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From the Archives

Sidelined

Sarah Rovang

April was a whirlwind. I presented at the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting in Chicago, Drawing Ambience opened at the RISD Museum, and my husband defended his dissertation. And so now we're on the brink of May with more conferences, new projects, and unexpected opportunities on the immediate horizon and I have a confession to make: I'm not writing. Well I guess that isn't really fair to say, because I've actually been writing A LOT. I've written and revised several conference papers (all dissertation related), I'm churning out wall labels and other texts at the Museum, prepping abstracts for conferences next semester, and finding a little time here and there to put together this blog. But I'm not writing dissertation chapters in the measured and sustained way that I was last semester. And I feel like a hypocrite because I have certainly judged friends and colleagues who have told me that they were too busy to write, thinking that those who complained of having no time to write simply needed to get their priorities straight. There is, after all,  an expectation that advanced PhD students are always writing, carving out little bits of time between other major engagements to chip away at the conceptual behemoth of the dissertation. Every dissertation writing guide advises crafting a consistent and daily writing schedule. Sage advice, certainly, and wisdom that I found genuinely helpful last semester when I was on fellowship and my days were unfettered by other significant academic obligations.

Despite being out of town for more than half of the weekends this semester and working two full days a week at the museum, I had dreams that this practice would effortlessly continue amidst steadily mounting responsibilities. But I quickly found that whatever writing momentum I had built up on Monday had largely dissipated by Thursday after two full days of museum work. When I sat down to work, it took a substantial amount of time just to remember where my thoughts had been three days previous. And those little pockets of time that writing manuals are always urging you to find? They’re unreliable. I had set an intention of revising one conference talk while on the airplane to another conference (I was banking on a solid 2-3 hours of work) but trying to work in a middle seat while the person in front of me reclined (UGH) proved to be impossible from a sheerly getting-my-fingers-on-computer-keys perspective. It’s been a frustrating semester this way, one where these sorts of experiences have come to feel more like the norm than the exception.

So how do you work on your dissertation when you feel like you don’t have time to work on your dissertation? I’ve started a series of short projects that I’m calling “sidelines” that are all dissertation-related but don’t require the investment and creative energy of writing. When I get a spare half hour, I can make a little progress on one of the sidelines without feeling like I have to come back to it again tomorrow or even the same week. For example, if I’m at the library and don’t have much time or productivity on other projects, I’ll grab a volume of the Rural Electrification News and pick up where I left off cataloging and scanning the relevant articles from every single issue 1936-1945. Or if I’m somewhere with internet but not a lot of other resources, I’ll prowl on GoogleMaps Street View to see if the buildings in my dissertation are still standing. This latter task has turned out to be more depressing than anything else (I’ve looked for about fifteen buildings and have only found one that is even maybe original), but it keeps me occupied and this work will have to be done at some point anyway. I’ve made significant strides on the photo cataloging project described in my previous blog post as well: almost all of my dissertation-related images are now in Adobe Lightroom and keyword searchable. Unlike many of the digital organization projects I’ve undertaken in the past, this one has actually elevated my efficiency and made images easier to find—a major boon in a semester dominated by Powerpoint presentations. Keeping these projects going makes me feel at least a little as that the dissertation is still churning away in the background, humming along contentedly while other responsibilities are at the fore.

 

Image Wrangling: The State of Affairs

Sarah Rovang

Greetings from New Orleans! It is technically "Spring Break," or as graduate students like to call it, "Time to Catch Up on Work." I'm using my work time this week to get organized and start putting together Chapter 2, which is quickly becoming a conceptual labyrinth that will warrant a blog post of its own. But my other big project for break has been image organization.  

Image management is something I've struggled with for ages. Finally, in this, my fifth year of graduate school, I've settled on a system that I think just might be sustainable for the next few years at least. This is a unique problem for a field that deals with images and where metadata for those images is also important. Talking to colleagues in my department, I get the sense that others have had the same issue figuring out a tenable system. While image management is a personal issue that depends on one's project and long-term goals, I hope that my experiences can at least provide a little inspiration or insight. 

First Attempt - iPhotos 

In undergrad, I would import all of my study images into iPhoto and make albums called "French Art Midterm" or "Greek Sculptures Term Paper." It was inelegant but effective for what I needed it for at the time. However, it presented the frustration of having Islamic mosaics and Renaissance interiors mixed in with pictures of friends and family. At some point, I began craving a separation of my work images and personal images. The Photos app (formerly iPhoto) is a much better fit for personal photos anyway - its location and facial recognition images make it an ideal choice for vacation pictures but a less than stellar option for managing intense amounts of metadata. Plus, because of how Photos creates an "library," there's a lot of exporting every time one needs to move photos or use them in an external document. 

Second Attempt - Stacking Folders

Near the beginning of grad school I moved everything out of Photos and into separate file folders. This worked for a while but soon started to present certain organizational issues. For my project, I have lots of archival images from many different sources, all of which have their own organizational systems. Do I organize my photos by source or by image content? How do I name my photos in such a way that I can find them again or remember what I have? Once I finished my qualifying paper using this system, I realized it was time to move on. 

Third Attempt - Web-based apps

Next I tried a number of web-based apps including Flickr. I liked the Flickr interface and think it could really work for some users, but it again presented some quandaries that I never resolved. For example, if all of the images are on your Flickr account, should you just keep that cloud-based system and delete the original images off your hard drive? Does that mean you need to "download" your images each time you want to use one in a presentation or paper? It also felt like kind of a hassle when I had to upload a batch of images. The keyword features were solid, but again, not exactly what I was looking for. I eventually deleted my Flickr account and temporarily gave up my search for an image management system. 

Current Iteration - Adobe Lightroom and Spreadsheets

In late 2014 I began using Adobe Lightroom, which is available with Adobe Photoshop for $10/month. Not the cheapest option, but so far the only one I can see myself using for the next several years. It is fast, powerful, and has an intuitive user interface. 

Let's take the example of this image that I found in the National Archives at College Park. This image shows one of the buildings I'm looking at, a cooperative office building and generating plant in Florida, that was completed and photographed in 1940. 

And here's what that image looks like once I've gotten it loaded into Lightroom:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.46.59 AM.png

Wow! Lots of things going on! Here's the breakdown of the main Lightroom features I've been using:

Keywording - I use keywords to quickly and easily locate certain kinds of images within Lightroom. I keyword images by their source ("Library of Congress" or "Kansas City National Archives," e.g.), their content ("generating plant," "Farm Equipment Tour," "home demonstration"), the electric cooperative it corresponds to (if applicable), the year created, location, and creator. I have over a thousand images related to my dissertation and this system makes it easy to, for example, find a modern cooperative building in Florida. You can see in this example that I've tagged the image above with the following labels:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.53.43 AM.png

Flags and Labels - Lightroom's flags and color labels can be used however you want. I use a green label to signify that the photo shows a specific electric cooperative. Blue is for works I've finished keywording and tagging but don't have a location for. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 11.09.23 AM.png

Lightroom has a lot of other great features that I've only just begun to explore. You can change the metadata of your images in the application, open the pictures in Photoshop to seamlessly edit, and create collections (which are basically like "Albums" in Apple's Photos). Unlike Photos, Lightroom does not make a "library" of photos, it just catalogs your photos where they are in photos. This means you can't move your photos from folder to folder or Lightroom will get confused, but it also means there's no more "exporting" when you need to use an image for something like Powerpoint. If you just right-click the image and choose "Show in Finder" you're all set! 

For some image sets, I have some other kinds of information (like more specific data on the physical archival source: box numbers, folder names, etc.) that I like to keep track of and that I don't want to bother putting into Lightroom. These are important to know for citing the images but won't help me find the images within Lightroom. I keep this info in spreadsheets that go in the folders with the original images. Thus, when I need to, I can refer back to the original file information based on negative number or file name. They generally look like this:

This system of mine is still a work in progress, but so far it has significantly expedited a few presentations that I've had to put together. As an additional bonus, creating my Lightroom collection has really made me think critically about this images and how I want to use them in my dissertation. 

Conference Season

Sarah Rovang

For the past three years, spring has been my big conference season. I just presented at the first of this semester’s lineup last weekend and I have three more to go between now and June. I happen to love presenting at conferences, even though I have some deep-seated ambiguities about conferences themselves. The part where I get to stand in front of a room and talk passionately about my research is great. The part where I have to stand around eating hors d’oeuvres and working up the courage to talk to intimidating and impressive strangers is less great. Conferences can also end up being insidious time-sucks that deviously detract from actual dissertation writing. Under the guise of productivity, I find myself ruthlessly formatting my slides, checking the resolution quality of my images, and listlessly cutting individual words to shorten the talk. In addition, planning for conference travel, applying for travel funding, and other attendant logistics always seem to eat up more time than I originally budgeted. But the allure of getting one’s unpublished work out there and receiving professional feedback is strong. Plus, especially at graduate symposia, there’s a chance to practice talking about one’s work in a relatively low-stakes and supportive environment. So conferences have become a fact of my graduate school career and I’ve developed a few strategies (through trial and error) for coping with the conference circuit. Please note that these ideas represent my own experiences and opinions - practices vary between fields and conference norms change rapidly.

 

Strategy 1: Apply to Nearby, Well-Organized, Interesting Conferences

I’ve talked to other graduate students who tend to wait around for topics that perfectly align with their dissertation topics. While there is certainly something to be said for looking for a good match and not applying to a conference on medieval Chinese art if you work on American modern architecture, I have increasingly developed an open mind towards CFPs (that’s Calls for Papers) that get sent my way. Many symposia, especially ones organized by graduate students, are organized around broad themes that can accommodate a variety of subject areas and materials. Instead of waiting for perfectly tailored topics to come up, I use the following set of criteria to judge a CFP:

 

Is it interesting? In other words, does the CFP articulate an original and provocative theme? How does your research address that theme? I have often found that writing abstracts for topics that are not exactly parallel to my work forces me to think about my research in new and interesting ways. Writing the abstract for the conference that I just presented at, which addressed the theme of “spectacle,” helped me to frame a part of my dissertation that I had not yet written in a theoretically rigorous way (more on that below).  

 

Does the conference seem well-organized? This can sometimes be hard to tell from just the CFP, but a few indicators are A) the professionalism of the CFP both in terms of prose and graphic design and B) that the conference is well-established. For example, Boston University’s Art History department has held an annual graduate symposium for over 30 years now and that showed at the conference, which was flawlessly organized and executed. Applying to high-quality conferences can mean that competition might be fierce, but the payoff will likely be high. Especially at big professional conferences, you will often be rewarded with good attendance, admirable co-panelists, and interesting Q&As.

 

Is the conference nearby? This is not a deal-breaker, but working with limited conference funding (as most graduate students are) means that sometimes it’s best to conserve financial resources to attend big professional conferences that are farther afield. I keep a particularly close eye on graduate conferences in Boston and New York since travel to those locations is cheap for me and I have friends I can stay with.

 

Strategy 2: Use the Conference Paper as a Chapter Jumpstart

I tried writing a conference paper over winter break based on a dissertation chapter that I had just finished drafting. It was painful and frankly not very interesting to try to cut 50 pages down to 10. Once I stopped thinking of this paper as a 20-minute summary of a dissertation chapter, and instead as a separate entity that could have its own argument and trajectory, things flowed more smoothly and the paper eventually came together.

A better tactic, I’ve found, is to write a conference paper on a dissertation chapter that has yet to be written. Thinking about the paper as a kind of proposal allows for a more open-ended kind of writing. The paper I presented last weekend will become the seed for the second half of a dissertation chapter I have yet to write. Putting it together not only forced me to marshall my evidence and get a preliminary argument down on paper, but helped me think about how this part will fit in with what I already have written. This jumpstart strategy has another benefit: it is much easier to incorporate feedback from peers, faculty, or the conference Q&A into something that is not yet drafted.

As an addendum: In my experience, using a conference to start a non-dissertation-related project is significantly less fruitful. I gave a talk on something that I had neither taken a class on nor had much prior experience with last year and it was HARD. Much of my time was spent reading and researching something that had very little relation to my dissertation. While I was satisfied with the final product, I am still unsure if it was worth the sheer amount of time that I put into it.

 

Strategy 3: A Conference Paper is a Job Talk

After the first big conference paper I gave, I had several faculty approach me afterwards and compliment my presentation. An upcoming job ad was mentioned. Obviously, I wasn’t anywhere near being on the market, but I remember thinking, “I’m glad I didn’t just phone that in.” Even with graduate symposia, it’s impossible to know who is going to be in the audience and whether they might remember you when application season rolls around. Your presentation should be your best work, even if it is still a work in progress or a speculative argument that you’re just trying out. There’s an adage in academia that “grants beget more grants” and I think this logic also applies to conferences. A good talk that people remember can help secure future speaking gigs or even bigger opportunities.

 

Strategy 4: A Conference Paper is NOT a Job Talk

That being said, a conference paper is not actually a job talk or a keynote speech. You are usually presenting alongside other panelists and thus part of a kind of impromptu team. So be a team player. You are not in the spotlight. Don’t run significantly over the time limit or monopolize the Q&A. Be classy and thank the organizers and your co-panelists before you give your talk.

Conferences are a great chance to hear what other scholars are working on as well. I often feel that I don’t have any good questions to ask during the Q&A or that I don’t know what to say (other than “Great paper”) during the inevitable post-panel mingle session. A strategy that I have seen others use and would like to adopt more frequently is to share a source or idea that I think another speaker might find useful. That act can often lead naturally to more conversation. This past weekend, I learned about a New Deal theater project that relates to my topic and a museum that I now want to visit through those kinds of interactions. The classic, “I enjoyed your paper. Is it part of a larger project?” also works to start conversation when you don’t know what else to ask.

 

Strategy 5: Keep it Crisp

People are probably giving up their workdays or weekends to hear your talk. Be mindful of this fact and keep it crisp. This applies across the board.

Prose style? Crisp. Keep your language approachable, stick to the time limit, and avoid getting overly technical. It should be written for the ear and not the eye. Your thesis should be lucid and memorable. I usually like to give my talks for someone outside my field to make sure that what I’m trying to communicate comes across clearly to non-specialists.

Graphics? Crisp. Legible illustrations and photographs, not too much text, no busy backgrounds, no crazy Powerpoint animations.

Dress? Crisp. Though formality varies significantly by field, clean lines and classic style are never out of place. I feel more comfortable when my audience is looking at my slides rather than at my outfit.

Q&A? Crisp. If an audience member asks a question that would require a five minute expository statement, give a quick summary and promise to talk to him or her more after the panel. If someone asks a question for all of the panelists, be respectful of time and give a concise answer, even if your co-panelists all gave long, rambling answers.


The art of the conference is certainly one that I’m still practicing, but it’s definitely a skill that is worthwhile developing as a graduate student.

Back from the Winter Hiatus

Sarah Rovang

The archives have gone woefully neglected for over a month while I was in New Zealand. You can read about it and see pictures here. I read a lot of interesting interpretative signage and went to a few history museums, but mostly the trip was devoted to the great outdoors. However, I did learn while there that, like the United States, many of New Zealand's parks and conservation areas were work projects during the Great Depression! So now a comparative look at New Zealand and American national parks is definitely percolating in my mind as "Book #3." 

But this week it is back to work. I'm currently wrapping up and editing a conference paper for a symposium at Tufts and getting ready to return to work at the RISD Museum next week. The show I've been working on, Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association opens in April and it's time to start thinking about the installation. 

All of this is to say: I've got some other exciting projects lined up for the spring, so it's good to be back in the archives. 

 

A Sea of Conference Papers and a Look Back

Sarah Rovang

Happy New Year from a Santa Fe of crisp snow and vivid color. While I am still conquering my winter break work goals, here's a nostalgic look back at my very first archive trip as a graduate student. 

From The Dark and Roving Eye, originally published July 27, 2011

"Delirious, Sweaty New York" 

After a sidewalk-melting weekend in NYC, I'm back in my tree house of an apartment, 40 degrees happier and laden with a cornucopia of new primary material. 

My first big archive trip as a grad student now under my belt (time to take off the training wheels!), I'm left with 4,000 words of notes to synthesize, analyze, and weave into the existing draft of my qualifying paper. The archives room at NYPL is a haven of chilled air and old book smell, though camera-clutching tourists frequently hurl themselves at the locked glass door to great comical effect. Archival research is exhilarating and exhausting - a sort of needle-in-haystack mission of sporadic and intense fulfillment amid a seemingly endless sea of futility. The term "paper architecture" is canonically used to describe unbuilt, hypothetical design projects, but this trip was a reminder to me that all architecture generates astonishing amounts of paper. That, and the fact that everyone involved in the building process is convinced that everyone else are slobbering, incoherent idiots. I ran into letters of this variety dozens of times for the project I'm researching:

 

Dear (Name of Architect),

Thank you for returning the building permit to us. I see that Mr. (Firm Partner) has now signed on the correct line. Please note, however, that the permit also needs to be notarized. I am herewith returning the permit to you such that you may have it re-signed by Mr. (Firm Partner) and duly notarized at your soonest possible convenience.

Yours Very Truly,
(Name of Client/Design Board)

 

This is the subtext of that same letter:

Hey Knucklehead,

Didn't they teach you to read at the Ecole des Beaux Arts? This is the third time I have sent you this form. Get your act together NOW, you lousy excuse for a human being. 

Shove off,
Someone who will never every hire your firm again

 

Clients are not the only offenders, architects can be just as bad:
 

Dear (Name of Client),

I have enclosed the plans and elevations with the newest revisions you requested. These should be self-explanatory. Please acknowledge receipt of these documents at your soonest possible convenience.

Yours Sincerely,
(Name of Architect)

 

This one should read:

Dear Hellspawn,

I haven't slept in 3 nights and have been working unpaid overtime to finish these drawings. Your constant vacillation and fickleness regarding this project is costing me my health and my family. I hope you die a slow painful death. If you cannot decipher my meticulously crafted drawings, you are even more cretinous than I had imagined. You may consider this documents to be drawn with my very blood, so you had better let me know that you received them. 

Regretfully,
Your Slave Labor

Reading these sort of correspondences for hours at a time does start to become grating because the frustration is so blatantly evident, but never voiced. 

Fortunately, besides the triplicate copies of architect hate-mail, I also managed to unearth some genuinely helpful construction documents, press releases, and (correctly notarized) building permits. 

On Sunday, the heat began to dissipate and I ran 11.7 miles through Manhattan. The realer-than-real nature of Central Park is particularly striking before 7 am, as hills crest in symphonic waves, curling into boulders and frothing up with ferns on the still shores of ponds. Ascendant flocks of bicyclists rose like tropical Spandex-clad birds. Down to Battery Park we ran, through Chinatown and SoHo and most of the way across the Brooklyn Bridge and back. Our ankles caked in 120+ blocks of soot, we wobbled before the WWII monument on the island's southern tip, adrenaline-guzzling pilgrims looking out towards the Statue of Liberty as we massaged our calves. We then turned, got on the subway, and hauled our huddled masses back up to Morningside Heights.