“Preargument Scholarship”: Blogging Our Digital History Project

The first month of summer break is coming to an end, so it seems like a good time to check in on the progress of the digital history project that I’m working on with my student Fletcher Warren:

Screenshot of Bethel at War

We’re researching how the people of Bethel University have experienced a century of warfare going back to 1914, the year that the Swedish Baptist Theological Seminary relocated permanently from Chicago to St. Paul, merging with a local high school called Bethel Academy. Fletcher is focusing on Vietnam and the War on Terror, while I’m looking mostly at the two World Wars. At this point we’re both wrapping up some background reading and starting to dig into archival sources and Bethel/Baptist General Conference publications. (Some of these sources are already available online at Bethel’s burgeoning Digital Library.)

Rather than Omeka, we’ve opted to use WordPress (the same service I use for this blog) to host our final projectIn part, this is because we simply found the latter more attractive than the former, but it’s also because using WordPress allows us easily to integrate a blog into the project — giving us a way to share what we’re doing long before the actual project goes live in September or October.

Screenshot of our Bethel at War blog
Some recent posts at our Bethel at War blog

Why blog? I wrote about it in a post last week in which I reflect on an idea from education professor Sherman Dorn, that digital history can serve as a kind of “preargument” scholarship. First, here’s Dorn:

A published work does not materialize from a vacuum, and all that preceded and underlays it is legitimately part of historical work. Public presentations of history in the digital age reveal the extent of that “preargument” work, often in an explicitly demonstrative fashion or allowing an audience to work with evidence that is less directly accessible in a fixed, bound presentation. Digital history thus undresses the historical argument, showing that all our professional garments are clothing, even those not usually seen in public.

Then here’s how I explained what we’re doing with the blog, in light of Dorn’s argument:

This blog very much fits Dorn’s “preargument” theme. Before we’re ready to present anything like a polished product, Fletcher and I are using this forum to share first impressions of sources, to think aloud about questions as they emerge and develop, to keep a record of our research, and to invite participation by readers in the middle of the process.

I’m especially intrigued by the last two uses of the blog: even when the project is completed, we’ll have a ready-made history of our history; and I’d like to hope that we’ll build an audience that sees itself as active contributors to the history rather than just passive recipients of it. (One idea: to use social media to solicit comments from Bethel alumni…)

But for now, the blog chiefly serves to share our research as it takes shape. I’ve mostly focused on the First World War so far, telling the story of the first Bethel alum to die in that war and comparing Bethel’s experience of it to that of other colleges and universities. Yesterday I considered how WWI served as an engine of “Americanization” at Bethel — and prompted resistance to such assimilation within the Dutch-American constituency of Calvin College. Today I marked the recent 70th anniversary of the G.I. Bill and shared some Bethel literature from mid-1945 that was meant to recruit servicemen and women.

The best post, however, has come from Fletcher, who drew on William Ringenberg’s The Christian College to understand why, during the Vietnam era, “America’s Christian colleges escaped the kinds of social upheaval that wracked state universities” and on David Swartz’s Moral Minority to probe the role of the war in catalyzing the development of the “evangelical left.”

If you’d like to follow along or share your thoughts, you can subscribe to the blog by going to Bethelatwar.org, adding it to your RSS feed, or using the hashtag #bethelatwar on Twitter.

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