Richard Bell Receives 2017 Board Of Regents Faculty Award For Excellence
May 31, 2017 History
Historian engages students through focus on everyday people in American history.
Associate Professor of history Richard Bell is the recipient of the 2017 University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching. This award is the highest honor that the Board of Regents bestows to acknowledge exemplary faculty achievement within the USM.
As a social historian who studies American history between 1750 and 1877, Bell focuses on the experiences and contributions of everyday people. He uses storytelling in the classroom and in his research to help students and readers understand history. For example, in History 137, “Pursuits of Happiness: Ordinary Lives in The American Revolution,” Bell spends the first lecture of each week providing context and background on a particular subject. In the second lecture, he focuses on a person whose life illustrates that subject. That person could be someone like a midwife in Maine, an enslaved stable boy working for George Washington or Ben Franklin’s sister. Bell uses a similar approach in most of his classes.
“By focusing on people we find at the margins of the familiar story of American history,” Bell says, “we can see how ordinary people experienced and shaped the world we’ve inherited.”
This inclusive approach to history engages students and helps them feel more comfortable, even when discussing difficult subjects like slavery. Fasika Delessa ’18, says that as a female, Ethiopian-American immigrant, learning about slavery had always been an awkward, uncomfortable experience until she took Bell’s History 189, “Fighting Slavery.”
“[Bell] would balance lecturing about the dreadful circumstances enslaved people experienced with the unbelievable, brilliantly courageous ways they tried to escape their realities,” Delessa says. “After each class, I left hopeful and optimistic, in awe of the insurmountable odds overcome.”
To give students further insight into American history, Bell incorporates off campus visits into his courses. For example, students might visit the Ball-Sellers House, a one-room cabin built in 1742, to see how a mid-18th century white tailor would have lived. Or they might go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mt. Vernon Estate to learn more about the lives of George Washington’s enslaved workers.
Bell joined the history department in 2006 after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University and already has a distinguished record of teaching honors, including the University of Maryland’s prized Kirwan Award for Undergraduate Education.
Bell is the author of “We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States,” and co-editor of “Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America.” He is currently working on a new book called “The Lost Boys: A Story of Slavery and Justice on the Reverse Underground Railroad,” about the pre-Civil War practice of kidnapping free blacks from free states and transporting them to slave states to sell as slaves. The book explores this history through the lives of five free black boys who were kidnapped in Philadelphia and sold into slavery in Mississippi. Three of the boys escaped back to Philadelphia to tell their stories.
“Ordinary lives matter, and the lessons of the past are empowering,” Bell says. “Regular people have gathered together throughout history to create positive change. In my research and teaching, I’m interested in showing how people from all walks of life have made a difference.”
The USM Board of Regents bestows up to 17 awards annually across four categories: public service; teaching; mentoring; and research, scholarship, and creative activity. Each award carries a $1,000 prize, provided by the institutions and the University System of Maryland Foundation.