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An Intro to Research: Interview with Paul Stewart

November 20, 2019 • Sam Grabel

History Factory is pleased to welcome its newest researcher, Paul Stewart. History Factory’s Sam Grabel sat down with Paul to learn more about his background and interests.

Sam Grabel: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing. Where did you find your passion for history?

Paul Stewart: I’m from the North Shore of Massachusetts—a small town called Hamilton. Growing up, I was actually never that into history. If you grow up near Boston, you just learn about the Revolutionary War again and again. You get a little bit tired of learning about Bunker Hill and Paul Revere, and so it wasn’t until college that I discovered my passion for history.

I went to American University here in Washington, D.C. Second semester, I took the class that made me want to want to be a history major.

I’m going to these block classes on Wednesday in history, and block classes are three hours, three and a half hours, and it would just fly by, because it was just these stories that I was fascinated by. And the professor would do all these crazy things. Every class, he’d pick a theme. One whole class, he talked about alcohol, and for that class he dressed up like a Prohibition-era gangster, and he played jazz music very low the entire time.

He loved to tell stories. For example, we would learn about an immigrant from Eastern Europe who came in through Ellis Island, and you would follow them as they tried to settle and find work.

He would really put in the time to make these classes super accessible, super interesting, and just teach history in a way that I’d never really known before. And so, I became a history major and never really looked back.

I’m a big Civil War buff, and I wrote my thesis on Ulysses S. Grant’s ill-fated attempt to run for a third [presidential] term in 1880. I wrote my thesis about the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago and the floor fight and the mistakes made by the Grant campaign.

Sam: Let’s talk a little bit about your process for writing that paper. Was that your first exposure to that level of in-depth research?

My thesis probably was my first research project of that intensity. At American, you can either write a thesis that’s 30 pages in six months, or you can write a 45-page paper in a year.

I chose to dive in and do the full yearlong class, because I knew that whatever I made at the end of the year, I’d be prouder of, and I was more excited to do a long-term, intensive project. I did have a tough time picking a topic, but I really did find myself loving the research. I remember reading through old issues of Harper’s Weekly once I had actually picked my topic. I was just reading everything from the time period of the Republican National Convention. I found this tongue-in-cheek, angry editorial that calls out all the hypocrisy and the anger and the heavy-handed tactics of the Grant campaign.

It was one of those “a-ha” moments that I think you find in history, where you come across this source that connects it all. That became my introduction. That was how I introduced the topic to the reader—through the anger and the acidity of this editorial.

Sam: What about your life after college? Where have you worked, and how will those experiences help you in your new role?

Paul: Actually, through the end of my college career and then after I graduated, I worked as a bike and Segway tour guide in downtown D.C.

That is probably some of the most fantastic life training you can have, because not only are you together for a three-hour tour, but it needs to be informative and entertaining and appeal to all walks of people from all across the world.

I worked as a democracy intern at Public Citizen, this great nonprofit advocacy group. Every week, I would come in, and my boss, who was extremely passionate, would have something new she wanted to conquer. It was great on-the-fly training, because every week, I was having to come up to speed on a new subject.

I also worked as a dramaturg, which is a theater historian. On these plays, I would do deep dives into the history of the time period and the setting, and then just be the historical resource for the actors, the director and costume designer.

That’s a really fun job, because you get all these questions that you have to research, and it’s great to try to summarize history in a way that is accessible to all.

Right before I came to History Factory, I worked at the American History Museum for about a year and a half. I was a public programs facilitator in the Office of Audience Engagement. I would work on the floor of the museum. I was on the front lines, helping develop and test new programming on the floor, helping run some of the exhibit spaces, and then also helping with museum theater.

I’d say I have an eclectic background, but History Factory does so many different things that I think it’s a good fit.

Sam: What attracted you to History Factory?

Paul: The teamwork aspect. And since I’ve come aboard, everyone’s taken the time to send me their resources that I need to look at or to point me in the right direction.

I was also just impressed with the breadth of work. You look at the website, you can see these major, major companies. I mean, my phone runs on Verizon. I shave with a Gillette razor and cook on Kenmore appliances.

I also worked in the public sector for a year and a half, and don’t get me wrong, I loved that job very much, but it’s nice to be in the private sphere. It’s definitely just a faster pace—the turnaround times on projects and to get approvals on things.

Sam: What can we find you doing when you’re not at work?

Paul: I’m a little bit of a nerd. I’m constantly reading. I’m a bit of a foodie. I like to try new restaurants around D.C., sometimes with great results, sometimes disastrous.

And I’m a big museum guy, given my prior work experience. And my girlfriend works at the National Portrait Gallery, so I’m always going to new exhibits, new wings and things as they open.

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