Interview with Emma Hart, Richard S. Dunn Director of MCEAS

Emma Hart: Leading the McNeil Center toward the Semiquincentennial and beyond 

Emma Hart has an exuberance that is infectious. In her second year as the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (MCEAS), Hart emanates a sense of enthusiasm, readiness, and gratitude regarding her place at the helm of the Center. She is honored to carry on the work that her predecessors began and is looking forward to taking the Center in new directions as well. 

Hart also brings her deep commitment to scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania in her roles as a professor of history and a co-editor of the Early American Studies book series published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. She completed her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of two books, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (2010) and Trading Spaces: The Colonial Marketplace and the Foundations of American Capitalism (2019). She is currently writing a biography of the Scottish novelist, historian, and essayist, Tobias Smollett. 

As the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence nears, she sees a world of opportunities for the McNeil Center. We spoke with her about her experiences to date and her vision for the Center’s future.

Figure 1. Emma Hart introduces McNeil Center Barra Postdoctoral Fellow María Esther Hammack at a McNeil Friday seminar on February 11, 2022. Photo from the MCEAS Archives.

Q: Why did you want to become director of the MCEAS?

Emma Hart (EH): I was at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland before I came back to the United States after a twenty-year hiatus in the UK. St. Andrews was a great place to teach but I was the only early Americanist, and, by the end, the only Americanist in the history department. It was a somewhat lonely place to be, although I had wonderful colleagues and I also learned a lot by having to read outside my field in order to become more of a transnational historian. So, I was looking for opportunities to move back to “the center” of early American history and I got really lucky as the McNeil Center is one of the centers of early American studies. What especially attracted me to this role, however, was the opportunity to set the agenda of intellectual inquiry in our field, while also helping it to flourish by supporting younger scholars. The McNeil Center, as established by my illustrious predecessors Richard Dunn and Dan Richter, has always been characterized by its energetic and friendly community of young scholars. I am privileged to have the opportunity to be the custodian of this community, and to figure out how I can support it in an era where tenure-track jobs are scarce.

Q: In what ways have your academic interests affected the Center’s programming?

EH: When someone is a director of a center like the MCEAS, it is important to put one’s own research interests to one side. It is my job to create programming that inspires early Americanists from the widest possible array of disciplinary backgrounds. We are fundamentally an interdisciplinary center. I don’t want to make all the programming about history, even though I am primarily a historian. I also don’t want to make everyone into a social and economic historian, even though I’m interested in that. It’s often the case that my own interests are not necessarily where the field is going so I think it’s my job in this role to offer programming that prioritizes developing cutting-edge interests, as well as catering to longer standing debates in early American studies.

Since assuming the directorial role, I’ve built on the wonderful array of conferences and workshops that were hosted by Dan Richter. On the one hand, we have had events that speak to live issues in early American studies – namely our June 2022 conference on climate change, and the March 2022 forum on “Teaching Independence” that discussed how we approach the founding of the United States in classrooms. In the fall of 2022, the “War Stories” conference gathered early modern scholars together to discuss the nature and effects of war in the Atlantic world. This conference was more topical than we anticipated, given the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as other ongoing conflicts throughout the world. Over the next couple of years, we will extend the focus on climate issues by collaborating with the University of Kansas for a conference on slavery and the environment. 

My other major preoccupation has been the coming semiquincentennial (250th anniversary) of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The McNeil Center is working with a variety of institutions – at Penn, in Philadelphia, and beyond – on workshops, conferences, and other events that explore the significance and meaning of this anniversary for the nation and for early Americanists. This past January, at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, I organized an interdisciplinary roundtable discussion about the Revolutionary Archive – the documentary foundations of the period. The questions of what we know about the Revolutionary era and why we concentrate on particular sources are important for scholars, archivists, and the public alike. In the twenty-first century, the digital humanities make this question even more critical and complex. On March 10, 2023, the Center will host a one-day workshop (co-sponsored with Penn Libraries) at which local archives can share the work they have been doing to prepare for 2026. 

Moving forward, exploring the Revolutionary Archive will be at the heart of the Center’s approach to 2026, though we will also be collaborating with as many other groups as possible in the run up to the anniversary itself. For example, we are organizing a conference with the Penn law school on the American Revolution and American law to take place in Fall 2023 that will be part of the semiquincentennial’s programming. In the longer term, we’re looking at the relationship between archives and the Revolution by exploring the evidentiary basis for how we have studied the American Revolution. This theme is inspired by the sort of post-truth, post-factual world that we seem to be living in. Some recent surveys completed by the American Historical Association and the American Association for State and Local History show that the American public doesn’t really understand what historians do and that’s our fault to a large degree. So, this initiative is going to focus on communicating the importance of evidence and how we use it to interpret the Revolutionary period. We’re still thinking about that programming because we want to design a suite of events over the period leading up to 2026 and beyond. That’s the other thing occupying my mind in the longer term.

Figure 2. Emma Hart, Christopher Looby, and Kathy Brown at a reception following Looby’s Friday seminar at the McNeil Center on September 9, 2022. Photo from the MCEAS Archives.

Q: To what extent did the pandemic change the role the McNeil Center plays in the scholarly community?

EH: That’s an excellent question that I’ve been thinking about a lot. It is certainly going to play a role in how I run the Center in the next few years. There are two ways in which it is influencing my thinking. 

First, there are a lot of people who have had difficulty finding secure employment in the academy. If they have a job, they’ve had difficulty doing it because of increased responsibilities caring for family members or the inability to travel. I would like the McNeil Center to start doing some things to support contingent scholars and people whose careers have been affected by the pandemic. I’m still thinking about how we can do that effectively. I think it’s something that I need to consult with our advisory council about and we need to think about it together, with input from others of the early American and McNeil Center communities. Definitely watch this space for new types of events that are designed to facilitate scholarship from those people who have had their careers and their ability to do research damaged by the pandemic.

The pandemic has also been really important to the modes through which we conduct our scholarly discussions. The Zoom conference and seminar has become a phenomenon. We had technology installed in the McNeil Center’s main seminar room to enable all events to take place in a hybrid format. As a result, nearly all of our events are now hybrid, and attract online as well as in-person audiences. As a Center that has traditionally been home to residential fellows and in-person events, we will continue gathering at the Center and other Philadelphia-area institutions because there is a huge community of early Americanists who still want to meet in person. Our fellows obviously also benefit from being here in-residence for a year. Yet, we need to work out how to assist people who can’t be here for the whole year or attend meetings in person. For those who would like to take part in our program who can’t be here in person, I can reassure them that we will continue our hybrid programming that grew out of the pandemic. 

Both of these things are influencing my thinking about programs and fellowships and their role at the McNeil Center and how we move forward.

Q: How do you think the pandemic has affected the Center’s interactions with the public more broadly, particularly in the digital sphere? 

EH: Yes, we had a conference on the digital humanities in early America in November 2021. That was obviously something that had been organized before my time so I would say that it’s a path that the McNeil Center was already going down before the pandemic hit. Titled “The Americas Online,” the conference presented a feast of early American digital humanities work. 

I’m interested in pursuing the digital humanities more broadly because I think they are so important for the field. First, there are so many exciting possibilities for how you can interpret early America in new ways. But digital tools also provide the kinds of resources or methods we can use to communicate with a wider public, as well as beyond the immediate scholarly community. The McNeil Center is already home to the Magazine of Early American Data (MEAD), a collection of data sets that is used extensively by many scholars. We are in the process of getting a podcast off the ground that will be a collaboration between the Center and Penn Press’s Early American Studies book series. 

So I think that the digital humanities is tremendously important, and I also think it’s really critical that a place like Penn supports the value of digital humanities. At the Americas Online conference, many scholars doing digital humanities felt that their work was not valued in the same way as more traditional forms of scholarship. Elite institutions like Penn need to help change that narrative because they have the necessary resources. I strongly believe the Center needs to support these initiatives. 

Figure 3. Emma Hart and Cory James Young at Young’s McNeil Friday seminar hosted by the Library Company of Philadelphia on December 9, 2022. Photo from the MCEAS Archives.

Q: What has been the most rewarding experience of your new position?

Well, it’s hard to pick one to be honest. It’s such a privilege to be in charge at the Center. But, if I had to narrow it down, I would say that interacting with the fellows has been a real highlight. They are all such interesting and smart people and an absolute delight to have around. Also, designing and participating in the Center’s programming has been truly wonderful. Thanks to the talents of our staff members Amy Baxter-Bellamy, Laura Keenan Spero, and Wendy Coffman, we’ve returned to a full menu of conferences, workshops, seminars, and brown bag lunches. Seeing the Center come back to life and full of people after the pandemic has been fantastic, and I have learned so much in the process. 

Q: What do you see as the most significant challenges early Americanists, particularly those entering the field as new Ph.D.’s, will face in the future?

The diminishing number of tenure-track jobs is clearly the biggest challenge facing early Americanists. Ph.D.’s now frequently expect to find jobs in fields adjacent to the academy – in libraries, archives, high schools, museums, and government agencies. In these roles they often have less time to produce scholarship, imperiling the field further. What is more, individuals trained to work in these adjacent fields – through professional degrees in library science, non-profit management, or public history for example – are often not overly excited to compete with Ph.D.’s who have not formally acquired any of these skills. I am focused on helping, as much as possible, MCEAS fellows to prepare for these challenges by strengthening the connections between the Center and area institutions.

Q: After working so closely with the Center’s fellows for the past couple of years, what advice do you have to graduate students entering the field of early American studies? What trends should they be encouraged about? What kinds of skills or knowledge should they have?

First, let me say what a pleasure it’s been to work with the graduate fellows (and indeed all the fellows). They are an astonishingly talented group of scholars, who are the intellectual engine of the Center in so many ways. I have benefitted hugely from learning about their work and from listening to them engage with the many people who come to present their work at conferences, brown bag sessions, and seminars.

Many of the fellows are already acquiring the skills that they will need for a successful career in early American studies in the twenty-first century. They have impressive records of engagement with the digital humanities, public historians, public history sites, and a reading public that is interested in history. I think these are skills that most early career scholars would benefit from developing and I aim for the McNeil Center to assist them as much as possible should they wish to do so. While the tenure-track job market continues to be tough, there are a number of work opportunities for early Americanists beyond it. Having come from the UK, where engagement with the nation’s past is comparatively limited, I believe that Americans’ appetite for knowing about their country’s history and its origins will mean that there will always be a need for the talents of early Americanists. The McNeil Center’s mission remains the nurturing of these talents by supporting the scholarship of students and those early in their careers. In the future, however, I hope also to provide fellows with opportunities to tap into the rich digital humanities and public history scene in Philadelphia. Soon, we will be launching a podcast featuring some of our fellows so stay tuned!

Emma Hart is the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (MCEAS), a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and a co-editor of the Early American Studies book series published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. She completed her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of two books, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (2010) and, more recently, Trading Spaces: The Colonial Marketplace and the Foundations of American Capitalism (2019). She is currently writing a biography of the Scottish novelist, historian, and essayist, Tobias Smollett.

 Cover photo courtesy of Eric Sucar, University Communications, University of Pennsylvania.