Religion, Revolution, and Digital Humanities: A Guest Post from Kate Carte Engel


Today I'm thrilled to share a guest post from Kate Carte Engel, an Associate Professor of History at Southern Methodist University. If you don't know of Prof. Engel from her important work on the religious and economic history of the Moravians, you might know her from her previous appearances here on the blog. What you may not know, however, is that this semester Prof. Engel has been working with her students on a digital humanities project on religion and the American revolution. I had the good fortune of watching the project unfold as the class blogged about their work. So I asked Prof. Engel if she would consider reflecting upon the experience for RiAH. Below are her thoughts--and visualizations! 

British Library, 1868,0808.10061,AN75238001
Religion and the American Revolution is a topic that tends to linger in our national discussions.  Just recently, Jonathan Den Hartog blogged about the fascinating questions raised on the subject by Mark Noll’s new book. Those on the right regularly insist that the United States is a Christian nation because of something or other that happened in the Revolutionary era, it's part of the school curriculum in Texas, and the power of Christianity alongside our founding documents in our civil religion keeps the subject on the table.

 But religion and the revolution is the topic I have the hardest time teaching in my US Religion before 1865 survey.  There are two reasons for this.  First, I’m too invested, because I’m nearing the end of a book on the subject.  Second, the subject is awkward.   As we all know, the causes and course of the American Revolution were, to use Jon Butler’s terms, “profoundly secular,” so putting religion first in the discussion in class, with students who know little about the main show, always feels like cheating them.  If this is the first time they’ve actually read the Declaration of Independence, the lack of religion is not the main thing I should be pointing them to.  There is a standard spiel we give about the role of religion in the American Revolution (ably outlined here, here, and here), but, pedagogically speaking, this is not particularly exciting territory.

This semester I tried a new experiment.  We did a digital humanities unit in which the students investigated religion in American newspapers between 1763 and 1789, then we built a website around their findings.  (I also blogged about the process along the way.) The pedagogical goal was to shift the conversation from my telling them where religion did and didn’t matter in the Revolution to one in which they discovered, on their own, how complicated that question was.  The students and I spent about six weeks on the project.  This was dramatically more than the one or two weeks the topic usually gets (I short changed the early republic), but it matches the importance of public interest in the subject.

In a bloggish-vein of true confession, I had no idea what I was doing. (There have been great discussions on this blog about digital humanities and digital pedagogy, and the work of people like Chris Cantwell and Lincoln Mullen inspired me to try this.)   Now that it’s over, however, I’m struck by the potential for a project like this to participate in the public conversation about Religion and the Revolution broadly, not despite but because it represents undergraduate-level work. 

Viz., in two parts.  First, using digital humanities increased the time they spent researching and decreased the amount of time they spent writing. I had to familiarize the students with a particular set of tools—in our case, Zotero, Paper Machines, and Readex’s American Historical Newspapers—and then cajole them into doing the grunt work of transcribing, for which there was no shortcut.  This often frustrating process got the students to think about the nuts and bolts of how history is done and, by extension, how different the past is from the present.  They had to deal with place and chronology in a very close way, as a part of choosing their newspaper sources.  They also had to find religion.  One student, for example, assumed he’d find sermons in the newspapers, because that would be how pastors would communicate the religious significance of the Revolution.  Another student assumed that because clergy were more important then, the names of religious leaders would be all over the papers; they weren’t.

The second way this process worked was in the product.   Each student produced a blog post and a visualization about his or her subject.  Because they were going onto a website, they had to communicate with a broad audience.  Instead of teaching students—in SLO language—to “think critically and historically and demonstrate that thinking in prose” (research paper), students had to learn to communicate something about the past to their contemporaries.  Even when that meant discussing was how difficult it can be to find a simple answer in the past. 

A word cloud of major terms used in the students' work.
Doing a website as a class project, in place of independent research papers, is relatively new to me.  (I did one a couple years ago on religion and our founding documents.) But I’m coming around to the way of thinking that it is actually more effective.  I don’t want my students to have specialized knowledge they do nothing with.  I want my students to become ambassadors for the humanities and historical thinking.  I want them to be the people at the Thanksgiving table who say, “well, maybe Washington was devout or maybe he wasn’t, but I’m curious how we’d decide.”  Of course, I’m not the only person who’s thinking about this.  Elesha Coffman’s students at the University of Dubuque have been blogging Calvin’s Institutes. At the University of Wisconsin, Professor Amos Bitzan had a group of students trace the family history of one particular Holocaust victim and her descendants in Racine, Wisconsin.  At Western Carolina University, the students of Professor Honor Sachs have created a website on the Revolution in North Carolina.

All of these subjects—the influence of great thinkers, the Holocaust, the Revolutionary War—compel ongoing interest from the public.  Helping students to turn these broad topics into specific questions, and putting their findings out there in all their student-ness, demonstrates in an easily accessible way that there are no simple answers.  History is irreducible.  Using methods from the digital humanities, especially maps and visualizations, multiplies exponentially the kinds of questions and particularities that can be asked and presented in this format.  This semester I gained a lot of experience about how better to organize class time around this kind of project and how to integrate it into other kinds of pedagogy. I’ll definitely be back doing this again, building more digital websites about religion and the revolution. Next time I won’t dread it as a week in the syllabus that misses the point, but rather welcome it as a topic the students can help me explore. 


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