The Digital Humanities and the Archive in Undergraduate Curriculum

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to continue the line of thinking begun by my colleague at Bethel University, Kent Gerber. In Kent’s capacity as Digital Library Manager, he has worn many hats to further digital scholarship and pedagogy at our university, a Christian liberal arts school in the suburbs of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. As a first-year assistant professor of History, I also coordinate our Digital Humanities program, which is in the final stages of launching a new undergraduate major. I hope to contribute to this conversation by sharing how a historical archive, such as the one we enjoy at the Bethel University History Center, can serve as a central hub for digital learning and research for undergraduates. What I write comes from the perspective of a history professor at a religious school, but much of this can easily apply to any secular institution with compassionate, contemplative students; that is to say, nearly anywhere.

The materials in our archive document people and events all throughout our 145-plus year history. These materials reflect our collective past, rooted in the immigration to the upper Midwest by Scandinavian Christians in the Pietist tradition. While our archive may be comparatively small, there are remarkable stories lying in the intersection between the everyday and the extraordinary. An example of the kind of project our community has produced through work in the archive is Bethel at War 1914-2014, an online exhibit created by my colleague, Dr. Chris Gehrz, and then-undergrad Fletcher Warren, History and Political Science, ’15, which documents the experience of Bethel members in that long century of warfare. The Bethel at War project digs deeply into archival material to help shed light on how individuals navigated the often competing demands of patriotic citizenship and the Christian imperative of peacemaking. What’s more, in its final form as a WordPress website, it brings these archival stories to a much wider audience than is traditionally the case with undergraduate work, which typically takes the form of a closed white paper conversation between professor and student. It is perhaps by taking advantage of such public-facing platforms that undergraduate students working in traditional archives can impact the world around them to the greatest extent.

When undergraduates go to college or university, their focus typically is on how their present can help craft their future employment. It is often taken for granted, however, the degree to which the collegiate community they enter into has been shaped by what has come before. And it is here where the digital humanities can play a crucial role in opening undergraduate eyes to the unobserved past. Bethel University will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2021, and it is fitting to use that milestone as an opportunity to explore stories from our first 150 years. Borrowing from an assignment created by Dr. Austin Mason at nearby Carleton College, my digital humanities students will treat the local setting of Bethel University – its physical location, its buildings, and its historical archive – as a data set. It may go without saying, but the role that the digital humanities and the archive can play in undergraduate education depends on place. I use this word purposefully. Our aim, with the help of digital technologies, is to document the many layers of human experience embedded in our archives that have laid the foundation of our present community.

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