SAH Blog

How to Start?

Sarah M. Dreller
| Jun 13, 2019

Welcome to The SAH Data Project’s process blog, a series of short-form reflections and interviews about the Society’s study of architectural history in higher education. By Sarah M. Dreller, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Humanities. #SAHDataProject

For me, the turning point in my interview for this postdoc with the Society’s new data-gathering project was the discussion about how to start. I was happy for the chance to talk about other things, too, like my background with data and interest in the issues this work would engage. I was also very eager to hear more from the principal investigators about how and why the study came to be. But I had already intuited that beginning well was going to be crucial, so I was glad when this particular question came up and that they allowed sufficient time for the response. I would have been pretty worried otherwise, to be very frank.

Evidently the interviewers liked what I said because I’m pleased to say they hired me to help them do it.

Now, for the project’s new process blog, I’m going to tell you why the entry point is especially important in projects like this as well as what I talked about during that very first conversation. Here and over the next few posts, too, I’ll also share some of the steps we’ve taken since I started on April 1st to move ourselves forward in meaningful ways. I’m a historian, though. So first, some context!

Last year The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded SAH a grant to spend twenty-one months gathering data about the status of architectural history as a discipline in higher education. We’ve all heard the anecdotes about lower enrollments and lost budget lines for tenure-track positions; this study offers a chance to investigate in a more organized manner. The goal is larger than constructing a snapshot of what’s going on right now, although that’s certainly a major part of it. What we’re really hoping to do is map the field in broadly temporal, spatial, sociocultural, and conceptual terms. We want to give substance to our description of architectural history practice—the reality of it, not the ideal. We want to illuminate previously unseen facets of the work we do and, ideally, inspire some creative problem-solving wherever that’s needed most.  

We gave the project a descriptive name with an easily recognizable image to help reach as wide an audience as possible.

As you can probably imagine, the way in which we conceive of our field here will play a critical role in shaping our strategic choices about the kind of data we collect. That definition isn’t really in question, as it has been part of the grant vision from the outset. It has two relatively clear components, one of which aligns with SAH’s mission to serve historians of the wider built environment by actively welcoming engagement from people interested not only in buildings but also landscapes, cities, and other allied architectural arts. The other incorporates the Mellon Foundation’s higher education priority as a focus on architectural history teaching and study within American postsecondary institutions ranging from community colleges all the way to R1 universities.

We’ve all heard the anecdotes about lower enrollments and lost budget lines for tenure-track positions; this study offers a chance to investigate in a more organized manner.

What kinds of information will we be collecting? Well, we’re sorting through this very topic right now so I’ll have more to say on it in later posts. For the moment I can tell you that we’re committed to pursuing quantitative and qualitative data simultaneously. In other words, part of what we’ll be asking about will be directly measurable, like course enrollments over time and numbers of tenure-stream vs. contingent faculty. And, meanwhile, we’re also designing questions that attempt to get at less straightforward aspects of architectural history in higher education such as the extent to which students have demonstrated interest in social justice- or climate crisis-related architectural themes and if/how programs have responded. Not surprisingly, the issue of shifting job prospects in architectural history for both faculty and students has figured prominently nearly every time I’ve talked to someone about the project, so that will certainly be addressed. And so on.

All this is to say that we’re casting a pretty wide net. It’s definitely a lot for a small non-profit team. The good news is that small non-profit teams routinely do big, amazing things. If we’re deliberate about how we structure this study, if we have real and heterogeneous support from the study’s constituencies, and if we happen upon a little good luck here and there, we think it’s possible to construct a dimensionally expansive and potentially impactful view of what architectural history education is and where it might be headed.

Martha McNamara, Director of the New England Arts and Architecture Program at Wellsley College, (left) describing her institution’s general education humanities requirements to me during SAH’s 2019 annual meeting in Providence. Individual conversations like this are informing our project in crucial ways.


So that’s a broad brush explanation of the project. What of the day-to-day work? What are we actually going to do to make all these great things happen, and in what order? More specifically, where do we start? The universe of possibilities is nearly as wide as our net itself and yet we don’t have the option of indulging in limitless experimentation to find our footing. We also can’t afford to discover we’ve missed something important midway through, partly because (like any grant-funded project) there won’t be another grant to do it over but mostly because we’ll have uneven data if we make substantial changes once our survey gets going. We also can’t expect our audience of busy historians to have a never-ending enthusiasm for filling out surveys.

What we can do right now—and this is what I said in my interview—is commit to really allowing what we want to get out of this effort in the end to inform what we put into it now. I suppose it seems kind of obvious stated so directly this way. It definitely wasn’t something the principle investigators didn’t already know. Taking a moment to articulate and agree on the value of a purposeful mindset is crucial, though, because in the trenches it sometimes feels like it’s just creating extra work. And we don’t have time, money, or staff to waste.

Here are a few examples of goal-oriented actions we’ve taken so far. We want architectural historians of all sorts to know what we’re doing and believe our survey is worth their time when the link arrives in their inboxes, so we’re giving this project a descriptive name with an easily recognizable image, publishing a process blog to offer some methodological transparency along the way, and presenting the project in person at conferences beyond the SAH annual meeting. We also want to incorporate a broad range of perspectives into the survey design itself, so we’ve started holding face-to-face listening sessions with people from across the architectural history and higher education spectrums, asking them to trust us with their stories, and seeing if there is any way to triangulate their experiences into the actual question phrasing. And we want the study to deliver the most actionable data we can gather in the time we’ve got, so we’re building a test survey into our schedule in order to identify not only problem questions but also opportunities to drill deeper.

We want to give substance to our description of architectural history practice—the reality of it, not the ideal.


I began here with a question that was put to me and I’ll end by putting a question to you: what do you perceive as the most significant or pressing aspect of architectural history in higher education? When you open the survey, what will be the issue or trend you’ll definitely expect to see? I’m not being rhetorical. We’d much rather hear from you now, while the survey is in development, than after it’s been finalized and circulated. My email address is and you can reach out knowing I treat all correspondence as confidential unless expressly indicated. I’m sure you have something to add that will help us start strong.

The SAH Data Project is gathering quantitative and qualitative information about the status of architectural history as a field in higher education. The study is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and scheduled to be completed in December 2020. A full report of the findings will be available on the SAH website in early 2021.

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  1. Keith Kewley | Jun 14, 2019

        A good beginning.  Hope all your work goes well.  Look forward to further blog entries.  Since I am not on any social

    media sites, appreciate you posting to the SAH website.   No good ideas on how you pursue your work which should

    come as a great relief to you.  Have every confidence you and your colleagues will come with up with interesting

    data  and insights.  All the best,  Keith 

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