Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Memorials: Richard Beeman

Memorial for Richard R. Beeman

Rick Beeman played a surprisingly outsized role in the lives of many Americanist graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s. He openly admitted that he did not particularly like teaching graduate seminars, and he did not do so very often. He was moving into university administration, which reduced his teaching load, and he was more comfortable with traditional political history—intellectual, institutional, white, and male—than with the era’s emergent cultural history and its focus on race, class, and gender. But because he taught the first half of the United States History survey course, several generations of graduate students passed under his tutelage as teaching assistants, and teaching for Beeman was a formative experience equal to any graduate seminar.

Beeman combined his historiographical traditionalism with a deep enthusiasm for undergraduate teaching, an impressive flair for theatricality, and a fundamental respect for graduate students’ intellectual and pedagogical independence. This meant that even as we grappled with the challenges of teaching the survey and negotiating the tensions between Beeman’s framing of the course and our own concerns, Beeman provided both an example of committed teaching and a supportive framework within which to develop our own approaches.

While Beeman did little to change his lectures, he gave his teaching assistants free rein over the reading list and assignments for the discussion sections. He was comfortable having the discussions serve as a kind of counternarrative to his part of the course, and we worked that angle to full effect. But in having the TAs do this work, he didn’t simply abandon the discussion sections. We had weekly organizational meetings that were substantive and supportive, exchanging ideas for how to teach particular issues, making sure that students were understanding and keeping up with the course, and keeping expectations and grading standards consistent across the sections. The combination of freedom, trust, and serious engagement in Beeman’s classes still serves as a model of teaching mentorship for me.

Beeman also had tremendous fun in his own teaching. He would play roles and speak in the voices of historical figures—even, famously, to the point of dressing up in character. His Jonathan Edwards was too modern and fire-and-brimstone to match my understanding, but it definitely seemed to awaken the students. In a lecture on class, politics, and deference, Beeman arranged to shake things up by having us stage a TAs’ rebellion. At the beginning of class, we shouted him down, forced him from the lectern, and installed visiting lecturer Billy Smith at the head of the class for the day

Beeman also told a great story about the way the field and the job market worked in the late 1960s. According to Beeman, as he was working on the later stages of his dissertation at the University of Chicago, Daniel Boorstin called him into his office:

“Richard, have you given any thought to where you might like to teach?”

“Well, all things being equal, I think I’d really like to go back to California and find a position there.”

“When it comes to early American history, all things are never equal in California. There’s a job at the University of Pennsylvania, and I think you should take it.”

He did, and the rest is history.

Randolph Ferguson Scully
George Mason University