Undergraduate Research Sets Sail

Maxwell Plarr (’11), history

Dr. Andrew Falk, assistant professor of history

When he explored potential colleges, Maxwell Plarr of Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, hoped to find a top sailing program in addition to stellar academics. He discovered an exceptional program at Christopher Newport University and was also captivated by The Mariners’ Museum collection housed in CNU’s Trible Library. “I believed I would be able to achieve great things on and off the water,” says the varsity sailing team captain.

A U.S. sailing certified instructor who has run junior sailing programs, Maxwell combined his love of sailing and history into groundbreaking research. Specifically, his project focused on the America’s Cup competition, its diplomatic and nationalistic side. “The United States and Great Britain are the oldest rivals for the cup, and I wanted to research how yacht racing and its surrounding culture influenced Anglo-American rapprochement from 1851-1914,” he explains.

Maxwell’s final paper took approximately a year to complete, yet he started working on the project a couple of years beforehand. Classes he took with Dr. Andrew Falk heightened Maxwell’s interest in this research topic. “I have taken courses taught by Dr. Falk since my freshman year,” he explains. “Dr. Falk was pivotal in the editing, structure and guidance for publishing, conferences, etc. My paper would not have been possible without his help.” Serving as a Mariners’ Museum docent / tour guide also influenced Maxwell’s research preparation.  

“The result is cutting-edge scholarship on international sporting competitions as cultural contests between nations,” Dr. Falk notes. “He shows how America’s Cup dominance supported the rise of the United States as a naval power and affected its diplomatic relations with European powers before the first World War.”

Maxwell spent hours poring over materials in The Mariners’ Museum Library. Thanks to an Honors stipend he also visited the United Kingdom, where he explored the British perspective at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, the Royal Yacht Squadron Library at the RYS Castle in Cowes and the National Maritime Museum Library in Greenwich. “The international sources added great insight into how both sides of the Atlantic fought over the highest-respected trophy in yachting,” Maxwell says.

The finished paper was submitted to the International Journal of Maritime History and also will be presented at various conferences. “Dr. Falk was the driving force for helping me get the paper submitted for publication. Unlike most other fields where the mentor and the student work together, all of my research was conducted on my own, while Dr. Falk was there for critique and guidance,” Maxwell says. “He was a great aid with the diplomatic side of the paper and suggesting good sources for that part of the paper because diplomatic history is his specialty field. He has influenced me greatly to want to obtain a doctorate in maritime history, or at the least continue researching this topic further.”

Maxwell will revisit his project this summer, looking at various influences of America’s Cup races from 1920 onward. Eventually he hopes to attend Memorial University of Newfoundland, expanding his research into a doctoral thesis.

“Clearly, Max is intellectually curious, independent and motivated,” Dr. Falk says. “Though I’ve mentored him, I’ve learned a lot as well.”--Matt Schnepf  




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