SHEAR 2017: Reflections on Creating the Past

This year’s SHEAR conference was my first, and as I reflect upon it I cannot help but note my appreciation for its intellectually invigorating atmosphere. As a junior scholar, it was exhilarating to see this community of historians jump off the pages of print and into the flesh, where they shared their work with candor and zeal. I consider myself fortunate to have attended SHEAR 2017, from which I departed with fresh ideas and lenses for future projects, not to mention the energy and inspiration necessary to reignite projects of the present. For those that were unable to attend this year’s conference, I and a few others provided live-tweet coverage of multiple panels under the #SHEAR2017 hashtag on Twitter.

At the conference I covered three panels, and although they spanned across a vast array of topics — from the complexities of marriage to embroiled frontier legal trials — one panel in particular prompted me to reconsider what these varied presentations all shared in common. It was panel 16, Creating the Past in the Early Republic: Critical Perspectives on the Cultural Production of History and Memory, that inspired me to look at this variety of presentations not as connected through their examination of the same American past, but through the shared present moment in which they were produced. By the time Creating the Past concluded, I found that the panel had shifted my framework for examining the presentations I had and would see at SHEAR; for me, the panel accomplished this in two specific ways.

First, Creating the Past’s discussion of historical methods in the Early Republic asks us to interrogate how we produce history in the present. The presentations of Michael Hattem (Yale University) and Karin Wulf (College of William & Mary) examined histories of antiquarians and genealogists, agents of the past who we still see in our present. The critical eye that both scholars lent to their subjects and to their subjects’ own interpretation of the past provided a crucial take-away for modern scholars of history — specifically one that asks us to take a similarly critical eye to the structures within which we “do” history. This point was perhaps most evident in Hattem’s presentation, which dissected intricate networks of exchange between historians, antiquarians, and their sponsors in the Early Republic. The network was a system of storing and sharing sources that imparted distinct challenges and biases upon historians of this period. As I listened to his paper, I wondered about how future historians will examine and critique our present methods of “doing” history, a question that only tugged at me further during Wulf’s paper on early New England genealogists. I found myself asking how we’ve come to define the parameters of real history in our present moment — a definition that often omits genealogy — and how valid these parameters actually are. How will historians 200 years from now sit in panels and turn a critical eye to our methods? Perhaps the more productive question to ask is whether or not historians of the present can take their ability to scrutinize the past and apply it to the current state of the field.

Second, the panel redefined the way we should consider the connections between the past and the contemporary moment. To this point, I found Whitney Martinko’s (Villanova University) presentation particularly thought-provoking. Focused on rethinking the production of historic space, Martinko’s paper demonstrated that the current of change flows in more directions than one, a departure from the notion of a set past and an influenced present. Through her discussion of how historic spaces can take on near-sacred dimensions, Martinko shows an alternate way of conceiving of understanding the past/present dichotomy. It is an alternative that blurs the distinctions we typically assume of both. Instead of belonging to a static past, Martinko’s historic spaces only become a part of “history” by way of later periods when businessmen, preservationists, and the visiting public bestow value upon them — and it is a type of value that is defined less by the historical past itself, and more by the contemporary moments in which it is interpreted.

This was a notion that held true to me when I thought beyond Martinko’s topic, and it began to bleed into my impressions of the other panels I attended at SHEAR. Even as I departed from the conference, I found myself mulling over fewer questions that were directly about the past itself. Struck by the wonderful complexities introduced by Creating the Past, I instead considered the tensions between different types of history, the growth to be achieved by greater self-reflection within the field, and the weighty influence of the present upon the past. Taken together, these considerations form the base for the newest critical lens I plan to carry with me as I approach fresh scholarship. As for my fellow scholars who are all focused on the past yet stuck living in the present, perhaps you will consider adopting it too.

Makiki Reuvers is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the spaces of interaction between indigenous peoples and settlers on the southern Appalachian frontier in the late 18th century.

CFP: SHEAR 2018 in Cleveland

Call for Papers
18 – 22 July 2018

The 40th annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic will convene July 18 – 22, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The program committee invites proposals for sessions and papers exploring all aspects of and approaches to the history and culture of the early American republic, c. 1776-1861. We particularly encourage submissions that
• reflect the diversity of the past, but also address the most pressing issues of the present;
• fill gaps in the historical narrative and/or historiography;
• focus on pedagogy, public history, digital humanities, and other alternative methodologies;
• foster audience participation, feature pre-circulated papers, or assess the state of a given field.

Individual proposals will be considered, but the program committee gives priority to proposals for complete panels that include a chair and commentator. Attention should be given to forming panels with gendered, racial, institutional, and interpretive diversity, representing as well different professional ranks and careers. Individuals interested in serving as chairs or commentators should submit a one-page curriculum vitae. Please do not agree to serve on more than one proposed panel. The committee reserves the right to alter and rearrange proposed panels and participants. Please employ the guidelines available under the “Annual Meeting” menu at when preparing your proposal.

All submissions should be filed as one document (Word doc preferred), labeled with the first initial and surname of the contact person (e.g., “SmithJ2018”). All proposals must include

• Panel title and one-paragraph description of panel’s topic
• Email addresses and institutional affiliations for designated contact person and each participant
• A title and description in no more than 100 words for each paper
• A single-page curriculum vitae for each participant, including chairs and commentators
• Indication of any needs for ADA accommodation or requirement
• Indication of any audio-visual requests (please request only if A/V is essential to a presentation)

Deadline for submission is December 1, 2017. Please submit your proposals by email to the program committee co-chairs at with “SHEAR2018” in the subject line.

Lorri Glover, St. Louis University, co-chair
Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch, University of Toledo, co-chair
Sean Adams, University of Florida
Christopher Bonner, University of Maryland College Park
Emily Conroy-Krutz, Michigan State University
Vanessa M. Holden, Michigan State University
Johann Neem, Western Washington University
Honor Sachs, Western Carolina University
Christine E. Sears, University of Alabama at Huntsville
Chernoh Sesay, DePaul University
Christina Snyder, Indiana University Bloomington

SHEAR: A Model of Community, Engagement, and Support


When I was asked to serve as a designated live-tweeter and write a blog post for SHEAR 2017, I was thrilled. I had been to SHEAR once previously and had enjoyed the experience. Moreover, I looked forward to helping share some of the exciting new scholarship on Twitter, having benefitted from others who live tweeted the conference in the past when I was unable to attend.

While at SHEAR, I attended some truly invigorating panels, focusing on everything from transnational speculation and state formation to imagining native futures, from life insurance and minimizing risk to the class dimensions of negotiating marital boundaries, and from the president’s cabinet to how to teach the early republic in the age of Trump. (You can find my live tweets by clicking on the Twitter hashtags #PN15, #PN22, #PN29, #PN36, #PN42, and #PN45.) I left SHEAR invigorated, with great suggestions and inspiration for my own work – and new ideas for teaching the early republic.

Initially, I planned to write a blog post recapping one of the panels I had attended and focusing on some of this new scholarship that was particularly fascinating for me. But, as I planned out this blog post and spoke to friends and colleagues about my experience at SHEAR, I kept returning to one aspect of the conference in particular: the level of engagement, community, and support at SHEAR is unparalleled, particularly for graduate students and early career scholars. I soon realized that this aspect of the conference deserved attention.

Most conferences, even the ones that consciously work to support graduate students, don’t come close to the level of engagement and support that SHEAR provides. When I attended my first SHEAR (in Raleigh in 2015), I was impressed by the turnout to different panels – some were standing room only, though I noted that much of the draw seemed to be “big names” on the panels. This year, I paid more attention to the makeup of the panels and the resulting audiences and was even more impressed. Rarely do you find a conference where senior scholars are not only chairs of panels or participating in roundtables but also actively attending other panels and engaging with the work of graduate students and other early career scholars.

As a graduate student who is in the depths of writing my dissertation, I am greatly appreciative of opportunities to receive this level of feedback, engagement, and advice. Following in Lindsay Chervinsky’s shoes, I’d like to offer a few observations about SHEAR’s high levels of engagement, community, and support and why graduate students and early career scholars in particular benefit from attending.

  1. Support of graduate students. This seems like an easy thing to do, and many conferences offer similar graduate lunches or reduced conference registration rates for graduate students. However, one of the things that stands out about the SHEAR experience as a graduate student is the fact that panels that are largely (or wholly) made up of graduate students are just as well attended as panels with more senior scholars. Not only are the panels well attended, but the audience is engaged, providing graduate students with the opportunity to get some real feedback.
  2. The participants. Like Lindsay said in her blog post about the roundtable that she attended, this aspect of the conference is not as easy to replicate. SHEAR brings together a group of scholars who are excited about new scholarship, open to new and diverse approaches, and supportive of scholars just starting out. From discussions that I was privileged to have with some scholars who have been attending SHEAR for years, I’ve realized that this level of support for new fields and ideas was a conscious effort by many individuals within SHEAR to change the status quo. Because of these individuals, SHEAR is a place where a graduate student or early career scholar working in an area that is new (and perhaps not fully understood by the profession as a whole) can present and receive valuable feedback. Not only that, but reflecting on the president’s plenary reveals that SHEAR’s commitment to supporting new approaches extends to a space typically reserved for very senior scholars.
  3. Support of early career scholars. One need look no further than the second book workshops and the roundtable on how not to write your second book to recognize that SHEAR is committed to supporting the careers of younger scholars. While I may not have attended either of these, I heard from others who did attend how helpful they were – and how invigorating the experience was.
  4. Opportunities to network with senior scholars. What stands out about the opportunities that SHEAR offers for networking with senior scholars in the field is that they are all relatively low-stakes. Perhaps the best example of this (although it is limited to women!) is the Boydston Women’s Breakfast. Having breakfast with a host of other scholars, both early career and established, is an informal way to start to form relationships, to hear about the experiences of older scholars, and to receive some advice. The different receptions that SHEAR hosts feel much the same, with more established scholars open to in-depth discussions with junior scholars – whether about research and writing, life balance, or the job market. In fact, one of the best and most productive conversations that I had at SHEAR was actually a conversation on the shuttle returning from the presidential reception on Saturday night, a conversation that gave me new ideas about how I might apply my research to the job market. Opportunities like this abound for graduate students at SHEAR.

The level of engagement, support, and community at SHEAR deserves recognition. Graduate students and early career scholars in particular have the potential to greatly benefit from attending SHEAR. Moreover, other conferences can and should build on SHEAR’s example and actively work to build an engaged, supportive community of scholars.

Mandy Cooper is a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. Her dissertation research focuses on the role of families in the larger project of nation building in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.