Religion and Digital Humanities in the Classroom

PA newspaperThis semester I have been following Kate Carte Engel‘s “History of Religion in America to 1865” course blog.   As part of the course Engel’s students are building a database of references to religion in revolutionary-era American newspapers.  I am really interested to see the finished product.

I should also add that Engel is an excellent blogger. She should consider continuing the blog (or starting a new one) after the semester is over.

In her most recent post, Engel discusses some of the challenges of her assignment.

Here is a taste:

We’re half way through our shared project of transcribing newspaper articles from the revolutionary era so we can analyze them for what they tell us about religion and the revolution. The results are very promising – the decrease in anti-popery, rising fears of irreligion and deism, the hollowness of a slave society talking about slavery and liberty without acknowledging the very real slaves in its midst, and Benedict Arnold as the devil. And that’s just naming a few of a top flight stack of projects. In short, we’ve got some fantastic studies that touch on the main themes of the era in a complex way. Every one of them is teaching us more than if I’d put together a list of articles on the subject.

But today, in the doldrums of the spring semester, I’m struck by the way that doing a DH project in the classroom is fundamentally different from traditional history teaching. Instead of having a syllabus that proceeds chronologically through a series of primary and secondary sources, we’re taking a third of the semester to dig deeply into particular topics through this framework. The work is not more time consuming, but it is a different kind of work.

The upside of this is that the students are “doing history.” They’re producing something that has, as far as I know, never been done before. We have lots of studies of religion, and lots of studies of the revolution, but none I’ve found that look specifically at what people in read and wrote in the newspaper about religion at this time. It’s not a comprehensive study by any means, but they’ve already found some really interesting things.