For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Austin shares his interview.
As part of our seasonal series, I interviewed Professor of History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, Alison Isenberg. A scholar of the American city and its contested history, Professor Isenberg is currently wrapping up her next book, Uprisings, which she sat down with me to discuss. Professor Isenberg, who took a sabbatical this year to drill down on the draft for Uprisings, details the contents of her book, how the pandemic changed the way she researches, and the implications of her book in our tense political moment.
It’s been almost four years, and the generosity of Princeton faculty continues to surprise me. So many professors here are not just accessible to students, but deeply invested in supporting us in and outside of the classroom. It typically isn’t too hard to find at least one research mentor among our 950 full-time faculty.
Nevertheless, one institution’s faculty cannot possibly cover every sub-field or research topic. This has become especially apparent as I’ve moved towards the specificity required of a thesis project. In my case, no professor on campus studies Vilna, the Eastern European city at the center of my thesis.
Of course, there are ways around this. For one, there is probably a professor on campus whose area of expertise has something in common with your project. My thesis adviser does not work on Eastern Europe, for example, but she is an expert in writing urban histories. So even though Vilna is new to her, she has been invaluable in guiding my methodology and argumentation.
She has also encouraged me to reach out to faculty and graduate students in other departments and at other institutions who might be more familiar with Vilna itself. Connecting with these scholars has turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of my thesis process thus far. I’ve compiled some tips for accessing the rich academic network beyond your particular department or university.
I love my spring JP adviser. For one, he knows the biggest challenge of independent work is avoiding procrastination. As such, he’s preemptively strict with me on deadlines—pushing me to work on my JP for twenty minutes every day, and to meet with him at least twice a month to report on my progress. When we meet, he asks difficult questions, and provides incisive feedback.
However, like any adviser, there is a limit to what he can provide. My JP project—which focuses on a series of maps produced in twentieth-century Yiddish memorial books— is actually quite distant from his area of expertise. He researches early modern Europe, a period nearly five hundred years before my topic’s. Additionally, I want my JP to engage with scholarship outside of the conventional boundaries of my discipline—particularly memory studies and theories of urbanism.
But at a university like Princeton, a mismatch between your independent research and your adviser’s area of expertise is by no means a dead end. Because of the diversity of Princeton’s academic program, there are almost definitely people on campus—whether graduate students or faculty—who can supplement your adviser’s mentorship.
Have you ever wanted to learn how to use Photoshop? How to write code in multiple programming languages? How to use Excel? InDesign? Adobe Illustrator?
This semester, as part of my Urban Studies Certificate, I’m taking ARC 205, an interdisciplinary architectural design studio. Like most studio classes, we meet for six hours a week to develop our drawing, design, and analysis skills. Each week our instructors present us with a new drawing assignment designed to improve our architectural analysis skills. Pretty much everything we’re learning in this class is totally new to me. I’ve never really drawn – aside from doodles on my notes – and most of our assignments are far outside of my comfort zone. There hasn’t yet been a week when I’ve felt confident about my work, but in the past week, I’ve discovered a resource that might change that.