This spring I concluded my first year teaching American studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Prior to teaching at Skidmore I spent a year as the inaugural H. Allen Brooks Traveling Fellow with the Society of Architectural Historians, traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam. Additionally, I taught in the architecture and historic preservation programs at the Tulane School of Architecture in New Orleans, Louisiana. This spring marks the five-year anniversary of defending my dissertation and completing my doctorate at the George Washington University.
I count my experience as “five years out” because that is what it feels like. Though each leg of the journey has been extremely unique – Tulane, travel fellowship, then Skidmore – the past five years have been a constant ride of self-discovery, both personally and professionally. In that way, the years blend together. I have, in a sense, embarked on another journey, much different from the doctoral journey. As a junior faculty member and emerging scholar, this time is critical to navigating who I am as an academic.
Thinking back to my experiences with IRT, I realize how much the guidance that I received while applying to doctoral programs was central to my understanding of the inner workings of academia. IRT pushed me to ask critical questions of myself and my field – moving beyond the surface response of “I really like architecture, I want to keep studying it.” Through my application process with IRT I was able to discern what aspects of design were most important to me, which departments were engaging in those topics, and which scholars were at the forefront of the issues that continue to have an impact on my research and teaching.
This level of discernment can be difficult when one has an interdisciplinary interest in a field that is limited depending on the department in which it is located. To be more specific, I wanted to continue my research in architectural history. This topic can be landed in architecture, art history, history, urban studies, American studies, or geography departments, as well as public history or historic preservation programs. As such, one of the challenges becomes speaking the language of that department or program, while staying true to your own research interests. The counseling that IRT provided helped me navigate those types of issues. I leaned on my IRT experience when I decided to switch academic institutions while in pursuit of my doctoral degree.
To be sure, five years out from graduating with my doctorate I am still very much aware of the joys and challenges of working in an interdisciplinary field. Some of the same questions I asked of myself way back as an IRT associate reemerged when I looked to publish my first article – “Do I fit within the American studies discourse, or art history? Is my work more history than architecture? Should I look for an African American historical journal or historic preservation publication?” I have found a happy midpoint in much of the work that I do. My first publication, “The Dunbar High School Dilemma: Architecture, Power, and African American Cultural Heritage,” was published in Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. That article was recognized by the Vernacular Architecture Forum with the Catherine W. Bishir Prize, awarded annually to the scholarly article from a juried North American publication that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes. Publishing the article, and receiving the prize was a confirmation – I have found my people! Finding my people, however, was a journey that started in the fall of 2002 as an IRT associate, a process that asked me from the beginning – who I was a scholar, whose work had an impact on my intellectual development, who did I want to be – when I did not even know that for myself.
Update: Amber is currently an Assistant Professor of Art History at Rutgers University as of September 2018.