Converts in Your Classroom

If you’re writing a syllabus for an American history or religion course and want to include a digital assignment, then I have a proposal for you. Why not give your students an assignment to contribute to the American Converts Database?

The American Converts Database is a collaborative effort to catalog people who experience conversions in American history. I’m first a nineteenth century historian, second an early Americanist, and the records in the database so far reflect that, but the database also takes in twentieth century conversions too.

There are a lot of sources that are low-hanging fruit for undergraduates, such as published conversion narratives. If you have a unit on Puritans, the conversion relations from Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge congregation have been published. If you have a unit on the Great Awakening, you’ll find plenty of accessible sources, including the relations from East Windsor, Connecticut, that Ken Minkema published. There are also more demanding sources, if your students need a challenge. Students can mine digitized newspapers, such as Chronicling America or the paid collections your library might subscribe to, and they’ll find notices of conversions, which are often quite detailed. If you want your students to get into the archives, there is a good chance that there is an archive or library near you with collections of interest. You could even do someone famous, like Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, one of the beneficiaries of your assigning such a project to your students would be the database, and thus, my research and the research of other historians. But if I didn’t think that these kinds of assignments primarily benefited students, I wouldn’t assign them in my own courses. This could be a chance for students to learn historical skills: research, transcription, putting people and events in context. It’s also a chance to learn about digital skills, from contributing to a project to thinking about its design. The database runs on Omeka, which is widely used for digital history projects. Pretty soon your students will bump into the intellectual problems of categorizing people in a database, which I think is a useful way to teach the historian’s problem of selecting and arranging evidence.

If this interests you, or leave a comment and we’ll make arrangements.