SHEAR: A Model of Community, Engagement, and Support

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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.

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