contact ME

Use the form on the right to send me a message.



123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789


You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.


From the Archives

Acknowledgments, Continued

Sarah Rovang

I just filled out my first online form this morning that had a “Degree” section and felt so gratified and more smug than I care to admit putting “Ph.D.” in that box. This part of the journey is over; I wore Brown’s aggressively brown regalia, got hooded, and walked off the stage with my diploma. Unsurprisingly, the desire to keep up this blog took a backseat last year to the very real need to finish my dissertation, secure a job, and adjust to life in a new city. 

I thanked a lot of people in my dissertation acknowledgments, because as they say, it takes a village to write a thesis. But here are a few things that I feel deserve an honorable mention:


 I am a self-confessed morning person and someone who has, over the years, developed Leslie Knope-esque love of breakfast foods. But writing mornings are hard enough without having to decide what to eat. That’s why, for the past three years, I’ve had a smoothie almost every single weekday morning. For me at least, they seem to have the right blend of carbs, fat, and protein to keep me going to lunch without the icky sugar crash I feel after most other breakfast foods. The only time smoothies lose their appeal is in the dead of winter. My wintertime alternative to smoothies is sous vide steel cut oatmeal with butter, miso, and roasted peanuts. 


Scanner Pro

I currently have over 1,300 items in my Zotero library. Most of these are documents I scanned on my iPhone with the Scanner Pro app. After my first ever big archive trip when I lugged a cheap, flatbed scanner all the way from Providence to Kansas City, I decided to try something different. Scanner Pro made it a breeze to scan forty plus-page documents, with the help of Studio Neat’s Glif and a document stand or tripod. Even when I’m not doing heavy archival research, I use ScannerPro to scan financial documents, vet records, and receipts. I highly recommend it for anyone looking to go paperless. 

Get those documents, scan those documents.

Get those documents, scan those documents.

Pomodoro System

For much of my writing process I used the pomodoro system to manage my time. This system basically involves focused work on a task for a set interval (for me, 25 minutes) with short breaks (3-5 minutes) in between. While I can spend uninterrupted hours organizing my research, focused, intensive writing is something that I cannot sustain for long periods of time. When I was in the throes of serious chapter writing, I usually aimed to write for 6 pomodoros a day (that’s about 3 hours). This might not sound like very much, but the point of the pomodoro system is that your work intervals are very efficient and intense. I far prefer the hyper-focus of a 25-minute period to the intermittent Facebook-browsing, NYT reading, phone-checking “work” that seems to suck up time and productivity. Usually, I used my breaks to get up and walk around, make another cup of tea, or play with the dog. 


Getting a Puppy 

Though numerous dissertation advice books would urge you to refrain from getting a puppy while trying to write your thesis, I can say without a doubt that having a puppy has made me a more efficient writer. Our rescue pup, Nessa, was like a whimpering, free-roaming pomodoro timer when we first got her. I wrote during her approximately half-hour naps, then attended to her snack/potty/exercise/entertainment needs during my breaks. Nessa has taught me that to seize every possible moment of productivity out of my day, while reminding me to get out of the house for long walks. 

Dissertation Motivation Incarnate.

Dissertation Motivation Incarnate.


Standing Desk 

My standing desk was definitely the MVP of my last dissertation writing year. While I can’t claim that my standing desk led to myriad health benefits, I did notice positive changes in my posture. More importantly, standing helped me avoid the inertia of sitting on the couch or at a desk. The fact that I was already standing encouraged me to do other active tasks during my writing breaks rather than just sitting and internet trawling between pomodoro intervals. My standing desk is comprised of my husband’s grandfather’s butcher block from the 1940s, along with custom-built risers for keyboard and monitor. Our monitor is a 24” iMac from 2009, which has long since ceased to be a functional computer but is still a fantastic external display. A good mat is a must for foot and joint comfort at a standing desk. I use the Imprint CumulusPro with or without shoes and am still loving it 8 months in. 

Complete with dissertation slippers.

Complete with dissertation slippers.



A Flat-Roofed Farmhouse Mystery

Sarah Rovang

We are now three weeks post-move and finally feeling a little settled in. In our previous apartment, my husband and I lived across the street from Brown's main campus. Now we are several miles from the university where he works. Since my writing has resumed has resumed in earnest, I am learning to balance the quiet, focused solitude of work at home with work on campus and in coffee shops.

As I am preparing a conference paper on a related topic, I'm starting to think about expansions and revisions to dissertation Chapter 5, which deals with the technological and architectural modernization of farm structures during the 1930s and 1940s. This has given me an excellent excuse to go back through my material from the National Agricultural Library. Browsing through dozens of PDFs this morning, I stumbled across one that certainly gave me pause when I first encountered it in the archives last year. It is a 1934 book entitled Farmhouse Plans published by U.S. Department of Agriculture. The overall content of the book is not surprising—USDA released many farm building designs during the early twentieth century, often working with local land grant colleges to produce plans suited to regional climates and prevalent agricultural practices. What is interesting about this particular collection of plans is that mixed in with images like this:

Caption: "Prepared by L.J. Smith for the department of agricultural engineering, State College of Washington." 

Caption: "Prepared by L.J. Smith for the department of agricultural engineering, State College of Washington." 

And this: 

Caption: "Prepared by C.W. Heery and B.G. Danner for the department of agricultural engineering, University of Georgia."  

Caption: "Prepared by C.W. Heery and B.G. Danner for the department of agricultural engineering, University of Georgia."  

There are images like this: 

Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey and R.G. Allen for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey and R.G. Allen for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

And this: 

Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

Caption: "Prepared by Albert Frey for the Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture." 

What's the big deal? Well, from the vantage point of the present, really not too much. We are used to seeing buildings with flat roofs and buildings with pitched roofs—sometimes even mixed within the same suburban subdivision. Eschewing shutters and avoiding wood siding are also pretty inconsequential in this era of general contractors and stucco construction. But in 1934, this was a BIG DEAL. 

Keep in mind that American architectural modernism was still very young in 1934. Philip Johnson and Henry Russell-Hitchcock's seminal essay The International Style had only been published in 1932. James Ford and Katherine Morrow Ford would not publish The Modern House in America until 1940. In its earliest iterations, American modernism tended to show up most often in residences for the affluent, office buildings, and industrial facilities. The idea that the precepts of the International Style might be applied to a low-cost, rural residence would have been quite revolutionary at the time. Reading the accompanying description gives some hint of how strange these drawings would have looked to a 1930s audience:

The exterior appearance may seem, at first glance, unusually severe, but by omitting a pitched roof and the ornamental features of cornice moldings and trim decorations, the cost of construction is materially lowered. Everything here has been reduced to the simplest form possible.
— Farmhouse Plans, pg. 43

Also mysterious is how Albert Frey, noted modern architect, ended up working for USDA's Bureaus of Agricultural Engineering and Home Economics. Did anyone actually build from his plans? How true were those cost-saving claims?

I'm particularly fascinated (and a little vexed) by these drawings because the flat-roofed modernist rural buildings that I'm writing the bulk of my dissertation on weren't even designed until the period between 1939 and 1943, at which point they were still provocative and controversial. However, the buildings I'm looking at were really linked explicitly to the technological modernity of electric power. In these drawings, flat-roofed buildings have been inserted into the existing rural landscape. Look carefully and you'll see conventional pitched-roof structures in the backgrounds of each of the Frey drawings, and even a windmill in one. Whatever Frey was imagining, it was not a total modernization of the rural landscape. Rather, I would postulate that these buildings were meant to play a particular role through their economy and functionalism, rather than entirely displacing more conventional kinds of structures. By picturing these houses among many, many pages of stylistically traditional houses dwellings, USDA offers modernism as a choice rather making it the mandate that it would later become. 

Lessons from the Move

Sarah Rovang

It has been a big month of life lessons. A few weeks ago, my husband and I sold all of our furniture besides our mattress, condensed our worldly possessions into our car and a friend's truck and headed west. While my husband starts a postdoc at a new institution this week, I'm transitioning back into writing mode and slowly unwinding after the move. 

Moving out of state is a huge transition regardless of career path, but moving during dissertation writing poses its own set of challenges. You are not only moving physical stuff but moving data and information—ideally in a way that allows you to get up and running with the writing process in a timely and efficient fashion. 

Backing Up Data and Going Paperless

We decided to scan the vast majority of our paper documents before moving. We used ScannerPro (the app that I think of as the official sponsor of my dissertation) and a Canon feeder scanner in tandem. For items like cards, archival documents, or anything with an uneven surface that could not go through the scanner, we set up a camera stand with a Glif attached so we didn't have to hold an iPhone while scanning. The scanner was great for long documents like old papers and syllabi that I hadn't kept but wanted at least a PDF copy of.  

That said, if we had to do it all over again, I would definitely invest in a shredder and start the project a little earlier. Currently, we have a ton of unnamed PDFs that we will eventually have to go through and sort, which will be its own kind of project.

In the new house, I am attempting to plan better at the outset for storing papers and documents: 

  • Important Records and Documents - The majority of these are going into a vertical file box with labeled files ("Car," "School Transcripts," etc.). The really important things (birth certificates, marriage certificate, passports) are going into a separate zip envelope that can be (hopefully) grabbed quickly in case of emergency.
  • Archival Material for Dissertation - Sometimes I buy archival materials off of eBay or other sites. Since I work with a lot of ephemera, it can be inexpensive and quick to get items I need in this way. These will be stored in a large, flat box in a climate-controlled part of the house.  
  • Papers of Sentimental Value - Cards that my husband and I have sent each other or received are all in the process of being scanned. Only the really special, handmade ones get to stay, and those will live in a box similar to that used for the archival materials. 

One final proviso: make sure to back up your dissertation. I recently had to ship my laptop across the country for reasons unrelated to the move and before I did, I performed the following back-ups:

  • DropBox/GoogleDrive/iCloud - I made sure my dissertation was in the cloud in addition to hard storage.
  • External Hard Drive - I saved my dissertation and the bulk of my important materials to an durable external drive that was shipped in a box separate from my laptop. 
  • USB Stick - I put all of my text and images on a USB drive and left it at my parents' house in case all of the other systems failed. Maybe overkill, but I wish I had done something similar during this most recent move! 

Shipping Books 

Many of our grad school friends have shipped using USPS Media Mail without incident and found it to be surprisingly reasonable and speedy. So we packed up the majority of our books into crisp, new cardboard boxes from OfficeMax, sealed them with standard packing tape, and sent them on their way. When they arrived at our new address, the vast majority of the books had been repacked into new boxes with sturdier tape. One of the boxes that we had used was included as   as an example of the fate of the others. The empty box was virtually decimated: smushed, cracked, bedraggled, and missing its top. Many of the books that had been repackaged were in varying states of disrepair - some missing covers, others with crinkled and dirty pages. A large number of books were simply missing, though perhaps for consolation, we also received some media that wasn't ours, including a novel in Spanish, a few magazines on wrestling, and a children's life sciences text book. A number of the missing books did show up about a week later, but we are still lacking quite a few. What did we learn from this? 

  1. Make a List - Record the titles of the books you ship in case any have to be replaced. We neglected to do this which has left us in a state of wondering which books we have forgotten about.
  2.  Pack Well - Use WAY more tape than seems necessary.
  3. Get Insurance - Media Mail, unlike other types of USPS shipping does not include any kind of baseline insurance.

Overall, I am extremely satisfied with how the move went and these are relatively minor quibbles. Now I'm on to the next project: setting up my home writing space! 

The Nostalgia Trap

Sarah Rovang


Happy Fourth of July! I thought I'd use the time off afforded by this patriotic holiday to meditate on a methodological issue I've been encountering with the current chapter that I'm working on, namely that of nostalgia.

This current chapter, Chapter 2, is a bit of an outlier. Past scholarship on the government agency I'm studying, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) has tended to critique the organization for a variety of reasons (including that it pushed urban values on rural people, primarily benefited those who were already middle class, and was perhaps more concerned with selling refrigerators and washing machines than effecting real social change). Most of my dissertation fits into that picture, showing how architecture, exhibitions, and print media was largely complicit in the REA's corporatist ploys to sell as much electricity (and as many electrified devices) as possible. However, Chapter 2 recounts a brief sequence of events at REA between 1939 and 1943 that do not fit into the established narrative. Indeed, during these years, certain key players including architects, high-ranking staffers, and even the agency's chief administrator, dreamed of creating rural community centers based around REA's own electric cooperatives. Although REA has previously been understood as a mostly apolitical or even slightly conservative agency, these cooperative schemes were unequivocally fueled by a leftist progressivism that flourished among agricultural intellectuals during the late New Deal. As historian Jess Gilbert's fantastic new book Planning Democracy relates, REA was hardly alone among United States agricultural agencies in pushing cooperative planning during that odd pocket of time between roughly 1939 and when the U.S. entered World War II. So as I'm writing this chapter, it seems to have a decidedly different tone than what I've written so far—in my attempt to at least partially redeem REA, I come off if not precisely celebratory than at least nostalgic. Yet, the circumstances that permitted this revived progressivism to thrive were a complicated amalgam involving the late depression economy, the legacy of earlier New Deal agricultural reforms, and the burgeoning national defense planning already well underway by 1940. 

Many historians I know suffer from nostalgia, but this is an affliction not unique to academics. Much contemporary popular media depends on fostering nostalgia for historical periods that its target consumers were not yet alive to experience, as Frederic Jameson and other scholars of postmodernism have duly noted. It's always a sort of pick-and-choose nostalgia. We long for some things but not the others—we want the clothes from Mad Men but not the overt workplace misogyny. Similarly, historians of the New Deal, including myself, look fondly upon federal funding for the arts and the sense of purpose (real or merely perceived) that seemed to drive much legislation and government action during the 1930s and early 1940s. The crushing poverty and endemic unemployment, not so much. 

Nostalgia is particularly seductive when writing a top-down history. Most of my archival evidence comes from REA rather than its cooperative members/customers, and thus contains a definite and one-sided bias. Preventing that bias from carrying over into my writing has proved surprisingly difficult; the funny thing about propaganda is that it works. Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, reading ad copy and editorials and human interest features always wears me down eventually. It can be very hard to sort out what I've actually found in the archives (backed up by correspondence, internal memos, and other sorts of non-public communications) versus what I merely wanted to find—what psychologists call confirmation bias. For Chapter 2, the evidence is really there to support what I'm arguing, but I'm trying to be careful not to exaggerate or blow small evidence out of proportion because I feel more of an emotional attachment to this particular argument. 

Back in the Saddle

Sarah Rovang

The semester of four conferences is finally over and I'm finally getting back in the groove of daily writing. I am even developing that which I have coveted for the past several months: a writing routine. It's still being tweaked and refined, but the general plan is as follows:

8:30 - 9 AM - Arrive at the library. The key to long stints at the library, I've discovered, is preparation. For the past two days, I've rolled in with a 32 oz. thermos of black tea, lunch, a cardigan. Here's a picture of my setup:


9-10:30 AM - Once I'm settled in, I jump in with 3 pomodoros of writing on a non-dissertation project. I'm a big fan of the pomodoro system. It's a silly name for something that has helped me become a much more effective and efficient worker. Basically, you set a timer for 25 minutes and work without interruption for that length, take a 3-5 break, and then lather, rinse, repeat. I use the app BreakTime which forcibly locks you out of your computer at the 25 minute mark. I use my breaks to get up, wander around the library, pull other physical sources, or have a snack. I find that my first work during the day is my best, so for the past few days I've been using that time to work on an article I'm drafting. Once this article has been submitted, these prime hours will be all dissertation all the time.

10:30 AM - 12:30 PM - Next, I move on to dissertation writing. I can usually bank on getting another 3-4 pomodoros in before lunch. Generally, I find that if I'm really focusing hard and writing fast, I'm only good for 2-3 hours of writing a day. Research is a different game, but honest-to-god writing fries me pretty fast. 

12:30 - 1 PM - Then I take a lunch break, usually only 20 minutes or so. I've found that the longer I linger over lunch, the harder it is to get back my work flow afterwards. 

1 - 3 PM - I wrap up in the early afternoon with 2 to 2.5 hours of research or reading. Currently, I'm putting together this big, ugly timeline based on a lot of archival sources in order to figure out when architectural decisions were made, why, and by whom. This involves trawling through the hundreds of pdfs I've scanned over the past two years and organizing them in a way that I can track what was happening when. I'm currently dumping all of this in Evernote. It looks like this: 

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.48.51 PM.png

AFTERNOON and EVENING - After I've gotten enough to mull over during my next writing session the following day, I pack up and head home around 3 pm. Then I work out, shower, and take care of any home-related tasks. Remaining work time during the day can be used for professional development, website updates, emails, low-key research, photo-editing etc. 

I'll be back next week with updates on whether this system sticks or if I end up modifying it!