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Reflections on SHEAR and History

We recently asked three long-time SHEAR members and recipients of the organization’s Distinguished Service Award to reflect on their careers and their connection to SHEAR. Connie Schulz, Craig Friend, and Jim Bradford were gracious enough to give their thoughts. Our thanks go to the following University of Oklahoma students, who are interning with JER editor Cathy Kelly: Terrence Robertson, Franklin Otis, and Sarah Miles.

Connie Schulz is Distinguished Professor Emerita and Project Director/Senior Editor at the Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen at the University of South Carolina.

1. What has surprised you about how research, teaching, or study of history has changed over the years?

While I have been using some form of digital technology since 1980 when I had an NHPRC fellowship at the Papers of the First Federal Congress (they had just purchased a Wang word processor), I am amazed at how much the digital tools that have developed in the last 15 years have affected all areas of historians’ work. Who would have imagined when I was in graduate school in the 1960s that as a researcher, you could sit at your desk at home and access every journal article in your field through JSTOR, or have free access through “Founders Online” to several hundred volumes of the edited papers of the founding era? The downside, I think, is that the ability that technology gives us to go right to the keyword in a document or the indexed article is that we have lost the serendipitous discovery of something we hadn’t thought to look for that happens when you read through an edited volume of documents, or browse through the hard copy of bound journals – or indeed see on the shelf next to the journals a book you had forgotten you had read a review about and turns out it has exactly what you need!.

2. How has SHEAR proven valuable to your professional career?

I spent the first dozen years after I received my PhD as an “underemployed historian,” teaching part-time at night or as an adjunct at local universities in the Washington DC area while being the “able to stay home” parent raising 3 young children, so SHEAR was my link to those in the profession who shared my intellectual interests. I volunteered to organize the “recent articles” section of SHEAR’s small newsletter and made many friends in the organization then through our pre-e-mail correspondence. (I even briefly edited the newsletter before SHEAR started the JER.) SHEAR was also a key professional organization for my development as a young historian because its members welcomed me even though I was not (nor was my grad school adviser) a recognized “name” in the field. Members like Ed Pessen and Bob McCauley and Joyce Appleby listened to what I had to contribute and engaged with me in discussions important to the organization and to me. I particularly appreciate that in those early years of SHEAR,  because we met on college campuses and stayed in dormitories rather than hotels, I could actually afford to attend the annual conferences. Even as SHEAR has gotten much larger, it has a “small and accepting community” feel to it – an organization where I know many of the “old-timers” but where I can also meet and get to know and learn from the young scholars just entering the field. For more than 40 years it has been my intellectual professional home ground.

3. Do you have any advice for aspiring historians?

Be a good citizen of the profession. Volunteer to help at professional meetings, or to serve on committees. If a fellow student or colleague asks for help in a project, if you can do it, pitch in, share your insights and tell them about sources you have found. We often are tempted to work in silos, but anything I’ve ever studied has benefited by the help others have given me, and the networks I’ve enjoyed as a result are often because I served on a committee with someone, or responded when they asked how I had learned about something.

And be curious! Follow through and Google (or search through some of the wonderful other digital tools we now have) the names of persons or places you haven’t noticed before when you come across them in a document or a monograph. Read books or articles outside your field that pique your interest. You never know where something unexpected will lead you in your research, or in your teaching interests.

4. What was the most recent good book you have read?

I loved All the Light We Cannot See when my book club read it.  And since we are currently beginning work at the Pinckney Statesmen Papers project on the years in which all were diplomats (and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney headed for France in 1796 for what eventually became the XYZ affair), I am delighted with Francois Furstenberg’s new book When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation.

From 2004-2015, Craig Friend, CHASS Distinguished Graduate Professor of History and Director of Public History at North Carolina State University, served as SHEAR’s national conference coordinator.

1. What has surprised you most about working with SHEAR? What do you think makes working with other historians in such an organization valuable?

Surprised me most? Well, to be honest, it was how people tried to avoid paying! But let us not linger on that. I don’t think anything else really surprised me. People are people.

As for what makes working with other historians valuable to me, I would say “intellectual engagement.” Like most other historians, I am passionate about history. It rewards me intellectually and even emotionally. During my years as conference coordinator, it was difficult to find time to engage intellectually at panels and even in informal discussions. When I did manage to participate, I was always impressed most with the collegial approach taken by most of my fellow historians. Despite the individualism of our projects, it always seemed as if we are undertaking a common discovery, rethinking, and re-narrating of the past. That sense of a collective undertaking inspires my own work.

2. What project has been the most fun or of the most interest to you during your career? Why?

Although it will never be published, the project that has brought the most enjoyment is my own genealogy, which has been an on-going project for years. On my paternal side, I discovered that my great-grandfather’s Confederate regiment fought against my husband’s grandfather’s US Colored Troops regiment at a skirmish in southwestern Virginia during the Civil War. Beyond the serendipity of such historical moments, however, I think there is a unique lens through which we historians view our ancestors since we are already aware of the historical contexts for their lives. On my maternal side, for example, I discovered that my ninth-great-grandmother Hannah Foster Stone (daughter of Ann Foster, an accused Salem witch) was murdered by her husband Hugh Stone. Such stories often stand out against the mundanity of most ancestors’ lives because of the sensationalism of the event. But as a historian, my first reaction to uncovering these ancestors was sorrow over the domestic abuse that framed Hannah’s married life and led to her eventual death. This is a connection that most people would not consider: they would find her murder sensational in itself as if nothing led to it.

3. What do you see as the role of public history and academic (professional) history in the coming years? How do you imagine the two being linked?

I think that academic history is approaching a crossroads, if it is not yet there: the public and its politicians increasingly cannot see the relevance of the humanities, which does not bode well in a political culture shaped by heightened budgetary concerns.

Recent calls for academics to embrace public history as a panacea, however, are misguided because public history is not solely or even primarily about the delivery of academic history to the public. Most certainly, public history is about making history useful to public audiences, but although good public history interpretation is informed by academic history, it is also circumscribed by traditions of public narrative and the expectations of advisory councils and funding sources.

Instead, I think the solution is that academic historians need to be proactive as public intellectuals. Some historians have taken to social media to relate academic history to hordes of Twitter or Facebook followers, placing contemporary events into historical narratives, and providing reasons for non-historians to appreciate the usefulness of academic history. Other historians have engaged cultural media like television shows—I am thinking of genealogy shows like Finding Your Roots—to do the same. I have started my own blog page to contextualize modern popular culture in historical contexts. But public intellectualism can also take place during a historians’ talk to a high school history class, a meeting of the local DAR, a family reunion (yes, I make powerpoint presentations of my genealogy with a lot of historical contextualization for family reunions), or any audience where we academics can inspire appreciation for our professional work.

4. On what are you currently working?

I am working on three book-length projects–a biography of Lunsford Lane, a slave born in 1803 Raleigh, North Carolina, who purchased his freedom in 1835 and became a black abolitionist; the revision of The New History of Kentucky textbook with Jim Klotter; and a historical novel about upcountry South Carolina in 1828, drawing from the real diary of Cyrus Stuart–and a handful of smaller article-length projects. I find that simultaneously working on multiple (and conceptually different) projects drives my creativity.

Texas A&M University Professor of History Jim Bradford served as JER book review editor for fifteen years (1981-1996) and as SHEAR executive director for seven years (1996-2003).

1. What made you want to pursue history as a career? 

For my first three years as an undergraduate, I was a “pre-law” major with a minor in history. I planned to practice law for a few years before entering politics. Halfway through my freshman year, I was elected treasurer of state association of college organizations of one of the two major parties. During my junior year I worked for a U.S. Senate candidate organizing support among college students until the incumbent senator died, the governor appointed a member of the House of Representatives to fill the vacancy, and the candidate I worked for withdrew from the race. At about the same time, a county officeholder announced his retirement, and I was encouraged to run for the position. After discussing this option, my wife and I decided against a career in politics, and I changed majors to history to pursue a career in academe—a decision we have never regretted. Why history? I had enjoyed the history classes more than any others I’d been taking and had gotten to know and respect two history professors—one as a teacher and the other a scholar in the era of the Revolution.

One of the major attractions of an academic career was the fact that college professors have their own classes to teach and select research topics of their own choice from the beginning of their careers. They do not have to spend several years “paying their dues” by doing menial tasks or understudying a more senior individual.

2. What do you like most about teaching and/or researching history? 

I enjoy teaching at all university levels, especially the opportunity to get to know students and observe their intellectual growth. Teaching survey courses provides opportunities to challenge students’ thinking, to introduce them to the nuances of history, and to broaden their perspective.  Upper division courses allow time to focus on narrower topics and examine a wider variety of viewpoints. Graduate seminars force me to think more deeply about the subject of the week and to watch students mature. Teaching in study abroad programs is particularly rewarding because I get to know most of the students on a more personal level than on campus and to see the impact the study abroad experience has on most of their lives.

Conducting research is equally rewarding. I enjoy traveling to archives; sifting through manuscripts, identifying themes or patterns, and discovering a document that provides a key to answering questions that intrigue me; and discussing my “discoveries” and conclusions with fellow historians. I draw satisfaction from completing a project—be it a chapter or a book.

3. What do you think makes SHEAR stand out as an outstanding organization?

SHEAR was founded in large part to expand opportunities for historians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to exchange ideas both at annual conferences in the Journal of the Early Republic. Meetings of other organizations often focused on specific themes, while SHEAR is a forum for people working on any aspect of history in the era. SHEAR panels/sessions are less formal than those at many other meetings; the result being more discussion. Participants—ranging from graduate students to senior scholars—mix informally to discuss their research, share their experiences at archives, and teaching in a congenial atmosphere.

4. Do you have any advice for aspiring historians?

Set goals and adopt a “calendar” that assigns specific times to research/write, prepare for class, and read books and journal articles (both recent publications and important works from the past). Read widely, rather than focus on a narrow topic. This will prepare you to teach survey as well as upper division courses and to place your research in context. Review each lecture given and discussion led shortly after the class meets, noting strengths and weaknesses of each session. Such notes will be of great help when you revise course content and conduct.

Set aside blocks of time during semester and summer breaks to focus on research and writing. Set a goal when writing—so many words or pages each day or week.

Get to know people in your field—SHEAR’s annual conference is a great place to do this—as well as colleagues in your department.