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Catholic Source Materials in Teaching and Research: Keynote Summary from the 2019 CRRA Annual Meeting

By Josh Dinsman

The focus of this year’s keynote address at the CRRA annual meeting was “Catholic Source Materials in Teaching and Research.” Held in a panel format, Jean McManus from the University of Notre Dame led the discussion of how scholars are utilizing sources found in the Catholic News Archive and on the CRRA website in their own research and in the classroom with students. Panel participants included Dr. Charles Strauss, associate professor of history at Mount St. Mary’s University, who also serves as the executive secretary and treasurer of the American Catholic Historical Association, and Dr. Paula Kane, who holds the John and Lucine O’Brien Marous Chair of Contemporary Catholic Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition, although not present, the discussion was complemented by written remarks from Dr. Thomas Rzeznik, associate professor of history at Seton Hall University.

The keynote began with Jean summarizing some of Thomas’s remarks about how he incorporates the Catholic News Archive into his research strategies for students studying Catholic history. One of his favorite exercises is to have students skim through Catholic newspapers in different eras to track change over time in the outlook of Catholics, to get a sense of the flavor of local Catholicism, and to discover whether or not the views expressed in these papers seem in sync or at odds with mainstream American society. He also uses newspaper editorials as a window into how Catholics think through issues and the way they draw upon theological principles to argue to particular conclusions. Thomas also touched upon the Catholic Portal and the many subject guides found on the CRRA website. He notes that students find the subject guides incredibly useful for their research, while the Portal allows him “to direct students in my Catholic History class to a reliable, well-curated, and easily navigable site for them to explore.”

Next Charles discussed four different ways that he uses Catholic primary sources in his teaching. First, he likes to bring yearbooks into the classroom, as these provide a great way to identify factors that can show change over time. Next, Charles discussed the difficulty that many students have in scoping out a project and generating historical research questions. To aid students, he uses an exercise where he brings in a personal diary, which chronicles the life of a particular man from 1925 through the 1950s. He asks students to read through the diary and see what insights they can draw and what kinds of questions they can ask. He finds this is a great way of teaching students how to generate good historical questions from limited primary source material. The third way Charles brings primary sources into the classroom is through 19th and early 20th-century pamphlets. Presenting students with a bound volume, he asks them to digitize and annotate some of the pamphlets. This assignment in intellectual history allows students to identify and give short biographies of bishops, theologians, and other individuals, where students can see how Catholics created arguments about theology, history, and politics. The final way that Charles brings primary Catholic materials into the classroom mirrors one of Thomas’s strategies, and that is to have students compare coverage of historical events in Catholic newspapers with coverage found in mainstream newspapers. As Charles notes, “I really like students to read newspapers from the past in addition to their secondary literature. I think it gives them a real hands-on look at how events unfolded and how people in real time were trying to interpret those events.”

Finally, Paula discussed her promotion for topics beyond those with strictly Catholic themes. To illustrate this, she gave three examples of how she incorporates Catholicism as part of the broader study of American history. These include the study of an individual – Andy Warhol – where students look through Catholic newspapers for reviews and commentary on his art and films, as well as for information on his own relationship to Catholicism; the study of anti-Semitism, where she utilizes the Catholic News Archive and other CRRA manuscript collections that deal with the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jewish community during the 20th century; and the study of the Catholic Church’s relationship to the labor movement in the steel industry, where she has students look to the Catholic press to see how it dealt with issues of labor, inequality, wages, and harsh working conditions. In addition, Paula also stressed the importance of Catholic newspapers and how they have “been a gold mine” for another project she is working on called Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. She notes that as students research local religious sites, “newspapers are invaluable to us, because they tell us about congregations, where they’ve moved, they have photographs, they give us the names of leading figures, [and they] have led to a lot of discussions about what is a sacred space.”

Taken together, Thomas, Charles, and Paula provided many stellar examples of how both scholars and students can take advantage of the many resources offered by the CRRA. Their remarks provided us with key insights into how scholars are currently utilizing our subject guides, the Catholic Portal, and the Catholic News Archive, and we hope that they inspire you to look to these resources as well in your own research and teaching endeavors.