Print Project Proposal

The Internet and Institutionalism: Are Academics Elite or Egalitarian?

Modern technology has transformed the way society works. Information can be disseminated over large areas of the globe with the push of a single button, and communication can take many forms, including print, sound and video. Regardless of a person’s education or standing in society, anyone can contribute to various discourses through open source sites and wikis, like YouTube and Wikipedia. Given these changes, we must ask how academia, history in particular, has and will be affected by the digital age. While scholars are increasingly utilizing the Internet in obtaining and researching primary and secondary source documents in online digital libraries and archives, this ease of access also encourages non-scholarly participation. To what degree are individuals outside of academia engaging in academic discussions, and is their input given any validity? Also, do “new technologies foster elitism and institutionalism or … allow for increased egalitarianism and individualism?”[1] To answer these questions, this paper will be divided into two parts. The first part will examine literature on both sides of the elitism-egalitariansim argument to determine the effects of digital technology on academic scholarship. In addition, in this section I will also compare the various features of open source websites and wikis to establish whether the theories regarding the Internet’s elitist or egalitarian nature can be seen in practice. In order to see how the Internet is being used and whether historians are engaging with a larger non-academic public in their research, the second part will specifically look at recent scholarship in history focusing on politics during times of crisis. Whether or not certain works use open source information, their conclusions and arguments will be compared and contrasted to those ideas discussed on Wikipedia. By narrowing this study to politics and crisis, subjects the general public often engage in, we should be able to determine whether scholars are allowing the egalitarian nature of the Internet to influence their work.

The debate regarding whether the Internet is exclusionary or not has existed since the World Wide Web became public and continues even today. Recent scholarship has tended to lean toward arguing that the individuality the Internet initially promised has been increasingly threatened by elite interests. In The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman argues that the Internet provides a platform for the monopolization of websites by corporate entities such that elites can maintain their power over defining authoritative information through such technologies as algorithmic search engines.[2] Given that these are controlled by large corporate entities like Google and Microsoft, Hindman reminds us that “it may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard.”[3] Despite the possibility of media monopolies, other scholars remain optimistic regarding the Internet’s possibilities. For instance, according to Cass Sunstein, “with the Internet, the situation is definitely better, not worse.”[4] These studies, however, focus on the general and theoretical applicability of the Internet rather than examining its impact on specific subjects.

In order to determine the Internet’s effect on historical scholarship, it is important to start by examining what historians have written concerning the Internet. As Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig explain, “new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past. Almost every historian regards a computer as basic equipment.”[5] While this may point to changes in the tools historians use in writing and researching, it does little in addressing the possibility of ideas and theories being incorporated into their work. Fortunately, Cohen and Rosenzweig include a case study on the history of one crisis in American history: September 11, 2001. To illustrate the impact of the Internet on constructing history, they show how “scholars, students, archivists, businesses, and members of the general public started online collecting projects in an effort to record the terrible events of September 11 and its aftermath.”[6] Including any of their findings regarding the politics of crisis should yield important insights concerning egalitarianism in historical research on the Internet. Also, in another article on the possibility of open source history, Rosenzweig asks, “Are Wikipedians good historians?” More importantly, he goes on to examine how historians can utilize such sites as Wikipedia and, if they do, how they could “allocate credit, which is so integral to professional culture.”[7]

When Wikipedia has been used by scholars in studies of crisis, it has not been historians but political scientists that have been willing to incorporate such open source technology. However, when Wikipedia is used, it is often accepted only as an authorless encyclopedia. In her study of the political crisis regarding nuclear weapons in Iran, political scientist Saira Khan uses Wikipedia when defining hegemony.[8] Another example of increasing acceptability of Wikipedia is Armando Navarro’s The Immigration Crisis. In this book, he uses Wikipedia in his explanation of the National Alliance, a white separatist political organization, and their role in fighting illegal immigration into the United States.[9] Beyond simple definition queries, however, Khan and Navarro rely solely on scholarly works and give no further consideration to open source information. Does this limited use of Wikipedia illustrate the destiny of open source information as a last resort of information? More importantly, in their aversion to using such sites, are scholars maintaining an elitist institution while dismissing a more egalitarian version of scholarship? These are questions I hope to answer in searching through recent historical studies on crisis, as well as modern essays on digital history.[10]

[1] Dennis Beesley, “YouTube and Apocalyptic Rhetoric: Broadcasting Yourself to the Ends of the World,” in Network Apocalypse: Visions of the End in an Age of Internet Media, ed. Robert Glenn Howard (Sheffield-Phoenix Press, forthcoming).

[2] Matthew Scott Hindman, The Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 138.

[3] Ibid., 142.

[4] Cass R. Sunstein, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 207.

[5] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” Center for History and New Media <>.

[6] Ibid., <>.

[7] Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Center for History and New Media <>.

[8] Saira Khan, Iran and Nuclear Weapons: Protracted Conflict and Proliferation (New York: Routledge, 2010), 124 (footnote 19).

[9] Armando Navarro, The Immigration Crisis: Nativism, Armed Vigilantism, and the Rise of a Countervailing Movement (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2009), 226.

[10] Recent historical scholarship examined will include the following: Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martins, 2011); Mehran Kamrava, The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the First World War (University of California Press, 2011); and Craig R. Smith, Silencing the Opposition: How the U.S. Government Suppressed Freedom of Expression During Major Crises (State University of New York Press, 2011). The essays on digital history are those assigned for this course.

Congress and the Internet: A Proposal

For my print project, I would like to research the history of the use of the internet by Congressmen and Senators.  The paper would follow the history of the internet in the 1990’s and 2000’s.  It would deal with attitudes within both houses, the pioneers who first utilized it, and the successes and failures legislators in the U.S. had in utilizing the internet for winning campaigns and winning public approval for their programs.

To complete my research, I shall use two general sources of information.  First of all, I will look at books and online journal articles available at the American University Library.  Secondly, I shall look for articles on  While I will use internet search engines, it should be said that this third category will require me to inspect the origins of my sources carefully.  Thus, I will probably rely on the American University Library and JSTOR more so for the project.

A preliminary investigation suggests that there is plenty of literature to choose from.  From general search of the internet, I found timelines of the internet’s birth and major milestones, which will be useful for putting any shifts in Congressional actions in context.  Through the website of the American University Library, I have found a 2008 article calling on Congress to utilize new media to deal with public concern about the bailouts, along with providing individual examples of Congressmen who did.  Book titles include Dennis Johnson’s Congress Online: Bridging the Gap Between Citizens and their Representatives, CAPWEB: the Internet Guide to the US Congress, Congress and the ?Youtube War?, and a variety of newspapers dealing with current event stories about particular bills regarding regulation of the internet.  From JSTOR, there are articles like, Deep Democracy, Thin Citizenship: The Impact of Digital Media in Political Campaign Strategy, Unraveling the Effects of the Internet on Political Participation?, and Free Advertising: How the Media Amplify Campaign Messages. Overall, these sources seem to have a focus towards use of the internet for campaigning rather than general use.  Still, I feel there is enough information to begin a look into the relationship between the American Congress and the World Wide Web. 

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.