Embracing Teaching at SHEAR: An Origin Story for The Panorama

Seth Cotlar

When done well, teaching is an intellectually challenging and enriching enterprise. Teaching effectively at the college level requires one to stay up to date with the latest scholarship, and vibrant classrooms frequently produce the sorts of questions and insights that later blossom into important articles and books. Being a teacher and being a working historian are not separate vocations; these two dimensions of our work mutually inform and reinforce each other.

Every historian employed at the college level would probably agree, at least to some extent, with the sentiments in the previous paragraph. Yet until recently, the professional conferences we organize and attend have generally devoted almost 100 percent of their time to scholarship alone, as if it would be lowering ourselves to talk about the intellectual work we do in the classroom.

Sunday school, Indians and whites. Indian Territory (Oklahoma), US, c. 1900. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the NARA.

I’ve tried to push against that dynamic by instituting an explicitly teaching-focused initiative at the annual conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), the parent organization of the Journal of the Early Republic (JER) and The Panorama. The fact that it took me almost two decades to even conceive of this idea, however, reflects how deeply entrenched the false teaching-versus-scholarship dichotomy is in our profession.

I gave my first-ever conference presentation at the 1996 SHEAR conference in Nashville, and at that time teaching was the furthest thing from my mind. My graduate training had taught me to regard conferences as a place where I could get robust feedback on my emerging book project, and where I could stay abreast of the cutting-edge scholarship in my areas of interest. The annual SHEAR conference functioned perfectly in that regard. At my first few SHEAR conferences I was fortunate to discover a cohort of people (some very junior like myself, others more senior) who shared my interest in the intersection of political, intellectual, and cultural history. This community of scholarly peers and mentors was indispensable to my development as a professional historian. For the first decade of my relationship with SHEAR (first as a graduate student and then as an assistant professor), it served as the primary place where I recharged my scholarly batteries and honed the arguments that would eventually become my first book, Tom Paine’s America. Virtually every one of my bar and hallway conversations revolved around historiographical debates and archival discoveries.

My approach to SHEAR’s annual conference began to change, however, once I had completed my book manuscript and entered my second decade of full-time teaching. I frequently found myself surveying the program and prioritizing panels on topics I knew little about, but which I wanted to teach better. Like the majority of SHEAR attendees, I work at a university where teaching takes priority in the promotion and tenure process. As one of only two full-time Americanists, I teach on a wide array of subjects and time periods. This requires me to read far beyond the areas of my research interests and to think creatively about how to incorporate the latest scholarly developments into my courses. Thus, as a conference attendee I often have my students in mind as much as the future readers of my scholarship. But listening to a twenty-minute conference paper on a book project in process, regardless of how well it has been put together, is not necessarily the most efficient way to generate useful ideas about how to teach a topic more effectively. Beginning sometime around 2010 I started asking myself and a few trusted friends a question that felt quite heretical at the time: “What if SHEAR set aside one session per year for an explicit discussion of how we teach some topic or theme central to our field?”

History class, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

With the encouragement of the SHEAR leadership and the chair of the 2015 program committee, I recruited my fellow liberal arts college professor (and now editor of The Panorama), Will Mackintosh, to curate a SHEAR roundtable devoted explicitly to teaching. The panel focused on the rapidly evolving History of Capitalism, a field with deep roots in the early republic (from Charles Beard to Charles Sellers to Jeanne Boydston) but which had recently seen an explosion of innovative work that had moved the conversation into new and interesting territory. Will assembled a panel of scholars including SHEAR veterans like John Larson and Gary Kornblith, mid-career scholars like Josh Rothman, and recently minted PhDs like Courtney Fullilove, Rachel Tamar Van, and Will himself. The idea was to have folks reflect on their successes and failures teaching the history of capitalism in a wide range of institutions. How do contemporary students connect to this history? What do they want to know about it? What preconceptions do they have about it? What challenges have you encountered in getting students to think historically about capitalism? What readings and assignments have worked well? How has teaching the history of capitalism shaped the way you approach your own scholarship on the topic?

As the day of the session approached, I worried that no one would show up at the teaching-focused party we were throwing, especially given the excellent topical panels that were scheduled for the same time slot. As it turned out, that session was one of the most heavily attended of the entire conference with a standing-room-only audience of almost a hundred people. Clearly I was not the only person who came to SHEAR looking for ideas about how to bring the latest scholarship in our field to our students.

Classroom of the Clutterville one-room schoolhouse, part of the Ackley Heritage Center that also includes a pioneer home and, in town, an old-fashioned soda fountain, barber shop, and beauty parlor in Ackley, Iowa. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington.

The 2016 follow-up to the history of capitalism session—a panel on teaching slavery curated by Elizabeth Pryor—drew an equally large crowd, met with a similarly robust response from the audience, and prompted a searching conversation about how dynamics of race and gender differentially shape how we as professors and our students engage with the history of slavery and its enduring legacies. These first two, exemplary sessions on teaching have set a high bar for I what I hope will become a staple of future SHEAR conferences.

These teaching sessions have already had one significant and hopefully lasting impact on our field—the idea for The Panorama first germinated in the conversations that followed the History of Capitalism session in 2015. The panelists had assembled a valuable collection of classroom-ready materials to share with the audience, yet there was no clear way to disseminate those materials aside from handing out printed copies. And thus, an online venue to foster such conversations and share such material was born.

The Panorama marks a new and exciting stage in the evolution of SHEAR as a professional organization, and the JER as its primary scholarly outlet. It offers a more interactive and publicly accessible venue in which historians of the early American republic can present and discuss their scholarly work. I also look forward to seeing it evolve as a creative space where SHEAR members can share with one another and the wider public their experiences in the classroom, whether those be innovative successes or instructive failures.

1 February 2017

About the Author

Seth Cotlar is Professor of History at Willamette University.

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