“The work I do is true to our training [as historians] and representative of what that training can be for the public.” ~ Dr. Valerie Paley, Vice President, Chief Historian, and Director of the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical Society.
After a brief break to make room for the fantastic “Founding Fiction” roundtable series about children’s and young adult literature, “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America” is back! We’re excited to feature two interviews today and tomorrow.
Today, we bring you a conversation between The Junto’s Katy Lasdow and Dr. Valerie Paley, Vice President, Chief Historian, and Director of the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical Society.
JUNTO: Though not an early Americanist by training, your work at N-YHS has included a variety of projects steeped in early American history, including “New York Rising” and “Saving Washington,” the inaugural exhibition in the Women’s History Gallery. How has your work encouraged you to explore fields beyond those you studied in graduate school?
VALERIE PALEY: Working in public history within the museum setting can be a mixed blessing as a trained scholar. On one hand, there is a certain glamour to doing work that has a public-facing element that can be viewed and reviewed by the wider public and press alike. On the other hand, the work requires its practitioners to be intellectually nimble and flexible—which is a great thing—but to sometimes engage in material that is outside their field of expertise, interest, or sufficient level of proficiency. As a result, my work can be less about “exploring” new fields but rather drawing on the wider content areas and skills I acquired in grad school—and researching and writing about those fields in ways that resonate with the public. And much of the time, the work is part of a process of deliberation, negotiation, and collaboration with others—it’s not uniquely your own. In that sense, sometimes I miss just sitting down at a desk and pursuing a topic and project that are completely the product of my own thinking.
JUNTO: How did your relationships with various mentors (advisors, professors, colleagues) and the broader scholarly community shape your career trajectory? Do you have any advice for graduate students seeking to build stronger relationships with mentors?
PALEY: I never would have had the initiative, confidence, or stamina to go back to grad school for a PhD late in life, were it not for my mentor, Kenneth T. Jackson. He saw my potential and never gave up thinking that I could realize it more fully. The various times I lost confidence, he showed me the way—with my work on paper, in the classroom, and in navigating and forging relationships in the scholarly community. The times I achieved my greatest successes, he also was there cheering me on. Other professors and colleagues in much the same manner performed the same function at different points along the way.
An intellectual and emotional support system is so important to have while toiling in the wind tunnel that is graduate school. I encourage grad students to cultivate these relationships by being open to quietly learn, observe, and give back. However, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that professors and other mentors are under no obligation to go the extra mile with a student if the student is self-serving, demanding, or unreasonable about expectations; these relationships are very much a two-way street.
JUNTO: What skills as a historian did you bring to your position, and what skills did you learn while on the job? How do these skills complement each other in your daily work?
PALEY: My title is “chief historian,” so in theory and in practice I do what historians do. This includes assessing historical problems; organizing thoughts into arguments, research, writing; and supervising younger historians who help me in that process. I am often asked by students and potential public historians, “What do I have to study to get a job like yours?” Often these questions are posed by people at a crossroads deciding on whether to pursue a museum studies graduate program. While there is much to the theory one can learn in such a program, it never, ever can compete with the experience one gets on the job in day-to-day activities at the museum, even at the lowest levels. One day it might be boning up on an obscure topic to be able to semi-articulately talk about it to the press or on camera; another day it might be gently explaining to a significant donor over lunch why their idea for an exhibition is lousy; another day it might be editing someone else’s work into a coherent book manuscript published under the aegis of the museum. I rarely get many hours of uninterrupted time working at one task.
JUNTO: In our conversation together at N-YHS, we chatted about the notion of “dual identity” – the complex dynamic of balancing work in both the scholarly and public worlds – and how sometimes this balance can feel a bit “subversive.” How has this subversive attitude shaped your career choices and approach to the work you do?
PALEY: This balance was at its most subversive when I entered the PhD program knowing full well that I had no intention of pursuing the professoriate track. Although I think that the subversive aspect of going to grad school to not be a professor is slowly changing in the academy, I also think that a vast number of administrators, professors, and colleagues still fail to see the purpose of enduring the long haul of grad school if not to become a practitioner in higher education. But my answer to those naysayers is that through my work reaching out to the public—many of whom love history but have had a cursory education in it—I am reaching a far wider swath of people, doing what one might think of as evangelical work in the name of history. Making sophisticated historical arguments on wall labels in a museum exhibition, without using complex historical language, can be more challenging than writing a dissertation. Maybe thirty people total read my dissertation. But thousands have seen my exhibitions.
JUNTO: What advice would you give to a history graduate student who wishes to get more involved in museums and cultural institutions but wonders, “Where do I start?”
PALEY: Volunteer (or become an intern), which is what I did, at the lowest level. And do it with energy and cheer, and without complaint. Ultimately, I was given harder and harder tasks, because I was game to try. And then, because I was handily available, quietly toiling away at something quite mundane, I usually was at the right place at the right time when opportunity knocked.
JUNTO: Do you have any final thoughts on career diversity for doctoral candidates?
PALEY: It’s important to follow a passion, without which life and career can be a bore. Even though some days I resent the work I do because it’s not about a particular topic I care about, it’s still in history, which I love. I can’t help but get excited about expressing that passion and enthusiasm in my daily efforts.
Thank you for sharing your story with The Junto, Valerie.
Readers, please join in the conversation about career diversity in history by leaving your thoughts and stories in the comments. We look forward to featuring the next installment of “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America” with you on Friday.