Dear SHEAR friends,
This letter is to address and acknowledge the criticism of SHEAR’s special virtual session “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump” on July 17. We had a large and engaged audience for the webinar; there was an equally large and engaged response to the program on social media, regarding both panel composition and content. I hear you, and I wish to speak to that.
Let me begin by explaining how this panel came to be. When the 2020 program was postponed until July 2021, we wished to sponsor a few events to demonstrate that we remain a vital and important organization, even in this troubled time. The accepted panel on Donald Trump’s efforts to identify with Andrew Jackson struck some members of the program committee as a most timely panel, and one which may not be as relevant after the November elections. This was a stand-alone panel, and not the opening plenary, which remains scheduled for July 2021.
The paper presented yesterday was written by the senior editor of the Jackson papers and the academic tasked with walking Trump through the Hermitage. Professor Daniel Feller dealt with that moment, as well as with his views on why that is an historical connection that resonates today. The panel that responded to Dr. Feller’s controversial ideas pushed back hard on some of his opinions, but the structure of the panel—a single paper followed by comparatively brief comments—had the effect of spotlighting Professor Feller’s paper. And because this was the only paper presented at SHEAR 2020, and was webcast to an open audience, it had the effect of casting the paper as the public, authorized face of our organization. It was not.
Regrettably, the panel was also not diverse in the variety of ways—from gender to race to ethnicity—that SHEAR has come to expect and require in recent years. Newer generations of scholars have engaged these issues from multiple perspectives, including those of indigenous and enslaved people, and they should have been included in yesterday’s panel. In recent years, SHEAR has fostered this new scholarship—but yesterday’s audience would not have been able to see that. We should also have included early career scholars, or scholars from two-year institutions or in public history. Our own website includes a statement on diversity and panel submissions, and we failed in not living up to our own standards. For not including those voices, I accept responsibility. It was my error, and for that I apologize.
I believe that part of what makes SHEAR a vital and important organization is the deep significance of the period we study for thinking about contemporary dilemmas, and the scholarship that period has inspired, as well as our willingness to confront structural inequities not only in our national history but our own institution—and then to evolve. Before this week, the organization’s leadership has been preparing to submit to the Advisory Council and then the membership a detailed statement on how to move our organization toward becoming an antiracist organization, from travel grants to our conference for graduate students from historically underrepresented groups, to research grants for graduate and even undergraduate students targeted toward research topics not yet common in the field. To attract new members and ease the difficulty in these financially troubled times, we will also introduce a “first time free” program. At the same time, I plan to introduce several new funding initiatives to make our plans more than just words and hopes. We realize there is much more to do, and we encourage your suggestions. I especially want to thank the many members who contacted me with their thoughts, and their dedication to engaging SHEAR critically is appreciated.
I share your dismay that yesterday’s paper did not adequately engage with the enslavement of African Americans or the genocide of indigenous peoples. I also do not wish to silence voices with whom I personally disagree. That does not mean, though, that freedom of expression should allow for the use of derogatory words or offensive terms that have no place in our society.
Yesterday’s panel opened up additional tracks of discussion, and we are aware that time constraints and the webinar format restricted the ability of so many to express their opinions of the panel. The response on social media allowed for a wide range of perspectives from which we can learn and improve. To that end, we plan a second, follow-up virtual panel in the coming weeks that will allow us to incorporate and magnify this dynamic scholarship.
Douglas R. Egerton
President, SHEAR 2019-2020