Nineteenth-Century American Religion: A Digital History Seminar

I received the good news yesterday that a course I proposed has won a Brandeis University Prize Instructorship for spring 2014. The course is titled “Nineteenth-Century American Religion: A Digital History Seminar.” Though I’d known for a while that the course would be a history of nineteenth-century religion, the design of the course came out of a discussion with Jeff McClurken and Caleb McDaniel at Jeff’s workshop on “Teaching Digital History” and a discussion with Mills Kelly and others at his session on “Disruptive Pedagogy,” both at THATCamp AHA in New Orleans. I’ve taken as models Jeff’s course “Adventures in Digital History”, Mills’s “Dead in Virginia” historical methods course, and Tona Hangen’s Digital Worcester course project.

What I took from those discussions was the idea of a “digitally-inflected” history course—a course where the historical topic is front and center, but where the main assignment for the course is a digital project. My proposed course will be as sweeping a survey of nineteenth-century U.S. religious history as I can manage in fourteen weeks. The students’ main assignment will be to create an annotated map of religious institutions in greater Boston over the course of the nineteenth century. This will require them to learn how to work with archival sources and how to do the techniques of digital history, probably using Omeka and Neatline.

You can see read the draft syllabus (and for good measure, here is the GitHub repository for the syllabus). I’d be grateful for any critiques or suggestions you might be able to offer. I’ll have plenty of time to implement them in the ten months or so before I teach the course.

Here is how I’ve stated the historical problem of the course:

During the American Revolution and the following decades, the state and federal governments cut their financial and constitutional support for established churches. Though many at the time predicted the demise of Christianity, the result was a flowering of an astonishing diversity of religions. In this course you will read the writings of the many individuals and groups that lived out their religion in the nineteenth-century United States: the alliance of skeptics and believers who supported disestablishment; Baptist and Methodists revivalists; Catholic priests, missionaries, and animists; founders of new religions such as Mormonism and Christian Science; Reform and Orthodox Jews; African-Americans; metaphysicians; liberal and conservative Protestants; agnostics and atheists. We will make sense of that diversity by asking and answering a set of unifying questions: How did mainstream and minority faiths relate to one another, especially in the public sphere? How did people experience religion in their everyday lives? How did religious people change laws and society? How did new forms of religious expression develop? How were new religions founded? How were religions imported from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, and how did those religions adapt? How did Americans become more religious and more secular at the same time?

Here is the digital project for the course:

The centerpiece of this class will be a digital history project: you will do your own original research into nineteenth-century sources to make a digital map of religion in Boston over the nineteenth century. Creating this project will teach you the skills of a historian—researching, writing, analyzing—and will let you put what you’ll learn in this class to work on the ground. In this history class as shop class, you’ll also learn digital and project skills—publishing, mapping, encoding, collaborating, communicating, managing—that are widely useful in government, business, and research outside the academy.