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New Stanford Historical Society president calls for younger members

Troy Steinmetz wants you to join the Stanford Historical Society.

The recently elected and youngest ever president of the Society is making it a major goal of his term to reach more of the Stanford community and involve more graduate and undergraduate students in the retiree-dominated organization.

The mission of the Stanford Historical Society (SHS) is to support “the documentation, study, publication, and preservation of the history” of the University. It holds lectures and programs, records relevant oral histories and publishes a journal, “Sandstone & Tile.”

Of its 900 members, around 10 are graduate and undergraduate students. The rest are alumni and retired and current faculty and staff. Steinmetz, age 27, would like to change that.

“Part of me…being on the younger end of things and having more recently been a [Stanford] student is to think about how can we engage undergrads, how can we engage graduate students,” Steinmetz said.

Steinmetz, who considers himself a “history nerd,” first joined the Society in his junior year after getting hooked on “Sandstone & Tile” while using it to research a paper on David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president.

He acknowledges that Stanford history may not be something that everyone loves. Also, given the number of opportunities for students at Stanford, it can be hard to convince people to join.

But he believes students stand to gain a lot by getting involved.

“[Stanford is] an institution that is fascinating to study, to understand. And for me, history is a way of understanding where we are now,” Steinmetz said. “Also…it’s just interesting on its own merits; the stories that you hear and the people you interact with, or the people you hear about, are fascinating.”

The Society is still exploring its options for how best to recruit students. Steinmetz plans to use the upcoming 125th anniversary of Stanford’s opening to appeal to more people. In the meantime, strategies include papering a bulletin board in the History building with SHS paraphernalia to get the attention of history buffs.

“Our hope is that the people who have an interest in Stanford history will find us, or we’ll find them and plug them in in some way,” Steinmetz said.

The easiest way to get involved is to become a member of the Society. For current students, the fee is $10. Members receive a subscription to “Sandstone & Tile” and invitations to the Society’s free lectures and programs.

There are plenty of opportunities for undergrads and grad students to do more. In past years, students have sat on the SHS board, worked on the annual Historic House and Garden Tour, interviewed retired faculty as part of the oral history project and submitted to the Society-sponsored Beyers’ Prize for Excellence in Historical Writing.

Oral Histories

Students can volunteer with Allison K. Tracy, the Society’s Oral Historian, to interview retired faculty about their lives and careers at Stanford — and pick up a unit of class credit along the way.

Tracy is currently working on a project called Pioneering Women, which focuses on recording the stories of the first women who came to Stanford. She is interviewing multiple generations of faculty to shed light on how the experience of women at Stanford has changed over the years.

She teaches her volunteers how to use recording equipment, do research for interviews, craft interview outlines and “elicit historically substantive information” from the people they talk to.

Last year, the student who worked with her on Pioneering Women received a unit of independent study credit through professor Estelle Freedman and her work on feminist studies.

“We are hoping to offer that opportunity for undergraduates again,” Tracy said.

She is primarily working on Pioneering Women, but students who have other projects in mind may still be able to get class credit.

Beyers’ Prize

The Society also sponsors the annual Beyers’ Prize for Excellence in Historical Writing for the best essay written by a Stanford undergraduate or grad student on an aspect of Stanford history.

The winner earns $500 and a free yearlong membership to the Society.

“The essays can reveal the most fascinating things,” Steinmetz said. “[For example] there were tunnels in the foothills that were built during the World Wars…[because] they actually housed troops there for a while.”

Another winning essay, a version of which the Society will soon publish, covers the history of coeducation at Stanford. In the past, women lived on one side of campus, men lived on the other. The essay explores the ways change was effected.

“Not enough people compete” for the prize, said Professor Emeritus Peter Stansky, who co-chairs the SHS Programs Committee. “We generally have five or six entries.”

This year’s deadline to submit to the contest is April 6, 2015.

Programs & Publications

Steinmetz sees the role of the SHS as twofold. Its first job is to assist in preserving stories and information about Stanford that might interest future historians. Its second job is to get stories out there.

“I think that’s some of the best work we do, is through our programs and our publications, to put a lens on what is a very large institution with a very large history,” Steinmetz said.

The SHS holds five or six public programs each year that investigate particular topics of Stanford history, from “LSJUMB 101: 50 Years of Stanford Band History” to “Victor Arnautoff, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Stanford.”

These programs can reveal little-known facts about Stanford — and they don’t always depict the University in a rosy light.

Professor Stansky, for example, remembers a talk about religion at Stanford revealing that, though Stanford was from the beginning nondenominationally Protestant, non-Protestant religious organizations were not allowed offices on campus for many years.

According to Stansky, the Society doesn’t exist to glorify or praise Stanford.

“[It exists] to discover aspects of it, to find out the story of it, of its past,” he said. “And…particularly Stanford people would find that interesting.”

Besides “Sandstone & Tile,” the Society also frequently publishes books and in-depth historical essays.

Past publications include “Stanford Street Names: a Pocket Guide,” which covers the stories behind the names of famous Stanford streets, and “Stanford’s Red Barn,” an essay on the architectural centerpiece of “the Farm.”

Ultimately, Steinmetz hopes that Stanford students will utilize all these resources to learn more about their school. The visionary contents of the Founding Grant, the history of student activism on campus, Stanford’s role in creating Silicon Valley — these are topics he wants all undergrads in particular to explore.

It’s part of contextualizing the experience of the present-day Stanford student,” Tracy said.

“The resources available to undergraduates [are] just so incredible at Stanford,” she said. “There’s things that students have access to today that have roots in events that happened 50 years ago, and so I think being able to understand that trajectory is really important.”

Contact Abigail Schott-Rosenfield at aschott ‘at’ stanford.edu

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