Faculty Profile: Tobin Miller Shearer
Professor Tobin Shearer could have taught somewhere else. He had other offers. It felt important to him, though, to teach at a place like the University of Montana.
“I wanted to be engaged in the very important practice of public education,” said Shearer, director of the African-American Studies program and professor of history at UM. “I am a product of public education. My sons are graduates of the University of Montana. I believe what we do here is one of the most important functions we play in a democracy.”
“We are giving students, who probably couldn’t afford to go to private college, a quality education equal to what they would get at an Ivy League institution,” Shearer said. “I’m going to make sure my students get current scholarship, make sure they’re connected to contemporary scholars in the country, and I’m going to Skype in colleagues around the world. I’m convinced students coming out of my program are getting that quality education.”
That commitment to timely and quality education in midst of further evidence of resurgent racism prompted Shearer to offer a new course on White Supremacy two weeks prior to the start of Fall 2019. "The class filled in a week," he explained, "and students on the first day expressed their gratitude for getting to take a class that felt relevant and timely. They are expecting to make a difference by taking this class."
Though UM boasts the country’s third oldest African-American Studies program, Missoula was perhaps not an obvious stop on Shearer’s professional journey. After attending college in Virginia, he spent six years in New Orleans working with families of homicide victims and people on death row. Next, he went to Pennsylvania, co-founded a national anti-racism education and organizing collective, and helped run it for nine years. Then he earned a Ph.D. at Northwestern.
Montana, a place he had only been once before, beckoned – and offered surprises.
“What impresses me about Montana students is their tenacity,” said Shearer, who arrived in Missoula in 2008. “Many of them are coming through the program while holding outside jobs, coming in as first-generation students. They stick to it and see it through. That’s pretty amazing to me.”
“The best students I work with at UM are equal to and superior to students I worked with at Northwestern, which is a very prestigious private school,” he said.
Shearer is equally impressed by the broader community’s enthusiasm for his students and his program. Shearer hosts a twice-yearly soup and pie night for students and community supporters – a party of about 70 people.
“Donors who contribute to the program come and they’re just beaming the whole evening about having a chance to talk to the students and hear what they’re studying,” Shearer said. “Last year, my wife and I served 187 slices of pie, and it’s totally worth it to see the town-gown interaction happening.”
That sense of community may be why, three or four years into his time in Montana, on a return flight after presenting a paper on the East Coast, Shearer felt something different when the plane dropped into the Missoula Valley.
“There was something about dipping into the valley and seeing the mountains around us – I could see the University off to the side – and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’m coming home here,’” Shearer said. “Seeing the University was definitely a big part of that sense of homecoming.”