My Summer Plans? A Digital History of a Christian College in Wartime

To this point in my career as a history professor, at least a couple of goals have eluded me: first, to engage in collaborative research and writing with a gifted undergraduate; second, to get some firsthand experience learning how digital tools (beyond WordPress, that is) can enrich the practice of history.

Alumni at war column from 1943 Bethel Clarion
From an April 1943 issue of the Bethel Institute student newspaper – Bethel University Digital Library

I’m happy to announce that, thanks to Bethel University’s Edgren Scholars Program, I’ll get to spend this summer killing both birds with one stone, working with Fletcher Warren (’15) on “Bethel at War, 1914-2014: A Digital History of a Christian College in the Modern Era of Warfare.”

Here’s how we pitched the project in our application to the Edgren committee:

Among many other events, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of (a) the beginning of the First World War and (b) what’s now Bethel University permanently settling in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In the century separating 1914 and 2014, warfare has become a totalizing experience — not confined to relatively small groups of professional soldiers fighting to relatively clear conclusions on clearly demarcated battlefields, but a phenomenon that has lingering repercussions for government, business, labor, popular culture, and, yes, religion and education. As Bethel has grown larger, more complex, and less confined to an ethnic-religious enclave over that same period, how have the members of its community experienced and responded to the sprawling wars fought by the United States?

While we could not hope to attempt a comprehensive answer to that question within the next few months, we do propose to build on previous efforts at Bethel and produce an impressionistic survey of Bethel’s century of war: a project of digital history sketching for internal and external audiences the impact of four modern conflicts on students, faculty and staff, and other members of the Bethel community.

Fletcher WarrenA competitive program open to all disciplines, the Edgren Scholars ideal is to encourage faculty-student collaboration (famously, one of the core principles of Bethel founder John Alexis Edgren was that the student-teacher relationship should be one of friend and helper), from the writing of the proposal through the research process down to presentation of findings and evaluation of the project. It’s my first time in the program, and I couldn’t ask for a better partner than Fletcher.

Not only is he a brilliant student — I’ve already been pleased to feature an essay of his here at The Pietist Schoolman, and you can also get a taste of his writing in this response to the first chapter of John Fea’s Why Study History? — but Fletcher’s already an adventurous scholar in his own right. This spring I’m supervising his capstone research project on Minnesotans who volunteered to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. He’s not only using local archival resources from the Minnesota Historical Society and Immigration History Research Center, but has tracked down other materials from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at New York University, is interviewing the children of two volunteers, and is even trying to learn enough Finnish to use one volunteer’s memoir.

So I’m glad he’s willing to slum with me this summer on a project at the convergence of my two chief interests — the history of Christian higher education and the ways that modern wars affected societies well beyond the battlefield. Indeed, Fletcher is more experienced as a digital historian than I, having worked for a while now on the ongoing digitization of Bethel and Baptist General Conference materials for our digital library. We’ll be reading at least a couple of books on digital history before the spring is done — Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History and Nawrotzki and Dougherty, Writing History in the Digital Age — and Fletcher will work with our digital library manager, Kent Gerber, to learn the Omeka content management system.

Post-9/11 editorial in Bethel Clarion
Post-9/11 editorial in the Bethel student newspaper. (Coincidentally, this one was written by Tim Goddard, just featured in my post on History majors doing well in the business world) – Bethel University Digital Library

Together we hope to develop a digital exhibit that will integrate narrative text, documents, images, audio, and video into a timeline that users can manipulate. We’ll focus on the two World Wars, the Vietnam War, and the War on Terror, asking recurring questions of each:

  • How did people from Bethel (students, faculty, staff, alumni) participate in the war?
  • How did the war shape life at Bethel itself (both during the conflict and in its aftermath)?
  • During each conflict, how did people at Bethel understand and respond to the sometimes competing demands of national solidarity and Christian commitment?

I’ll be sharing some of what we find as research continues this summer, then a report on the final project in October or November!

Meanwhile,  you can get a preview of sorts via this short film that Fletcher and two classmates produced this past January in my World War II course:

3 thoughts on “My Summer Plans? A Digital History of a Christian College in Wartime

  1. Chris: This project sounds amazing! I’ll be eagerly awaiting the results.

    This past semester, I taught a course at Messiah titled “Historical Study of Peace.” This kind of project could be a great way to get students studying war and peace to interact with Messiah’s archival holdings while gaining familiarity with digital tools. I hope you won’t mind if I steal the idea someday… 🙂

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