Past, Present and Future

By Daney Daniel Kepple


Tim Huebner in class

Forty-two is young to feel old, and Tim Huebner doesn’t—not really. He is, however, feeling the sense of seniority that comes from successful experience. After 14 years in Rhodes classrooms, he thinks he may have the hang of teaching, but that doesn’t make him love it less. Founding and presiding over the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies was gratifying, yet he was happy to hand it over to his successor, Professor Milton Moreland. He has achieved the rank of professor and accepted the chairmanship of the Rhodes History Department. He has just published a book that will cement his stature in his discipline, and will soon publish a textbook that is expected to become a standard.

What accounts for such success at so young an age? Let’s go back to the beginning. Huebner recalls two salient facts about this childhood: He read the Landmark series book Meet Abraham Lincoln when he was seven years old and fell in love with history. The son of a “mixed marriage” (his father was from Michigan while his mother was a loyal South Carolinian) who grew up in Orlando, “I had an identity crisis of sorts,” he muses. “Was Florida part of the South? Was I a Southerner?”

Never wavering from his commitment to be a historian, Huebner received a B.A. from the University of Miami, then accepted a fellowship to study with renowned southern historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown at the University of Florida.

“I went there to study Southern history with one of my heroes,” Huebner emphasizes. “I had never even heard of legal or constitutional history.”

However, in his first semester of graduate school he took a seminar with another eminent scholar, constitutional historian Kermit Hall, and everything changed.

The young graduate student found himself with two mentors and two specialties within his discipline. Those relationships have shaped everything since, including his decision to come to Rhodes.

“After having studied the American South at that point for about eight years, I suddenly found myself living there!” he writes on his Web page. “I quickly put down roots in my new home, and in 2003 I founded the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, an undergraduate research program that focuses on the Memphis region. Living and working here has given me the chance to explore the history and culture of this fascinating city and to send my students into local archives and libraries to do the same. I cannot imagine a more intriguing place for a historian of the American South to inhabit.”

Recruited by the Rhodes History Department to teach Southern history, Huebner also brought his expertise in the history of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, he has taught an intriguing mix of classes including special topics courses on the Mind of the South, Southern Politics, and the History of Memphis, as well as a course that focuses on his research expertise—Law and Justice in the American South.

Huebner’s classes are usually filled to capacity, according to his students, thanks to the subject matter, his depth of knowledge and his spellbinding delivery. In fact, glowing reviews from students played a large role in his selection as 2004 Tennessee Professor of the Year by The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. And that, in turn, led to the textbook contract.

“Pearson Publishing Company believes that good teachers make good textbook writers.” Huebner smiles. “I think they also saw a good market opportunity.” After all, he points out, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction is a course taught on most college campuses.

There are several existing textbooks on the subject, but Huebner’s history will have a unique focus as it is written from the constitutional point of view. The book is due out in 2011 to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in 1861 that began the Civil War.

While he claims to have known nothing about writing a textbook when the publisher first approached him, Huebner says he was lured by “the chance to reach students all over the country. That’s what makes it so exciting.” Along the way he discovered that producing a textbook, at least for him, is like teaching: “You reach out, inform, convey information and show the larger arc of history.”

Huebner has driven himself to balance the inherent conflict between writing a readable narrative and maintaining an overarching theme on one hand and the need to serve as an encyclopedia of names, dates and facts on the other. He seems to be walking the line successfully—of the five chapters he has completed and circulated, he has received “some good criticism and very positive feedback about the style and organization,” he says. “That’s very exciting.”

Huebner’s first step was an 11-day odyssey through some of the territory where the war took place. He spent an afternoon at the home of Andrew Johnson in Greenville, TN, a day at Washington and Lee University learning about Robert E. Lee’s life after the war, more hours at the home of Stonewall Jackson, Appomattox and, perhaps most important, Gettysburg.

“I walked the site of Lincoln’s address and tried to think as he was thinking, looking out over the graves, trying to make sense of a war that caused the deaths of 620,000 people and liberated four million. Nobody gets more credit than Lincoln for turning the carnage into a war of liberation.”

Huebner becomes animated and almost poetic as he recalls the trip to the East Coast and back.

“Just driving through Virginia was an experience, getting the sense of the landscape. I could imagine what it was like for the armies to cross the mountains, survive in the wilderness. I had seen it all before as a tourist, but this was different. I was looking at it all in a whole new way. At each stop, seeing the relics, listening to the experts, watching the tourists, I gained a new level of understanding. I had to see and experience it all over again in order to write about it. The trip was truly inspirational. It got me going on the project.”

He got as far as organizing the book into chapters with the help of research assistant David Tyler ’06 when he received a fateful e-mail from Thomas G. Patterson, editor of the Major Problems in American History series. Huebner’s Florida mentor Kermit Hall, who had died suddenly two weeks earlier, had been working on the second edition of his work, Major Problems in American Constitutional History. Patterson wrote to Huebner on the high recommendation of Robert McMahon, editor of Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War volume, to invite him to take over where Hall left off.

“Your scholarly work and teaching excellence certainly confirm his view that you are the best choice for this project,” Patterson wrote.

“It’s hard to describe how I felt,” Huebner says. After a pause, “Of course, I was emotional about Kermit’s death. I very much looked up to him and wanted to be like him. He was only 61 years old. He died of a heart attack while swimming in the Atlantic.” Another pause. “And this honor—the people who are asked to write the volumes in the Major Problems series are the leading scholars of their field.” He shakes his head.

“The first volume came out when I was in graduate school studying under Kermit,” Huebner recalls. “Of course, I never dreamed I would be involved in the second edition. It was personally very meaningful to me, to have a chance to carry on the legacy of a mentor.”

Then he got down to work and discovered that there was still a lot to be done. Hall’s death occurred soon after the draft table of contents had been sent to the review panel for comments.

“That meant I saw a lot of comments and suggestions Kermit never got to see,” Huebner points out. “I made some changes based on those and some based on 14 years of knowing what works in the classroom. But I kept his basic structure and didn’t change any primary sources. The basic architecture is still as he wanted it to be.”

It appears to be a winning combination.

“It will be used all over the country in law schools and history departments. They printed 7,800 copies. My first book sold 500, which is typical.” Huebner smiles.

As he prepares to bring two major projects to fruition and enter a new stage, Huebner is philosophical.

“Academic careers have distinct phases. In the beginning you’re busy teaching and publishing and going through all the steps necessary to earn tenure. Then there’s an intermediate phase when you’re still teaching and publishing but you feel the need to extend that experience beyond the classroom. The Institute filled that need for me.”

Huebner is enthusiastic about the next chapter in his career.

“I’m looking forward to chairing the department. It will allow me to promote the work of my colleagues and champion the department on campus and in the community. We have an outstanding group of young historians, so I don’t expect to spend much time on recruitment. If anything changes I will try to do what great administrators always do—hire people better than themselves.”

That could be a tall order.

No Time Like the Present

Tim Huebner has spent a lot of time writing about people he does not admire. People like Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

People who recognize the name most often do so for one reason: He presided over the Supreme Court that ruled on the infamous Dred Scott case that denied U.S. citizenship to African Americans. And yet, as Huebner demonstrated in his 2003 book, The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy, that same court was responsible for important accomplishments in commerce, contracts, the protection of civil liberties and defining the scope of presidential power.

To those who question why he would want to enhance the image of justices many regard as nefarious, Huebner replies, “There is a term—presentism—in our discipline that refers to judging the past based on present-day values. History is not a morality tale with heroes and villains. Human motivation is much more nuanced than that. Historians strive to take people from the past on their own terms without imposing our values. My job is to get into the minds of people I’m studying. I ask questions like, ‘What were they thinking?’ ‘What motivated a human being to enslave another human being?’ I don’t have to approve, just try to see from their point of view.”

He has spent his career doing just that, and doing it quite well.

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