Two-Year Old Challenge Accepted: African-American Studies at UM

UM's Dr. Tobin Miller Shearer teaches an African-American Studies class.

MISSOULA – In the spring of 2022, students in a Davidson Honors College class at the University of Montana received a challenge from their professor, Dr. Tobin Miller Shearer.

The director of UM’s African-American Studies Program and current History Department chair asked the room full of students to think about what they wanted to do about racial justice two years down the road.

Following that conversation, he offered them a challenge – and a reward. 

“If you send me an email two years from today telling me how this class has influenced your actions – or not – I’ll treat you to coffee,” Shearer said in his Dismantling Racism class.

“Mostly I wanted them to project their thoughts into the future, not just speculate about what they would do that day or the next,” he said. “I didn’t really think anyone would remember to respond.”

He was mistaken.

On Friday, Feb. 23, a student from that class, Erin Heaton, wrote to Shearer to report on what had changed in their life. Heaton began by noting, “It’s harder for me to think about what hasn’t changed in the last two years than what has.”

They then reflected on how Shearer’s class helped them to shift “academic, personal, and professional goals to being macro-level as opposed to micro-level.”

In addition to addressing career goals, the social work student noted how the class led them to challenge limitations imposed by “either/or thinking, fear of open conflict, … power hoarding and only one right way thinking.”

 Heaton concluded, “I think that over the last two years there have been lots of things that helped to shape me, but undoubtedly that class was one!”

Shearer made good on his promise, treated his former student to coffee, and the two spent time thinking about additional strategies and ways to address racial justice in an increasingly divided nation.

“It is students like Erin,” Shearer added, “who keep me energized and engaged with our student body. Erin is just one example – one with a particularly good memory for long-term tasks – of students who want to use their education to make our world and our country a better place. Erin’s response gives me so much hope.”

UM’s African-American Studies program is the country’s third oldest and offers a major, minor and certificate. Graduates of the program have gone on to careers in law, nonprofit administration, sports leadership and social service, among many other fields.


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communication, 406-243-5659,