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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · January 24, 2018

Seats at the Table

colloqs 8 min read

The spring semester of the Omohundro Institute Colloquia series began last night with a presentation by Richard Godbeer of Virginia Commonwealth University. Four more colloqs will follow in the next few months. Here, W&M Ph.D. candidates Kristen Beales and Peter Olsen-Harbich share their takes on what value attending the sessions even though only postdoctoral work is presented. The colloquia are open to all.

1. By Kristen Beales

“How was the colloq last night?” Over the last two years, this was a text message that I frequently sent to my graduate cohort when I had to miss the OI’s Tuesday night colloquium series for research trips. My friends’ responses, which summarized the major intellectual questions that structured the evening’s conversation and recounted the banter that passed across the table, made me miss participating in one of the central rituals of Williamsburg’s early Americanist community. Bringing together scholars from various departments across William & Mary’s campus, Colonial Williamsburg, and other local institutions, the colloquia have provided a model of scholarly engagement and have taught me how to be a more thorough, generous, and incisive historian.

The conversations that occur around the table have shaped how I interrogate my own work.  Colloquium questions include detailed queries from scholars working in the same source base, editorial suggestions about how to effectively organize the evidence, and broader questions about the intellectual stakes raised by an argument. I find myself asking the same types of questions of my own writing as I imagine how the scholars from different intellectual backgrounds sitting around the table would receive my arguments. Participating in this collaborative process of sharpening scholarly arguments has also provided me with the skills needed to engage with the broader profession. When I present my work at conferences, I feel prepared for the types of questions that I am likely to receive.

As I have transitioned from the expansive world of coursework and exams into the more tightly focused research questions raised by my dissertation, the colloquia have assumed an even larger role in shaping my intellectual trajectory. Reading papers that are geographically, methodologically, or chronologically outside of my scholarly comfort zone has helped keep me abreast of research being done in other areas of early American history and has alerted me to secondary literature and theoretical approaches that I might not otherwise encounter. Going back over my notes from the past few years, I am struck by how many books and questions I have discovered in this way. The rigorous intellectual environment at each colloquium requires a close engagement with the questions raised by scholars across the field of vast early American history. Between the stimulating conversations and the desserts at the receptions, I am looking forward to this spring’s colloquia series.

2. By Peter Olsen-Harbich

Nestled between towers of austere tomes, the historian widens her eyes in tentative excitement. A discovery! A new document, long ago sequestered and disregarded, now revealed. Or a new synthesis, puzzled out of a twentieth-century historiography groaning with contradiction, now wordsmithed. Putting pen to page, the historian scrawls what she will later refer to as “her contribution.” Such is a common conception of our enterprise, and for good reason. Many of our proudest accomplishments have begun in a similar context, albeit with more modernisms—perhaps a humming computer instead of tomes, or a tweet rather than a scribble. For all the familiarities, however, what is absent from this rendering is that great daemon of History which so often works to inspire, ward, and advance our nascent discoveries: collaboration.

Here at the Omohundro, it is impossible for graduate students to nurture chimeras such as the solitary scholar. We are instead, through the OI’s colloquia, regularly confronted with the verity of scholarship’s coproduction, and made all the better thinkers and colleagues for it. Each colloquium serves to convene William & Mary’s unique community of early Americanist faculty, graduate students, and erudite visitors, a collective that wields centuries of germane experience. This mind conducts a thorough appraisal of the project at hand, esteeming its successes and bringing light onto its imperfections. The apogee is recombination; the assimilation of critique into a thoroughly novel and improved coproduct. For graduate student participants, the lesson is clear. No scholarly fruit, at least none worth consuming, is borne solely from its own seeds. The muck of critique is a necessary fertilizer.

A few words must also be said about the ethos of collegiality which is promoted by the colloquia. Critique possesses no intrinsic, constraining virtue, and it can easily become a degenerative exercise in peacockery or acrimony. Defying this dreadful possibility, those who gather at Omohundro colloquia espouse kind and generous criticisms, offered towards the clear end of improving a scholarly product.  No young scholar can leave a colloquium with the suspicion that they have witnessed mean spirited pedantry, nor can they claim license for carrying such brutishness into other academic chambers. Omohundro colloquia are thus not solely workshops for field-defining scholarship, they are also occasions for the formation of new scholars who reject the cynicism that viciousness is part and parcel of rigorous scholarship. In doing so, colloquia reproduce the core values of the OI, ensuring another generation of early Americanists as incisive as they are humane.







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