Seminar Bingo

I’m a big fan of attending seminars focused on the field of early American history. I frequented the Bay Area Early American History Seminar between 2004 and 2007 and the Harvard Early American History Seminar between 2010 and 2012. In 2010, I joined the Boston-Area Early American History Seminar and last year, I started attending the Omohundro Institute’s Colloquia on a regular basis.

I enjoy attending seminars because they provide opportunities to learn about the work of other scholars and to really think about the field, form, and process of history. The experience of attendance and participation makes me a more informed, and I hope a better, scholar of history.

I’m very fortunate that I get to attend both the Boston and OI seminars on a regular basis. I’ve come to appreciate how both seminars have a particular specialty. The Boston seminar is great for people with new to middle-stage projects because its attendees excel at helping participants identify historical sources and new avenues for where they could take their research. The OI colloquia are particularly great for scholars who find themselves closer to the publication stage; scholars who have thought through their ideas and need to figure out how best to present them. The scholars who attend the OI colloquia always provide great advice about how participants might improve the structure of their narratives, soundness of their arguments, and their interpretations of evidence.

The specialties of these seminars make sense. The Boston-Area Seminar draws attendees from all over New England who work on different aspects of early America and who have deep knowledge of their particular subfields. Whereas the OI is home to the editorial staffs who publish the leading works in early American history. As such, those who attend the OI’s colloquia have a keen and detailed knowledge of historiography and they think about narrative structure and historical arguments a lot. Of course, the OI colloquia also draw attendees from the William & Mary history department and the wider Williamsburg community, all of whom have deep knowledge of particular subjects and subfields, which has made it quite challenging for me to shape my mental “Seminar Bingo Board” for its gatherings.

Confession: I “play” Seminar Bingo.

"Seminar Bingo" is not an official game.  I don’t print out cards and hand them out to attendees so we can play together. “Seminar Bingo” is really about me having a deep appreciation for my colleagues’ areas of expertise. For example, when I read a paper in advance of a seminar, I think about what specific colleagues might say about different parts of the paper. Does this paper make use of enough demographic data? Does it consider the role religion might have played? Does it reference sources from a particular archive or manuscript collection? Does it attempt to grapple with and interpret Native Americans, the enslaved, or women in ways that make use of the latest interpretive methods? I have spaces on my “seminar bingo boards” for colleagues who think about these issues deeply and when I attend a seminar, I really want to know what they think about these issues in relation to the project we’re workshopping. If for some reason they don’t raise a question, issue, or source I thought they might raise, I make it a point to seek them out after the workshop and ask them. In essence, I want to win intellectual “bingo” at every seminar I attend.

Now, to be fair, I have my own spot on the bingo board. I’m the scholar who thinks about cultural history and comparisons between regions. My place is to raise a question about how some phenomenon in one region or colony compares with a tradition or phenomenon in another region or colony. However, over the last year or two, I’ve noticed I’m not always, or often, that scholar anymore.

I used to have a deep knowledge of New England and New York history. My dissertation research focused on the development of local and regional identities using Albany, New York as a case study. In addition to looking at how the people of Albany created first Dutch, then British, and finally an American identity, I explored how those conceptions of identity were often at odds with their regional neighbors and rivals in New England and how the conflict between these cultural groups intensified during and after the American Revolution. Now, it’s not that I’ve lost this deep, regional knowledge, but this knowledge is no longer top of mind for me.

Truthfully, I had to set aside my book manuscript 18-24 months ago in order to handle the work and growth of Ben Franklin’s World. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading or thinking about history, but it does mean that instead of focusing on the culture and politics of the northeast and reading deeply about them (or making headway with my reading and thinking on the cultural and political history of the Confederation Era, which is where I’m going next), I spend most of my time reading widely across all subfields of early American history. And after four years of reading widely across all subfields, I noticed that I really need to add an additional space for myself on my seminar bingo boards.

Over the last year, I’ve observed that I now ask questions about how a project fits into the historiography of a particular subfield, why it is or isn’t making use of the current literature and interpretive methods, or why the workshop guest chose to organize their work the way they did. In essence, I’ve evolved into an editor. These are all questions editors ask because they have a deep knowledge of the field.

Admittedly, this transition took me by surprise and I’m glad it's happened. Over the last two years, I’ve felt intellectually adrift. I could feel my top-of-mind knowledge about the early northeast slipping away and yet, I wasn’t sure what was replacing it. I wondered how could I really know anything when I basically spend all of my time jumping around the field. It turns out, I just needed time to continue jumping around. Everything accumulates and at some point late last year, or early this year, my wide reading of the field hit a critical mass and I developed a new area of deep expertise: Early America.

Given the breadth of the field, my deep expertise looks different than my earlier expertise. Where my knowledge of the early northeast was centered on particular individuals, places, events, and archival materials, my new area centers on broader trends and a broader knowledge base. I’m unlikely to read your work and give you a specific source—unless something prompts my brain to dig out something from my earlier days as an “archive rat”—but I am likely to be able to tell you where your project fits alongside other works, what about your project will make it unique, how you might structure your project to best present your argument and evidence, and where you should look for a comparison or technique you never would have thought to consider because I happened to read about it in an entirely different part of the field from where you are working.

So this fall, when the seminars resume, I will return to the “seminar circuit” with a new place on my seminar bingo board. My reworked board will continue to carry my old space because I’m loathe to give it up, and because sometimes my brain will decide to get down into the weeds of someone’s project. Plus some day, I do hope to return to the archives. I want to finish revising my dissertation into a book and I want to begin new projects that dig deep into the Confederation Era. I still want to be a scholar who writes original books and articles, although I admit my ideas about the forms books and articles can take has also evolved. I suspect you will see my future original work reflect these more expansive views. I also suspect that I will see my new, more expansive area of expertise shape my future work in exciting and unexpected ways.