INTERVIEW: Lecturer Sarah Rovang on Architecture, Unions, & Being Awesome
Amidst the escalating stakes and complexity of the contract campaign —certainly our most important current collective endeavor — it’s important to remember that Lecturers are very often potent forces on an individual basis as well. We are accomplished academics, artists, industry professionals, innovators, and so forth. While classroom instruction is our primary explicit undertaking, many of us also provide crucial service and/or engage in significant research.
I recently spoke with fellow LEO member Sarah Rovang, who I was excited to hear had recently received the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, which comes with $50,000 funding for pursuing architectural matters at the global level. We’ll find out more in a moment.
Before we get started, just to clarify, some of this written interview was conducted via email, and while it’s intended to complement the video interview recorded and edited by Erik Marshall, it’s not an exact transcript of that session.
Hi, Sarah! Thanks for this opportunity to interview you about your own impending opportunity.
Sure, John. It’s my pleasure. Thanks for coming all the way to North Campus.
What’s your current appointment at the University of Michigan? Are you able to work full-time?
I’m currently a Lec I teaching a 2/2 load, which in my department constitutes full time.
How did you become a U-M lecturer?
I was living in Ann Arbor finishing my dissertation remotely in 2016. My spouse got a postdoc in the physics department, and I moved out here to be with him. At the same time, I started a collaboration with a tenured faculty member here in the architecture department. Through that connection, I was able to walk into a full-time lectureship because four permanent architectural history faculty went on leave or sabbatical simultaneously. It was really fortuitous, and I was really honored to be hired full-time again this year even with some of those other faculty back and teaching again.
What are your particular academic and professional interests?
Broadly, I study the architecture of the United States in the twentieth century. My dissertation examined the architecture of the Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal Program that brought electricity to farmers through cooperatives. They hired this European emigré architect to design pretty radically modern buildings for their offices and power plants in extremely rural parts of the United States. This interest in the intersection of industry, technology, rurality, and architecture is what led me to apply for the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship.
Congratulations on winning the 2017 award! Could you tell us something about the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship?
It’s sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians and provides a unique opportunity for an emerging scholar to travel for a year with very few obligations or restrictions. The expectation is that the fellow will produce a monthly blog post and upload some of their architectural photos to the society’s database, but otherwise it’s meant to be an opportunity for sustained reflection and engagement with different built environments and cultures.
Do you know how many other people were in consideration for this honor?
I have no idea. It’s a small field, but this is an international competition open to scholars across the world. This year’s winner is from Nigeria. But they only award one per year, and I will only be the fifth recipient.
How do you plan to use the fellowship? How much traveling will be involved?
I will be using my fellowship to study the Public History of World Industrial Heritage. I’m really interested in how different nations experienced modernization across varying architectural and cultural modalities. I will be traveling for a full year, starting in July. I plan to visit Japan, South Africa, Chile, Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the UK. My goal is to observe how industrial heritage sites are being interpreted for the public. What kind of infrastructure is in place, and how do digital and physical structures make those sites available to diverse publics?
Do you know where your intellectual and geographical explorations will lead you? Will you ever return? Then again, I guess not knowing what you’ll discover would be part of the fun.
I’m mostly curious to see how industrialization and modernization are presented differently in various global contexts. I think it’s hard to let go of believing that modernization follows a similar trajectory in different parts of the world, but I suspect that the diversity of cultural contexts and historical circumstances means that global modernization itself is as complex and poly-vocal as the modernist expression that responds to the conditions of modernity. And yes, I’m definitely coming back to the U.S. — there’s plenty of work to be done here too on this topic.
Switching gears a bit, how did you first hear about the Lecturers’ Employee Organization?
I heard about LEO at faculty orientation and immediately signed my card and became a member, but it took a little longer for me to get more involved.
What, if anything, prompted the deeper level of engagement?
There were two primary motivators for my involvement with LEO. The first was that I was already interested in labor history thanks to my dissertation work on the New Deal. I knew historically what unions have accomplished in terms of winning fair living wages and better working conditions for people across a wide variety of trades. I also knew that unions are often unfairly stigmatized. I felt strongly coming into this job that collective bargaining is one of the very few ways where workers in lower-paying jobs who have little job security can advocate for themselves.
Secondly, following the 2016 election, I was all colors of angry, terrified, and despondent. Becoming involved in LEO seemed like a very immediate and palpable way to become politically active and to feel like I was accomplishing something. LEO’s collaboration with other regional unions and involvement in bigger political issues is really inspirational.
I totally agree! Against this larger backdrop of national, even international neoliberalism, what are some of the particular issues most important to you as we bargain for a new LEO-UM contract?
First and foremost, salary. All things considered, the lecturers in my department are treated quite fairly. I was horrified to learn that lecturers in Flint and Dearborn are teaching 4/4 loads for $28 grand a year. That’s only a little more than what I made on a graduate-school stipend.
Yes, it’d be great for LEO to be able to tackle salary parity across the three campuses more vigorously down the road. But I’m sorry to interrupt!
You’re absolutely right. And the sad thing is, many other adjuncts across the nation, especially those without union support, are in a much worse position. I think LEO’s salary fight is therefore also important symbolically — hopefully we can show other institutions that there is another way. If I had to name a second top priority, though, I’d have to say child care subsidies and parental leave. I haven’t started a family yet, but when I do, I want a contract that acknowledges the legitimacy of teaching alongside raising a family.
In the spirit of Barbara Walters, let me ask: If LEO were a building or architectural style, what would it be?
LEO would be an extremely solid, brick Public Works Administration building from the 1930s. It would have with a lobby covered in a really grandiose mural series called something like “Triumph of the Lecturer.”
Something in the spirit of Diego Rivera or Thomas Hart Benton?
Precisely. A whole rainbow of lecturers teaching, researching, serving the community, and caring for their families.
What do you think non-architects understand least about architects?
I’m not technically an architect, so I might not be the person to answer this question, but I do think that architecture lecturers are unique in that many of them maintain their own professional design practices outside of teaching. This practice is, in essence, research, but it’s not research that is really recognized in the Lecturer I contract.
As both a Lec I and a poet myself, I find myself in similar circumstances, trying to be a working artist as well as an instructor. How much have you been able to pursue your own research aside from teaching? Have you had to defer it until the fellowship kicks in?
I’ve been extremely lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to teach a number of graduate electives designed around my own research interests. For instance, this semester I’m teaching a seminar on American architectural modernism, which is the underlying theme of my dissertation. Since I’m currently in the beginning stages of turning my dissertation into a book manuscript, this class has been a productive way to keep those ideas fresh, and my brilliant students are constantly giving me new things to think about. I’m also working with a very talented undergraduate student through UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program). Being accountable to my research mentee has helped me keep my new research project on track despite my teaching schedule.
What do you think your students understand least about lecturers?
I don’t think that my students understand that lecturer may have similar qualifications as tenure-track professors but have a very different pay scale and different benefits, and that this difference is a result of an academic system that cranks out people with graduate degrees such that they flood the academic system as supply outstrips demand. The two-tiered system of schools like UM that rely heavily on adjunct labor exploits that supply for profit. Lecturers create a significant revenue surplus and allow UM the curricular flexibility that students have come to expect.
Finally, what’s the one question no one ever asks you, but you wish they did?
One question that I’m tired of being asked is who my favorite architect is. When you’re an architectural historian, you almost know too much. In addition to knowing about the creative genius of an architect, you probably also know about the buildings that leaked or didn’t function like they were supposed to. You know about personal indiscretions or tyrannical office practices. I think a more interesting question might be, which historical architect would you most have liked to work for?
On that note, for which historical architect would you most liked to have worked, and why?
I’m a historian and not an architect for a good reason. But I would have worked for I.M. Pei. Unlike so many architects of the twentieth century who seem so driven by ego, Pei radiated kindness, humor, and curiosity about the built world. He was also a provocative and talented designer. And without necessarily intending to, I think he also did a lot to further the cause of diversity in architecture.
That makes a lot of sense. With all the discourse these days about bad people creating good art — if it can still be considered “good art” separately from its flawed creators — it’s encouraging to know that some figures can still be emulated for their personal conduct as well as their talent. But that’s probably a conversation for a completely different time.
It’s important to know, though, that many lecturers are still engaged in these sorts of big, international conversations, even on top of teaching and bargaining this year.
Sarah, thanks again for talking with us! And best of luck making use of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship! It’s fantastic to see non-tenure track faculty honored as the superlative academic professionals they are.
Thank you, John. It’s been great talking to you. Good luck to you and all of the other Lecs next year. I hope we win the contract we all deserve.