Timeless topics

And we’re off!  Students have selected topics, related to religion and the American Revolution, that they will be researching in historical newspapers.  We started with the idea that all articles should have the word “religion” in them, but we pretty quickly started considering other kinds of topics.  They did not pursue the “ideas” and “principles” route that can be found in narratives like exams, but rather to questions that were (I hope!) more interesting to them.  The most important of these, which came up in a large number of student questions, were related to slavery and the differences between North And South.

I am very heartened by how students so consistently come to this core question of US history, particularly when we’re talking about religion.  How did Americans of the revolutionary era see what they were doing in moral terms?  How much did slavery really matter?  To whom and where?   This seems like such an important way to get at the core questions that continue to shape our nation, at a moment when the KKK is in the news again and the politics of race continue to dominate our national scene in so many ways.  In the best possible world, this little class exercise will give us all some new tools to think about the world around us.

But for right now, we’re deep in the data, me included.  I’m going through articles that use the word “religion” in May 1775.  There are 84 of them, including a lot of reprinted items.  The fun part is in the tagging — in creating a metadata schema for interpreting the articles we collectively gather.  So far, we’ve got a lot of interest in Established Religion, the Quebec Act, and Tyranny.  Intrigued by the reference to Halloween… The less fun part of this, and of any digital humanities project, is the data entry/data cleaning.  There’s no way around it.

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