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Military history in the digital age

Military history in the digital age

Abby Mullen, a doc­toral stu­dent in Northeastern’s his­tory depart­ment, studies early Amer­ican republic and Atlantic his­tory, pri­marily focusing on early 19th-​​century naval his­tory. But from working as a grad­uate fellow in the university’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Net­works, she’s seen for her­self the trans­for­ma­tive oppor­tu­nity that dig­ital tools present her and other mil­i­tary his­to­rians to bring their research into the 21st century.

The NULab for Texts, Maps, and Net­works is a center for dig­ital human­i­ties and com­pu­ta­tional social sci­ence that sup­ports fac­ulty and stu­dent research projects and trains stu­dents in dig­ital human­i­ties and com­puter sci­ence skills. Mullen’s doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion will focus on ana­lyzing the U.S. Navy’s diplo­matic and mil­i­tary roles in the Mediter­ranean from 1800 to 1815; dig­ital tools, she said, can be a game-​​changer for research like hers by helping to create dig­ital maps and visu­al­iza­tions of mil­i­tary move­ment or to ana­lyze mas­sive chunks of data that it might tra­di­tion­ally take his­to­rians months or years to pore through.

Let’s say you’re studying battle tac­tics,” Mullen offered, for example. “Through dig­ital map­ping, you can demon­strate mil­i­tary moment in an inter­esting and dynamic way. It’s tough to show that time and space in a book. In this way, dig­ital map­ping tools can be rev­o­lu­tionary for mil­i­tary his­tory research.”

And mil­i­tary his­tory is ripe for uti­lizing these tools, explained Mullen. As she put it, “Mil­i­tary his­tory is very data driven, and the mil­i­tary keeps a lot of records.”

Ear­lier this month, North­eastern hosted a two-​​day work­shop to intro­duce mil­i­tary his­to­rians to two dig­ital methods—social net­work analysis and dig­ital mapping—that can help them advance their own work and forge new col­lab­o­ra­tions with col­leagues. Mullen and Heather Streets-​​Salter, asso­ciate pro­fessor and chair of Northeastern’s his­tory depart­ment, orga­nized the work­shop, which resulted from a part­ner­ship between the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Net­works, the National Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties’ Office of Dig­ital Human­i­ties, and the Society for Mil­i­tary History.

The NEH funded the work­shop, which is part of its Standing Together: The Human­i­ties and the Expe­ri­ence of War ini­tia­tive to pro­mote under­standing of the mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence and to sup­port veterans.

The work­shop included talks from researchers who are already using social net­work analysis and dig­ital map­ping, as well as hands-​​on instruc­tional ses­sions for atten­dees to become more familiar with these dig­ital tools them­selves. Many atten­dees even left with rudi­men­tary dig­ital maps and net­work dia­grams incor­po­rating data from their own work.

On the first day, three pro­fes­sors in a round­table explained how they were intro­duced to dig­ital his­tory. Jeff McClurken, a pro­fessor of his­tory and Amer­ican studies at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary Wash­ington, got his start in dig­ital his­tory on the Valley of the Shadow project, which details life in two Amer­ican com­mu­ni­ties during the Civil War—one in the North, one in the South. He spent 18 months entering in census data between his under­grad­uate and grad­uate studies.

Jean Bauer, asso­ciate director of Princeton University’s Center for Dig­ital Human­i­ties, talked about her time devel­oping the Early Amer­ican For­eign Ser­vice Data­base. She also noted that dig­ital human­i­ties projects not only advance researchers’ work, but can also pro­vide stu­dent vol­un­teers with valu­able learning oppor­tu­ni­ties in a blos­soming field.

One of the great things about dig­ital human­i­ties is that if you can get a project run­ning on your campus, you will need stu­dents to do lots of things, but it also means they will be exposed to won­derful exper­i­ments, the­o­ries, and methods,” she said.

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