• Revising the Institutional Survey: Less Can Lead to More

    Sarah M. Dreller
    Jul 20, 2020

    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

    Like many of you, the SAH Data Project team has also spent the past few months assessing which aspects of our work might contribute to our community most and developing strategies to continue in ways that don’t overburden the people we’re trying to serve. The factors to consider are varied, interconnected, and constantly shifting and we are a small team with limited resources. But we are definitely trying and I thought sharing some new details here about one part, how we tightened up the institutional survey, might be of particular interest.

    If you haven’t already heard, the institutional survey is what we originally referred to as the survey for department chairs and program administrators. This is the keystone in the structure of the project’s public-facing data gathering effort. It’s where we’re asking core quantitative questions about who has been teaching and studying the history of the built environment in the United States over the past decade, what forms that work has taken, and the ways in which institutions have supported their faculty and students in the process. Our ability to share meaningful observations about the health of our field in the final report will necessarily rely on the amount and quality of the information you provide via this survey now.  

    I’m going to be honest with you here. Our concerns back in March about the pandemic leading to reduced response rates have unfortunately proven correct. And, more recently, doing the urgently important work necessary to increase equity in American life might also be leaving little mental space for doing something like our institutional survey. The result is that the current data set just isn’t as robust as it might have been during a more typical spring term. It’s understandable, but still not quite what will satisfy the project’s full potential.

    So, what concrete steps are we taking to turn this survey into a task that you can more reasonably complete within the context of today’s chaotic living conditions? A task that will leave you feeling it was worth your investment of time and intellectual labor?


    This is a visual representation of the SAH Data Project’s Institutional Survey showing the type and number of questions that have been retained. The base diagram shows all of the questions as originally distributed in the survey; each question is a separate cell in this diagram with questions that focused on change over time data represented as a trend chart and those that requested current “snapshot” data indicated with a camera. Removed questions have a gray semi-transparent layer here, retained questions do not. This question-by-question assessment process resulted in a revised Institutional Survey that is approximately 35% shorter than its original pre-pandemic iteration. Infographic by Sarah M. Dreller.


    Last month’s process blog post by Advisory Committee chair Abby Van Slyck outlined one major change, which is to expand the criteria for who can complete the survey on behalf of their department. We’ve also set up open support times on Zoom so that anyone can drop in to ask questions and get help directly from me. We’re extending the closing dates for all the project’s surveys to give you a chance to track down the information you need. And we’re doing other more behind-the-scenes things, too, to make sure as many different kinds of people as possible hear what the SAH Data Project is about. But the part of all this that I’m especially excited about at the moment – and what I suspect might really help more of you contribute your voice now – is what the team has done over the past month to strategically reduce the density of the information we’re asking from you. In retrospect, we took a kind of “less is more” approach, auditing the survey question-by-question to identify and retain only those questions most likely to address the project’s fundamental focus on change over time. The newly released institutional survey has a much stronger emphasis on how enrollments, faculty and student demographics, and course offerings have evolved over the past ten years, data we hope we’ll be able to synthesize into descriptions of our field’s key academic trends.

    Trimming back the survey to its most essential components was easier in some ways and harder in others. On the one hand, we were very grateful to those of you who have already completed this survey because your responses provided some very useful data about the paths that different kinds of respondents have been cutting through it. Things like who skipped which types of questions, how the wording of certain questions early on led to confusion later, etc. really helped us be strategic. On the other hand, the decision to keep some questions and cut others wasn’t as simple as mapping the preferences of past respondents. Rather, it was primarily about evaluating questions from the point of view of people like most of you, the survey’s potential future respondents, to determine whether the information we were likely to get from any given question would really add enough to the project to justify asking you to spend your time answering it. This was a tough thing to do, but the team ultimately decided that about twenty-five percent of the survey could be removed without jeopardizing the data that we really need.

    I should add that we absolutely did the same thing meticulously, repeatedly in the fall, too. Our expectations calculus was different then, however. Everyone has more on their plates now, a whole lot more, in some cases. So, we’re offering a new leaner version of the institutional survey in hopes that you’ll give it a serious look.  And, if you are in a position to complete it, we hope you find both it and the process of completing it substantive in all the most meaningful ways. Thank you, in advance, for your contribution.

    Go comment!
  • Evolving Strategies for Collecting Institutional Data

    Abigail Van Slyck
    Jun 4, 2020
    The SAH Data Project Process Blog welcomes the chair of the project's Advisory Committee, Abigail Van Slyck, as the first guest author. 

    If you read nothing more of this blog post, be sure to read this one line: We are asking faculty, who may be more motivated than their department chairs, to complete what we are now calling the Institutional Survey (formerly the Chair/Administrator Survey).

    When I was offered the chance to contribute to the SAH Data Project process blog, I jumped at the opportunity to make visible some of the work that has been taking place behind the scenes. As chair of the project’s Advisory Committee, I have been closely associated with the project from the start and have derived great pleasure from my involvement in this deeply collaborative undertaking. Followers of this blog have a sense of just how many people are devoting their time and attention to making the project a success.  So, I begin with a big thank you to everyone who has touched the SAH Data Project in some way.

    Of course, the work continues, albeit complicated somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic. The April 15 process blog post outlined the steps that we took to encourage you—whether you are a student, a faculty member, or both—to complete the surveys we launched in the weeks before the pandemic hit. Indeed, the faculty and student surveys will be open until June 30, so if you have not done so yet, there is still time to complete one or both, depending on your situation.

    Topmost in my mind right now, however, is the third survey, the one aimed at gathering the institutional data that is so important to understanding the state of architectural history in institutions of higher education in the United States. I will talk more about the goals of this survey below, but I will say up front that you—especially the faculty among you—have a role to play here. Initially, we had imagined department chairs or other administrators responding to this survey and several had done so before the pandemic pulled them away to more pressing matters. It is now clear that department chairs and other administrators are unlikely to have the capacity to respond to our survey; if they are not themselves architectural historians, their motivation to make time for what is admittedly a data-heavy survey will be low. So, we will be reaching out to those of you teaching architectural history (broadly defined, of course, to include landscapes and cities) to ask you to provide the data for your institution via what we are now calling the Institutional Survey. You may need to ask your department chair or others for help, but you are in the best position to make that ask, explaining why gathering this data about our discipline is important to you. In short, we will be asking you to take the lead at your institution.

    Rest assured that we are not sitting back to wait for data to pour in. Quite the contrary. We are working proactively to meet our ambitious goals for this part of the project. Ideally, we would gather data from 100 colleges and universities. Given that there is no such thing as a 100% response rate, this means we need to solicit input from many more schools than that.  At the same time, this is more than a numbers game. That is, the value of the information we are gathering is also directly dependent upon the range of institutions and programs represented in the data set, as well as on their regional variation. We want data from national and regional universities—both public and private; HBCUs; national and regional colleges; and community colleges.

    Morgan State University
    We will be soliciting institutional data from Morgan State University and other HBCUs that offer architecture or design-related programs. Their Center for the Built Environment and Infrastructure Studies was designed by Hord Coplan Macht in association with The Freelon Group. Photo: Mark Herboth

    The range of program types is even more varied, as architectural history (again, broadly defined) might be offered in departments of architectural history and art history; in schools of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning; in historic preservation programs; and in some instances in related departments, including archaeology, history, public history, and cultural studies.  And, of course, we need to ensure that we have data from schools throughout the country.

    To guide our outreach efforts, the project team has developed a spreadsheet that is prompting us to identify 200 programs that—collectively—will cover all these types of institutions and programs. We are putting the finishing touches on populating it and adding contact names. In the coming weeks, we will share it with members of the Advisory Committee, so that they can volunteer to encourage colleagues to become the point person for the SAH Data Project that their institutions.

    The spreadsheet is not an exclusive list. We want data from any program offering instruction in architectural history. If you are willing to act at the point person for your institution, please contact the project researcher or me. We will be happy to get your started!

    Thanks for your continued interest in this project and for everything you have done—and will do in the future—to make it a success.

    Go comment!

SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
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