AHA Session Overview: "Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution"

This morning (AHA  Day 2) I had the privilege of presenting a paper on a panel devoted to religion and the American Revolution at the Winter meeting of the American Society of Church History.  The session was entitled “Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution.”  My fellow presenters were Katherine Carte Engel of Southern Methodist University and Christopher Jones of the College of William and Mary.  Mark Peterson of Cal-Berkeley provided the comment.

Jones led things off by giving us a taste of his dissertation research on transatlantic Methodism with a particular focus on Canada and the Caribbean.  This is a wonderful project.  Chris’s work will definitely expand what we know about Methodism in early America from the works of Dee Andrews, John Wigger, and Cynthia Lyerly. 

I tried to challenge the prevailing (although Peterson did not think it prevailing) paradigm that links the First Great Awakening to the American Revolution.  My focus was on Presbyterians. 

Engel argued that both traditional or “territorial” Anglicans and “evangelical” Anglicans in England cared little about the American Revolution.

Peterson described our panel as a “religious dog that does not bark in the night.”  He suggested that all of our papers suggested, in one form or another, that religion was not a factor in the American Revolution.  While I don’t think that such a suggestion was a completely accurate portrayal of my paper (I argued that religion was important, but evangelical Christianity was not), all of the papers questioned  whether it was appropriate to understand the American Revolution in religious terms.

Peterson said that the scholarly conversation on the relationship between religion and the Revolution is still stuck in the Cold War–a time when it was important to connect religion to American nationalism as a counter to “godless” communism.  In other words, this conversation is still embedded in a kind of consensus or “homogeneous” history that thinks about religion less as a local or regional phenomenon and more as a force that contributes to nationhood.

Peterson said that there is no intrinsic reason why religion should be an explanatory factor for explaining the American Revolution.  He called for a new synthesis–one that he thought our papers were moving toward–that focused more on the diversity of religious experience in eighteenth-century America.

As far as my paper was concerned, Peterson raised questions that I have been wrestling with for several years.  First, he chided me for making a vague reference to the Enlightenment as a more plausible reason for Presbyterian political activity.  Indeed, the reference to the Enlightenment was vague.  I wrote an entire book on what might be called the “Presbyterian” or “rural” Enlightenment and as I argued in that book, the Presbyterian embrace of the Enlightenment was essential to understanding why the members of the denomination became patriots.  Second, Peterson asked me to be more specific about the term “Presbyterian.”  Was is it really a religious category?  Or was it more of a political or ethnic category.  This is a question I continue to try to nail down and it was one that I grappled with a bit in a recent paper on the Paxton Boys massacre of 1765.

Peterson was a great commentator.  He handed back my paper with dozens of marginal comments–stuff he did not bring up during the formal response.  I could not ask for anything better from a commentator on a panel like this.  It was also a pleasure to see Chris and Kate again.  I am eager to read their forthcoming works.

Chistopher Graham Reports on the AHA Digital History Workshop

Christopher Graham weighs in on today’s digital history workshop at the AHA. –JF

This imagefrom Stephen Lubar’s title card of his (snow-cancelled) talkaccurately represents where I have been today. I began this morning by attending the pre-conference workshop on “How to Get Started in Digital History,” assembled by Seth Denbo. The three-hour workshop consisted of a plenary session and two breakout sessions. The plenary offered an overview of the broad scope of digital history, featuring personal interaction (social media), project building blocks (Omeka, Zotero, etc.), and problem solving tools (text mining and topic modeling). [See also Claire Potter’s summary of the session.] Seth emphasized that the project building blocks should be employed only as appropriate tools to answer existing questions (and not just for the sake of using them.) Yet it would seem that the problem solving tools can, and should, be used to generate new questions. For instance, they brought up Cameron Blevins’ topic modeling of Martha Ballard’s diary, in which language and word patterns revealed new trends in Ballard’s life that Laurel Ulrich hadn’t seen.
The breakout sessions included an introduction to topic modeling, but I went instead to Jeff McClurken’s introduction to teaching the digital history class. McClurken’s most relieving bit of advice was that the teacher doesn’t necessarily need to be functionally familiar with all the digital tools available. That’s what Google is for. And besides, he claims that he spends far more time managing group dynamics than the technical aspects of the class.
The key to a good class is good planning, and according to McClurken, a digital history class needs to be put together differently from a traditional history class. You need to consider the extent you will utilize digital tools, the nature of the projects (group or individual), the technical skills of students, the digital tools you will use, what qualifies as a potentially good project, a grading rubric (much different than a grading rubric for an essay), and the kinds of collaborators and resources availale from across your campus. Jeff has his students develop a Project Contract, laying out the goals, tasks, and timeline for the digital projects his students will develop.
In the course of all this, Jeff said in passing that a critical concern of class projects is that they will be publicly accessible, so students should consider their public audiences. It occurred to me that concern for an audience is something that is hardly ever emphasized in traditional academic history courses. These digital history classes are not generally pitched (as far as I can tell) as public history classes, but this minor concession to a non-academic audience seems like a backdoor for the introduction of public-historical thinking to a traditionally academic realm.
My next breakout session was Sharon Leon’s basics of project management. Of course, historians are notorious for being solitary workers, directing their own projects in the form of manuscripts and articles. But group and collaborative projects are essential in the public and digital history world so a little training might be useful. Many of the project management items Sharon explained were somewhat familiar to the old exhibit development teams I worked on in another life. Proposals, objectives, budgets, time management, personnel management, milestones, evaluations, and resource appraisals are all necessary to a successful project. What struck me was that Sharon’s Project Charter is essentially the same thing as Jeff McClurken’s Project Contract. So that seems to be a good way of thinking about a digital (or public) history class—as an exercise (for the teachers and the students) in project management.
This slight repositioning of the digital history implicit in McClurken’s and Leon’s breakouts was made explicit in the session “Public Universities and the Need to Re-think Public History.” The individual speakers simply discussed challenges in their work on a variety of public history projects and it didn’t appear, at first, that they would get around to the “re-thinking public history” part of the session title. But the discussion afterward lived up to expectations. The primary problem is the ability of public history programs to survive and thrive in the new public university environment of permanent austerity and the Fortune 500 administrative mindset. This involves, apparently, some repositioning of the public history mission on campus as, potentially, a service learning component, or even more broadly, as a skill-set that should be included in the infamous STEM paradigm. After all, aren’t we teaching project management, and digital technological skills? Further, the broad engagement with collaborators across the university and in non-academic communities will lead to the development of partnerships with commercial and political influencers who will prove beneficial in wider policy-oriented discussions about the future of the university in general and history departments in particular. [NOTE: I sat in the back of this cavernous room and could only hear part of this discussion. Would love to get the input of anyone else in attendance.]
Anyhow, I have to grade a few papers and then head off to the history bloggers reception.