Using Nineteenth-Century Naval Practice to Teach Twenty-first-Century Digital Technology

Abby Mullen

The intersection of naval history and digital history has been my space for most of my professional life. It’s a rich space, full of surprising resonances, which I’ve spent a lot of time exploring. (I wrote about it as far back as 2013.) This semester I had the opportunity to harness those surprising resonances to develop pedagogical exercises that both investigated historical practice and taught contemporary technological principles.

This semester I taught a class at George Mason University called “The Digital Past.” It’s a class that has a historical topic of study, but it’s predominantly a methods class. The course fulfills the Mason Core IT requirement, so I divide my instruction between history and technology. We cover technology topics from how the Internet works to how to use Internet sources ethically to how to create interesting digital content for the public using a variety of platforms. Our historical topic is War in the Antebellum United States, so we discuss wars as big as the American Revolution and as small as the Quasi-War with France.

The major project for the semester is actually a series of small projects done throughout the semester, all related to a war of the students’ choosing. All of these small projects are then woven together to create a larger narrative that is their final project. These small projects focus on specific technology skills and content creation, such as making a website, creating a digital timeline, creating a dataset that can be used for making visualizations, and such like. In all of these small projects, I ask the students to consider where their information comes from, how they got it, and who it belongs to.

Though the class is about war generally, not specifically naval war, of course I incorporate naval history into our class discussions. We talk about the naval aspects of many of the wars, but I also use naval history as a window into technology. Nineteenth-century history has a number of corollaries to twenty-first-century technology, so I try to thread the two together.

I focus on communication a lot when I teach about war. I want students to understand how a commodore, for instance, got his information to the people it needed to reach during the First Barbary War. In order to ensure that a communique reached its destination, as well as to maintain a record of what was written, officials and officers would send multiple copies of dispatches on multiple ships going multiple routes, hoping that at least one of those copies would make it past encounters with potential enemies, storms, and misdirection. As a result, many pieces of communication from the early naval wars are preserved in multiple copies in various archives. I wanted my students to think about why this practice existed and how it functioned.

To do this, I crafted an exercise that also taught my students about the technology principle we were discussing that week: data preservation. Maintaining copies of your digital materials in multiple places ensures that you don’t lose everything if one of your data repositories has a catastrophic failure. We’ve all heard stories of people losing a lifetime of digital materials because all of their files existed solely on a laptop that was stolen from a coffeeshop, or because all their data existed only in a proprietary software whose parent company went defunct. I wanted to communicate how important backups have been since time immemorial: multiple digital copies aid preservation just like multiple dispatches aided naval commanders’ communications efforts.

The slide I displayed to the students in order for them to copy the circular. I used a screenshot from my Tropy project about the First Barbary War so that the students could see the digital photograph of the document as well as the metadata about where it came from. I was nice enough to give them my transcription of it as well as the photograph of the source—no need to torture them with nineteenth-century handwriting too.

So I selected a circular (it happened to be William Eaton’s circular announcing the blockade of Tripoli in 1801) and displayed it to the students. Then I asked them to take out a sheet of paper and, by hand, copy it as many times as they could in about ten minutes. By about halfway through, many of them were starting to shake their aching hands!

After the exercise, I asked them to reflect on their experiences in a blog post. I asked them to consider how it changed their perspective on nineteenth-century communication, and how this copying links to twenty-first-century communication. Many commented on how hard the work of copying was, some imagining the additional difficulties of shipboard copying. Most noted how much faster communication travels today. One student wrote, “Copying may appear very different from how we communicate today, but ultimately it is very similar. We are still trying to send and receive messages between one another as quickly and efficiently as possible.” Other commented on how easy it was to make mistakes in their copying, and how some of these problems have been alleviated by modern assistants, but not all.

Most students didn’t engage directly with the ideas of digital preservation in their reflections, but on a later exam question about preservation, they remembered this exercise and referenced it in their answers. In a class where most of my task is to place history in the digital sphere, it was fun to reverse the polarity on this assignment and talk about a digital problem using an analog exercise drawn from naval history.

This was my first semester teaching The Digital Past, but I’ll probably be teaching it again with some regularity. Though I’ll continue to ask for straightforward applications of digital technology to military and naval history (digital mapping for naval history, for instance, could be the topic of a whole different blog post), I’m also dreaming up new assignments like this one that bring the two together in less digital ways.

30 July 2019

About the Author

Abby Mullen is Research Assistant Professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

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