Nick Williams '15

Nick Williams in The Bakken Museum Vault

This interview has been collected and condensed by Kelly Lin-Kremer.

Class of 2015, History

Tell me a little about yourself and why you majored in History.

I grew up in Ohio, a little outside of Cleveland. In high school I actually liked the sciences more, mostly because the science teachers were good. I went to your quintessential, less-than-mediocre public high school in the Midwest.

I grew up the youngest of five. I always like to joke that I’m the black sheep of the family, to which my siblings like to respond that I’m the white sheep in a family of black sheep. Two of my siblings dropped out of high school, one was in jail for a lot of my childhood, and then the other got straight Cs throughout high school. As she likes to put it, she only got Cs because her tutor helped her cheat. Then I came along, and everyone was like, Who does this kid belong to?

Even though my family wasn’t what folks would consider smart, a lot of them liked to read, and so I always grew up around books.

When I went to Princeton, I thought I would major in chemistry or ecology and evolutionary biology. I knew I wanted to do something with environmental science.

I was in FSI, the Freshman Scholars Institute Program, which is for people like me: first-gen, low-income students. I actually ended up taking a year off from Princeton, mostly because the transition did not work. It was a struggle to adapt to Princeton that first year.

When I was away on my year off, I realized that I wasn’t really into the sciences. I didn’t like spending a lot of time in the lab. I was more interested in how people, especially scientists, think about science and use science to understand the world.

Then I was thinking more in terms of the social sciences, possibly the humanities. I knew I wanted to do something with Gender Studies. I had taken a freshman seminar with Tey Meadow, who is now at Columbia, but at the time she was at Princeton as a LGBT postdoc with Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies. Then I took a course with Margot Canaday, and it was a great representation of what History could be.

In high school, history was always taught by the coaches. They would give you a worksheet during class, and they would sit in the back and play Pac Man or Minesweeper. So that was history for me, for all of high school. I never knew that History could actually be interesting until I took Professor Canaday’s class.

But I was still not sure what I wanted to major in. I took Margot’s class in the spring of my freshman year, and then during the summer of my freshman year, I needed something to do. I knew I wanted to stick around campus, and I didn’t feel like going back to Ohio. So I looked for a  job.

I found one in the manuscripts division of Rare Books and Special Collections at Firestone. The job looked fun. I worked on all these small collections, making finding aids for them, mostly data entry stuff, but it was great because I was working with the actual manuscript materials.

That was the summer I fell in love with history, because I was working with the actual stuff of it, rather than just talking about it. I read a lot of letters between people who probably never thought their correspondence would get into an archive. I ended up working there full-time every summer during undergrad, and as much as possible during the year.

That job, even more than many of the courses I took, was where I learned a lot of history. Rare Books and Special Collections is a very eclectic archive. Princeton’s Special Collections is mostly built around literary history. I got to work with manuscript collections related to Hemingway and Sylvia Beach and also a lot of photograph collections. I got a smattering of everything: English, art, history.

The last piece that made me really want to major in History was History 280: Approaches to American History, which I took the spring of my sophomore year. The year I took it, it was co-taught by Emily Thompson and Rebecca Rix. Rebecca’s no longer at the History Department, but she was a key influence on me, and she’s one of the reasons I went into History. She ended up being a great mentor to me and eventually my thesis adviser.

What were some other memorable courses and professors from History?

The History Department has a lot of professors who have ratings that say, whatever this person teaches, you need to take it, it doesn’t matter what you’re majoring in. Even if it’s the most obscure topic, they’ll make it interesting.

And so two of those that stood out to me were English Constitutional History with Bill Jordan and an Early Modern England course with Eleanor Hubbard. Neither of those content-wise would have been particularly interesting to me, but both of those professors were really great at lecturing. They used stories to convey not only what was going on, but also why it was important, and why it’s important to think about now.

The class that probably stands out the most was a seminar with Vera Candiani on History with Objects and Things. The premise of the class was that history is more than just written texts. How can you use objects, buildings, landscapes, archaeology, all kinds of things? It ended up being a survey of different methodologies that historians could use to work with material culture. That was really awesome for me since I got into history thinking about the physical stuff. That physical stuff was of course text, but it really resonated with me.

It’s super useful for me now, since I’m a curator, and I mostly work with artifacts.

One other course I would highlight was Nancy Malkiel’s seminar on The History of Coeducation in America. That was a phenomenal course.

We had read something early in the class that mentioned a thing called euthenics and Vassar College. They were basically saying, euthenics was like home economics, but not quite, and it ended up having an interesting history at Vassar. And that’s pretty much all that was mentioned.

When I met with Nancy Malkiel to talk about the research paper for the class, I told her that I was interested in euthenics at Vassar. Without pause she said, Well fall break is coming up and Vassar is really not that far. If you have access to a car and if a cheap hotel is within your means, then you could just go do research.

I did have access to a car, so I spent half my fall break at Vassar doing research, which was a ton of fun. That term paper ended up being the seed of a book I’ve been working on for the last few years.

I submitted the first draft of my senior thesis in November of my senior year. The Undergraduate Administrator said that was the earliest anyone had ever done it in the decades she worked there. I actually went into my senior year with a full draft written. I had gotten a Stone-Davis fellowship to work on it, and I researched at seven or eight different archives. I had a blast.

The thesis ended up winning the C. O. Joline Prize in American History, the Huffman Senior Thesis Prize from GSS, and the Asher Hinds Prize from American Studies. I used all of the money from those prizes to do more research on my euthenics book. I treated them like a little fellowship.

After I graduated from Princeton, I stuck around for a year. The Special Collections had just acquired the library of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, and they needed someone to work on it. The timing worked out perfectly.

During that year, I applied to grad school and I was also writing my book, which I’m sad to say I haven’t touched in a few years. But I did end up writing two drafts of it.

I realized while I was researching that no historian has written about euthenics. It’s this idea in history that has a fascinating story and involves people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Spock, and Margaret Mead. When I mention the term, people are always like, Do you mean eugenics? It’s not eugenics; it was meant to be a kind of sister discipline. At the time it was created in the first decade of the 1900s, eugenics was still seen as acceptable. People didn’t realize there were a lot of problems.

Basically if eugenics is Nature of the Nature/Nurture debate, then euthenics is more the Nurture side. It’s the idea that there are things you can do to improve people’s wellbeing. It focused a lot on education systems and sanitation. One of the fundamental things of it was the idea that everything is interconnected, and so nothing exists in a vacuum.

The creator of the science died the year after she created it. She was also the first woman to graduate from MIT. Euthenics was in limbo for a bit, and then some people at Vassar College picked it up and decided to run with it. They ended up turning it into this general philosophy of education, thinking about the ways the education system in the country worked, what it privileged, what it didn’t privilege, and how we could rethink it. It was trying to challenge a lot of the dominant paradigms. Things like IQ they weren’t happy with, because IQ reduces someone to a number, and then you equate that with their value.

Why don’t you talk more about your grad school experience?

I ended up going into the Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, which is how I ended up in Minneapolis.

Ultimately I didn’t stick around for the Ph.D. I left with my Masters. That was a few things. Going into grad school, I knew that I didn’t want to go into academia. Ultimately I wanted to go back into the archives or museum world. I really loved that work.

I had gotten a summer internship at the museum I currently work at, The Bakken. I liked the work so much, and I wasn’t really enjoying grad school. I loved my advisers, I made a lot of really good friends, but I just wasn’t really interested in it.

A lot of people were confused by my decision to leave. I had gone into grad school with a book project, and I was turning my thesis into a journal article, which I’ve recently published: “Becoming What You Eat: The New England Kitchen and the Body as a Site of Social Reform” in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. A third of my dissertation was already written. I was on track to graduate earlier than most Ph.D. students.

But I ended up deciding to leave, and it all worked out. My supervisor at The Bakken needed to hire someone, so once I was finished with grad school, I had a fulltime position waiting for me. That made my decision to leave even easier.

Ultimately, I got what I wanted. I’m one of the curators at The Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, a science and humanities museum that explores inspiration and innovation to get folks to think about the things they have to offer to make the world a better place.

It’s a perfect fit for me since I love to bring history together with science, art, and literature.

I love trying to recreate the experience that I had when I first worked in the archives, the feeling you get when you realize a physical object connects us to someone who lived hundreds of years ago. It’s those strange connections across space and time that interest me in object-based history.

I’ve had the great opportunity to connect lots of different kinds of folks to the collections, from traditional scholars to kids working on History Day projects to artists looking for inspiration in the past. It’s a cool job getting folks to see how history can be personally meaningful to their own lives rather than some abstract thing they learn about in books.

If you could change something about your Princeton career, what would it be?

I guess one thing that I would change is that I wasn’t involved in extracurriculars. For most of my time at Princeton, I worked two jobs, one in Firestone, and one as a Learning Strategies Consultant for McGraw.

To be totally honest, Princeton didn’t feel very welcoming to me. It was—it still is—the really early days of Princeton having and supporting low-income, first-gen students. And obviously they’re doing more work to try to support folks through that transition, but that wasn’t really in place when I went there.

That was ultimately the biggest reason I left for a year, and it was why I had two jobs. I loved the jobs, but I also had to work 20 hours a week to make ends meet there, even with the financial aid.

But overall, I enjoyed my Princeton career.

Do you think that’s why you had to be so organized in terms of planning out everything, finishing things early, because of all the work?

Yeah. I had this sense that I had to constantly be on top of everything. That was one of the things I learned early on at Princeton, which of course is a high-stress environment, with a lot of high-achieving people. But there were a lot of high-achieving people who were used to that kind of environment, the academic rigor.

They also didn’t have to work so much in terms of paid work, so they had a lot more flexibility and breathing room, whereas I was trying to learn that while staying afloat and everything. Most of my friends didn’t see that work because they didn’t have to go through it themselves. On top of the coursework, I was constantly stressed because I didn’t know if I would have enough money to pay for the things I had to pay for, like books and everything.

I will say that I have definitely appreciated that the University is doing more lately. It’s clearly been more of an issue for universities across the country and around the world.

Being super organized—it’s one of the reasons I like archives and collections. It’s about cataloguing and creating order out of chaos. When I was in manuscripts, I loved when I would get a box full of papers, just tons of papers, and I somehow needed to make sense of that for someone who wanted to find the thing they were looking for.

What advice would you give to people who are majoring in History or thinking about majoring in History?

History is pretty much anything you want it to be in terms of the topic you’re studying. One of my professors who is at MIT now, Caley Horan, she had a habit of saying, If it happened five minutes ago, I say it’s up for grabs. Obviously there are accepted methodologies, but you can pick basically any topic. For instance, I did food history.

I would also say that people are interested in very different things, and it’s important to find the thing that you are interested in. You also have to figure out how that fits with what a professor might be working on. For instance, one of the reasons I liked working with Rebecca Rix on my thesis was that, even though she didn’t know much about food history, she did do intellectual history. The fact that I was interested in the history of ideas around food meant that she was interested in it too.

I think people have a tendency to think of history as wars and dead white men and state-level things, but ultimately what I love about history is there is a lot of imagination in it. There’s a lot of people thinking about what could be, and ultimately, to me, history is about studying people’s stories and making meaning out of those.


Nick Williams in The Bakken Museum Vault: Photo credit: Adrian Fischer, The Bakken Museum