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Maritime Historians Online: Engaging a Wider Audience – By Dr. Timothy G. Lynch

March 15, 2011

I came to the field of maritime history like many of my colleagues did– serendipitously.  My original area of expertise was in immigration and ethnicity, but when I was asked to teach a course in US Maritime History, I jumped at the chance: faced with a growing family and shrinking assets, it seemed like a good opportunity.  Plus, how hard could it be: after all, most immigrants came to this nation via ship!

Forced to learn the intricacies of the field by circumstance rather than by training, I found myself at a distinct disadvantage: the subfield of maritime history is incredibly specialized, and there was a steep learning curve. The sheer number of volumes on maritime history was daunting, with weighty tomes written by avocationists to nuanced monographs penned by academics. How could I ever master the material and pass it on to my students?  Few institutions house more than one specialist in maritime history, so if I wanted to bounce ideas off a colleague, get feedback on a research proposal, or just try out new ideas, I would have to do more than knock on a coworker’s door.  I’d need to seek out those specialists, network with them, brush up on their own areas of expertise and approach them for assistance.  To a classically trained historian, this was a bold proposition, but one that was instantly and continuously rewording.  I began to question my decision to rush into this course, and looked far and wide for someone–anyone–to throw me a rope (or was it a line?). Thankfully, there were those who answered my call.  Responding to my requests for syllabi, teaching materials and other tools these lifesavers allowed me to grow the courses here at Cal Maritime in new and exciting ways. It was an eye-opening moment that suggested to me the ways in which online fora could be used not only to assist scholars, but to also engage new audiences beyond those who subscribed to journals or who happened to come across our work, as if by accident.

Recognizing that there was a lack of any sophisticated online forum for maritime academics, I crafted a new H-Net listserv, H-Maritime.  A free, moderated listserv launched in December 2005, it was designed to be interdisciplinary, and be an open, yet quality medium for furthering substantive inquiry within the rich field of maritime history.  Keeping with the diverse membership associated with H-Net in general, H-Maritime members include graduate students, tenured professors and all ranks in between.  Librarians, archivists, and “armchair” (or “boilersuit”) historians flesh out the numbers.  Maritime historian and underwater archaeologists dominate, but specialists in maritime literature, marine policy and other fields are well-represented.  In addition to calls for papers, announcements of interests, and other services, the list provides a forum where issues of pedagogy and scholarship can be pursued.

The goals were simple: to share information and comments on literature in the filed; to enable scholars to easily communicate current research and teaching interests; and to discuss new approaches, methods and tools of analysis.   With over 400 subscribers in more than two dozen nations, it serves as a clearinghouse for information seekers and those who wish to share their research agendas with others.  Members come from all walks of life and from various levels of engagement: full professors at major research universities mingle with grad students at state colleges, and community college instructors share leads with museum professionals and public history advocates.  The experience, by and large, has been overwhelmingly positive, with low attrition rates in the first half-decade in operation.  It has been most useful as a bulletin board, announcing calls-for-papers and funding opportunities, and as a network used by scholars to flesh out conference panels and find contributors to both esoteric and mainstream volumes. While some of the hoped-for functions (like a more robust book review feature and syllabus center) have not yet come to fruition (perhaps one of these readers will volunteer??) I find that the list has been a high value, low volume addition that delivers quality content without overflowing ones inbox.

This has had a notable impact on teaching, research and community involvement.  As one listmember attests: “The list makes me feel connected to a larger community of scholars, which is important for me as I sit forlornly in the middle of the tall Illinois cornfields at my small college,” she says. “Connections get made online–people put panels together, find authors for book chapters and book reviews, locate friends and lodgings, and find speakers for their classes.” Additionally, the lists have served to level distinctions between those sundry classes that had so long defined academe: the boundaries of status, profession, discipline, and nationality that demarcate academic life and which have served as the traditional academic hierarchies and boundaries have far less permanency in cyberspace. As a result, bridges can be built. As one user (operating on the margins of academe) commented: “it’s like I found a whole new set of colleagues.”

The internet, then, is a powerful tool that provides access to research and to researchers, to information and to scholars.  It also allows maritime historian to engage a wider audience than the few dozen professionals to whom the monographs were previously directed. Now, maritime historians can add context to the figures provided by maritime archaeologists who had previously focused on the size of ships’ timbers and the power of marine engines, to make, in effect, these minutiae matter.  And isn’t that what we have always taught our students: that oceans connect, rather than divide?  And so the internet–rather than representing a digital divide–can better be seen as a conduit for the trade in thoughts and ideas.

Websites, listservs and blogs such as this represent a new medium of exchange that allows for scholars and academics to engage with broader audiences than they would normally encounter, and to remain informed of, and participate in, the broader discourse in a timely and time-sensitive manner.   The decreased formality of online fora need not be a turnoff for traditional scholars: rather than publishing for each other, we can access a wider audience.  These new social media are all about access: access to resources, expertise and audience—and this access equates to agency and empowerment.  Scholars in general and those working in specialized niches like maritime history in particular should embrace the new tools available to us.
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Timothy Lynch is Associate Professor of Maritime History and Chair of the Department of Maritime Policy and Management at the California Maritime Academy, a specialized campus of the California State University.  A member of the Governing Council of the North American Society for Oceanic History, and alum of Mystic Seaport’s Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime History, he is the founder and editor of H-Maritime.

* The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.

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4 comments

  1. It’s always good when scholarship is made available to a wider audience; there are lots of people out there hungry for knowledge, and if not fed by academe, they’ll be fed by others with less accurate knowledge. I can think of numerous examples where a lack of public engagement by academics has led to a vacuum that was filled by sensationalist theories or just out-of-date scholarship.


    • Thanks for the comment Yewtree. I agree. Based on the number of posts we have on the MUA I think underwater archaeologists have started to “get” this. Our goal now is to reach out to maritime historians in the hope that they will look at publishing for the public via the Internet as an important part of their professional work as well.


  2. Thanks for the post for composing “Maritime Historians Online: Engaging
    a Wider Audience – By Dr. Timothy G. Lynch The Underwater Blogger”.
    I actuallymay absolutely be returning for even more browsing and writing comments soon.
    With thanks, Jeffrey


  3. Hi:

    I am not a maritime historian. I teach high school science and have adapted primary source, maritime books for Google Earth touring. It’s a fun way to engage students in exploring marine science, history and culture. Feel free to share the material at: http://Sailthebook.net



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