Washington DC.  I have chosen these three sites because of their varying sizes and type of museum. By analyzing digital media in a large-scale federal museum, a smaller house museum, and a regional historical society, I hope to gain a better understanding of how museums overall currently use digital media.

Throughout my project, I plan on using the three museum sites as my primary source material. The National Museum of American History site makes use of digital media by offering features such as digitized collections, online exhibits, and a blog. The smaller Sewall Belmont House has a more limited site that predominately focuses on the museum’s events and the history of the National Woman’s Party. Lastly, the Historical Society of Washington DC offers online exhibits and some digitized collections but still maintains a more modest site than that of the American History museum. Analyzing these three sources will allow me to examine how differences in factors such as funding, size, and scope of the institution help to determine how the museum uses digital media to connect to their public audience. In addition to these sources, I will also examine the web sites of other large museums, small house museums, and historical societies, to see if the institutions I am examining have sites comparable to other museums within their field.

During the research process, I also plan to examine articles and books regarding digital media and public history. I plan to first use David Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, as a starting point for a grounding in the history of digital media. I am also interested in revisiting the online discussion article, “The Promise of Digital History,” posted by the Journal of American History to examine how leading historians and public historians view the revolutionizing force of digital media in their own professions. For sources that regard public history more broadly, I hope to examine some of the relevant public history literature to analyze how they discuss digital media and museums. I am interested in using Interpretive Planning: The 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects, by Lisa Brochu to analyze how these museums use online tools to expand their institutions interpretive efforts and how digital media as a whole has changed these museum’s strategic plans and goals. I would also like to examine Freedman Tilden’s seminal work, Interpreting Our Heritage, to see if any of his insight into interpretation can still apply to museum’s digital interpretations of history. While this set of sources serve as only a preliminary bibliography, throughout my research I plan to consult a wide array of sources regarding digital media, public history, and museum studies, to help me better analyze each of my web sites and to help me reach a better understanding of influence of digital media in the museum profession as a whole.


While exhibits can travel, museums are, for the most part, stationary.  The internet is quickly changing this concept, allowing museums to educate people thousands of miles away by reaching them via their computers.  We’ve experienced this in HistoryWired; the National American History Museum’s website.  Social media like facebook, yelp, and twitter provide free advertising for these museums but also invite reviews, reactions, and even criticisms.  The power the internet holds for museums is no longer just advertising but educating.  An example of this is the USS Constitution Museum and ship, in Boston, Massachusetts.

USS CONSTITUTION has a long and storied history; named by George Washington and launched in 1797, the ship served in multiple battles.  The most famous battles took place during the War of 1812.  ‘Old Ironsides’ was decommissioned and recommissioned multiple times before she began service as a museum ship in 1907.  The ship is both a memorial and a national symbol of both the US Navy and the US Marine Corp who have served on the ship for almost 200 years.

The Naval History and Heritage Command is still in charge of everything to do with the USS Constitution Museum.   The museum’s mission statement can be found on their website.  It reads “The USS Constitution Museum ensures that the stories of USS CONSTITUTION and those who shaped her history are never forgotten, always remain relevant, and inspire as many people as possible.”  In order to accomplish this task, the museum uses social media like facebook, twitter, yelp, and their own website to promote their events and advertise their museum.

The Bicentennial Celebration of the War of 1812 is fast approaching.  Thanks to the important role USS CONSTITUTION played in the war, the USS Constitution Museum will front and center in the quest to engage people and educate them about the history of the war.  I propose to explore how the museum uses social media and their own website to entice people to the celebration and educate them in their own homes.  I would like to compare the ways USS CONSTITUTION portrays itself on the internet with the kinds of reviews it receives on sites like Yelp.

On the review and advice site, Yelp, USS CONSTITUTION has received many positive reviews from people who were touched by the way the museum has the power to make history come alive.  The ship seems to garner praise from civilians and military personnel of all ages.  These reviews are from people who have physically visited the ship and have felt the history around them.  I would like to compare these reviews with the activities USS CONSTITUTION’s twitter advertises and the ways in which the ship has the power to touch the lives of people who have not yet visited it.

USS CONSTITUTION is unique in the sense that it is truly living history.  It is still an operational ship, complete with a crew.  The ship will sail again during the Bicentennial Celebrations.  USS CONSTITUTION is still a place where international treaties can be officially signed.  It will be interesting to see how the USS Constitution Museum balances the past with current events that will soon be a part of their history through the different outlets provided by social media and the power of the web.

The primary sources for the print project will be the USS Constitution Museum’s twitter, yelp, facebook, and website.  The secondary sources will come from books and articles about the museum and ship, many available online through the Naval History and Heritage Command website.  Other secondary sources will come from class discussions and readings.