Peggy Pascoe: Mentor
By Torrie Hester, Beatrice McKenzie, Veta Schlimgen, and Camille Walsh
As an historian of race, gender, and sexuality, Peggy Pascoe (pictured at right) paved the way for women who wanted to change U.S. history. She was our graduate advisor and teacher, who left us with a transformative understanding of the role of marriage and the function of state power in people’s lives. She guided and mentored her students, including the four of us, with seemingly endless patience and generosity. We’ve heard so many stories in the last few years from scholars who are now bright lights in various fields, whom Peggy helped along at an early stage with remarkably thoughtful and constructive advice. She always took the time to read work deeply and was an impeccable model of professional behavior and intellectual generosity. In a few measured sentences, Peggy could cut through jargon and abstractions and get to the heart of whatever the issue might be, whether career questions or research dilemmas. The four of us were Peggy’s last graduate students, and we composed this essay as a memorial for her, as we try to pass on her skills and knowledge so that others can benefit as we have. Peggy was so generous with us up until the very end, and her legacy will continue on at the University of Oregon and elsewhere, through the many individuals she influenced.
Bea McKenzie and Peggy at Bea’s Graduation, 2006
We remember Peggy’s uncanny ability to keep us motivated when we didn’t know what was next. Indeed, her advice always seemed to encourage further motion. She nudged us to take away valuable lessons and feedback from challenges or difficulties. She might begin her comments with “You know, I’m really glad to hear this because…” followed by the lessons we could take away from the experience for the future. Peggy had a remarkable ability to identify, often without being asked, her students’ greatest concerns or insecurities and to provide advice and encouragement tailored to our needs. She always seemed to know where we were. Only after comparing suggestions with other graduate colleagues did we realize the extent to which she freely shared her insights into the profession of history.
Much of Peggy’s advice was geared for women in graduate school, and ultimately, in the profession. She understood the types of challenges faced by women and gently identified the pitfalls that sometimes beset women graduate students. She always gave us specific advice on these matters. She coached us, for example, not to end our responses to a question with “does that answer your question?” — a typical answer of women students — but instead to trust that whatever reply we gave was sufficient.
Peggy possessed a gift for teaching students how to write.. She taught us to improve our writing so that we built momentum and told a compelling story. To do this, she pushed us to sharpen each paragraph around one argument, and start each paragraph with its strongest point. Then, she used titles—all kinds of titles—to further our analysis even more. Chapter titles and subheadings, she said, “should not only list the category but also suggest the significance of that section for your larger argument.” Part of Peggy’s gift for teaching students how to write also came down to simple strategies, one of which centered around the importance of prioritizing. Peggy always advised us to give the best time of day to our own writing. She made it clear that friends’ work, email communication, department meetings, advising, and teaching should all be secondary to our own work.
As we composed numerous dissertation drafts, Peggy gave us the kind of feedback that left us feeling proud of ourselves for finishing a particular step, and she simultaneously inspired us to get to work and improve our projects. She struck a balance between being incisively critical and overwhelmingly supportive; she never shied away from saying something didn’t work, in very direct language. After one of us finished a full draft of her dissertation, Peggy congratulated her, saying the hardest part was over. The student was surprised to find, though, that Peggy wanted three rounds of revisions before scheduling the defense. Peggy told another student that the current dissertation draft was not, in fact, the final version. Two rounds of revisions later, in yet another detailed email, she directed the student to:
Make the changes and corrections I’ve suggested…Then, when you’ve got a day or two…read it one more time from beginning to end. As a finished Ph.D. student, you should be able to spot typos and inconsistencies in terminology or phrasing in your sleep, and I’m sure you’ll find some of those as you proofread. I also, though, want you to be able to see, in the very best form possible, how far you’ve come these last several months. The changes in these last couple of drafts have brought your work to the point where your arguments can finally shine through–CONGRATULATIONS!
Peggy was simultaneously one of the most professional and one of the most humane people with whom we have worked; the two words “professional and humane” have merged in our lexicon. She cared deeply about us as students but she maintained the highest professional standards for us. She did this in even the smallest ways. She adhered to strict alphabetical order when she returned papers in class and when she addressed emails. She forwarded opportunities to every advisee, never leaving one out because she judged that they weren’t in the right place to try. One such email began, “I’m attaching a call for papers from the Journal of Women’s History, in case it sparks any ideas you’d like to follow up on.” Her awareness of equity has prodded us to do the same with our students.
Peggy Pascoe with students at the Organization of American Historians Meeting, 2007
Peggy’s attention to equity dovetailed with her desire to build a supportive community of scholars. In one-on-one meetings, Peggy would usually mention a particular insight emerging in the work of another advisee. She encouraged us to contact each other to get advice about an upcoming hurdle, whether is was taking comprehensive exams, defending our dissertations, or analyzing a particular kind of evidence. “If you happen to run into Camille,” she told one of us, “you might ask her the same question, because she had to struggle with the issue when she was writing her M.A. thesis…She might have some practical advice.” Peggy held quarterly meetings with all of her graduate students where she asked us to update each other on our progress, successes, and disappointments. Peggy always reserved an encouraging word for us that might highlight the particular challenges we were tackling in our teaching or research or the unique insights in our written work. Through these meetings, we learned how to offer and receive academic support on equal terms from our growing community of colleagues. And this was intentional. Through her advice and her example, she guided us as to how to act as, and be treated as, professional historians.
Peggy ensured that each of her students was at some time a research assistant on her book. It occurred to us only later that it probably would have been easier to have a single, well-trained assistant and rely heavily on that person for several years. But she made a point of ensuring we each experienced the process of researching what would ultimately be a major piece of scholarship and this became an invaluable part of our academic work. As research assistants, we were not thinking about this work as professional training. But she was. She thought about our futures in the profession when the future seemed too distant to us.
Camille Walsh and Veta Schlimgen — Peggy’s Last Students — at Graduation 2010
Peggy’s practical – and invaluable – insights on the profession made the process of graduate professional training, job seeking, and building a tenure file transparent (though no less challenging). She counseled students and young professionals to be discerning when choosing a conference, journal, or press; conversely, she taught us to be considerate in asking for others’ contributions. She advised new hires to attend every social event during their first year, to make one good friend beyond the department, and to keep their heads down when mud is slung. She recommended that we know when to be generous with our time, when to allow ourselves a little disappointment before moving on after a setback, and, above all, when to settle back and enjoy our achievements.
Peggy left a lasting impression on us and so many others. Last July, during the defense of her last student, Peggy reflected on the trajectory of her career as a historian and mentor. She said that she began her career as a woman’s historian and with the struggles of women’s history to forge its place in the discipline. She noted that, despite this arc, none of her recent students were “women’s historians.” “But,” she added, “perhaps that is a good thing.” To us, this expressed Peggy’s fundamental commitment to justice and to dismantling hierarchies of power, something that challenged us as new scholars using the interventions of women’s historians in our studies of race, nation, class, and citizenship.