HC User Spotlight: Sarah M. Dreller

For our second Humanities Commons member spotlight, I was fortunate enough to speak with Sarah M. Dreller, PhD, an independent art historian and editor in Chicago whose research focuses on the connections between architecture and modernity since the industrial and scientific revolutions of the late-18th century. Dreller is a particularly interesting person to interview because she has created multiple sites on Humanities Commons to support and share her research, as well as to collaborate with other scholars. Not only does she have a lot of experience designing and using Humanities Commons sites, but Dreller has also been an active and welcoming member across the platform. Her project sites include The Vanishing Porch in Perspective, which serves as a digital companion to her peer-reviewed article, Curtained Walls: Architectural Photography, the Farnsworth House, and the Opaque Discourse of Transparency,” and AfterImages, a collaborative work for which she served as the site’s designer and editor. Dreller is also currently building a CV site as well as a third project site, which she hopes to launch by the end of 2018.

Sarah M. Dreller has been kind enough to provide the interview in two formats, both in text and as a podcast. We hope you enjoy the interview and learn a lot from one of our super-users!

Why did you choose Humanities Commons to house your projects? 

When I first heard about Humanities Commons in early 2017 I was already actively designing two sites with WordPress.com. One was a CV site that was very nearly complete and the other was a project site that was only about 30% done. Now, I’m an independent scholar so the decision to move my sites from paid hosting to the free Humanities Commons site hosting was partly financial. But, honestly, while I don’t have any issues with the “.com” for my CV site, I’d never especially liked that for the project site. It just seemed philosophically incongruous. The non-commercial, ideas-focused Humanities Commons option solved the problem for me in what I think is a really elegantly contextualized way.  

Meanwhile, as I was joining Humanities Commons I showed my unfinished project site to Catherine Burdick, a close friend from grad school who is now an Assistant Professor at Universidad Mayor in Santiago, Chile. I didn’t know she happened to have some research she also wanted to share online, but once she started telling me about her project I offered to partner with her on building the project site as the designer and editor. That collaborative work became Afterimages, a knowledge site about political graffiti in Chile that was launched in November 2017. I’ve already posted some thoughts on the Platypus blog about what it meant to us to house Afterimages with Humanities Commons so I won’t completely reiterate here. The upshot, though, is that we felt there was an ideological alignment between our interest in supporting the free public expression of social and political aspirations and the Humanities Commons mission to foster an open exchange of humanistic ideas.

I did ultimately rebuild my own project site at Humanities Commons under the name The Vanishing Porch in Perspective. It launched in February 2018 and is a study of the Farnsworth House that was inspired by the #MeToo/#TimesUp movements. The site is completely different from the original WordPress.com version—partly because I have access to an interactive timeline plugin with Humanities Commons that isn’t available with WordPress.com. I’ve posted some thoughts about that project’s history and design on the site itself, and I’ll be giving a talk about it in Chicago later this year, too.

I do want to add here that I’m building two other sites right now on WordPress.com because I feel those projects are more compatible with the “.com” context. Maybe I’ll eventually move one or even both to Humanities Commons, I’m not sure. But, anyway, my point is that housing sites with Humanities Commons holds real meaning for me—it’s definitely been a choice that I have considered carefully on a case-by-case basis.


Have your Humanities Commons sites changed your research, teaching, and/or professional identity? If so, how? 

In a lot of ways, actually—two major ones, in particular. First, my Vanishing Porch project site is an online companion for a peer-reviewed journal article I published a few years ago and it’s been profoundly satisfying to offer a public version of my academic scholarship. Afterimages is also a companion site, in this case for one of Catherine’s peer-reviewed academic articles, and I found I enjoyed that project for the same reason. I’m just really invested in the idea of creating opportunities for more and different kinds of people to engage with informed, well-documented historical research. I think that that’s more crucial than ever in these fact-challenged times, and I like having a way to act on that sense of purpose. Honestly, at this point I don’t think I’ll ever produce any art history scholarship again that doesn’t have some sort of online presence (open access and presented in a way that non-academic people can appreciate).

And, second, I really believe that building these sites on Humanities Commons has freed me to experiment in a way that I would probably would not have if I knew I had to pay for hosting and also worry about the commercial quality of the “.com” extension. That’s provided a wonderful new outlet for my curiosity and ambition that I really appreciate! I’ve also discovered through this experimentation that I enjoy site development as a design challenge. It happens that during my predoctoral life I worked in architecture and I was also an art photographer on the side, so creative labor is a pretty comfortable mode for me. In fact, I’ve already started offering a little site design guidance here and there in addition to my work as an editor. And I’d be very happy if my professional identity evolved to include even more commissioned work for thoughtful people who want CV sites or project sites for their research.


Would you recommend Humanities Commons to other scholars and educators? Why or why not?

I recommend Humanities Commons to other scholars and educators as much as possible—almost obsessively, I’ll admit. Beyond the chance to build sites, I think the interdisciplinary aspect of the Humanities Commons community is fundamental for folks who might not otherwise encounter each other. And I suppose this goes without saying but I might as well add that Humanities Commons is a great platform for independent scholars, alt-ac folks, or anyone who isn’t affiliated with organizations that can support a rich web presence for individual researchers.


Has your use of Humanities Commons (overall, not just with the project sites) surprised you in any way? Were there features or results you weren’t expecting? 

I’ve been surprised by how handy the member profile has been as an online presence while I re-envision my CV site. It really includes all the most important information and it looks nice, too!


What is your project’s/projects’ ideal future? Do you hope others will use your digital projects? If so, how?

This is an important question that I think about a lot because I don’t want to invest time and energy into building a site that doesn’t have some use for others. I perfectly understand the argument that says that research should be for research’s sake. In principle, I agree with that, in fact. It’s just that I’ve learned over the years that that isn’t how I am as a person. I need to believe that the things I do have the potential to help others in some concrete way or else I end up losing interest pretty quickly. I’m not going to speak on Catherine’s behalf about her hopes for Afterimages but for Vanishing Porch I’d like the site to help change the narrative about an iconic work of modern architecture to be more fair toward the woman that commissioned it. I’d also like to think that Vanishing Porch gently nudges other historians to reconsider the assumptions they make about the historical women they encounter in their research. More generally, I’d love for folks to be so inspired by the content of my online companion sites that they then read the associated peer-reviewed articles. In a really ideal world, all of that would happen plus other people would be encouraged to build their own project sites after seeing what I’ve done.


You told me recently that you’re currently in the process of creating a personal CV site through Humanities Commons. How is this experience different from creating a project site? Why did you choose Humanities Commons to house your personal site? 

Yes, this is the CV site that I had nearly finished at WordPress.com when I learned about Humanities Commons last year. In the end I’ve chosen to rebuild it with Humanities Commons partly for continuity with all my project sites but partly, too, because I actually find I have more functionality through Humanities Commons than I do with the basic WordPress.com personal account.

The experience making this site has been quite different from building the project sites. The biggest challenge that I haven’t encountered with the project sites has been in terms of aesthetic focus. In other words, with each of the project sites I have one main research thesis that informs my design decisions whereas my career has a lot more texture and as a result I’ve ended up with competing design priorities. I think I’ve sorted through it all at this point, though. And it’s been fun to see a modern, streamlined CV site finally come into existence after focusing on other stuff for a while.


Do you have any advice for other educators who are considering building a project site on Humanities Commons

I could probably fill an entire blog post with my answer to just this question! But here I’ll discuss something that has been especially important to me, which is that I’ve gotten the most out building these project sites when I’ve thought about the experience as an extension of my humanistic practice rather than just another version of presentation. In other words, I’ve pushed myself to make this work itself enriching. I’ll give you two brief examples. First, if you read my design statement on Vanishing Porch you’ll see that I really thought about which typeface to use. Now, that’s a small detail that some people might not notice but in fact the process of making that choice challenged me to define and clarify my own mission in ways that ultimately improved the project overall. And, secondly, using digital tools to re-visit and expand a print article’s scope has revealed things to me about my own story-telling strengths and weaknesses that I might not have otherwise seen. It happens that right now I’m starting to reflect on that particular idea for the public talk about Vanishing Porch I’m giving later this year, so stay tuned for more on that.


Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding Humanities Commons and/or Humanities Commons sites?

I’m so excited to say that Catherine and I have just started collaborating on another project site that will share research she’s doing on four national monuments scattered across Chile. She was approached to do this work in part because of the Afterimages site she and I created together at Humanities Commons. So in that sense this new undertaking is a clear example of how the ability to create sites at Humanities Commons can facilitate positive change in members’ careers.

Feel free to reach out to Dr. Sarah M. Dreller if you have any comments. You can message her through Humanities Commons. You can also find her on Twitter.