Thomas Humphrey: Faculty Spotlight

We are pleased to feature Interim Department Chair of History Thomas J. Humphrey as our Faculty Spotlight!
Humphrey Land and LibertyDr. Humphrey received his B.A. from John Carroll University in 1988 and his M.A. from John Carroll in 1990.  He went on to earn his PhD from Northern Illinois University in 1996.  His publications include the 2004 book Land and Liberty: Hudson Valley Riots in the Age of Revolution and 2005 edited volume New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Early Americas, 1500-1825 as well as his 2015 article in The Journal of Early American History, The Anatomy of a Crowd: Making Mobs in Early America.”  Dr. Humphrey is Interim Department Chair of History for AY 2015-2016 and advises Social Studies majors throughout the year.
Courses taught:
HIS 111: U.S. History to 1877 *
HIS 299: Introduction to Historical Methods *
HIS 312: Colonial America *
HIS 313: The American Revolution *
HIS 401:  History Seminar *
Graduate Reading Seminars
(* = counts toward the SST major)
TOM_HUMPHREYI am an accidental academic. While I was an undergrad at JCU, a faculty member asked if I was interested in getting an M.A. The offer came with funding so I jumped at it—I had worked full time to pay for school while getting my B.A. so the money was too good to refuse. Almost immediately, the faculty began encouraging me to pursue a PhD. I applied to a few schools, got in a couple of places, and in August 1991 I packed up and moved to DeKalb, Illinois to chase the dream of a PhD. Once at NIU, I encountered great people—Allan Kulikoff and Simon Newman foremost among them. They introduced me to the Philadelphia Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where I later received a fellowship. Going to the Center was the kind of opportunity every graduate student should have. It’s rare that we have the chance to have dozens of smart people train their thoughts on your work, and your work is the better for it. And I made personal and professional relationships that I’ve cherished ever since. Once I finished my PhD, I bounced around at a couple of different odd posts before landing at CSU, where I’ve been since 1998. It is at CSU that professors can really teach subjects like race and class because the students understand them intuitively and, too often, acutely. It’s where we can truly meet and learn from the next generation of informed and active citizens. It’s where I’ll stay.
What are your primary academic research and teaching areas? 
I research and write about three interrelated topics—land disputes, tenancy, race, and crowd violence in North America in the eighteenth century.
How do you incorporate these interests into your Social Studies and/or history courses at CSU?
Fortunately, my teaching specialties are Colonial and Revolutionary American history. The courses overlap nicely with my research interests. I think the most significant way my research interests shape my teaching is that writing the history of the bottom up, which I see as different than history from the bottom up, requires us to reshape the traditional narratives students often carry into class. Many historians develop a narrative that depends on the imperial crisis between colonists in North America and Britain that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The American Revolution, for example, becomes a deus ex machine that explains every event from roughly 1763 to 1812. Looking at history of the bottom means sometimes eschewing that master narrative. Such a perspective offers us the chance to see the past differently. At the same time, it requires students to reevaluate the history they know.
How do you use primary sources, off-campus resources, or technology in your courses?
Generally, I use primary sources to illustrate the points I’m going to try to make in the class. I have a great source from the 1820s that illuminates all the elements of Manifest Destiny for students. It’s an advertisement announcing that a group of people intend to fill a boat with animals—some wild, some not—and let the boat float down the Niagara River and then, perhaps, over the Falls. It was a money-making venture, for sure, but when we unpack the document, we can see the force that broader trends and ideas exert on people and the environment.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching at CSU?    
CSU’s student population is racially, culturally, and economically diverse. That diversity means CSU’s students understand the economic, racial, and gendered forces of power at work in history because they experience these forces, often acutely, in their day-to-day activities. In that regard, CSU’s student population is unique in the region and among leading state schools. It means we get to teach in a different way. And that diversity means we, as professors, often gather more knowledge than we impart.
What is the most important thing you learned in your teacher education program?
I learned to be fluid in my teaching style. I’m not sure exactly what that means but I suppose it means to recognize what does not work as much as it means to understand what does work, and why. The other thing I’ve learned from teaching is that students are often right. That is, students are the best barometer for what works, and for what doesn’t.
What advice would you give a student interested in becoming a Social Studies teacher?
I would urge prospective teachers to understand that sometimes it is their responsibility to present alternative narratives and perspectives to their students. Doing so pushes students to see events from different points of view. I’d take that so far as to encourage prospective teachers to ask their students to question the most fundamental things—what is a fact and how do we construct them, for example. Or, ask your students how we construct the narrative of history? Who is in? And, more importantly, who is left out? I’d then encourage teachers to shift the narrative to include the marginalized rather than exclude them.
Thank you Dr. Humphrey!