Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College


John Bezis-Selfa

John Bezis-Selfa

Associate Professor of History

I was born in Oakland, CA, in 1966. As the oldest son of a Greek immigrant father and a first-generation Hispanic mother, I spent my entire life in the Bay Area until I moved to Philly for grad school in 1989. I came to Wheaton in 1995, right after finishing my doctorate at Penn. I like New England, but I love California and Philly and consider myself at home in both, root for the 49ers and Eagles, and try to visit both places every chance I get.


Ph.D., M.A., University of Pennsylvania
B.A., University of California at Berkeley

Main Interests

  • History of the Americas and Atlantic world
  • Language, politics, and identity
  • Latino/a history
  • Slavery and abolition
  • Brasil

Research Interests

In March 2012 Oxford University Press published American Horizons: U. S. History in a Global Context.  Press. I am one of seven co-authors and the chief author of Chapters 1-5 of Volume 1. The opportunity to work on a project that featured the movement of peoples, goods, and ideas across borders as a key way to explain change in US history lured me to the project. Collaboration with my co-authors was the best part of the project.

I'm currently at work on a new book project focused on the history of Spanish as a public language in the US since the Louisiana Purchase. I'm also exploring a backburner project on the history of my hometown, Livermore, CA.

Either project would be a fairly sharp departure from my last one. I published Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution in 2004. You can learn more about it through Cornell University Press at www.cornellpress.cornell.edu. In Forging America, I argue that a culture of industriousness which emerged in colonial British North America and the US depended on slavery, race, and the coercion of working people as much as it did on the acceptance and practice of a religiously-inspired work ethic.

Teaching Interests

Fall 2013
History 219: Norte y Sur

Explores history of the Hispanophone Americas since national independence by focusing on Mexico and Argentina, particularly on the relationship between politics, culture, and the construction of national identity. We consider nation-building and economic development, experiences and roles of indigenous peoples, immigration and emigration, industrialization, urbanization, the roles of western Europe and the US in shaping Latin America, the Mexican Revolution, Marxism and the Cold War, the historical roots of contemporary issues such as transnational migration and narcotrafficking, and recent efforts at political and
economic reform as Mexicans and Argentines proceed through the early 21st century.

History 302: Junior Colloquium

This course, required of all history majors, has two principal goals–to teach the discipline of history and to teach that history is a discipline. It provides brief introductions to history of history, considerations of what history is, whom it is for, what it means to practice history ethically, and an introduction to several significant schools of historical thought. We also focus on development of skills vital to the discipline of history: how to interpret a variety of genres of primary sources, how to read historiography, and how to conceptualize and plan original research.

Spring 2014

History 201: Colonial North America 

Provides an introduction to the colonial history of North America. Topics include: indigenous societies before contact with Europeans and Africans; European reconnaissance and colonization; the rise of indentured servitude and racial slavery; social and cultural exchange among and between native peoples, Africans, and Europeans; connections of North America to the Caribbean Basin and Atlantic world; conflicts between European colonizers for dominance of North America; and social, political and economic development of mainland British North America in the 18th century.

History 208: American Indian Histories

Examines histories of indigenous peoples of what’s today the United States from their arrival on the continent to the present, mainly from 1600 to 1880. Topics include: settlement, pre-contact culture, interaction with colonizers, impact of US territorial expansion, assimilation and reservation life, Termination, the American Indian Movement, and recent efforts aimed at cultural revival and self-determination.

History 217:  Mundo Brasileiro

Explores the construction of Brazil and its diaspora since 1500 through documents, scholarly works, fiction, music and film. Topics include: colonization and its impact on indigenous peoples, African slavery and its legacies, migration, gender norms, politics and economic development, the rise of mass culture, urbanization and industrialization, how outsiders have viewed Brazil, and the impact of all these on Brazilians’ struggle to define what is “Brazilian.”


Other Interests

Brasilian music, without question.

I like nearly all popular genres except sertaneja. I have played them all on my show "Ritmo Atlântico," which I did on Wheaton College Radio WCCS, 96.5 FM from 2002 through 2005. I usually revive the show whenever I teach Mundo Brasileiro and give students the option of appearing on air with me. I have also done guest DJ appearances on WMBR 88.1 FM, MIT's station.

Football rivals Brasilian music and usually trumps it during football season. I adore the 49ers (my birthright team), Patriots, Eagles (more like watching a train wreck lately, the Chip Kelly era could bring another train wreck, but it won't be boring), and the Ravens. Sorry, New Englanders, but even a real Patriots fan has to respect that the Ravens came to Gillette twice in the last four years and beat the Pats soundly during the playoffs. Many Pats would do well to follow the motto hanging all over M&T Bank Stadium and Play Like A Raven. Besides, they're my nephew Fano's favorite team, so I have to like them, no?

I also enjoy:

  • Birdwatching (and collecting birding field guides)
  • Gardening (chiles and wildflowers native to North America)
  • Cooking
  • Going home to California and to Philly


American Horizons: U.S. History in a Global Context [with Michael Schaller, Robert Schulzinger, Janette Thomas Greenwood, Andrew Kirk, Sarah J. Purcell and Aaron Sheehan-Dean], 2vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers,and the Industrious Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004)

"A Tale of Two Ironworks: Slavery, Free Labor, Work, and Resistance in the Early Republic," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, 56 (October 1999): 677-700.

"Slavery and the Disciplining of Free Labor in the Colonial Mid-Atlantic Iron Industry," Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 64 (Special Supplemental Issue, Summer 1997): 270-286.


It's not really a "peformance," but I don't know where else to put this under Professional Activities.

I am part of the "leadership core" for the American Historical Association's Tuning initiative, being funded by a three-year grant from the Lumina Foundation.

You can learn more about Tuning and my connection to it at: http://www.historians.org/projects/tuning/


Student Projects

Rebekah Bryer ('13) completed an independent study project under my direction on performance broadly conceived in colonial British North America and the early US.

Melissa Carter ('11) completed an independent study project under my direction on the relationship between Puritan theology and experiential religion in New England during the mid-17th century.

Sidney Reavey ('10) took an independent study with me in Spring 2010 focused on development and politics in Latin America since World War II.

Evelyn Sanders ('08) took an independent study with me on migration from Latin America to the US in the 20th century while she is interning at Centro Presente in Cambridge.

Rachel Pierre ('08), a History major who has concentrated on study of the Caribbean, took an independent study with me in Fall 2007 on Caribbean history up to c. 1850, with a special focus on the Francophone Caribbean.

Courtney Allen ('07) wrote a terrific honors thesis under my direction on New France and French efforts to acculturate indigenous peoples.

Emily Edwards ('05) and Deanna Torres ('05), both independent majors in Latin American Studies, completed thesis projects--Emily on education and national identity in early 20th century Mexico, Deanna on politics, culture, and the construction of Puerto Rican identity in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Emily presented her work at Wheaton's Academic Festival in April 2005.

Sean Britt (Wheaton 2000 and former Davis fellow)worked with me on the history of slavery in 19th century Nevis.